“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,” goes the old show-business trope popularized by Jack Lemmon.
But four current comedies brilliantly offer some serious chills and thrills along with out-loud laughs in a heady mix that often leads lesser filmmakers to fail miserably. These shows make it look easy, but it really isn’t.
4. Killing Eve (AMC/BBC)
Thrills to comedy ratio: 75/25
Killing Eve is a slam-bang thriller about Eve Polastri, a workaday deskbound female MI-6 analyst (Sandra Oh) tracking down Villanelle, a flamboyant female assassin (Jodie Comer of The White Queen). If you just view it as a straight-up thriller, you may find yourself rolling your eyes at various improbabilities. If you view it as primarily a comedy, it’s a riot—and, oddly enough, that also makes it more thrilling.
Of course, we get the hunter-becomes-the-hunted trope that all thrillers trot out—but in how many of them do we suspect the villain is in love with the hero?
Both actresses are superb. Oh plays her role straight up, and is convincingly terrified and horrified when in danger, while Comer has an absolute blast as the psychopathic assassin who jealously covets the attention of her pursuer.
And if a wounded Villanelle making her escape through France clad in colorful cartoon-filled children’s pajamas from the hospital with “Wham! Blam! and Bam!” on them doesn’t tickle your funny bone, then this isn’t the series for you.
Oh, and just for future reference, don’t ever tell a psychopathic killer who has taken a shine to you that you are in despair and would rather just die.
3. The Santa Clarita Diet (Netflix)
Thrills to comedy ratio: 20/80
Husbands don’t get more devoted than Joel Hammond (Timothy Olyphant) an Orange County realtor whose wife and business partner Shelia (Drew Barrymore) has become a member of the undead. He swings into action, covering up the results of her new appetites, fighting zombie hunters, and even finding her Nazis to eat.
Season 3 finds the Hammonds going into business for themselves (that way they control their lunch breaks) and even employing the disembodied head of former louse — and Shelia’s first victim — Gary (Nathan Fillon) as their receptionist, complete with a headset.
But when Shelia suggests that a little nip from her would make “til’ death do us part” redundant, Joel finally starts having some second thoughts.
This send-up of Spielbergian suburbia showed no sign of slowing down before Netflix’s abrupt announcement that there would be no Season 4. It’s a shame there won’t be more, but it was a deliciously fun three seasons.
2. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Thrills to comedy ratio: 10/90
What We Do in the Shadows is a half-hour FX spin-off of Jemaine Clement’s (Flight of the Conchords) brilliantly droll 2014 cult favorite film with the same title about some down-in-the-mouth medieval vampires hiding out in suburban New Zealand.
Other than switching the locale to deadly dull Staten Island (essentially the borough of New York City where people go to get good views of interesting parts of NYC, like the Statue of Liberty or the Manhattan skyline) the TV version plays out like a continuation of the film. And with Clement at the helm, it’s just as good.
Whether it’s the vampires announcing their plans for domination at a Staten Island City Council meeting to stone-faced bureaucrats used to humoring crazy people, or the running gag that the best place to find virgins (the vampires’ favorite delicacy) is at live role-playing game events, What We Do in the Shadows rarely misses an attempt at our funny bones.
Thus far, the pattern of the show is to induce chuckles along the way, leading up to a climactic screamingly funny climax—my favorite so far being the conclusion of a showdown between vampires and werewolves that is borrowed directly from an old Warner Brothers cartoon gag, yet totally unexpected and evincing… ahem… howls of laughter.
Shadows might not be to everyone’s…taste, but if the trailers look at all good to you, then you are the intended audience.
1. Barry (HBO)
Thrills to comedy ratio: 50/50
Barry (Bill Hader) is a contract killer who is sent to Los Angeles by his handler Fuches (Stephen Root) to kill an aspiring actor. While stalking his target, Barry becomes obsessed with the acting class the man is taking taught by over-the-hill actor Gene Cousineau (a hilariously pretentious Henry Winkler).
He also becomes entangled with a Chechen mobster, NoHo Hank, who worships Barry’s prowess with firearms, and an attractive actress in taking Cousineau’s class.
There have been lots of movies about moviemaking and the craft of acting, but very few are as unsparing as this one, as seemingly everyone in the class is desperate to learn how to be someone else to escape their own screwed up lives.
Of course, Cousineau is always exhorting his students to dig deep into their own pain in order to be better actors.
“Am I evil?” Barry dejectedly asks his Chechen gangster employer after a particularly soul-searching acting exercise.
“Absolutely!” Hank says brightly, “Aw, do I not tell you this enough?”
Bill Hader is a revelation in the title role, while Henry Winkler and Anthony Carrigan seem to be having a ball. Check out Barry. You will, too.