The Magic of Only Murders in the Building Is Its Simple Humor

TV Features Only Murders in the Building
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The Magic of <i>Only Murders in the Building</i> Is Its Simple Humor

Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes. Barry pivots effortlessly between surreal moments of hilarity and bouts of abject devastation. Succession is one of the funniest shows on TV despite being a Shakespearean family drama. And What We Do in the Shadows mines humor from low-hanging vampire jokes that, like its characters, never grow old. We’re living in a golden age of comedy, one that is at least partly a response to the frequent darkness and violence that preceded it during the Age of the Antihero. But for all of the excellent shows making us laugh today, no series does it better or more reliably than Only Murders in the Building.

The Hulu series, which returned for its second season with two episodes on June 28, was co-created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman (Grace and Frankie). It follows three strangers (portrayed by Martin, his frequent collaborator Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) who reside at the Arconia, a massive, extravagant apartment building on the Upper West Side, and who have little in common except for their address and the fact that they’re obsessed with the same true crime podcast. So when a resident of the building is murdered, the unlikely trio come together to solve the case and create their own podcast following the investigation. In Season 2, they’re hand-delivered a sequel when they become suspects in the murder of yet another Arconia resident, pushy board president Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell), and thus must rush to solve the case and clear their names.

By inserting self-aware humor into the the well-worn beats of the addictive true crime genre, Only Murders is a perfect parody that doubles as the real thing, tapping into a cultural moment while upgrading the notes of the classic murder mystery. But the foundation of the show—and thus its secret weapon—is its simple, somewhat old-fashioned approach to humor.

In the hands of veterans Martin and Short, even the most basic jokes become uproarious moments of levity. It’s impossible not to laugh when Short’s Oliver, a struggling Broadway director, finds himself holding the murder weapon and a beat too late screams, “Why am I holding this knife?” before launching it into the ceiling. Or when Martin’s Charles, an actor reeling from a revelation about his late father that leaves him questioning everything he thought he knew, scribbles “Me?” on a notecard and adds it to a bulletin board of suspects. The jokes may be simple (and sometimes border on dumb), but they’re performed with an expert touch.

Much of this can be attributed to the years Martin and Short have spent honing their craft in an era different from the world in which we now find ourselves, which can often feel toxic and dark. In many ways, this feels like comedy that can’t be taught. Martin possesses the ability to make any line funny based on his delivery, while Short infuses unlimited energy into the physical aspects of comedy. But the show doesn’t limit these elements to its two leading men, either. When Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine guest-stars as Bunny’s elderly mother in Episode 2, the show mines the character’s macular degeneration for laughs as she struggles to see and cut a block of cheese, forcing Oliver to quickly abandon his harebrained theory that she stabbed Bunny herself. It could read poorly, but the lighthearted tone and the show’s overall dedication to lacing everything with pathos means it doesn’t play as mean-spirited.

But while the jokes might be basic and the comedy low-to-middlebrow—at one point, Oliver attempts to interview Bunny’s talking bird for the podcast—everything is executed at such a high level it’s impossible not to dissolve into fits of laughter. And this is especially true when the show balances Short’s louder style of comedy or Martin’s sometimes understated, indirect humor with that of Gomez, whose deadpan skills are a marvel and who gets even more time to shine in Season 2, as she’s the prime suspect in Bunny’s murder.

Together, Martin, Short, and Gomez create an unexpected comedy trifecta, delivering jokes right to viewers’ funny bones without ever feeling like the series exists to be a joke machine. Even if the mystery at the center of Season 2 might drag at times—something even the frequently meta series acknowledges now and then—there is no shortage of good-natured comedy. It’s a rather old-school method, one that proves that sometimes the best approach is also the simplest. But perhaps more importantly, it reminds us that it’s still possible for shows to stand out even when surrounded by an embarrassment of comedy riches.

New episodes of Only Murders in the Building are released Tuesdays on Hulu.


Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.

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