It’s safe to say that the cable channel HBO is best known for its critically acclaimed dramas. With The Wire and The Sopranos, they boast the two titles most often referred to as ‘the greatest TV dramas ever made”. Throw in some all-time classics like Band of Brothers and Game of Thrones and you’ve got yourself an unbeatable track record for quality dramas. Which is why their comedies are so often overlooked.
Now traditionally, hour-long programmes are dramas while comedies are half-hour affairs. At HBO, there are a few 30 minute shows that aren’t really all-out comedies. Entourage and Hung are sort of light dramas with elements of humour but you would be hard pushed to define them as purely comedy. But when they produce shows that directly target their audience’s funny-bone, they rarely produce anything less than a weapons-grade classic.
In the States, HBO is one of the few channels that don’t rely on advertising revenue to fund their shows: as a premium subscription service, they count on their reputation as purveyors of challenging, ground-breaking and often risqué programs to shore up subscriptions. Their maverick edge isn’t limited to just their dramas of course. HBO’s comedies are every bit as inventive as their serious cousins. Let’s take a look at three of our favourites.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Without question the most successful comedy in the HBO stable, Curb Your Enthusiasm has been on the air for 8 seasons, with talks of a ninth in the works. This pseudo-confessional, semi-improvised comedy follows Larry David (co-creator of Seinfeld) as he poorly navigates the LA social scene. Playing a thinly veiled version of himself, Larry’s pedantry, pettiness and ultra-neurotic tendencies get him into trouble with everyone from studio executives to parking attendants.
There are many shades of Seinfeld in Curb, especially in its knack for codifying everyday behaviour: the stop-and-chat immediately springs to mind (when you’re passing an acquaintance on the street, at what point are you obliged to stop and have a little chinwag? What if you’re in a hurry?). On top of that, it’s a poorly kept secret that Seinfeld’s George Costanza was almost entirely based on David, so there are inevitable comparisons. But despite the show’s improvised nature, David and his writers structure each episode meticulously creating something closer to a farce or a comedy of manners than a traditional sitcom.
It goes without saying that Curb is a very funny show, but your tolerance to awkward comedy will determine how quickly you blast through each season. Personally, we can’t watch more than 2 episodes without getting completely frustrated with Larry. The trouble with his character is that he’s rarely wrong, but the way he goes about dealing with people is borderline psychotic and that’s part of the genius of Curb Your Enthusiasm: the show is great, but in real life we’d never want to spend more than a minute with its leading man.
Flight of the Conchords
The Kiwi folk parody duo has done very well for itself in the past 10 years. After two years at the Edinburgh Fringe and a BBC Radio 2 series, America came a-calling. This quirky musical-comedy is based largely on their British Radio show and it sees the hapless antipodean musicians trying to break into the New York music scene. Aided -or perhaps hindered- by their manager Murray (fellow Kiwi comic Rhys Darby), they bounce between aimless band meetings, doomed romances, failed gigs and the occasional stalking from their number-one fan (Kristen Schaal).
Like the Conchords themselves, the show’s tone is very subdued with a lot of the humour stemming from their fish-out-of-water naiveté clashing against some genius strokes of absurdism (an occasional inventor, Bret’s creations include a helmet with a wig on it and a camera-phone he’s made by strapping a camera to his phone). Not to mention, the songs that pepper each episode are unbelievably catchy and funny – no mean feat considering that musical parodists are often the whipping boys of the comedy world.
After only two seasons, the Conchords have called it a day on their show, pursuing other successful projects in its place. Jemaine (the glasses one) has bagged some choice supporting roles in Dinner for Schmucks and the recent Men in Black 3 while Bret (the beardy guy) only went and won himself an Oscar this year for his work on the Muppets movie. With that in mind, it would still be fair to say that their best work lies in these 22 episodes. A musical sitcom that works on so many levels, this is a show that could only have been made for HBO.
Eastbound and Down
Kenny Powers is a burnt-out Major League Baseball pitcher who comes back home after a scandal-ridden end to his career. He takes a job teaching PE at the local High School, where his jilted teenage sweetheart also works and is engaged to the principal. Powers is by far the most crass, self-aggrandising, self-involved character in the history of television. As played by co-creator Danny McBride (Tropic Thunder, Your Highness), he’s also ridiculously funny and painfully delusional: both a bully and a victim of his own ego.
The supporting cast is also excellent. The characters range wildly from his sensible brother (played by indie king John Hawkes with the same earthy realism he brings to his acclaimed dramas) and the buttoned-down principal to Will Ferrell’s crazy turn as a groin-smacking local BMW dealer. The show is profane, strange, hilarious and poignant but also beautifully made. McBride and his director/co-writer Jody Hill have created a blustering caricature of a man who also has layers, as the episodes slowly reveal. The inventive editing and choice music selections also help to elevate this show to a level that very few movie comedies ever reach.
You may have seen Eastbound and Down when it aired here on FX, but if you didn’t, you’re in luck. blinkbox has all 3 series now available to watch. If you consider yourself a fan of comedy, we implore you: check out this show. It’s so very good.