TV Is a Better Medium for Comedy than Movies, and What We Do in the Shadows Proves ItComedy Features sitcoms
As summer fades, the fall TV line-up looms with new series debuts and the return of beloved fixtures. One of the most anticipated returning shows is FX’s What We Do in the Shadows, whose third season premieres Sept. 2. Shadows stands out amongst the pack not only in quality as one of today’s best sitcoms, but also in origin as the series is a spinoff of Taika Watiti and Jemaine Clement’s 2014 film of the same name. Like its predecessor, the TV version is a mockumentary style look into the modern lives of a few vampire roommates. The series has not only done its source material justice, but has arguably surpassed it. The fact that it’s probably now better known and loved than the film it’s based on is not terribly surprising, though. It has the significant advantage of being in a format better suited for comedy: TV.
As a medium, TV is a better vessel for comedy than film, while the opposite is true for drama. Let’s put it this way: dramas are like RPGs. They’re fueled by having a defined story with a beginning, middle, and end, and a clear path for people to move through. Comedy, meanwhile, is more like an open-world game, with more freedom for its characters to explore the various possibilities open to them, and thus more opportunity to grow as a result. Dramas benefit from the short, finite runtime of a movie or even a mini-series. With TV, dramas often lose all the tension and suspense that makes them compelling. Nobody thinks even for a second that the main character might die in a car accident when there’s 15 episodes left in a season, and no mystery is so complex that it can sustain the audience’s attention (and patience) for six seasons. By season two, we’ve already read every fan theory on the internet to the point that the eventual conclusion is doomed to underwhelm.
While movies often invoke a sense of urgency and grandeur, the laidback, episodic nature of TV is perfect for comedy as it is more character driven than plot based. It’s not their premises that makes them compelling, but rather the characters’s personalities, their interactions with each other, and the jokes that grow out of them. This is also why shows tend to hit their stride around seasons three or four after the characters are fully fleshed out and endeared to their audiences, allowing the writing staff to better tailor jokes specifically to them.
Most sitcoms can be summed up in a single sentence. The real purpose if their intentionally vague premises is to set the scene and establish the glue that holds its cast together, whether it’s neighbors/roommates, family, classmates, co-workers, or whatever ersatz family unit its characters form. Friends is a show about six twenty-somethings hanging out in New York, Bob’s Burgers is about a family that runs a restaurant, and The Office is simply about people who work at a paper company. These concepts do nothing more than to give these characters, who might not normally be drawn to each other, a reason to interact.
Film casts, on the other hand, tend to be bonded together by a singular event or a unique set of circumstances. Characters who meet while trying to sabotage a wedding or on a cruise gone dangerously awry are unlikely to be brought together again which is why the rare sequel that does get greenlit is often a forced rehash of the previous film, trying the audience’s suspension of disbelief. You can’t expect Kristin Wiig and the other Bridesmaids girls to be at another ceremony together or for Josh Baskin to magically turn into an adult twice in their life, but the Belchers will keep working and living together for years to come, and vampires, well, have the gift of eternal life.
These loose premises serve as templates that new material can be repeatedly molded around. It’s what allows shows like Cheers, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Simpsons to have such lengthy lifespans, while conversely there’s only a small, finite number of times Zach Galifianakis can drug Bradley Cooper on vacation. (It’s two, by the way, as the failure of The Hangover III proves.) On The Office, nobody cared what Dunder Mifflin did, which is why it could be in the most boring industry imaginable. Likewise, nobody really cared about the documentary that was supposedly being made over nine years. The audience understood it was just a device to establish the show’s comedic style with fourth wall breaks and talking head testimonies. It’s a comedy’s sense of humor and tone that sets it apart from other genres, and from each other, rather than their narrative twists and turns. It’s jokes first, story second.
While the Shadows movie is indeed fantastic, the very premise it set up was always more conducive to TV. The point of the film wasn’t to send these vampires on some grand quest to carry out an evil plan, it was a look into the average day-to-day lives of vampires who, other than eating humans, live relatively mundane lives. If TV is a diary, then a film is a book report. With the show, Shadows is able to perpetually expand their world and fill in gaps from the movie, namely adding more female characters like Nadja to the main cast as well as guest appearances from Kristen Schaal, Vanessa Bayer, Greta Lee, Sondra James’ little Joanie, and former Great British Bake Off contestant Helena Garcia (honestly, case closed right there). And then there’s Colin Robinson, the energy vampire who feeds off people’s energy, nearly boring them to death in cubicle-filled office spaces and town hall meetings. Such an off kilter character might seem out of place in a movie about blood-sucking vampires, but here these subplots can run parallel to the main story without feeling distracting. On that same note, more writers on staff means more jokes from more perspectives, while too many contributors on a film script often leads to a disjointed story.
With exceptions to farcical works like Austin Powers or the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker movies, most comedies find their humor in relatable, low stakes scenarios. These little absurd moments in life set the stage for sillier conflicts that can be wrapped up quickly or not at all in ways that would feel unsatisfying in a film. What is often a film’s weakness is a TV series’s strength. Episodic TV allows you to hit reset. You don’t have to commit to a bit or story arc for multiple episodes for the show to be good. You can play out creative “what if” scenarios that would otherwise require its own spinoff film. As much as everyone love’s Matt Berry’s Jackie Daytona persona, the joke would likely wear out its welcome if stretched into a two hour film. If you stretch and dilute absurdity too much, it loses its mystique. Afterall, brevity is the soul of wit, and thus TV is the real king of comedy.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.