Forget what you’ve heard about the golden age of TV for a second. Forget Don Draper’s philandering and Louie C.K.’s moping, forget Walter White’s “I am the one who knocks” speech, try really hard to forget the time that guy’s head popped open on Game of Thrones, and forget you ever heard the word “Bazinga” (plenty of you want to anyway). What’s left, as far as entertainment, probably came from your computer screen.
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TV’s in a golden age, but it’s also coming apart at the seams — and being patched together with web content to make a nice quilt. Increasingly by year, TV combs the vast world of web series for new shows. What began in the late ‘00s, with Adult Swim bringing shows like Childrens Hospital to its largely collegiate audience, has expanded with Comedy Central’s embrace of Workaholics, Broad City, and Drunk History — and E!’s resyndication of Burning Love marks the biggest audience a web series has attracted yet, hitting 7 million unique viewers in its first season.
Web series have come to encompass a wide spate of genres, but comedy first put it on the map; the President’s appearance on Between Two Ferns early this year speaks for itself. All you need to start a web series is a good camera and good material — this is why they’ve served as a launchpad for several comedians, whose more offbeat or unconventional ideas might struggle to finding approval from a producer. Zach Galifianakis broadens the audience for his more alternative comedic persona, while Maria Bamford explores (somewhat) lighter fare than her trenchant standup material; upstarts like Iliana Glazer and Abbie Jacobson make big career strides, while established careerists like Hannibal Buress boost up newcomers.
There’s probably a boring semantic battle to be had over what constitutes a true web series — like debating the “indie-ness” of a band or a movie. But the bottom line is that some of the most original and exciting programming today is first written and produced for the web. If this trend has passed you by, here are five comedy web series to get you up to speed.
This episodic, character-driven comedy/drama about a weed dealer started off as a little-indie-series-that-could; it’s now a critical darling, and Vimeo’s first “original series”, receiving financial backing comparable to a Netflix original series (in form, not quantity). Each episode revolves around a different client of a north Brooklyn bud guy (referred to solely as “The Guy”), and the conflicts that lead them to solicit his service.
Some episodes indulge an existential sobriety a la FX’s Louie; see “Jonathan”, in which a fictionalized Hannibal Buress experiences emotional fallout after a shooting occurs at one of his comedy shows. Other episodes deliver punchy farces more along the lines of Broad City; in “Jaimie”, the dealer helps two staunchly vegan yuppies kill a mouse in a humane manner. (Hint: it involves weed.)
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
If you follow GP, there’s a strong chance you like cars. If you’re reading an article about comedy web series, there’s an even stronger chance you like comedy. And since you’re a human being, you probably like coffee. Ergo, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. This series is probably the best thing Jerry Seinfeld’s done since the ‘90s. (But real talk, guys — a really strong case can be made for Bee Movie.)
In each episode, Seinfeld picks up a different comedian for an afternoon to chat, dine and drink coffee; past guests have included Louie C.K., Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart, and Tina Fey, Mel Brooks and plenty of others across its four-season run. Ostensibly, each car is meant to match the guest; a 1967 Volvo 1800S, for instance, matches Tina Fey because it’s “sensible but fun” — accurate or not, she finds the 1800S’s minimal seatbelt buckle amusing enough. The series’ beautiful cinematography makes it a treat for gearheads, comedy fans, and foodies alike — and it retains the original appeal of Seinfeld: relatable chatter about nothing in particular.
The Writers Room
It took a while for streaming services to embrace original content the way they do today. The Writers Room — not to be confused with Jim Rash’s series on Sundance TV (and Netflix), which you should also watch because it’s fascinating — originally found its home on Sony’s Crackle streaming service in 2008, and it was an early indicator of web series’ promise before the boom of today.
The Writers Room follows its namesake: the unglamorous bitter heart of a late-night (and eventually late-late-night) talk show. Like a real writers’ room, much of the show is made up of writers just shootin’ the shit, limply attempting to find “what’s funny” (and often fuming at their host’s differing sense of humor). When it finds its legs, it manages to Americanize Ricky Gervais’s comedic style better than The Office did, albeit a little less mopey. (A little.)
A few of the series on this list are “little guy” projects. Burning Love is not one of them; it benefits from a whole galaxy’s worth of star power, having featured Ben Stiller (also a producer), Seth Rogan, Michael Ian Black, Kristen Bell, Michael Cera, Jennifer Anniston, Nick Kroll, and countless others in star and guest-starring roles. So it’s not a huge surprise that E! picked it up for resyndication after three seasons online.
But none of that would matter worth a damn if it weren’t funny. A pitch-perfect satire of reality dating shows, Burning Love features a host, a bachelor or bachelorette, and a bevy of suitors (like that show you sit through with your significant other), whom the show labels helpfully: “the bad boy”, “the classy one”, “the grown up premature baby”. Directed by Ken Marino, it draws some clear influence from David Wain in its straightforward-yet-effective dismantling of the “dating show” genre and all of its deeply ingrained tropes; its stock settings and audio cues clash with characters pulled from utterly different worlds, whose absurdity illuminates that of reality TV as a whole.
The most historically important sitcoms were buoyed by hot-button issues. I Love Lucy followed TV’s first interracial couple; curmudgeonly Archie Bunker grappled with social change in All in the Family; and even Seinfeld dealt with racism, homophobia, female sexuality, and more. As a niche Spanglish web series, East WillyB is unlikely to join that canon, but it stands out from its peers as an often ballsy satire of a Latin neighborhood undergoing gentrification. It’s an unexpectedly effective cross between It’s Always Sunny-style chaos and telenovela broadness.
The series follows Willy B (New Yorkers will get it), a bar owner in Bushwick, Brooklyn, as he attempts to win back his ex, who is managing a competing bar that welcomes the business of gentrifiers with yoga and kimchi-making classes. While he refuses to change, his friends gradually give way — like the neighborhood drug dealer who starts selling artisanal bread. (“I got it from my man Francois’ boulangerie. It’s got that crispy crust.”)
Web series are slowly entering an era of high(er)-budget, whizzbang productions — but some of the most exciting new series, especially when you find them on your own, are still those scrappy productions made with little more than a camera and a couple of actors. And, in Dad Drives’ case, a fantastic fake mustache.
Dad Drives follows teenage Malcolm and his Dad as he drives him places — home from the airport, to a neighbor’s funeral, and to the house of a guy he bought a karaoke machine from on Craigslist (who he fears might be a skinhead). The series is entirely dialog driven and doesn’t leave the front seat; Malcolm is forced to endure lengthy, paranoid ramblings from his father in addition to frequent details about his sex life. Far from being a shackle, the series’ simplicity is a boon — it’s the “straight man/crazy man” style of comedy that’s been tried and true since Abbott and Costello.