May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Screen Times is highlighting this with a selection of articles connected to Mental Health. Here we look at comedy, well known for improving people’s state of mind through the power of laughter.
Watching the new season of Mythic Quest on Apple TV+, I’ve been struck by how funny it is. From the team that brought you It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia - including the super talented Megan Ganz, who also wrote some great Community episodes - the first season was fun, even if the jokes weren’t hitting as hard as I expected.
However, Season 2 has marked a substantial change in this department. Jokes have been coming thick and fast, with a rata-tat-tat rhythm that has been great to see. It follows a trend of improvement from TV+ shows entering their second season.
This got me thinking, both about how strong Apple TV+’s comedy lineup is and that - like the aforementioned Megan Ganz - the people behind these shows are being pulled from the best talent pools.
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Great comedy, when it succeeds, can elicit a visceral and often uncontrollable reaction that sparks joy and can change moods instantly. It is, unsurprisingly, in my view, one of the most challenging genres to get right. Even pigeon-holing it into a ‘genre’ is pretty reductive, too, and one that has led to comedy being largely ignored by award shows such as the Oscars.
Drama, Science Fiction, Romance and others can all lean somewhat on other elements such as special effects, action scenes or even just two hot actors smooshing lips to distract from other not-so-strong areas. With comedy, if the jokes are bad and you’re not laughing, the whole thing just falls apart. Of course, I’m also generalising a bit and increasingly, shows refuse to stick to one area. ‘Atlanta’, for example, is ‘listed’ as a comedy but has stories that are hilarious or dramatic or, in one spectacular example, horrifying.Shows on TV+ have been no different.
Another thing that was apparent when Apple TV+ launched was that they weren’t going after easy, mass-market, low brow comedy. A show like ‘The Ranch’ on Netflix is easy to produce, has some strong star-power wattage and is enjoyed by many people who probably watch it while doing their chores or scrolling Instagram. But it isn’t particularly good, and you probably won’t remember it for long after.
Apple’s approach has been markedly different.
TV+ launched with Dickinson, from writer Alena Smith; an incredibly smart and hilarious show that had a strong feminist and societal voice along with some damn funny jokes. Servant, produced by M. Night Shyamalan and written by Tony Basgallop, launched alongside but was classed as a ‘drama’. I’d argue, though, that Servant is the funniest show on TV+. A truly unique show, artistically, with some brilliant performances, scares, mysteries and a comedic vein running through it as black as treacle. Two unique comedic voices, very different from each other.
Apple followed them up with Little America and the aforementioned Mythic Quest (good riddance ‘Raven’s Banquet’, you unnecessary subtitle). Little America fell into that kind of show that is funny, for sure, but more interested in telling unique stories than making you slap your thigh (that’s what everyone does when they laugh, right?). Again, both these shows were very different in tone of voice and tried to say something different. Both these shows were also from writers at the top of their game. I mentioned Mythic Quest’s talent pool earlier, but Little America was by Oscar-nominated duo Emily V Gordon and Kumail Nanjani (The Big Sick), Alan Yang (Master of None co-creator) and Lee Eisenberg (The Office and Hello Ladies co-creator). People whose calling card would get them into any studio.
Trying started unevenly but, by the end of the first season, it found its groove and the jokes - more feel-good, real-life banter than actual gags - flowed easier. It was also great to see the depiction of adoption and the struggle and uncertainty of starting a family. Something rarely shown in TV and film today and pretty much never done with comedy.
Central Park was probably the safest of Apple’s early commissions but no less deserved. Bob’s Burgers has been going strong since 2011, and creator Loren Bouchard followed a winning formula of a loving but slightly dysfunctional, central family but adding many more songs, making Central Park into an almost-musical. The result was a joyous mix of fantastic voice actors, silly plots with heart and some genuinely catchy musical numbers. It was the best show to raise the spirits heading into the weekend, especially as it premiered during the height of the pandemic. Well, the best show that is until TV+’s next comedy...
Have you met Ted?
Ted Lasso. What can be said about Ted Lasso that hasn’t already been said? Not much. If you’ve watched it, you know why it’s excellent, and I don’t need to convince you. If you haven’t, you really should. It’s a show that I would love to hear the oral history of. “A ‘fish out of water’ series about an NFL coach running a Premier League Football team despite not knowing how to play the sport. Oh, and did we mention it’s based on a TV advert?” It sounds terrible, and even the trailers before it premiered made it look pretty weak. But context is everything, and Ted Lasso proved not only to be funny and heartfelt but genuinely pushed against the norms of TV writing structure.
So what’s next? This is where it gets even more exciting and what encouraged me to write this article you’re reading (thanks!).
