Genre 101: Dark California Comedies

By June 19, 2017Main

By: Steffanie Moyers

Comedians are no strangers to hardship. The link between comedians and mental health issues is practically second nature. It’s no wonder there’s an endless list of comedy specials, podcasts, web series, books, movies and television shows on the very subject. As a fan of comedy I’ve always been drawn to dark sitcoms, particularly of the niche variety that takes place in and around southern California. To name just a few: Californication, BoJack Horseman, Flaked, Arrested Development, I’m Dying Up Here, all of which come together to form their own quirky sub-genre of “Dark California Comedies”

Darkness in the sunshine state.

This past weekend, I indulged in two dark California comedies: first was season two of Will Arnett’s Flaked (premiered on Netflix Friday June 3rd), which was a mere 6 episodes clocking roughly half-hour a piece. The second was something I’d long been anticipating, Showtime’s I’m Dying Up Here – a new series based on the book by William Knoedleseder and executive-produced by comedy veteran Jim Carrey. The series takes place in comedy’s golden era, 1970’s Los Angeles – primarily the vein of Hollywood, the Sunset Strip – which houses the famous Comedy Store and Laugh Factory among others.

There seems to be a deeper underlying darkness present in shows about comedians, and those set in the sunshine state (over ones based in New York such as Seinfeld, Crashing, Louis, Girls, Master of None) seem to have an added depressive edge. The reason for this Californian connection is two-fold:

1) California is synonymous with an image of permanent, sustained happiness.

This stems from the nearly constant sunshine, the taunting proximity of the Pacific Ocean, ritzy neighborhoods such as Beverly Hills and Malibu…you get the picture.

2) The history of the entertainment industry and the pursuit of dreams within Hollywood.

Though New York and Chicago are also well-known for their comedy scenes, there is no comparison to the Sunset Strip when it comes to churning out (and burning out) comedians and writers alike.In Flaked season two, Will Arnett plays a character eerily similar to his anthropomorphic role of Hollywood wash-up BoJack Horseman. In Flaked, Chip is a recovering alcoholic who lives in Venice and tries his best to do right by himself and those he loves. Conversely, it’s those he cares about the most that he hurts the most. His best friend begs the deeper question in the finale, does Chip drink to keep from lying or vice versa? He’s handsome, living in beautiful Venice, California, surrounded by gorgeous girls and an overall relaxed lifestyle. But, he’s willingly self-destructive and wasting away. His marriage is ends, so he tries to hold onto it with an elaborate lie. He meets someone new, London, and continues the lie as to not damage their newfound love.

The biggest lie of all is that he thinks the truth is protecting those he loves by not revealing relationship-damaging truths, when really he’s only protecting himself. Linking back to I’m Dying Up Here, one character contemplates revealing a harsh reality to a loved one when met with the heavy-handed line, “no one ‘deserves’ the truth. It’s not a reward”. Which ultimately begs the question – what are people more addicted to, the fame, the substance abuse, or the lying? After all, what’s the truth? The chase is the thing. There’s a reason once people “make it” they can be even more prone to depression – not because they got everything they wanted and it’s not fulfilling – rather, the simple notion that the chase is over.

The chase is over.

In the darkly magnetic pilot of Im Dying Up Here, a comedian compares the pursuit of career happiness to climbing Mt. Everest. He laments how a particular man spent years preparing, training, shedding blood, sweat and tears in preparation for the greatest climb of all…and when the climber got to the top, he was only there for a “lousy 15 minutes” before starting his climb down. “The climb. It’s all about the climb,” the comedian laments to his lover in a flashback.Is it any wonder that arguable the most challengingly creative city in the country is full of depressed people?

If you live here, chances are you took a huge risk to pursue a wild dream that nearly everyone in your life either laughed at or tried their hardest to steer you away from – and with good reason. Take another scene from the pilot of I’m Dying Up Here: two young comedians fresh from Boston arrive in LA with next to nothing expecting to crash with their suddenly-famous comedian friend who’d just “got the couch” on Carson (the highly-coveted career move in the land of 1970’s comedy). They arrive only to find out their friend has passed – possibly even committed suicide. They make connections and ultimately land in someone’s closet.

This happened in real life to the show’s EP, Jim Carrey, who briefly lived in a closet upon moving to LA to pursue a career in comedy. Towards the end of the second episode, amidst being broke, starving and frustrated, one boy existentially questions to the other, “Where the fuck are we?” To which his buddy quips, “Hollywood, brother,” and the two erupt in laughter at the honesty and insanity behind the sentiment, while lying tightly next to one another on a closet floor.

The pilot is emotionally heavy and wastes no time bringing to light the harsh reality of Hollywood, depression and why people are passionate about something that kills them – figuratively, metaphorically and literally.Before taking the main stage for the first time, Cassie envisions the recently-deceased comic giving her a pep talk:

“It’s cathartic. It’s a current that moves through an audience when some truth about who you are, about who they are, is revealed. You gotta go out there and put those arms around that messy part of yourself and just get your ass on that stage. Figure out what it is that you have to say. Open a vein and fuckin’ say it.”

There is no bottom.

Whether it’s I’m Dying Up Here, Flaked, BoJack Horseman, Californication or any similar series – the bottom line isn’t there. It doesn’t exist. There is no bottom, and there is no line. There is only the question, why watch a show that glorifies self-destructive protagonists who repeatedly fall on their faces and hurt the ones they love? Is it because it reveals something within us that we can relate to? Or do only a few of us relate, while the rest of the world merely marvels and wonders just what exactly is do damn hard about being a clichéd “starving artist”?

To quote the pilot of I’m Dying Up Here:

“These are tortured fuckin’ souls, that’s the price of brilliance”.

Similar to the character of washed up sitcom star BoJack, there is a daunting realization that once you “make it”, you don’t feel any differently. That’s the lesson to be learned, and I think why so many people are enamored by these self-destructive protagonists. Fortune and fame are just that, they’re not happiness and satisfaction. To quote the brilliantly-written pilot of I’m Dying Up Here on last time:

“It pays a lot, because it costs a lot”