The challenges of comedy in America

16 August, 2023

Image: What We Do in the Shadows, FX

Since the inception of television, from its earliest sketches to present-day sitcoms and stand-up specials, comedy has been deeply woven into the fabric of American broadcasting. This genre, with its myriad forms from slapstick to sitcoms, has not only entertained but also influenced the cultural psyche of its audience.


Yet, there's an emerging trend that's impossible to ignore: comedy's waning role in the American entertainment industry. According to Parrot Analytics, in Q1 2020, comedies accounted for 16.6% of TV series demand in the U.S. This figure saw a brief uptick during the early pandemic days but then dipped to 15.3%. Concurrently, the production of comedy TV series has seen a modest decrease, sliding from 15.7% to 14.8%.

The predominance of big superhero and fantasy franchises in the movie and TV industry, which have arguably altered audience tastes, and the focus of producers and platforms on more universal themes have been pointed out as contributing factors to this decline. 

An interesting observation from July's data indicates a sustained interest in classic comedies. Four out of the 10 most in-demand shows in that month were sitcoms with The Office leading the pack, followed by perennial favorites such as SeinfeldFriends, and The Big Bang Theory. Even It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which is still airing new episodes, is nearly two decades old.


However, modern popular comedies reflect a departure from tradition. Shows like Ted Lasso, an acclaimed Apple TV+ original, blend sports with comedy-drama in hour-long episodes. What We Do in the Shadows leans on its mockumentary style and horror roots, The Bear artfully infuses drama with comedic elements, and I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson revives the sketch comedy format. This evolution indicates a shift towards a more hybridized comedic format, blending drama and humor, as well as different presentation styles, to cater to contemporary tastes.

Another point of contention for comedies is their 'travelability' or how well they fare outside their home market. According to Parrot Analytics travelability data, which tracks how popular a show is outside its home market, comedy ranks low in terms of international appeal, only surpassing children's shows. With an average travelability score of 1.6, American comedies lag far behind genres like Action and Adventure, which boasts a whopping score of 10.1.


This disparity is largely due to comedies' inherent reliance on local cultural contexts and references, challenging to translate universally. As international viewership grows in importance, producers are naturally inclined to invest in content with broader global appeal.

In essence, while comedy remains an essential component of the American television experience, its role and format are undeniably evolving in response to both domestic and global influences.

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