The second seasons of Dickinson, Servant and Mythic Quest have all made significant improvements on already strong first seasons and forthcoming second seasons of Trying, Central Park and Ted Lasso premiere soon.
After that, we’re going to start seeing the second blush of comedies from TV+ that weren’t their initial, ‘off the bat’ commissions. Going off how strong the first round was, I’ve got strong hopes for the second:
Physical launches on June 18th and stars Rose Byrne as a housewife in the 80s who finds a new lease of life teaching aerobics. The trailer looks like the dialogue will be as snappy as the outfits are colourful, and the soundtrack is catchy.
Then there’s Schmigadoon! Starring Cecily Strong, Keegan Michael Key, Alan Cummings and so many more. It’s directed by Barry Sonnenfeld - who looks like he’s giving it a Pushing Daisies - vibe and contains such gems in the description as ‘Alan Cumming is Mayor Menlove, the welcoming mayor of the town with a secret (and a song) in his heart.’ I mean, if that doesn’t make you smile, nothing will! The show is produced by SNL legend Lorne Michaels and written by Despicable Me writers Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio.
Following that up later in the year is The Afterparty, from the hot talents of writers Phil Lord & Chris Miller. The duo, responsible for Clone High, 21/22 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, Into the Spiderverse and producing the recent hit The Mitchells vs The Machines, have created a murder-mystery-comedy with a cast of comedy masters. These include Ilana Glazer, Tiffany Haddish, Sam Richardson and Ike Barinholtz. Suffice to say; I’m beyond excited for this one.
The Shrink Next Door reunites Will Ferrell and Paul Rudd and throws in the amazing Kathryn Hahn for good measure. Writer Georgia Pritchett has a glowing resume, including Succession, VEEP and The Thick of It.
As if that wasn’t enough, multi-hyphenate Joseph Gordon-Levitt is bringing a comedy series, Mr Corman, about a teacher to us in August before Maya Rudolph rejoins collaborators Alan Yang (Little America) and Matt Hubbard, who all worked together to create the very under-appreciated classic Forever on Amazon Prime.
That’s without mentioning High Desert, which brings comedy legend Ben Stiller to TV+ along with Patricia Arquette, and Platonic with Rose Byrne (again) and Seth Rogen plus all the many other shows in development.
Then, in the distance, is one of the biggest names in TV comedy of the last 20 years, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart. Stewart’s return to TV is with his highly anticipated weekly show ‘The Problem with Jon Stewart’. Stewart is a massive name for TV+ and comes out of their relationship with former HBO content head Richard Plepler. A man responsible for commissioning all HBO’s recent hits like Game of Thrones, VEEP, Barry and Succession. I suspect this won’t be the last big name from him.
Laugh if you wanna go funnier
Apple’s philosophy of trying to produce ‘the best’ not ‘the most’ Movies and TV is nowhere more evident than in its comedies. A year and a half in, TV+ has only 7 comedy titles (and that’s including Servant, which isn’t listed by the app as such). That’s not a huge amount, but they are all high quality. They currently average a score of 79 on Metacritic and a whopping 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, with Trying being the lowest at a still very high score of 88% Fresh.
Talent like Paul Rudd, Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Katheryn Hahn, Rose Byrne and Jon Stewart are big names that could take their talents almost anywhere. Then there’s the impressive comedic calibre behind the camera. Mythic Quest’s Rob McElhenney & Charlie Day created It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, one of the most celebrated comedy series of the last 20 years and the longest-running live-action comedy ever. Phil Lord & Chris Miller have made studios billions of dollars by creating intelligent, funny and groundbreaking films and TV. They’re also known for getting fired from Star Wars because they did things their way. Having a show on Apple TV+ shows Apple lets talent bring their work to the screen more or less unfiltered.
As a huge comedy fan, not just of the stars on the screen but the people who create it all, I’m not only loving the current crop of shows but very excited for what is to come.
Like I mentioned at the top, good comedy is hard. Apple’s approach to achieving this seems to be by letting these talents grow and allowing them to do their thing. That’s great to see, and we, as viewers, end up benefiting from these comedy fruits.
Jonathan, ScreenTimes’ Contributing Editor has been lucky enough to work on Apple products his whole life, ever since his Dad brought home a Mac Performa aged 11 (him, not his Dad). Apple is just engrained in his life, especially nowadays, as a graphic designer. His nerdy enthusiasm for Apple is only matched by his love of TV and film. Whether a buzz-worthy new show or blockbuster, a small cult show or an indie film, he’ll watch it. So Apple TV meets right in the middle of that Venn diagram! He also writes on his personal site, smallbites.me. He lives in London and is writing his own bio in the third person.