You all know the story. With Jerry and the gang still rotting in Latham, Ross and Rachel presumably up to their necks in Shawn Mendes posters, and Brad Garrett finally throwing in the towel (wait, somehow, he actually hasn’t thrown in the towel yet…), it’s abundantly clear that the network comedy has officially expired. Dead. Buried. Kaput. Sent to the bottom of the East River thanks to the likes of David Chase and David Simon and the War on Terror and our American life that is too fractured and lazy and worried about a rising China to sit around thirty minutes at a time to watch a three-camera riff on a society that never existed . The pink slips don’t lie. After a surprisingly quiet first month and a half of the 2014 fall TV season, Manhattan Love Story, A to Z, Bad Judge, Selfie, and Mulaney have all been canceled.
In retrospect, the first three were comedy corpses from the start. Of course hope springs eternal and schedules need to be filled, but buzz was bad early on; those cancellations were just a matter of time. Selfie and Mulaney were different though. John Mulaney was doing everything by the book to succeed. A well-known comic in his own right (like CK and Romano and Seinfeld and Barr and Cosby before him), he honed his act in clubs and bars across the country before moving onto Comedy Central specials, the SNL writing room, and developing his eponymous show. Suuuuuure, perennially last-placed NBC passed on it even though the show was produced by their resident money-printer Lorne Michaels. But what do they know about comedy? Hell, what do they know about anything (other than getting corporate parent Comcast to throw billions—with a capital B—at the IOC for a ratings bump every two years)? Fox would swoop in to pick up the show, even breaking apart their long-running Animation Domination cartoon block to give a plum platform to Mulaney and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. The edgy and smart network which brought The Simpsons, Arrested Development, and Married with Children to TV would now be the home of the new Seinfeld.
(WARNING: skip the next paragraph if you don’t like reading about dumpster fires. Or if your name is John Mulaney. Watch this instead).
We all believed in Mulaney. Then the ratings came in. And the hatchets came out. Taking pains to point out how much everyone loves the stand-up side of John Mulaney, critics, the Internet, and probably even your grandma dismissed the show as painfully unfunny drivel. This past Sunday, Mulaney actually lost 35% of its Family Guy lead-in. And no one watches Family Guy anymore. It’s really hard to lose 40% of no one* (*Actually 3.6 million viewers according to Nielsen). And the news just got worse today. According to Deadline, Fox has banished Mulaney from that cushy post-Family Guy 9:30 slot to the wastelands of 7:30. Prepare to never knowing when you’re actually going to air thanks to King Football overruns John Mulaney (this is what killed Futurama on Fox by the way).
Now that the awful stuff is out of the way, can we judiciously assign blame? Like many shows in their first season, Mulaney seemed to still be finding its footing. Was it a show about the comic’s wry life? Or his relationship with Martin Short’s venal game show host? Did the laugh track made the show seem more stuffy and old-fashioned than it was? Or the fact that the set-up and punchlines were delivered in what can only be described as super slow motion? Motif (Seaton Smith) brought some much needed kinetic energy to the proceedings, but the rest of the strong-on-paper supporting cast appeared strained with their one-note characters. Probably a little bit of everything. But you know what else had stilted, awkward pacing in its first few seasons? Our good friend The Seinfeld Chronicles, of course.
Could the acting be any more act-y in that scene? But as oral history has it, NBC stuck with the low rated first season (oh, it was only the 14th most-watched SUMMER show of 1989, two spots behind Totally Hidden Video) and let it grow into the #3 show on television by 1993. Four years of steady growth, people. What did Mulaney get before his show was all but canceled? 4 weeks. That’s why there is no broad comedy hit on television. Talent is not given time to find their voice on television nowadays, only brands are (Chuck Lorre on CBS, Shonda Rimes on ABC). Would it have taken Mulaney a full two or three years to settle into consistent hilarity? When it comes to comedy, we as viewers never get the chance to find out anymore.
Which brings up the curious case of Selfie. Like Mulaney, the show was left for dead at the start of this season. Terrible title. Unneeded update of Pygmalion. Another strained attempt by a broadcast network to manufacture zeitgeist. Easy cancellation, right? Well, although the sitcom has been canceled true to form, wistful elegies are starting to pour in. Sure, Selfie looked very pre-Higgins Eliza Doolittle on the outside, but dig deep and people were finding a show they wanted to see find its footing and actually develop beyond 4 episodes. It’s not all bad news, thankfully. Freshman comedies from ABC’s (Black*ish) and NBC’s (Marry Me) have thus far avoided the comedy bloodbath and look good for a second season. Those two are the lucky ones who are getting a chance to solidify what they are all about. And that is a luxury less and less projects are getting in this instant SUCCESS Or DEATH reality. It’s a shame. We don’t expect our babies to pop out solving differential equations and deadlifting 200 pounds. We give them until at least 12 to do that. Maybe one of these days we’ll give our comedians more than a handful of scripts to nurture some laughs.