How B-Movie Cliches Are Taking Over Comedy

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The ragtag bunch of misanthropes are being called together for one final, frantic mission. The shuttle is stranded, far from home, and the team's savvy and experience is required to bring it back safely. There's the wisecracking leader; the quasi-autistic genius; the cranky old coot; and the rest of the lovable kooks.

The plot description may sound like Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, or some half-forgotten cable movie, but actually describes a recent episode of the brilliant NBC series Community, which has sneakily transformed itself into the funniest show on television, in part through its savvy tweaking of hoary genre archetypes. The space shuttle was a creaky, circa-1980s flight simulator, sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken and housed in a dilapidated motor home, and the mission was to rescue it (with the assistance of a computer-generated Colonel Sanders) in time for a press conference touting the swanky new addition to Greendale Community College's array of student offerings.

Community has grown increasingly inspired in its second season by refracting the predictable genre exercises of mediocre movies and television through the warped lens of the third-rate community college its characters attend. A school dance witnesses the outbreak of a zombie panic; the prospect of priority registration for next semester's courses leads to an epic paintball shoot-out, seemingly modeled on the work of John Woo and every grade-Z Cinemax shoot-up of the late 1980s.

The character of Abed, played by the marvelous Danny Pudi, is himself a guru of genre, a child of television always conscious of the ways in which life—or at least life at Greendale—imitates TV. As Community has matured, it has embraced its own self-awareness, transforming the stale tropes of mediocre movies and TV shows into comic gold. In part, this is due to the justly lauded paintball episode, which was many fans' first introduction to the series, and which gave show creator Dan Harmon the impetus to attempt to repeat the feat. But it is also because Community wisely taps into the spirit of a moment when all genres feel equally tapped out, and equally worthy of mockery.

Community may be its foremost practitioner, but this self-aware mockery has become a staple of contemporary comedy, both on television and in film. One of the most underrated movies of the past few years was the Judd Apatow-produced Pineapple Express (2008), in which two layabout stoners, played by James Franco and Seth Rogen, accidentally stumble into the plot of a particularly brainless machine-gun-toting action-film inferno. The film has its cake and eats it too, enjoying the rat-a-tat of automatic weaponry while also standing above the fray, mocking the tradition it so lavishly celebrates.

Pineapple followed in the footsteps of the 2004 British film Shaun of the Dead, a horror-film pastiche which had paid loving tribute to the works of George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead) while reserving the right to mock the excesses of zombiedom. Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, the team behind Shaun (Wright had directed, Pegg had written and starred), went on to tackle another genre deserving of similarly fond scorn, burlesquing the buddy action comedies of the 1980s with the ingenious Hot Fuzz (2007).

A new generation of filmmakers raised on the mediocre genre exercises of the 1980s may have begun the trend, but it is television that has truly embraced genre-savviness as a creative trope, with the steadily improving HBO series Bored to Death and Eastbound & Down both devoted to subtly undercutting the genres to which they have pledged mock-fealty. Bored to Death is a noir-flecked mystery whose often-ludicrous cases, and chief detective, stifled novelist Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman), bespeak the show's jaundiced view of the hard-boiled mode. And Eastbound & Down, detailing the half-hearted attempts of washed-up fireballer Kenny Powers to return to the major leagues, while harder to peg stylistically, often reaches for a mock-heroic tone ("Welcome to the resistance," Kenny greets friend and lackey Stevie on his arrival in Mexico) not at all in keeping with its perpetual air of self-inflicted foolishness. The soundtrack is Sergio Leone, but the action evokes Will Ferrell, not Clint Eastwood.

Even self-mocking genres have come in for their own form of mockery on TV, with The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family all borrowing the mockumentary style of This is Spinal Tap and the films of Christopher Guest for a frisson of purported realism. The use, and misuse, of the mockumentary form speaks to the potential dangers of this evolving genre-savviness. The Office borrowed Guest's arch tone, with Dunder Mifflin employees spilling their secrets and sharing their feelings with an unseen, ever-present camera crew. Parks and Recreation, and especially Modern Family, merely recycle The Office, gesturing at its innovations, and its list of influences, without coming up with any original twists of their own. The same could eventually befall the new wave of genre-savvy comedies, if Community's ingenious savaging of overly familiar old plots becomes the new de rigueur television shorthand. Until then, we'll have Community to remind us that once the building grows moldy, there's always the pleasure of watching the wreckers arrive.

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Saul Austerlitz is the author of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community.

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