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30 Rock / Office / Parks and Rec Watch: How Funny Does Comedy Have to Be?

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NBC

“A guy crying about a chicken and a baby? I thought this was a comedy show!”

It was beautiful, and appropriate, that 30 Rock guest star Alan Alda should deliver that reference to the series finale of M*A*S*H (still the most-watched TV show ever). M*A*S*H was a very funny show, but it also helped establish the idea that a great sitcom could be more than that. It could, at times, be not funny at all and still be amazing. (Of course, sometimes in its latter years, it was not funny at all and was not so good.) It expanded the universe of what TV comedies could do, so it’s fitting it should get a shout-out on the night of network comedy that weekly demonstrates the different things that comedy can mean. 

That, in a way, is the hidden theme in all my reviews of 30 Rock, The Office and now Parks and Recreation. Is the funniest comedy the same thing as the best comedy? Is judging a sitcom episode just a matter of tallying up how many times and how hard it makes you laugh? 

I would say no, others would disagree, but how you answer says a lot about how you watch TV: whether you think, say, South Park is better than Family Guy. And many weeks it determines how you react to the styles of comedy on NBC.

I say the M*A*S*H shout-out was appropriate, but it was also ironic that it came on 30 Rock, which in some ways is a more retro comedy show than M*A*S*H was. I don’t want to oversimplify—it’s brilliant and inventive. But it’s also squarely in a tradition of 1950s TV comedy: a workplace sitcom, set in the offices of a big TV network in Manhattan, with screwball situations, a high pace of gags, and stars, stars, stars!

It’s also reliably the funniest show on NBC Thursday nights, if you judge funny strictly by the number of jokes, but that can sometimes work to its detriment. At its best a 30 Rock episode is a beautifully constructed little piece of jewelry, with little joke beads catching the light and constantly flashing, adding up to an ingeniously designed larger whole in which the themes of each storyline bolster the other. Other times, it’s just a pile of pretty rocks: lotsa laughs, no larger add-up. It’s a show with an emotional core, but if someone is crying about a chicken and a baby on it, you know damn well it’s a pop-culture reference. 

“Kidney Now!” was a fitting end for a guest-star-heavy (sometimes too much so) season of 30 Rock, literally ending with a stage full of celebrities, from Elvis Costello, Clay Aiken (Kenneth’s cousin—perfect!) and Mary J. Blige to Cyndi Lauper and Steve Earle. The episode overall was maybe average, and the show seemed almost relieved to be done with the father-kidney arc. But I admire them for not going the cliffhanger route, and the ending at least delivered the goods, with the best sitcom celebrity benefit song since Sending Our Love Down the Well from The Simpsons: 

The Office, on the other hand, is the much closer heir to M*A*S*H. Both shows draw their comedy from inherently dramatic situations (M*A*S*H the big-scale drama of war, The Office the small-scale drama of mind-numbing work, among other things). And both are able to be entertaining and engrossing even, or especially, when they’re not making you laugh out loud.

Was “Company Picnic” the funniest episode of The Office? No—maybe not even the funniest half-hour of TV last night. (Though SlumDunder-Mifflinaire killed.) Was it a wonderful half-hour of TV? Yes—whether you call it comedy or not. There are many people to thank for that, but Steve Carell and Amy Ryan did a great job of showing the enduring chemistry between Michael and Holly, in a script that demonstrated their connection while showing that it’s not—yet?—their time.

Even more amazingly, the show has developed Michael well-enough that he can plausibly show the kind of impulse control he lacked earlier with Holly, holding back from making a play for her even as we were primed to expect that excruciating moment. And speaking of moments that took me by surprise, Pam’s pregnancy was both a shocker and played beautifully naturally by Jenna Fischer and John Krasinski, and capped with a perfect closing line: “Hey, Dwight. Send in the subs.” 

