*The following contains spoilers for Master of None, Girls and Trainwreck.
The past year has been a banner one for alternative voices in comedy.
Hannibal Buress refocused the spotlight on Bill Cosby’s history of alleged sexual assault during a stand-up gig in Philadelphia at the end of 2014. The Mindy Project was cancelled by Fox but found a new, more risqué home at Hulu, while Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish and Master of None are changing the historically white male face of comedy. Closer to home, Black Comedy and The Family Law are making similar strides, and we can’t forget the success Amy Schumer found in 2015.
But despite comedy’s newfound diversity, not all of it hits the spot.
A common theme many of these shows share is that they’re created, directed and/or produced by their stars which, while it’s an answer to the paucity of women and minorities both on screen and in positions of production power, it can also lead to self-indulgent storytelling that pigeonholes its creators into catering to a niche audience.
Master of None debuted on Netflix late last year to rousing success, becoming the streaming service’s most popular show. Several of its episodes were met with critical praise, particularly “Parents” and “Indians on TV”. Creator and star Aziz Ansari’s musings on children, race and sexual harassment were true to life, but they can be considered sporadic standouts amongst a largely self-indulgent experiment filled with bad acting and rambling jokes.
Take, for example, the 1:16 minute interaction between Ansari’s character Dev and Arnold (played by Eric Wareheim) about the meta dynamics of the Eminem movie 8 Mile and its theme song, “Lose Yourself”. I, too, have often wondered about the specifics of where Marshall Mathers ends and Eminem begins, but the bit’s backstory is something only die-hard comedy fans might be privy to and therefore could be alienating to a casual audience. The character of Denise (Lena Waithe), who has sat, off-camera, opposite the two throughout the duration of this exchange shares many audience members’ feelings when she says, “Can we please talk about literally anything else?”
When I asked stand-up comedian Martin Dunlop, who’s currently performing in his Melbourne International Comedy Festival show, Murder, He Spoke, for his thoughts on this flat transaction he said, “Like so much of the show, [this scene] doesn’t function as comedy. They’re not playing off anything… But it doesn’t really work as a slice-of-life scene either. Wareheim’s character is particularly ill-defined, an odd drifter who’s role in the series as a whole never becomes clear, though a lot of the blame for that falls on Wareheim, who doesn’t seem to be a very strong actor. That describes my problem with the series as a whole. Where something like Louis functions as a drama or a comedy at different times, Master never really worked for me as either.”
Osman Faruqi, Sydney-based writer and broadcaster, agrees, telling me that he “found the 8 Mile scene pretty jarring and lazy. Non-sequiturs can be funny but this came across like something two 15 year olds would have joked about in school. It was pretty self-indulgent and out of place… I think Master‘s comedy worked best when it reflected on aspects of contemporary society the audience was familiar with. When it deviated from that and inserted random jokes that had nothing to do with the story, it fell flat.”
And while I haven’t seen Ansari in much of anything else, I found his acting to be less-than-stellar, always coming across as if he’s been taken by surprise or an extra in one of those poorly acted insurance infomercials. His character acts primarily in commercials in the show, but I’m not sure it was Ansari’s intent to also give off this vibe himself. The use of Ansari’s real life parents in the roles of Dev’s elders may be an indictment of , but I found Fatima Ansari as Dev’s mother to be grating. Ansari’s the showrunner and what he says goes but the use of his parents seemed selfishly at the detriment to the show.
For all the things Master gets right, on the whole it’s a thought experiment about an unlikeable bad actor rife with rambling jokes and poor casting that left me wondering how far removed from Ansari his character is.
Whereas Ansari is struggling to come up with content for a nonetheless greenlit second season of Master , Amy Schumer almost had too much material for her runaway box office hit, Trainwreck. Schumer’s character of the same name works at a misogynistic men’s magazine as a plot device to introduce her to her love interest, a sports doctor played by Bill Hader she’s writing a profile on, but she could just as easily have been a freelancer who works from home, sparing us the drawn out office scenes. Professional wrestler John Cena was hilarious as Amy’s muscle-bound meathead boyfriend but his scenes were a good twenty minutes of homophobia that could have been reserved for the director’s cut DVD edition.
As with some of Schumer’s stand up work, a lot of her shtick didn’t land,and for some inexplicable reason, the funniest jokes made it into the trailer but were absent from the theatrical release.
Trainwreck felt more like a rough draft of a film with far too many incidental storylines that came across as pandering to its writer and star (are we seeing a common theme amongst these comedies?). In refusing to make these edits, producer Judd Apatow does a disservice to Schumer as Trainwreck really did have all the attributes to become a different kind of rom-com, both from the Kate Hudson fare of the ’00s and Apatow’s own gross-out anti-women bro comedies such as Knocked Up and This is 40.
Another rom-com of sorts, Lena Dunham’s Girls, also produced by Apatow, is perhaps one of the most criticised comedies on air today. Dunham has been accused of everything from racism to exhibitionism to sex worker-exclusionary feminism to child molestation, with her responses to some of these appraisals coming through on Girls, now in its fifth and penultimate season.
Of the three comedies discussed here, Girls’ Dunham is perhaps the least able to be extracted from her character. Dunham shot to mainstream notoriety with the release of her HBO show in 2012 whereas Ansari starred in Parks & Recreation for seven years prior to Master and Schumer had been going viral with her Inside Amy Schumer sketches long before Trainwreck. Perhaps her rapid success influences the oftentimes “painfully narcissistic [and] shockingly tone deaf”, as Ray puts it in this season’s opener, themes Dunham chooses to deal with in her show. Her repetitive nudity, though refreshing from a body-positivity standpoint, and the inclusion of a token black lover (played by Donald Glover) as a response to an unrealistically white Brooklyn she chose to portray in Girls’ first season come across as childish trigger responses to larger issues, which Dunham is normally open to discussing.
The argument could be made that criticisms are only foisted onto Girls and, indeed Master and Trainwreck, because they’re not made by white dudes. Do we hold Louie and Seinfeld to the same standard?
I asked fellow Girls devotee and freelance writer Camilla Peffer what she thought of the show’s self-centredness and whether objections to it can be boiled down to the fact that it’s for and mostly by women. “I think the self-indulgent shtick gets thrown around because society values high impact stories, not stories that rehash the minutiae of everyday life,” she told me. “To a man, the heartbreak of falling out with a best friend might hold no resonance. Neither does creating meth to save your family from poverty, but stories like that create a sort of prosthetic experience, much like playing a video game.
“Is Girls more self-indulgent than the work of Ansari or Woody Allen? It’s just as self-indulgent. But why is that a dirty word? All art is self-indulgent. Creating relies upon a certain level of introspection, so without that self reflection, it’s impossible to make anything that can truly have an emotional impact on an audience.”
Girls, along with Dunham, can be “painfully narcissistic”, as Ray put it, but it has moments (a lot in this season alone) when it’s one of the more realistic portrayals of young, white, New York millennials in pop culture today.
To some degree, the same can be said about Master of None, Trainwreck and other self-indulgent comedies. Self-indulgence doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of self-awareness: the two go hand in hand and are needed for a true-to-life portrayal of these undoubtedly personal stories. Just because they’re not necessarily speaking to me, an upper-middle class white chick who has the luxury of voicing her opinion on this platform, doesn’t mean there’s no value to them. It’s important to have diverse voices speaking about the myriad of topics Master, Trainwreck and Girls do, such as family, race, sex, dating, “finding yourself”, urban life, and what’s acceptable behaviour for women and minorities. It’s also important that these diverse voices have the opportunity to fail which, in some respects, I think they have.