Ask the citizens of the Internet what the difference between a comedian and a humorist is, and you’ll likely get one of a set of rotating answers, each attempting to fly in the face of the perceived cultural elitism attached to the word “humorist.” “One of them is funny,” is the gist, and it’s generally not the humorist. This is in character with the kind of people who usually engage in this kind of conversation on the Internet—people who feel that a populist strain of Internet comedy is somehow under attack and deeply resent any attempt to categorize their “style” of humor as “less-than.” A quick spin through Reddit reveals—somehow—slightly more open-minded thinking on the subject. Some people say that comedians perform live and humorists are more literary (they might cite Mark Twain, an ironic choice considering that his live performances arguably announced the fundamental idea of stand-up comedy as an authentically American art form). Others say that humorists never really call themselves humorists while comedians, obviously, self-identify themselves as such more frequently.
The point is, no one is really sure, but there is a difference. We can just feel it.
What’s important to note is that swiping right and left on individual comedy writers and performers in an attempt to distinguish between these two terms is redundant and pointless. This goes without saying. Is John Hodgman—a contributor to both This American Life and The Daily Show—a humorist or a comedian? Who cares? It’s also worth mentioning that, while I may find the aforementioned Internet griping on the subject insecure and a little embarrassing, I agree that there is a bit of a value judgment implied by the distinction between the two terms. The myth of the comedian involves getting free drinks at a club’s bar at 2 a.m. The myth of the humorist involves getting free drinks at the goddamn Algonquin Round Table. Even if we agree that both are funny, we generally characterize humorists as being funny in a “smarter” way, whatever that means. This is unfair. We call Andy Borowitz a “humorist” instead of a “comedian” when we should be calling him a “bad writer.”
Enter Simon Rich, the painfully young and successful Harvard Lampoon whiz kid who received a two-book deal as an undergraduate for his humor writing, going on to write for Saturday Night Live and Pixar before creating FXX’s Man Seeking Woman, an absurdist look at modern dating based on his own book of stories, The Last Girlfriend on Earth. As Man Seeking Woman wraps up its excellent third season, it feels like a good time to reflect on Rich’s status as the nexus between the worlds I’ve described here—one that places him at the forefront of a slowly emerging genre one could call Television Humor.
Beyond the comedic disparities among the institutions he’s been affiliated with, Rich’s reputation mixes and blows apart the clichés associated with both the comedian and the humorist. In reviewing Rich’s superlative collection Spoiled Brats (his sixth book in seven years, if anyone’s counting), the London Evening Standard hailed him as the Internet era’s answer to the accessibly brilliant humor of Thurber and Wodehouse, two other writers who maintained the “writerly” air required if you want people to refer to you as a “celebrated wit,” but who—unlike, say, Dorothy Parker—could make anybody laugh really, really hard.
That’s what people love about Simon Rich; he nimbly avoids the worst stereotypes people associate with every branch of comedy. He is neither pretentious nor crude. He is liberal but wields political correctness in a way its opponents couldn’t really complain about. He is the scion of a family that includes his father, former Times critic Frank Rich (the notorious “Butcher of Broadway”), and his older brother, Nathaniel Rich (a former editor of The Paris Review), but you could never accuse him of not having the talent to back up that transparent leg up. He is all of these things at once without being bland. If the shows run by TV humorists are to catch on with the public, they are lucky to have Rich as their primary representative.
What are these shows? Only a few projects—ones created or written by a humorist rather than a comedian—qualify (Lena Dunham would count, and Girls’ Bruce Eric Kaplan’s cartoon work for the New Yorker is the most direct descendant of Thurber’s own distinct style of cartooning). But if we loosen up that qualifier a bit, anything from Fleabag to Veep (on which Frank Rich serves as an executive producer) to whatever Will Eno is currently cooking up for TV could merit inclusion as well.
And, weirdly enough, the Internet folks are kind of right. What distinguishes the work of TV Humorists is their literary bent. Again, that’s not a value judgment; it’s a point of comparison. Man Seeking Woman is funny for a lot of reasons—it’s anchored by great performances from Jay Baruchel as the hapless protagonist, Josh, Eric Andre as his disgusting best friend, and (especially when she gets the odd episode all to herself) Britt Lower as his sister. But at its heart it plays in the same ballpark as Rich’s short stories, and largely plays by the same rules as well. In fact, the first few segments of Man Seeking Woman adapt The Last Girlfriend on Earth’s stories pretty directly, including a standout early episode in which Josh’s ex-girlfriend, Maggie, starts dating an elderly, charming Adolf Hitler (Bill Hader).
It’s a comedy of ideas: the elaborate “what if?” scenarios that form the basis of sketch comedy theory but also populate the history of American humor writing from S.J. Perelman (another humorist who published his first book as an undergraduate) and beyond. Man Seeking Woman is an exercise in extended simile, rather than extended metaphor. What if a boyfriend was treated like an illegal immigrant in his girlfriend’s apartment? What if an awkward meet-up was treated like the Chilean mining disaster? For all the amazing elements at play in Man Seeking Woman (directorial flourishes, set design, fluid performances), all of which modify themselves to serve the simile at hand, what comes across is the core idea, the same way it comes across on the page. When that idea has served its purpose, Man Seeking Woman reverts back to its base reality.
