Chris Philpott 's Opinion

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

Chris Philpott: Super Fun Night vs Trophy Wife

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What makes a TV show funny? Chris Philpott investigates.
The cast of Rebel Wilson's new comedy series 'Super Fun Night'.
The cast of Rebel Wilson's new comedy series 'Super Fun Night'.

Television comedy is a funny old thing (pun absolutely intended).

Some shows sound like they will be hilarious when you read the premise - four geeky scientists find they're ill-equipped for social situations; a male actor dresses as his Irish mother to relate stories from his childhood - but turn out to be full of tired jokes and lazy cliches, barely registering more than a chuckle during any given episode.

Other shows sound more like daytime soaps or teen melodramas - a group of co-workers in a council parks department balance life and love while pursuing their dreams; seven misfit students meet in a study group and try to navigate community college together - but end up being the funniest comedies on television.

As if it wasn't hard enough to figure out which shows are worth watching, the idea of what makes something funny is entirely subjective. My sense of humour is wildly different from yours, which is wildly different from theirs.

And the shows that I might find funny aren't going to appeal to you.

That's why the shows I thought sounded funny on paper - The Big Bang Theory, Mrs Browns Boys - are international superhits that draw huge audiences all over the world, while the shows that are much funnier than they sound - Parks & Recreation, Community - are constantly under threat of cancellation.

I've noticed the same effect can be found in a pair of new comedies airing on TV2 on Monday nights.

Super Fun Night sounds like it should be a fantastic comedy series. Writer and star Rebel Wilson has been riding a wave of popularity in the last couple of years, following scene-stealing turns in Bridesmaids and Pitch Perfect. Handing the riotously funny Aussie comedian a half-hour sitcom seems like it should result in constant hilarity, week after week.

The audiences turned up for it last week, but - in practice - the show is far less funny than expected. Wilson's eccentric sense of humour might be incapable of sustaining a half-hour of comedy every week, and the star turns out to be much more tolerable in smaller doses. Last week's premiere only had me laughing out loud in a couple of moments, and only one of them - Wilson's disastrous attempts to put on a suck-n-tuck - was at all memorable.

Last night's episode was even worse. I feel like I've seen every possible variation on jokes related to internet dating, so the whole idea of Kimmie lying on her profile seemed completely unoriginal, while the b-story, with Richard and Kendall schmoozing a big client, felt too disconnected from the rest of the episode to have any kind of effect. It's frustrating to watch a comedy squander its potential with silly jokes and obvious setups.

Meanwhile, Trophy Wife - which airs immediately after Super Fun Night - doesn't sound like your typical comedy fare: Malin Akerman plays Kate, a young woman who marries her dream man, middle-aged dad of three Pete, and has to endure the watchful eye of his two ex-wives while negotiating her new duties as a step-mum. It sounds more like the kind of mid-afternoon dramatic fare that airs on the weekends.

Malin Akerman stars in 'Trophy Wife'.
Malin Akerman stars in 'Trophy Wife'.

Yet this is easily my favourite of the two. Trophy Wife is funny in an endearing way, similar to something like Modern Family, and succeeds because of Akerman's commitment to the lead role. I'd only ever seen her in the movie adaptation of Watchmen, so I was curious whether she was up to the task. Fear not, she is.

Akerman gets plenty of support, with SNL alum Michaela Watkins at her zaniest and a brilliant turn from Marcia Gay Harden, who summons all her dramatic gravitas and turns it into comic timing.

The storylines - Kate begs for more responsibility as a step-mum and ends up screwing it up royally, while two of the kids cover up damage to a couch - might be a little generic, but they work because of the likeable cast and some clever writing in and around the main action.

But, hey, that's just me. I didn't have to look far to find someone who totally disagreed. My wife thought Super Fun Night was hilarious, while Trophy Wife failed to make her laugh more than once or twice. And I suspect that most people will probably feel the same way about the two new shows.

Comedy is subjective. There are no right or wrong answers when it comes to choosing our favourites. I just find it interesting that the shows which sound great are often less funny than those that sound like they'll fail - and to make it even harder to predict which is which, the funniest comedies often perform worse in the ratings.

I'll be watching Super Fun Night and Trophy Wife to see if they continue to operate as a microcosm for this theory. In the meantime ...

* Have you been watching Super Fun Night and/or Trophy Wife? Which is your favourite? And have you noticed that the funniest comedies are usually the ones that don't sound funny to begin with?

Chris Philpott

Chris Philpott is nzherald.co.nz's resident TV expert.

In a strange way, Chris Philpott has grown up with television: his first big addiction was The X Files, which he watched as a teenager, enthralled by what was possible with the form. Chris’ love of TV grew over the years, parallel to the popularity and quality of serial dramas like The Sopranos, Lost, Mad Men and Breaking Bad. He began writing about TV professionally in 2010, before joining the NZ Herald in late 2013, and considers writing about TV more than a passing interest or hobby: he genuinely loves sharing new series and discussing the big shows with readers. Chris is based in Whangarei, and lives with his wife and daughter. When he isn’t watching television … just kidding, he’s always watching television.

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