The Humor in 'Orange Is the New Black' is What Makes It a Good Drama

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Time writer James Poniewozik asked a good question on Twitter recently: which category will Netflix put up Orange Is the New Black for next year's Emmys, drama or comedy? The show expertly weaves comedic elements into its story of a privileged white woman who goes to prison for carrying drug money, but let's not beat around the bush: this just a case of a drama doing it right. 

Poniewozik suggested that Orange is just as funny as other female-driven comic entrants like Girls and Nurse Jackie but that its hour-long runtime is more typical of dramas. Of course there are technical answers to that question: Orange is the New Black's status as an hour-long does not restrict it to the drama category of the Emmy. Hour-longs like Ally McBeal and Glee have been nominated in the comedy category in past years. As for what Netflix considers its category? That's complicated. Its category listing makes no judgments: "TV Comedies, TV Dramas, TV Dramedy, Television." They have time to make up their mind: Orange Is the New Black won't be eligible until next year's Emmy season, while this year Netflix enjoyed nine nominations for House of CardsKaren Barragan of Netflix wrote in an email to us: "It's a bit too early for us to hypothesize on this. We're still enjoying our noms from last Thursday!!" 

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[Warning: some spoilers follow.]

Whichever way Netflix, Poniewozik's query is another way of asking a hard question about  Orange Is the New Black's uncomfortable subject matter: can we laugh at this? My answer is, yes, but we also shouldn't forget this is a drama. But its drama is just more potent because of the comic moments. 

That question of what exactly constitutes comedy has come up a lot lately. Episodes of the most recent season of Girls were so emotionally traumatic—the Q-Tip episode, for example—that it had Hillary Busis of Entertainment Weekly wondering: "Is Girls still a comedy?" Orange Is the New Black's drama is not like that on Girls, though. What Girls did was take something that was ostensibly a comedy, with relatively low stakes and make it painful to watch. What Orange Is the New Black does is take a high stakes in serious situations, and make them effortlessly funny while not veering off into parody. The fact that life in prison can be funny makes the tragedies of these women's lives painful, more haunting. 

This sense is perhaps best articulated in one moment, late in the series, when a group of inmates are joking about toilet hooch and Piper's uptightness. Their laughter—and ours—is in the context of a makeshift memorial for one of their own, and as they are laughing the cardboard figure honoring the dead drops from the wall, her necklace acting as a noose. The moment jolts both us and the characters out of their joy, revealing the cruel reality of their situation. As Andy Greenwald wrote for Grantland: "Orange burns with the kind of laughter that usually only comes after tears; it's audacious, shocking, intimate, and intense." And, though there may be laughs in prison, the show also shows you how these women got there, and Myles McNutt responded to Poniewozik by explaining that he'd "argue flashbacks emphasize dramatic weight of comic events." 

And lest you think that's not what prison is really like, Joe Loya—who did time himself and is a friend of Kerman's—in a piece for Medium says that's exactly what prison is like. "It’s a first-rate dramedy' — there is no other word in the English language to better describe prison life," he wrote. He explained that after he was released from prison fellow inmates, knowing that he planned to write about the place, told him: "Show people we're funny, Joe, that we laugh a lot in this place."

Though, as Loya points out, those who have never been in prison can claim the show is taking liberties with humor, that humor never undercuts the sadness. A woman gains hope for an appeal, and then lashes out when it is rejected. Another can't handle freedom. Even the broadest character, Crazy Eyes, has depth revealed as the series progresses. Piper—though she is supposed to be our stand in, our entry to this world—is narcissistic, emotionally manipulative, and self destructive. 

The season ended on the darkest note yet for the show, but hopefully that doesn't change the tone. Piper does something that may affect her stay in prison. (Though note, though we are attempting to be vague to remain as spoiler free as possible, Taryn Manning—who plays evangelical-ish inmate Penssatucky—was upped to a regular on season two.) If the show were to lose its humor, it would lose what makes it a good drama. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.