It was bound to be a freewheeling discussion about comedy on television in the #MeToo era at the AMC Networks Summit when moderator Jill Kargman, creator and star of the Bravo series Odd Mom Out, began asking stars, writers and showrunners about the challenges of being funny in the “political hellscape sh*t-show” we’re currently living in.
The panel, part of AMC Networks’ second annual summit event in New York, focused on the shifting limits of comedy in a redefined age of what is or isn’t appropriate, the new freedoms afforded by greater content options in the streaming era, and a defiance among diverse creators to make their own brave choices.
Tackling the “political hellscape” question, Joel Church-Cooper, executive producer of IFC’s series Brockmire, stressed the safe comedic value of “punching up. There are plenty of stupid, incompetent people in power,” he said. “Punching upwards is very safe territory. A lot of backlash is coming because jokes that used to fly 20 years ago don’t fly anymore for legitimate reasons. But as long as you’re punching up you’re in safe territory.”
Richard Kind, who co-stars on both Brockmire and the IFC mockumentary series Documentary Now!, decried the notion that social norms have put limits on comedy perceived as inappropriate, especially when it comes to the writers rooms on shows.
“I believe that in the writers room — some may call it locker room humor — but in the writers room, everything is safe,” he said. “There may be mistakes made, prejudices that come out of people’s mouths, they are tempered by each other, and then what comes out of the writers room is something that has been gone over by the writers and then makes it to America. Some really horrible stuff may lead to real brilliance.”
Sally Woodward Gentle, the executive producer who first optioned the novella that became Killing Eve, believes the same lack of boundaries must apply to writers rooms dominated by women. “There’s a sense that men can get away with certain things and women must have more decorum, and I find that really quite insulting and it’s just not true,” she said. “[Women are] filthy and f*cked up and inappropriate. We have men in our room, but in the end it’s these women giving amazing female actors voices. We’ve never self-censored.”
Bashir Salahuddin, co-creator and star of Sherman’s Showcase, which sends up variety shows such as Soul Train and Midnight Special (and premieres in July on IFC), spoke to the value of comedy in divisive times. “It’s a great way to find common ground,” he said. “If you find a way to laugh about it then we can talk about it….Life is tough and the idea that we can make people laugh about it I always felt was really important.”
With the question of whether new mores might lead to censorship in comedy — if it hasn’t already — the panelists were defiant that the present landscape offers more opportunity than ever before. Brockmire co-star Tawny Newsome, who also hosts the podcast Yo, Is This Racist? said, “It’s wild that half the industry sees this as a time of censorship, where I see it as a time where I finally have space….I feel today it’s more like, ‘Hey, I’m a disabled person or I’m a queer person, and these are the ways I like to talk about myself and tell my story. So please get on board with that.’ And we’re getting more space to do that.”
And it’s a creator’s responsibility, Church-Cooper says, to take advantage of that. “I don’t feel this is a time of censorship but of great expression,” he said. “If you’re a showrunner not thinking as ambitiously as possible, you’re insane.”