In honor of April Fools’, I’d like to celebrate the greatest prank of all: serious dramas that are, in reality, hilarious comedies.
But first, understand that I’m not disparaging these shows by suggesting they rebrand themselves. When I laugh out loud during Scandal, it’s not because the writing’s so dumb I can’t believe anyone would ever act that way; it’s because they’ve artfully created a world so over the top, with characters so flawed, that of course this is happening. What a wacky misunderstanding, what a short-sighted scheme, what a classic Fitz move.
Another thing I’m not disparaging is the name of comedy television, because believe me, I worship at its alter and forsake all other gods. To call season 3 of Heroes a comedy would be like calling season 4 of Community a comedy: a fucking slap to the face.
The following shows are all effective comedies — even the ones that don’t know it yet. (Obvious warning: huge spoilers ahead!)
HOUSE M.D. (8 seasons, Fox)
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I nearly left House M.D. off the list because a friend and I had a hard time making the case for it being a drama at all. Still, I think the casual viewer would call it a drama (simply because they’re not following the bigger plot).
Dialogue: Gregory House is know for his trademark wit, always with something snarking to say in even the most serious moments. I’ve rewatched all the episodes, and the dialogue is packed with jokes.
Characters: A casual viewer might not realize that all the characters are shockingly consistent and pathologically flawed. The final episode has each one eulogizing House and it is, sincerely, one of the best character comedy scenes I’ve ever seen. Foreman’s eulogy for House is that they worked together, full stop. Cameron, who went on one date with House, follows his wife and his ex-girlfriend to say that she believes deep down he knew how to love in a way only she could see. Thirteen gets up in front of a crowd of people — including House’s mother — to declare without context that House promised to kill her. It’s brilliant.
Format: Procedurals follow the same structure as sitcoms: a problem arises and gets as bad as it possibly can before the happy resolution, when everything returns to its status quo. For this reason, the show can do things like have the characters commit murder, then just get on with the next case.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: Cameron does speed. Cuddy steals a baby. Taub knocks up two women at the same time. Chase murders someone because House takes a week off. The only reason House doesn’t go to jail in season 3 is because a judge is all, “What the fuck has even been going on here? Did any of you look up what laws are?” Wilson keeps trying to give away his organs. In one episode, the reveal is that a woman has secretly been poisoning her husband with gold — gold she gets past security by storing in her vagina (nature’s pocket, as Ilana Wexler would say). At one point, House starts having prophetic dreams that are never seriously addressed again. And at the end of its run, they say fuck it and take a hard stance on magic being real.
Funniest season: Season 2 goes for it in a way few shows even dare to dream. “Skin Deep” to “House vs God” is maybe the most perfect comedy run to exist on an hour-long show; the nonstop crazy train only ends because of a dramatic two-parter literally about laughing into madness.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: Scrubs, Nurse Jackie, Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23’s helpless-friend-to-a-maniac dynamic, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s shamelessness. A Bit of Fry and Laurie, but that one’s cheating.
MAD MEN (6+ seasons, AMC)
I got into a fight once because I called Mad Men the best comedy on TV and refused to admit that it also being the best drama negated that. Mad Men has all the appearances of a thoughtful, classy drama — and it is, but it’s also a workplace sitcom. As the show moves past the stiff feel of the post-50s to the more surreal pre-70s, it really opens itself up for crazy comedy bits.
Dialogue: With writing this sharp, you better believe every joke lands.
Characters: Obviously good writing is a factor here as well; everyone is so fleshed out that Ginsberg, Stan, Roger, and Meredith can all be comic relief in completely different ways. Mostly, though, it’s all about Pete Campbell, one of the finest comedic characters you’ll ever find.
Dramatic irony: There are three levels of dramatic irony in Mad Men: 1. The use of the past for a future audience, like smoking doctors and Don saying he sees himself in Richard Nixon. 2. Don Draper’s whole life is a rouse and we (and him) are the only ones who know this. 3. On rewatch, all the secrets no one addresses until years later are totally obvious.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: A season long “I didn’t know I was pregnant” gag. Paul joins a cult. Betty picks up her husband while she’s eight months pregnant. Betty’s fat-suit season. The second secret baby. Harry Hamlin gives everyone in the office speed and Ken Cosgrove tap dances. Whatever’s going on with Gene Bishop. Peggy stabs her boyfriend in a Hamlet-style mix-up. Kurt Smith’s iconic coming out scene. During a business trip to California, Don just joins a pack of hippies and abandon’s Pete in LA. Lane Pryce gets into fisticuffs with Pete. Pete’s targeted by a sociopathic gay grifter. Both of Pete Campbell’s parents are eaten by sharks in unrelated incidents. Pete Campbell.