Parks and Recreation, meanwhile, has gotten a lot of attention for its heavy similarities to The Office, but it has some elements of 30 Rock as well. Like The Office, its comedy is as much about awkwardness and character relationships as it is about gags. (Though it has pit pratfalls for good measure.) But like 30 Rock in its early days, it’s trying to figure out how to take a star with a sketch-comedy sensibility and fit that into the different arena of half-hour comedy. 

What I like about Parks and Rec so far—and what I think drives some people nuts about it—is its laid-back, improv sensibility. Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, on the other hand, has sometimes seemed like she was ported over from an SNL skit. Last night’s season finale, however, did the best job yet of turning her into a more multi-facted, less risible character. (Though I don’t agree with the meme out there that Amy Poehler should have been given a “smart” character, which I think diminishes her as a comic actress—why shouldn’t she be as free as Steve Carell to play a screw-up?)

In part it was that, through her disaster senior-citizen blind date, it paired her with someone who was more ridiculous than she was. (In the process, it gave us another little glimpse of the dynamic between her and her undermining mother, a character aspect that has huge potential.) And in part it was that much of the episode was turned over to the supporting cast, who played off each other flawlessly in the rock-club scenes. (Hats off to Chris Pratt: “Thank you, everybody, we are Scarecrow Boat–ah, no screw it! We are Mouse Rat!”)

Having been a fan of Parks and Rec from the get-go, I’ve been at odds with some critics whose opinions I trust as well as my own—like Mo Ryan, who posted this week that Joey was a funnier show than Parks and Rec. I get that she was making a rhetorical point—that to her, both were examples of disappointing comedies NBC was too heavily invested in—but my answer was that I agreed. Kind of. There were probably funnier episodes of Joey. There just weren’t better episodes of Joey.  

Out of context, that probably made no sense, but it gets to what I’m saying here: that there is much, much more to a good comedy than being funny. Huh? I know. But it’s true. NBC was so confident of Joey that they showed the entire pilot to critics at that year’s upfront. And I understand why. In a competent, technical, ha-ha sense, it was very funny. There were a lot of jokes and setups that paid off. It just wasn’t good, and they couldn’t see why. Except for Matt LeBlanc’s already-established character, I never felt I knew any of the people on it, except as familiar sitcom types—no matter how efficiently setup many of the gags were.

Parks and Rec is a work-in-progress but (and maybe this is because I come from a small town in the Midwest?) I feel I know its characters—and maybe as much or more important, I feel like the show knows them, and knows its setting, Pawnee, as if it were a character itself. (Specific sense of place is a rare thing on network TV shows—Friday Night Lights, Freaks and Geeks and King of the Hill are three of a handful of shows I can think of that have really nailed it.) Parks and Rec may not be in The Office or 30 Rock’s league yet, but I’m enjoying it anyway. More than that, I admire how it’s trying to get where it’s going through a slow build—simply letting its characters hang out and create a sensibility.

Some people might say that’s not really comedy. Fine. Whatever it is, it may not be for everyone, but it’s for me. If I just wanted laughs, I’d watch Family Guy. 

I almost didn’t want to write this post, because I know how simplistic and reductive this kind of thing can become. (I’m sure Mo Ryan would respond that all the things I say Parks and Rec does are important, but that she, unlike me, just believes the show fails at them.) It’s not as if the 30 Rock and Office approaches can’t produce great comedy; I don’t think you have to be Team 30 Rock or Team Office. 30 Rock at its best has the heart of a great personal drama; The Office at its best is (like M*A*S*H was) the gut-busting funniest show on TV (for which, this season, I submit the opening minutes of “Stress Relief”—throwing a cat through a ceiling panel!). Parks and Rec, meanwhile, could stand to be funnier and get more of a grip on its characters—but it’s gotten a fine start on both.

Regardless, each week they’re a reminder of what a fine, complex thing the best TV sitcoms have become, a reminder that great comedy is about more than laughs. Who better to hand the torch to them than Hawkeye?