Sadness as a device for comedy shows has a rich pedigree in the 21st century. From The Office’s portrayal of dead-end office jobs in Slough, to the way It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has one of its main comedic devices being the destruction of many of both the main and recurring cast’s lives, recent years have seen sadness and drama and destruction and misery being used more and more frequently within comedy.
Then, in 2014, along comes BoJack Horseman. The animated comedy, centred around an anthropomorphic horse, took sadness in comedy and pushed it to the extreme.
BoJack Horseman’s title character is a former sitcom actor who has, in the time since his sitcom was cancelled, become a washed up actor with a drinking problem in Hollywood.
Despite the first half of the first season being met with mixed responses, the show has been critically acclaimed ever since. There’s a simple reason for this – the show does something that nearly no other comedies do. It takes everything that happens in previous episodes and makes sure they mean something in future episodes, with a full-flowing narrative going through every season. There are throwaway jokes that you laugh at, but then realise 2 episodes later that the joke wasn’t throwaway, it was there for a reason, it had a purpose. Everything has a purpose. Every character, no matter how small their role, feels like they’ve had a decent amount of development to them.
But I digress, back to sadness in comedy. The thing that keeps BoJack Horseman in a league of its own is that it will take any subject that affects humanity and society today and will make it into a joke. There are jokes about drug abuse, about alcoholism, about depression, about mental health issues, about loneliness, about sex addiction, about asexuality, about sexism, about existential dread. BoJack struggles through every episode, trying to make himself a better person but always failing, always feeling worse, always feeling like a lost cause.
BoJack’s descent further into his alcoholism, into his drug abuse, and into his loneliness is heartbreaking, but at the same time the way the show constructs jokes around this makes you laugh, leaving you with an odd feeling between sadness and happiness, where you can see BoJack falling, you can relate to his struggle, but you still can’t help but laugh.
And BoJack’s struggle isn’t the only way the show presents sadness, as all the other characters are similarly struggling. Todd’s struggle is with his identity and trying to find meaning in his life. Princess Carolyn is struggling with professional concerns and feeling she can’t progress any more in her career, as well as struggling with maintaining her friendship with BoJack. Diane’s struggle is with not feeling like a fraud, with doing something important. Even Mr Peanutbutter, the show’s most upbeat character, has to struggle with everyone viewing him as a joke and not taking him seriously, as shown in the few times when Mr Peanutbutter gets serious. Every character has struggles, and every viewer can relate to the struggle.
Overall, BoJack Horseman isn’t just the first show to use true, unabashed sadness in comedy, it’s also the show which most well examines the human condition. Not bad for a cartoon horse.
Image credit: FLOOD Magazine