Funniest season: Season 6, by far, for having “The Crash,” Bob Benson, and Don’s breakdown during the Hershey’s pitch. For a season that started with the “Divine Comedy,” it sure was a funny tragedy.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: Archer, 30 Rock
GOSSIP GIRL (6 seasons, The CW)
Gossip Girl used to be one of my favorite sci-fi shows, but with 20/20 hindsight, it’s now one of my favorite comedies. Don’t get me wrong — you still need to watch it the first time knowing it’s dystopian science fiction about a society of people completely different from you and me, all of whom have unlimited wealth and beauty but are under constant Orwellian surveillance. If the final shot of Gossip Girl revealed that they’d all been living in a model NYC replica and used as lab rats by giant alien forces, that would’ve made perfect sense with the way the show played out. Instead, the final reveal makes it a comedy: Dan is Gossip Girl. And the once compelling coming-of-age-while-being-held-to-impossible-standards story switches to pure camp-fun satire, like Evelyn Waugh writing a three-camera sitcom. Two shows in one!
Dramatic irony: XOXO Gossip Dan
Plot: 90% of this show is improbable farce with no actual consequences.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: Nate’s given an internship at a newspaper so the editor can bang him during work hours, and he legitimately gets college credit out of it. Related: Nate bases his whole career on thinking that banging an editor and his grandfather buying him a newspaper equal a journalism degree. Rufus marries Lisa Loeb, I guess. The whole Ivy Dickens/Charlie Rhodes comedy of errors. Nate repeatedly and accidentally becomes a prostitute. High-school sweethearts Dan and Serena share a blood sibling. Chuck Bass pays people to beat him up in alleys. If you ever get the chance to freeze frame on Dan’s writing, it’s a real treat. Serena van der Woodsen is so blindly trusting she once forgives a stranger for intentionally trying to murder her. Blair accidentally gets a prince to fall in love with her. Lily switches legal husbands because Rufus is annoying her that week. The power-plays on the show are sitcom-hijinx plans that happen to destroy people’s lives and reputations. Kristen Bell literally winks at the camera. DAN IS GOSSIP GIRL.
Funniest season: Season 6 is when they just lean into not being an actual drama anymore. Season 1 has the best dramatic irony, though.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: Clone High, Don’t Trust the B- in Apartment 23, How I Met Your Mother because it sacrifices the female characters for terrible romantic plotlines and turns likable cads into disgusting monsters.
SCANDAL (3+ seasons, ABC)
The difference between Scandal and Gossip Girl is that Scandal is much more ridiculous. Ergo: comedy.
Plot: 90% of this show is improbable farce with no actual consequences.
Characters: Fitz thinks he’s important.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: Jesus, everything. President Fitzgerald Grant gets elected to the White House without learning that there are cameras in the Oval Office. Cyrus steals a baby. All the candidates in the upcoming election are murderers. A woman named Quinn Perkins is in a love triangle between two hit men. Cyrus tells Olivia this week that she can’t go home to cry because he’s going home to cry and someone needs to run the country. The only food Olivia has in her house is wine and popcorn. Fitz is so bad at everything besides sex with Olivia that it is nearly endearing, but mostly annoying. The political power-plays on this show are basically Will & Grace plotlines, but on a national scale.
Funniest season: Season 3 is the year I caved and started livetweeting, but it hit the ground running in season 1 and hasn’t quit.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: Veep, Frisky Dingo’s insanity, Cougar Town’s wine intake, crazy plans as thought out as the ones on Will & Grace or Kenan & Kel.
GAME OF THRONES (3+ seasons, HBO)
via winter is coming
Here’s my problem with Game of Thrones, and I believe this is a common one: I read the books. I watched season 1 and loved it. I even thought Littlefinger was a good villain! Then I read the books and I was forever ruined by knowing what the well thought-out version of those characters and events are. Thus, Game of Thrones is very much an A Song of Ice and Fire parody to me. Which is fine, I love parody. This is also yet another show where people’s lives are a series of intricate and ridiculous schemes, and they’re all so rich and powerful that they’re comically out of touch and narcissistic. Karen Walker or GOB Bluth could walk right into Kings Landing and remain unchanged.
Dialogue: Tyrion Lannister: sass master
Dramatic irony: Be it the Lannister’s incest hijinx or the knowledge that none of this really matters because ice zombies, there’s always something you know that the characters don’t.
Characters: Theon Greyjoy and Stannis Baratheon both think they’re actual rulers. As a matter of fact, half this show is just incompetent arrogant people, which is good comedy in my book.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: Twincest! Tossing kids out of windows. Telling us there are ice zombies, then dropping it for years. This is the show that popularized the term sexposition. Tyrion Lannister: sass master. And that’s all from the pilot! Usually, though, it’s not what happens so much as that it’s happening with five naked prostitutes in the background and Littlefinger winking to the camera.
Funniest Season: Like Scandal, season 3 is where I gave up on taking it seriously, but that was more the result of inevitability than a change in content.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: In many ways, my senior thesis was an argument that Game of Thrones = Archer + Arrested Development + swords. Also Black Adder.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (4 seasons, Sci Fi/Syfy Channel)
Of all the shows on this list, Battlestar is the show where I will most readily admit that I am laughing to keep from crying. So protect your psyche from thinking too hard about the end of all human life or the brutalities of war, and join me in the delusion that this whole thing is a big misunderstanding.
