Making People Smile Again: The Rise of the “Nice Comedy”

As far as I’m concerned, we’re in a “nice comedy” renaissance. “Nice comedy” is not a technical term; in fact, if I wasn’t 100% sure that I saw it used in a Tumblr post last week, I would have thought that the term “nice comedy” was magicked into my mind by some television wizard.

But seriously though, we’re in a “nice comedy” renaissance. Comedies based around mean-spirited jokes and putting other people down no longer reign supreme. Sure, The Big Bang Theory—whose jokes largely comprise of making fun of main characters such as Raj, Amy, and Sheldon—is still the highest rated comedy on television, but the last of TBBT airs this year. When the curtain closes on TBBT, the empty spot in primetime television will be filled by compassion.

In recent years, many acclaimed comedies (if not necessarily the most popular ones, ratings-wise) have been ones where the characters on our favorite comedies don’t seem to secretly hate each other. In fact, they seem to like each other as much as we like them.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this trend is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. When Brooklyn Nine-Nine was first cancelled, fans all across social media rallied for its resurrection. Across the board, people talked about how Brooklyn Nine-Nine brought a bit of sunshine into their otherwise dreary weeks, and they said this for good reason. Though it is technically a cop show, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is less about police work and more about how we can find family in the most unexpected of places.

It is an indisputable fact that every member of the nine-nine is a family, and despite the fact that they may rag on each other sometimes, the jokes never stray into extremely mean-spirited territory. No character is ever the designated butt-monkey for more than an episode. For example, even Gina, Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s snarkiest character, is displayed to care deeply about the other members of the nine-nine. In the episode “Four Movements”, for example, Gina makes sure to let her (former) coworker Amy just how special she is, after spending so much time making fun of her. Moreover, though Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s treatment of characters Hitchcock and Scully often leaves something to be desired, the season 6 episode “Hitchcock and Scully” gave the two older detectives a chance to be heroes, too.

The special thing about Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that though its scripts do include mean jabs (hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day), it never allows you to forget what kind of comedy it is. A character gets made fun of in the cold open, and by the end of the episode, they’ve shown their smarts and cracked a decades-old cold case. Characters Jake and Amy spend a large part of season one teasing each other, only to turn around and become one of the healthiest couples on TV by season three.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine isn’t leading a one-show comedy revolution, though. Shows such as The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek are also helping to lead the charge.

As a high-concept, heaven-and-hell story, The Good Place already stands about from many comedies. The fact that The Good Place is also a kind place is just a bonus. Sure, I have gripes about the slightly queerbait-y nature of Eleanor’s comments (and the fact that Mike Schur does not pay attention to my many comments that Tahani Al-Jamil is a lesbian fork it), but overall, I believe that The Good Place is trying to do a good thing. It is the opposite of a mean-spirited comedy. Take away all of the timeline manipulation and memory erasure and you’ll find that The Good Place at its core, is about being a better person.

In The Good Place, the eponymous good place isn’t really all that it’s cracked up to be. Instead, the real good place is the world we build for each other. Life on Earth (and on heaven) can be hell, but if we are kind to one another, then every place is a good place.

As I talk about the central thesis of The Good Place, I cannot help but think about how not too long ago, one of the most popular comedies on TV was How I Met Your Mother. HIMYM was also a bit higher-concept than “people in a workplace/home/hangout spot”, also played with the timeline, and also toyed with the idea that little acts by ordinary people matter.

If the world was a little bit different, HIMYM could have been another  “nice comedy”, this time one about a group of friends helping each other through the unpredictable and slightly hellish world of New York City. However, what makes HIMYM not a nice comedy is its cynicism. Its epic romance consisted of two people who held each other back instead of pushing each other forward. At the end of HIMYM, Ted and Robin were in the same situation they were in season one: Ted apparently not having learned to let go of the image of a girl and Robin being the outsider again, having lost the friendship connections she had built up over eight seasons of television.

In HIMYM, there is no redemption for the promiscuous blonde hedonist. Every time Barney Stinson begins to open himself up to love, he is pushed back into his playboy self, and all development is forgotten.

However, shows such as The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek show that it doesn’t have to be this way. In The Good Place and Schitt’s Creek, people are kind to one another, and it is not a lie used for seduction. The blonde hedonists realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Instead, the world turns because people are good to each other, and the connections that we make with other people matter.

Schitt’s Creek, in its beginning, looks like a really good mean comedy. After all, who doesn’t laugh at a Kardashian-esque family get knocked down a peg?

Schitt’s Creek could have stayed content with the fish-out-of-water dynamic it had crafted for its central family, the Roses, but it’s a smarter show that that. It is one of the best comedies that no one has ever heard of. It uses the “rich family gone poor” situation to create a story about people being nice. In a world where relationships often seem transactional and loaded with baggage, Schitt’s Creek imagines a world where people can make each other better, and true connection can be made between the most different of people.

In a world as dark as ours right now, we don’t need another dark drama or a cruel comedy. We need something nice, and the new “nice comedies” in recent years are perfect comfort food after a long day. We need to be reminded that there are good people in the world, and that genuine connections still exist, and that through these genuine connections, we can make each other good. I am sure that there are other fantastic comedies that I neglected to mention in this article, but that just proves to show my point. The next time you’re having a bad day and need to feel good about the world, log onto Netflix and turn on a nice comedy. There’s a lot of them out there, and there’s sure to be more to come.