When a new script comes across Keith Cox’s desk, the TV Land President of Development and Production, who helped usher the network into a new age of sharp-toothed original programming, asks one crucial question: “Is it too niche?” It’s a question that may seem unusual in a world where many of the most successful cable comedies are weird shows with small, devoted cult followings, but TV Land’s interests are broader. “I’m from Kentucky, so I’m not an alien,” Cox told Paste in a recent interview. “But if you live in LA or New York, what you find funny—will America find it funny?” And though the question also calls to mind certain centrist criticisms of a certain failed presidential campaign, it’s far from a cry to appeal to disaffected white people at the expense of everyone else. No, Cox’s vision of America, the one currently reflected in TV Land’s lineup of original scripted comedy series, is at heart inclusive, tender and deeply human. “I think the best comedies out there are universal,” he said. “They can be as crazy as they want, but they should touch on universal themes.”
Indeed, “crazy” is an apt descriptor for the TV Land’s most recent additions, the talk show Throwing Shade, which premiered last month, and the scripted comedy Teachers, which just began its second season. (Both are on tonight, at 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., respectively). Based on the Maximum Fun network’s podcast of the same name, Throwing Shade offers a combined point of view distinct from every other cable talk show: hosts Bryan Safi and Erin Gibson are a gay man and a straight woman, each giving voice to concerns that are woefully underrepresented in the pantheon of late night comedy. Recorded weekly in front of a live studio audience, the show is a crystalline distillation of the podcast—social commentary in the form of buoyantly acidic repartée—with the addition of pre-recorded sketches. It’s a satisfying blend. Both hosts are effortlessly skilled behind the desk—consider this segment on the lie of tolerance toward LGBTQ people—and their background at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre shines through the pre-recorded material, which brings a dynamic energy and an often-gorgeous cinematic flair.
Still, Safi and Gibson’s top priority is recreating on TV the feel of their podcast—that is, having two friends in your ear, riffing about whatever comes to mind. “It’s the million dollar question and it has been the number one thing on our board to preserve,” Safi said in an interview before the premiere. “On the podcast we talk constantly about, ‘Wouldn’t it be hilarious if we did this thing?’ and break out into silly characters.” On television, naturally, they can do this with sets, costumes and actors rather than merely their voices. But their interests as social and political commentators have not changed. “We’re coming at this focusing on issues affecting women and LGBT people,” Safi said. “That’s what we know, that’s what we like.” An early favorite sketch might be “Women’s Place in Space,” which pokes at the trend of movies about women astronauts driven into space by personal tragedies. “Local Dicks,” a recurring segment on bigoted and/or otherwise incompetent local politicians, is a refreshing spiritual successor to the Colbert Report’s “Better Know a District.” Another standout is the weekly “Shade List,” in which Gibson and Safi simply yell people and/or things who have caused some harm, whether that harm be institutional injustice or the sinking of the Titanic.
From a bird’s eye view, Throwing Shade brings another benefit its network peers do not: topicality. “We needed a show that’s topical so we can talk about what’s happening in the world,” Cox said. “We know we have a new president, we know that movie’s out—we’re here. We have a point of view.” For Gibson and Safi, that responsibility to speak to current events became rather heavier than they expected before the election, but they’re no less eager to take it on. “I feel reenergized to get out there and make sure we’re more vocal about standing up for people who are marginalized, so they know they don’t have to take that shit,” said Gibson. Safi agreed, striking a similar call to action. “The only way I’ve ever been able to make something feel smaller is by laughing at it,” he added. “I know that sounds like a stupid thing to say, but what can you do right now except bully the bully?”
Another option, perhaps, is offered in the sitcom Teachers, which airs just before Throwing Shade. Though it may not be written anew each week, the series’ second season is no less concerned with the pressing issues of our day. One early episode deals with school council election that pits a man against a woman, the latter judged by a harsher set of standards; another criticizes the Common Core, which Betsy DeVos, the presumptive Secretary of Education, has long supported, despite recent statements in opposition to it. More broadly, Teachers takes an honest, thoughtful look at the challenges faced by public educators that similar shows do not—at least, not with former public educators in their writers’ room.
