“Smarter Audiences” Is Not the Reason Niche Comedy Thrives on TV

A tale of two series

In my media studies class, I repeat to my students, “context, context, context!” I do this because they need to see TV shows, films, and music within the media ecosystems in which they are created, distributed, and received. These forms of media are, I want them to know, not created in a vacuum.

Before a recent class, I read an “obituary” for IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang (2012–16). In it, pop culture critic Nathan Rabin explains why this particular “comedy geek” series lasted for 110 episodes while similar niche series of the past, like FOX’s The Ben Stiller Show (1992–93), were cancelled so quickly. Ultimately, Rabin argues,

the comedy hasn’t necessarily changed, but the audiences got smarter and more comedy savvy.

This argument — that today’s audiences are smarter than those of the past — keeps popping up in pop culture analyses. It explains everything from the cancellation of past critically acclaimed TV series to the complexity of more recent shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Tony Goldwyn talks about it. Even Bill Gates talks about it.

However, what we generally find with this claim is either the numbers don’t add up or the authors fail to take into consideration the context in which these shows are airing.

The Ben Stiller Show. One of many FOX shows gone too soon (RIP, FIREFLY.)

While Rabin takes into account some changes in the media landscape between 1993 and 2012, he does so by way of discussing the explosion of podcasts in which comics pontificate on all manner of craft and the mechanics of comedy. Such podcasts, he argues, have primed audiences to understand and enjoy TV shows like Comedy Bang Bang in ways they may have not pre-podcast boom.

While there may be some truth in this explanation, there have been “comedy nerds” — or what we think of as the modern version of the comedy enthusiast — going back at least to the release of Mort Sahl’s first comedy album in 1958 and the popularization of comedy records that followed.

Moreover, there have been analyses breaking down the craft of humor and comedy since at least Aristotle’s Poetics. The current interest in comedy podcasting and the intricasies of stand-up are just the most current incarnation of our fascination with humor.

Mort Sahl with Ed Sullivan, 1960. Wikipedia.

I would submit what lead to Comedy Bang Bang’s five-season long run isn’t a change in audience as it is a change in television.

In fact, the “audience argument” doesn’t even bear out if you look at the numbers. Vulture reports that Comedy Bang Bang’s first season averaged 122,000 viewers on IFC. A USA Today article from Spring 1993 shows that while The Ben Stiller Show came in last place for the week with a 3.6 rating, this means it beats Comedy Bang Bang’s average handily with roughly 5 million viewers (it took me longer than it should have to find this number). The reason Comedy Bang Bang has lasted longer than The Ben Stiller Show is not that more people have found their “inner comedy geek” over the past 20 years.

Let’s get back to context, shall we?

The television landscape is remarkably different than it was in 1992. In 2016, a cable network like IFC doesn’t need to find as big of an audience as a broadcast network like FOX to make money. Even more to the point, thanks to an increasing number of available outlets on TV and online, narrowcasting, niche branding, and a change in the types of revenue streams that networks rely on for profit, IFC in 2016 needs to find a much smaller audience than FOX in 1992 in order for a series to be “successful.”

Maybe comedy geeks appear more culturally relevant in 2016 than they were in 1992. But that is, in part, because major changes in technology, production, distribution, and viewer practices have given all manner of geeks and fans leverage as a highly valuable and sought-after audiences.

Scott Aukerman and Reggie Watts on IFC’s Comedy Bang Bang. Hilariously finger guns-ing at each other.

The claim “today’s audiences are smarter than they used to be” makes invisible industry changes, cultural shifts, and economic realities that go a long way toward explaining why a show that aired 20 years ago might have a different fate than a similar show airing in 2016. Again, The Ben Stiller Show cannot be understood in terms of Comedy Bang Bang because the shows by themselves do not paint a full picture of how they functioned within their own unique contexts.

As benign as one (arguably misleading) article about an IFC show may be, pop culture criticism as a whole would benefit from digging more deeply into industrial and cultural contexts, as professors Kristen Warner and Amanda Ann Klein recently explained. Such consideration to detail would not only provide more nuanced critiques of media, but it would also help develop the media literacy of thousands of readers, my students included.