Fleabag and Barry
The two best shows on TV explore comedy for what it can be: a coping mechanism. Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag and Bill Hader's Barry both had remarkable second seasons, delving into the violent trauma of their titular characters and how these experiences shape their social interactions with a dysfunctional cast of supporting players. In idiosyncratic ways, both series follow guilt-damaged people searching for some semblance of absolution, who enter the opaque subconscious, pricking at it to let in light.
Waller-Bridges' clever fourth-wall- breaking adaptation of mockumentary conventions is effective (she addresses us directly, but in the vein of It's Garry Shandling's Show, is clearly speaking to her smug perception of herself), while Barry, whose "Ronny/Lily" episode will stand as one of the small screen's greatest cinematic feats, is firing on unprecedented levels of narrative creativity. Highly stylized and smart, Fleabag and Barry each struck a rare visceral balance this year, making us laugh so much, we shored up just enough not to cry. Almost.
I Think You Should Leave
For conceptual sketch comedy fans, Tim Robinson's I Think You Should Leave felt like a genre saver. The Saturday Night Live / Detroiters alum let his imagination run amok, formulating some incredible satire of social archetypes and conventions without straining viewers' patience. Succinct, blunt ideas were given the perfect amount of breathing room before disappearing, except for so many American-paranoia-in-2019 memes about steering wheels flying off of cars. Genius.
On Cinema at the Cinema
This universe that Tim Heidecker and Gregg Turkington conjured as a time-killing lark is just totally out of control. Eight seasons of this pretentious and acerbic film review show, helmed by social outcasts who want to kill each other, has yielded everything from a right-wing action star (Decker), an annual Oscar Special, a trend-chasing musical outlet (Dekkar), a repository for manically collected VHS tapes of films (Victorville Film Archives), a full on murder trial, and a book out on Drag City (Brandan Kearney's On Cinema at the Cinema Reader - Vol. 1 2010–2018). As if this prodigious amount of high-level comedy wasn't enough, this year they hit the big screen with the hilarious political satire Mister America. What's next for On Cinema? Seemingly anything they put their minds to.
2 Dope Queens
Already a refreshing podcast-turned-variety show, 2 Dope Queens was bigger and better during its second season. Hosts Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson still have an effortless charm, as frank friends who poke and prod at one another, while guests like Jon Stewart, Lupita Nyong'o, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzo, and Keegan-Michael Key circulate nearby, engaging in silly activities and picking up on their energy in very amusing ways. The show also is a great to discover your new favourite standup and this season, Rory Scovel, Solomon Georgio, Bowen Yang, Jamie Lee and Pat Brown all were given spots to showcase their skills.
Speaking of Bowen Yang, watching him on Saturday Night Live, one can tell he's been waiting for this moment all his life. During his first season, he has stolen every scene he's in and, similar to Jim Carrey's earliest days on In Living Colour, you can see Yang's body fighting to restrain the comedic power within. Yang is charismatic and here's hoping the show gives him more to do as the season rolls on.
— Saturday Night Live - SNL (@nbcsnl) October 6, 2019
Transcending the inherent gimmickry of its premise, Hot Ones is a remarkable and funny interview show whose host, Sean Evans, is a charming and calm presence in a sea of tongue-burning sauce. This year, Evans' show — featuring one-on-one interviews with celebrities eating progressively spicy chicken wings — hit its highest profile, but beyond the Fear Factor spectacle of millionaires burning their mouths out for some unspoken dare, Evans always gets to some profound sentiments, as evidenced by the viral episode featuring Paul Rudd, who is currently enjoying Tom Hanks levels of belovedness.
We weren't sure why Gary Gulman started his year promising to dole out sage standup advice via at least one tweet per day for all of 2019, but by the time he released his confessional standup special/documentary, The Great Depresh, we figured it out. On this massive twitter thread, Gulman has bypassed a how-to book deal by sharing his experiences as a comedian. It seems he was inspired to do this because, as he chronicled in the aforementioned HBO film, he has been suffering from debilitating depression for most of his life and has been in a horrible wilderness, marked by physical and emotional pain, over the past four years. That Gulman returned, stronger and more determined to make his mark on comedy than ever, is a bounceback for the ages.
334) I remember when I was really sick with the Depresh my friend @KeithMercurio1 told me to write down 5 things I was grateful for every morning. I believe along with a dozen other things that it contributed to my recovery. Try it! #GulManTip #WriteNow pic.twitter.com/L1hrms4YPo— The Great Depresh HBO Streaming Now (@GaryGulman) November 28, 2019
It's Garry Shandling's Book by Judd Apatow
Nothing seems to have broken Judd Apatow's heart like the premature death of his mentor, Garry Shandling. It's not simply because Shandling took Apatow on as a colleague on his groundbreaking series, The Larry Sanders Show; it's that few comedians have seemed as full of life and completely comedically correct about their instincts as Shandling, who passed in 2016. Following his 2018 HBO documentary series, The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling, Apatow lovingly edited this book of Shandling's notes, jokes, photos, scripts and interview snippets (by Shandling and his peers) and it's an inspiring, heart-wrenching read.
The Landlord & Tenant Podmess
Toronto comedians Michael Balazo and James Hartnett get together every week and pretend they hate each other on this podcast — an entertaining peek into the worlds of Toronto and its comedy community. Playing performative versions of themselves, Balazo plays a lowly tenant who can't slip out from under the thumb of Hartnett, his domineering and sleazy landlord. The pair bicker and belittle each other before interviewing a who's who of Toronto comedians and cultural figures, all while maintaining their characters, and it's all rather compelling.
Everywhere you turned on twitter in 2019, Rex Chapman was there, sharing or retweeting the funniest shit, sometimes literally. The former NBA player has a ridiculous feed that captures humanity at its worst, and often most pained. "Block or charge" he'd caption anything involving a horrible accident, and he has had a remarkable radar for video clips of people doing super dumb stuff like crapping in the middle of grocery stores. Once you engage with a Chapman tweet, you're down a wormhole of misery and absurdity that is bizarre and endlessly amusing.