With this kind of thing happening four or so times an episode, it can occasionally feel repetitive. The sometimes inelegant thing about written American humor as a genre is that the literary tactic of theme and variation seems more important to humorists across their entire body of work. Criticizing Man Seeking Woman or Woody Allen or anyone else that “does the same thing over and over” is legitimate, but it brushes this element of the tradition under the rug. Humorists often have a small group of related topics they are interested in exploring thoroughly, and that means approaching those topics from so many angles it can seem repetitive instead of detailed. Wodehouse (not an American by birth and certainly not as a stylist, but who did spend most of his life in the States, and also committed a surprising portion of his bibliography to British-American cultural exchanges and tensions) was frequently accused of recycling plot elements, humorous setups, and linguistic tactics before someone thought to compare him to the painter Paul Cézanne, starting another argument altogether.
Take the godfather of this small group of TV humorists, for example. Look at any work by Jonathan Ames, the creator of HBO’s Bored to Death and Starz’ Blunt Talk, and you’re likely to find a cocktail of preoccupations: white wine, amateur boxing, Oedipal complexes, and “transsexuality” (a dated phrase these days, admittedly). His novel Wake Up, Sir! is a Wodehousian pastiche focused on a writer working on a novel that is almost identical to Ames’ previous book, The Extra Man. Both his graphic novel, The Alcoholic, and Bored to Death feature fictional writers named after Ames, both of whom share the aforementioned preoccupations. A literary bent, humor-wise, is made literal in Ames’ work: His novelist protagonists can only think within novelistic terms. Blunt Talk’s protagonist is named after a minor character in Shakespeare’s histories. (Man Seeking Woman is more tongue-in-cheek with regard to this kind of literary reference. A recurring joke revolves around Infinite Jest, which Josh was not able to finish).
Rich’s work is in step with this trend. Not only does Man Seeking Woman revisit his specific perspective through a wealth of different scenarios, it also seems to be in conversation with the rest of Rich’s oeuvre the same way Ames’ work is. Rich is obsessed with the minutia of social interaction, but chooses to represent that maximally—where, say, Seinfeld chose to keep its observations on a more intimate scale, coining new phrases (“double dipping,” “re-gifter”), Rich creates elaborate genre parodies. This, too, fits with the tradition of American humor—one that wears its social commentary more on its sleeve. There is generally a “point.” Publications that traffic in humor pieces generally run them as a side attraction to actual social or political criticism (just ask Art Buchwald), and, generally, one of the things humorists have to contend with is an insistence that their work “mean” something.
In its third season, Man Seeking Woman has pushed itself with a serialized storyline focusing on a consistent love interest for Josh, the incredibly charming Lucy (Katie Findlay). While it loses none of its idiosyncratic punctuation (Lucy’s bad day in the season premiere ends with her being attacked by a Puma at her office job), its pastiche is more streamlined and focused. What Man Seeking Woman is trying to tell us about modern romance and its repercussions has never been more direct. Consider the episode focusing on Josh’s mother obsessive attempts to hang out with him and Lucy. The simile moves from Family’s House as Primitive Society, to Mom as John Hinckley Jr.-esque stalker, to Mom as Old Yeller, and finally to Son’s Apartment as Primitive Society. Full circle, but each segment unified in its purpose, smoothing out the sharp left turns of the first two seasons. (Read our interview with Findlay here.)
The future of shows like these faced a setback with the cancellation of Blunt Talk in December, but if this season of Man Seeking Woman is any indication, I have nothing to worry about. TV is a writer’s game, and the past 20 years of shows that become more and more reliant on serialized storytelling is an evolution of the development of the serialized novel. These shows ultimately resonate with viewers not because of particularly great acting, or stylish costumes, or violence, or the absence of violence. TV shows, specifically comedies, live and die on longevity. Can you tell the same story in so many different ways that it eventually forms an overarching master storyline and an inevitable sense of progress? Can you create work that—instead of repeating itself—offers variations on its themes? As we grapple with this, the central problem at the heart of both comic traditions, TV emerges as a place where humorists can re-draw the hazy line between what is repetitive and what is thorough. In the past, humorists have had to do this over all sorts of different magazine pieces and books and essays to the point where someone could reasonably say “Oh, So-and-So only writes about this.” For someone like Wodehouse to follow the ideas he wanted to explore through two or three major characters across dozens of books was rare for a humorist. But that approach is the imperative of scripted TV comedy—a medium that is now flexing new muscles in an old form.
This is Rich’s most powerful skillset. Man Seeking Woman—like Louie, in a way—isn’t really a sitcom. It’s a collection. With Josh and Lucy’s impending marriage, as clunky and unexpected as it will probably be with these particular young lovers, Rich has the opportunity to cast his eye toward marriage’s bizarre social norms the way Robert Benchley—in Thurber’s words—presented “the commonplace as remarkable.” At an impressive rate, Man Seeking Woman is pushing a fledgling subgenre forward, reinventing itself every time it repeats.
The season finale of Man Seeking Woman airs Wednesday, March 8 at 10:30 p.m. on FXX.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.