Dramatic irony/characters: Gaius Baltar’s head!girlfriend, Kara and Lee never admitting they want to bang, Boomer/Athena’s cylon secret
Laugh to keep from crying: Yup.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: Gaius Baltar. Lee Adama accidentally becomes president because of Mark Shepard’s dead cat. Gaius Baltar. Kara Thrace is a pigeon. Lee Adama’s fat-suit. Kara Thrace and her special destiny. I dare you to think about “Black Market” with a straight face. Everyone’s a robot. Everyone’s having sex with each other. Improbably naive Helo. The president steals a baby, which isn’t very funny but seems like the natural progression of the rest of this list. Gaius Baltar: hand of god, cult leader, farm boy with a fake accent, smartest human man alive.
Funniest season: Season 1 is the most lighthearted and has classic prank/Pascal’s Wager six degrees of separations.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: Veep, The Venture Bros.’ sci fi hopelessness, Futurama if you’re just here for people in spaceships banging robots (I certainly am)
ANGEL THE SERIES (5 seasons, The WB)
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Angel the Series set out to be the darker, grittier, more mature sibling to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course, sometimes maturity means openly admitting you have no idea what you’re doing. Unlike an unfaltering classic hero like Buffy Summers, with her wise mentor and unspeakably powerful best friend, AtS gets the cast-off heroes. Angel the Series is embodied perfectly in Angel the character: often brooding, terrifying, inspiring, complex, and thoughtful, but most of the time silly and just looking to punch someone through a wall.
Dialogue: It’s a Joss Whedon show.
Characters: The stakes are high and the writing’s good, but the fact of the matter is as follows: Angel‘s a serious show with sitcom characters. Angel is a detective without a high-school diploma. Cordelia’s a rich-girl actress who happens to have visions. Wesley basically gets Angel to pity hire him after being deemed too incompetent to be a Watcher. Gunn might have the most dramatic backstory, but you’d never know it by his jokes and optimism. Fred’s a “quirky girl” who says whatever she’s thinking and loves waffles. Lorne is an ambiguously gay lounge singer. Harmony Kendall becomes a regular.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: A Hamburger God tells Wesley to kill Angel’s son. The gang ends world peace. The unspeakable hell god brought back at a terrifying price becomes the weird girl trying to bang Wesley. Lindsey McDonald’s life and choices. The world-saving detective agency hires a full-time lounge singer because why not. “Lawyers are literally evil” is actually the Big Bad concept of the show. A tree uses internet dating to lure people to the park to kill them. Actual important plot point: Angel can’t have good sex anymore. You know what, guys, I sincerely love the workplace comedy of season 5.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: Misfits, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, The Venture Bros., Rick & Morty. Also, toss in some Always Sunny.
HANNIBAL (2+ seasons, NBC)
If you only watch Hannibal, you might not realize how funny it is. Luckily for the rest of us, there is the internet. I’ve never seen a fandom embrace the switching of a show’s genre so heartily. In fact, it would be easy to go on fan sites and never realize this show’s billed as a drama at all.
Dramatic irony: 100% of the comedy of Hannibal is the dramatic irony of us knowing Hannibal is The Hannibal Lector, Cannibal Killer, while no one on the show has the faintest clue. This gives us a never-ending supply of hilarious scenes: Hannibal saying outright that he’s a cannibal, Jack Crawford telling Hannibal he’s a good friend, people telling Will he’s paranoid, Abigail Hobbs being so happy to finally have a father figure who doesn’t feed her human meat without her knowledge, Hannibal not getting why Will is upset with him, Hannibal not getting why Will isn’t impressed with the murder killing in his name, Freddie Lounds smugly eating salad as Hannibal looks on annoyed, Hannibal telling patients they’re in a safe space, etc., etc.
Some of the most unintentionally hilarious dramatic plot turns: I covered most above, but Will Graham also gets another serial killer obsessed with him, and that guy shoots Hannibal with a tranquilizer gun while they’re both in speedos. So that one’s less about dramatic irony and more “why is every guy I attract the literal worst?” Relatable!
Funniest season: So far season 1, before shit gets too real. Season 2 is based on the giant misunderstanding that Will is guilty, though, so it might catch up.
“Legitimate” comedies it most reminds me of: Will Graham is forever the Dib to Hannibal’s Zim. Also, I wish this were in the style of The Office, so Hannibal could actually make a Jim face at the camera like you know he wants to.
These are, in my opinion, the best unacknowledged hour-long comedies out there. So, in honor of April Fools, don’t take things at face value. Really consider: Is this network pranking me?
Sara has a degree in television and a fear of squirrels (unrelated). Follow her thrilling saga on Twitter @binaryfission.