The absurd dark comedies helping us survive 2017

In the HBO special “Career Suicide,” Chris Gethard discusses the depression thats gripped him from childhood.
In the HBO special “Career Suicide,” Chris Gethard discusses the depression thats gripped him from childhood.
Image: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP
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When I asked the comedian Chris Gethard if 2017 has been weirder than other years in recent memory, he replied: “Of course it’s been weirder. I’d sum up this year thus far by asking a simple, “What the fuck is going on?’”

That’s a pretty good summary. The facts are hard to believe. Donald Trump is president of the United States. We’ve somehow stumbled into another Cold War or two. A series of hurricanes just leveled an entire region. Even for the optimists among us, 2017 has felt like a sociological experiment – one so bizarre that it’s irresponsible, like the time the CIA dosed unsuspecting civilians with LSD.

But it’s not all bad news. Alongside the strange weather and even stranger politics, 2017 has delivered a string of excellent dark comedies seemingly made bespoke for these times, including Gethard’s HBO special Career Suicide, Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot, and the new season of the TV series Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories on Adult Swim.

These comedies are more than just tiny consolation prizes in an otherwise awful year. In the same way that Charles Dickens’ novels depicted the brutal conditions of Britain’s industrial revolution and Andrei Tarkovsky’s films revealed the surreal nature of life in Soviet Russia, these dark comedies epitomize our age—its dream-like (and sometimes frightening) absurdity.

Certainly dark comedy is not new, and it’s not necessarily the case that we’re producing more of it than ever before. But when reality itself prompts a near-constant WTF, then we need comedy that matches that WTF or even manages to top it, which these days is no small ask. In other words, we need comedy that can operate under extreme conditions.

This is why Saturday Night Live falls so short of the mark. The problem is that the actual events and personalities that SNL attempts to parody are far more bizarre than anything its writers ever dreamed of. When we’ve got incidents like Kim Jong-un calling Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard,” the show just recounts the news in a silly voice. As the Slate writer Matthew Dessem declared earlier this week, with the real-life stakes now so high, Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump bit “doesn’t work anymore.” But did it ever? Direct parody has just been hopelessly outpaced.

At the same time, pure comedic escapism can seem like an indulgence we can no longer afford — out of step with our national mood. Consider this year’s box office results. Baywatch and Rough Night grossed $58 million and $22 million apiece. But Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out – which manages some darkly funny moments while taking the horrors of racism to their logical extreme – took home a neat $175 million. And no wonder. This kind of comedy doesn’t rely on the cheap thrill of looking away from the bleaker parts of our reality, yet still manages to transport us.

With that in mind, here’s a list of some of 2017’s best dark comedies so far. They just might help you get through the rest of the year.

Career Suicide

Gethard’s stand-up special Career Suicide, adapted from his off-Broadway show, debuted on HBO on May 6. In it, Gethard describes the depression that gripped him from childhood and drove him to attempt suicide as an adult. He shouts out the names of psychiatric drugs (“Risperdal! Wellbutrin!”), and members of the audience cheer as if they’d just heard a roll call of their favorite sports teams. Conventional and lighthearted it’s not, but Gethard’s candor is bracing. There’s a real release in laughing at some of the darkest parts of the human experience.

“A lot of people tell me it’s connected with them, helped them, or made them understand someone else in their life better,” Gethard told me. “That’s very flattering and makes me glad I did it.”

“On my most insecure days, sometimes I worry that it wasn’t funny enough. People tell me it ‘was like a cool TED talk’ or ‘I didn’t mind that there were no laughs,’ and I get very scared,” he said. “But I remind myself that it wasn’t aimed at being a laugh a minute and that putting humanity ahead of the laugh percentage on this one was something I knew I was doing.”

The Idiot

Elif Batuman’s novel The Idiot is set at Harvard in the 1990s. Yet its portrayal of one undergraduate’s half-heartedly trying – and failing – to make sense of a senseless world feels very now. No great breakthrough ever occurs to the narrator; at the end of the book she simply concludes, “I hadn’t learned anything at all.”

Where this book shines is the novel-within-the-novel, ostensibly a Russian language textbook that the narrator has to read for a class. Its other function is as a sly, ongoing commentary on the events of the main story — and on existence itself.

In a slow-boil joke, the protagonist of this novel-within-a-novel also leaves home on a journey that leads nowhere in particular and, at long last, turns out to have no hidden logic or great meaning. Its essential absurdity is the revelation: “Within the world of the story, nobody mentioned or acknowledged that things were abnormal, and so one tended to accept them unquestioningly. But if you pointed out the abnormality — if you could just state it factually —people in the world would recognize it and laugh.”

Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories

Adult Swim mainstays Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim have been everywhere in 2017, both separately and together. Wareheim co-starred in and directed several episodes of Netflix’s Master of None. Heidecker’s Decker ran for back-to-back seasons this summer. Plus, the pair completed a nationwide tour to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their cult hit Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

All this has led to glowing profiles in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Playboy and elsewhere. Still, the new season of Tim & Eric’s Bedtime Stories represents some of their best work to date. The show is a series of disconnected, live-action shorts: A piano salesman strives to win a bonus so he can save his kidnapped daughter, but his boss’s baklava addiction gets in the way. A suburban dad grows dangerously obsessed with a bullied, wannabe pop star; the result is a Lolita-esque tragedy packed with bathroom jokes.

Each episode veers between pathos and disgust, high art – with shades of Buñuel and Von Trier – and nonsense. Yet there’s a strange consistency to each. The overall effect is deeply eerie.

I met Heidecker and Wareheim a few days ago as they passed through New York, just ahead of the Bedtime Stories finale, which aired October 1st. They were wolfing down a late lunch ahead of their appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, but we had just enough time for a couple of questions.

“The idea is a horror-comedy combo,” Wareheim said of Bedtime Stories. “Funny and scary at the same time.”

“The trick of the show is to take an absurd idea which could be handled very comically and to treat it very seriously, as if it were real rather than funny,” Heidecker explained. “There’s a nightmare at the core of it.”

For the new season, “there was a lot of discussion ahead of shooting about a consistent tone, look and filmic quality. No dolly shots, very few tripods, so we could make everything feel handheld and frenetic,” he said.

“We moved more toward believability,” Wareheim added. “Some of the silliness went away. So there are times when you believe us.”

That’s the unsettling thing. In Bedtime Stories, it’s never clear or certain which (if any) of the plot elements to take seriously. It’s hard to tell signal from noise, what’s serious and what’s a joke. And if that doesn’t sound appropriate viewing for 2017, what does?