Last month the creators of Big Time in Hollywood, FL confirmed that it wasn’t being picked up for a second season. On one hand, it’d be hard to top the level of chaos that unfolded in the one excellent season they got to make. On the other, this was one of the funniest shows of the year, and it’s sad to see they won’t at least get the opportunity to make something even better. Most TV shows don’t make it past a first season, of course, and Big Time’s network, Comedy Central, has had more than its fair share of one-and-done shows. (One of the most annoying things about the awful Tosh.0 is when it makes fun of a short-lived Comedy Central show that was almost invariably better than it.) In memory of Big Time and its fallen brethren, let’s take a look at some of the best Comedy Central shows to get cancelled after a single season, in chronological order.
VS., a game show hosted by Greg Proops, was a head-to-head trivia battle between two teams that represented supposedly opposite groups. So a squad of three vegans would challenge three deli workers, or nudists would take on porn stars. The game show aspect didn’t always make for good comedy—it depended on the specific questions and the personalities of the contestants, which were both inconsistent—but Proops was reliably entertaining as the smarmy and often above-it-all host. It was frequently a fun way to kill a half-hour, but in the grand scheme of comedy game shows it was no match for Clash, a fantastic show that aired on Ha, one of the two channels that combined in 1991 to form Comedy Central.
This should’ve been a smash hit. Robert Smigel’s “Saturday TV Funhouse” bits were the highlight of Saturday Night Live whenever they’d air, and his Triumph the Insult Comic Dog character was probably the most popular character on Late Night with Conan O’Brien during its late ‘90s peak. A show that combined the two was a no-brainer. Somehow TV Funhouse only lasted for eight episodes in 2000 and early 2001, though. Despite some hilarious moments, the show always felt more mean-spirited than either Triumph or “Saturday TV Funhouse”—unlike the latter’s pointed satire or Triumph’s charming Borscht Belt routine, TV Funhouse seemed more interested in putting the kind of cute puppets you’d see in a kid’s show in gross or demeaning situations. So like Meet the Feebles, but less shocking. Still, with Smigel and Dino Stamatopoulos at the helm, the show easily could’ve found its groove in a second season.
2004 was a heady time for political debate. Everybody hated George Bush except the people who voted him back into office. Jon Stewart called Tucker Carlson a dick on CNN’s soon-to-be-cancelled Crossfire. The Swift Boaters smeared Kerry back to the Senate. Everybody wouldn’t shut the hell up about political bloggers. And Comedy Central launched a show called Crossballs that might’ve been before it’s time. The show pitted improvisers playing fake experts against legitimate commentators who had no idea the debate wasn’t real. Like all improv, the show could be inconsistent, but it had a great cast of experienced veterans who usually hit more than they miss, including Andy Daly, Matt Besser, Jerry Minor, Mary Birdsong and Rich Fulcher. It only ran for 23 episodes that divisive summer, and perhaps the incident that kept the 24th episode off the air is why it was cancelled—one of the guest experts threated Comedy Central with a lawsuit when he realized it wasn’t a legitimate debate.
Wanda Sykes is one of the funniest and most likable comedians around, but none of her shows have worked out. In between her short-lived Fox sitcom and a one-season Fox talk show she starred in Wanda Does It, which disappeared from Comedy Central’s schedule after only six episodes in 2004. Although probably not the best vehicle for, the show put her in unique situations every week and let her flex her improvisational skills. The gimmick is that she’d try a different non-comedy job each episode. Her reaction to these jobs were often funny, but these bits were broken up with fictionalized scenes of Sykes dealing with her frustrated manager that brought any comedy to a screeching halt. If a second season had focused solely on the jobs, it could’ve been a fine showcase for Sykes. Maybe this notable failure is why Comedy Central passed on the Hannibal Buress pilot that would also have him doing new jobs every week?
Stella might be the only thing on this list that’s widely regarded as a legitimate cult classic, even though lots of fans maintain the show is nowhere near as good as the pre-Comedy Central shorts. David Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black (all of The State, of course) had been working live under the Stella name for almost a decade when Comedy Central gave them a half-hour show in 2005. It wrapped long-form sketch comedy in the trappings of a sitcom, and had the same mix of intelligence, absurdity and silliness that’s marked most of their work.
This local news parody was pretty inconsistent, but that’s to be expected of a show that combines sketches with improvised interviews with unwitting real-life citizens. It featured an amazing cast, though, including future superstar Zach Galifianakis, Jimmy Fallon head writer A.D. Miles, The Hotwives of Orlando’s Andrea Savage and utility all-star Matt Walsh. Walsh played a local journalist, the rest were his behind-the-scenes crew, and together they’d interview real people who didn’t necessarily know it was being filmed for a comedy show. At its best, it was hilarious, but the quality varied based on who they were interviewing. Also, not all of the cast was comfortable with the real-life aspect; as Galifianakis told Michael Showalter on a web series, he didn’t like “messing with people.”
Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black gave Comedy Central another chance with Michael and Michael Have Issues, where they played versions of themselves who basically hated each other despite running a sketch show together. Again, it had that same tone you’d expect from Showalter and Black, and playing themselves let them indulge in the sort of self-effacing meta comedy that has occasionally appeared throughout their work. Smart and surreal, it’s another great example of Showalter and Black’s idiosyncratic style.
2011 was a bad year for TV shows based on The Onion. It started strongly—within ten days Comedy Central premiered Onion SportsDome, a parody of SportsCenter, and IFC launched a weekly edition of The Onion News Network. Despite capturing the perfectly straight-faced satire of the website, neither show did that well in the ratings. SportsDome perhaps suffered from too specific of a target—sports fans could appreciate its sometimes scathing send-up of sports news, but if you weren’t familiar with the tone and rhythm of ESPN you maybe wouldn’t get the joke. It also helped to like sports. SportsDome lasted for a little over two months before being cancelled.
2011 was a bad year for sports comedy shows on Comedy Central. A few weeks after SportsDome was cancelled, Sports Show with Norm MacDonald popped up in the same time slot. MacDonald’s show wasn’t as much of a parody of sports news, as a sports news show that focused on comedy. MacDonald used his trademark dry delivery and cutting wit to savage the sports world—it basically felt like his old SNL Weekend Updates if they ran for a half-hour and were entirely about sports. It was a great match of host and subject, as MacDonald clearly knew and cared about sports, even as he made fun of them. The show disappeared even faster than SportsDome, though; it was after nine episodes.
Some of these shows were clearly flawed, and maybe would’ve needed some thoughtful retooling to truly make a go of a second season. Jon Benjamin Has a Van is not one of them. This absurd parody of investigative journalism was amazing from the start, and only got better as its one season went on. The best episode, “Breakdown,” should be mandatory viewing for anybody who loves comedy. The news crew’s sound guy, played by a pre-Nathan for You Nathan Fielder, is kidnapped by a trucker, leading to an extended stretch of total silence that the show exploits for maximum laughs. A great cast, a deep bench of talented guest stars and clever writing that rarely became too precious all make us miss this overlooked classic.
There’s a reason this show was often called the “Breaking Bad of comedy.” The big difference was that these regular joes who wound up embroiled in violent criminality were complete idiots and made everything worse for them every step of the way. This audacious show pulled few viewers during its run earlier this year, but its small fanbase was very passionate, and no doubt mourns its early passing.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games section. Find him on Twitter @grmartin.