“We see the opportunity to say something about the problems of education today,” Caitlin Barlow, who plays the free-spirited art teacher Ms. Cannon, told Paste. “Our fan base is teachers. We’ve always strived to have the show be identifiable to teachers. There’s a million shows out there about teachers, but—I’m sorry—I don’t think anyone who’s written for those shows has actually been a teacher. To me, it doesn’t feel like the actual experience.” To keep the series grounded in the realities of public education, Barlow and her co-writers rely on those still in the trenches. “When we’re storyboarding, all of the stories come from talking to fans or friends,” she said. “In the back ten [the latter half of the season], there’s an episode about a serial pooper. Where that came from is that in every school I worked at, there was always a kid who would poop in random places.”
For Cox, Teachers falls with Throwing Shade into one prong of a two-pronged approach to half-hour comedy. The other contains Younger, which operates in a more cinematic mode designed to satisfy the ever-growing lust for glossy, cerebral cable fare. The same could perhaps be said for Impastor, the two-season identity theft series that ended last year having not quite struck a consistent tone. (Then there was the effervescent Gaffigan Show, which Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan ended after season two to spend more time with their five children). It doesn’t hurt that the episodic shows tend to travel better on other platforms, in the form, perhaps, of viral clips. “They can live in an atmosphere on digital, whereas some of the more cerebral narrative shows serve a different purpose,” Cox said. But that’s not to say his showrunners are mandated to design their material for viral sharing, which Gibson and Safi said would probably be impossible. “Anyone who thinks they know they have a viral clip is one thousand percent delusional and probably a sociopath,” Gibson said. Safi, jumping in: “What we learned working at Funny Or Die for such a long time is that anytime something went viral, we were like ‘Oh, huh. That one?’”
And though the Teachers/Throwing Shade part of the strategy may favor a sillier aesthetic, Cox stresses that the goal is never less sophisticated humor. “It’s smart, it’s clever,” he says. “We never want to be mean-spirited or alienating.” On the production end, Barlow said this usually manifests in network notes to push a joke even further—something her co-writers, who all came up in sketch comedy, are eminently equipped to do. “At this point we’re a really well-oiled comedy machine,” she said. “The first season was very overwhelming. We were a sketch group from Chicago and we didn’t know much about making narrative television. At this point we have a knack for it. We all understand what our strengths and weaknesses are—some of us are really good at touch-ups, some of us are really good at story—and I think that helps things run more smoothly.”
Still, she cautioned, the Katydids never stray far from their roots in sketch. “A lot of our stories are very character driven,” she said. “So we think: What’s the best or the worst situation we could put this character in? And then we stretch it out. But we don’t like any of our stories to be too predictable. So every story, around the second act, we think ‘Okay,’ we know what the straightforward story would be, and then try to work in some kind of change.” In one of the episodes made available to critics, this approach leads to some especially delightful hijinks involving guest star Haley Joel Osment.
We are still at the tip of the spear of TV Land’s renewed investment in comedy. Next month will see the premiere of the Melissa McCarthy-produced Nobodies, a half-hour comedy-about-comedians, reminiscent of Master of None or Lady Dynamite, which has already been renewed for a second season. Later, in the fall, the network will debut its first hourlong series Heathers, an anthology dark comedy based on the film. Beyond that, Cox’s vision for the future of TV Land is simple: more. “We’re getting there,” he said. “I think the lighter hour space is perfect for us. There’s so much dark, Mr. Robot-y kind of shows [that] a lighter, but still with-some-stakes hour is perfect for us. Which is Heathers. So more of those, more hours, more half-hours, more variety. All of it.”
Teachers airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on TV Land. Throwing Shade airs Tuesdays at 10:30 p.m.
Seth Simons is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Follow him on Twitter.