Autobiographical Comedy: The Good Kind of Reality TV

Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Mindy Kaling: Notice any similarities? We do too. As creators and stars of television shows modeled after their own lives, today’s comedy heavyweights suggest there might be some truth to the old maxim: write what you know. Of course, television comedies that straddle the gap between fiction and autobiography have been around for a while (our favorites: The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, The Cosby Show). But in the past few decades and in recent years especially, an unusually high number of America’s best-loved and most syndicated shows have drawn heavily on the real life experiences of their creators. Below, we take a look at some different ways the writers of these shows have managed to turn personal foibles into comedic fodder.

To begin to grasp the spectrum of realism that exists in autobiographical comedy today, we need look no farther than Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld. Curb Your Enthusiasm – whose first episode aired in 2000 – is Larry David’s solo venture into television following the successful completion of Seinfeld, which he co-created with comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Curb shares a distinctly similar sense of humor with its predecessor and as a one-hundred-percent reflection of David’s creative vision, the similarities retrospectively make his influence on Seinfeld much more apparent. The point where the two shows diverge most radically, perhaps, is in format. Whereas Seinfeld – with its scripted dialogue, laugh track, designed sets, and multi camera setup – makes the viewer constantly aware of the show’s status as sitcom, Curb sees David placing an emphasis on giving the show, at least on the surface, the feeling of reality. Many various elements of the show conspire to create this effect of realism. The camerawork mimics the aesthetic of documentary filmmaking. The dialogue is unscripted and improvised, based only on an outline. Everything is shot on location. And whereas in Seinfeld only Jerry plays a version of himself, in Curb many of the supporting characters play fictionalized versions of their actual selves along with Larry.

While constructing an aesthetic of reality is one of the primary goals of Curb, David also continually works to undermine it. Much of the show’s humor derives from its complex plot structures that often rely heavily on coincidence and circularity for resolution. The pleasure of watching Curb comes from the viewers’ anticipation of discovering how David’s copious narrative plants will be paid off and how storylines will collide. This aspect of the show’s structure calls attention to its impossibility. Life hardly ever works out cleanly, but in the Curb world, it does so every episode. What, then, is David’s purpose in combining a documentary style, designed to simulate realism, with a narrative complexity designed to call attention to the mechanics of the fictional storytelling craft?

The key here is that Curb creates only an illusion of reality, with the expectation that the audience never actually accepts it as real life. While the audience rightfully assumes similarity between Larry and “Larry,” it is clear that the character is merely a meta-fictional incarnation of the creator. While it is true that David puts himself at the center of the show’s universe, Curb is not about self-exploration or character growth. The “Larry” character is merely a vessel through which David can express his unique worldview as he reacts to other characters. In the real world, standards of social decency may prevent David from reacting the way he truly would to even the most minor social injustice. “Larry,” however, is unfiltered, and free to react completely honestly. By billing itself as reality, Curb wants the audience to think about how these situations relate to real life. The interplay between reality and absurdity sends the message that while coincidences may not happen in real life as frequently as they do to “Larry,” the important thing is that they theoretically could be real. By moving through a seemingly real world along with “Larry,” David shows the audience that reality can be that ridiculous when looked at the right way.

But what about equally popular comedy shows, like Girls and 30 Rock, in which the title characters are not quite so explicitly modeled after their creators? These shows, no less than Curb Your Enthusiasm, are also part of television’s turn towards autobiographical comedy, for the simple reason that they too rely on their creators’ personal life story for their comedic juice.

Girls and 30 Rock are built around the aura of a single persona with a distinct creative voice. A look at the conception of the two shows reveals how closely linked they are to their creators’ off-camera lives, despite the fact that in 30 Rock Tina Fey’s character is named Liz Lemon, and in Girls Lena Dunham’s character is named Hannah Horvath. Fey’s original pitch for a sitcom to NBC in 2002 was a pilot about a cable news producer. It was only after she took advice to draw from her own experience as head writer of Saturday Night Live that she devised the premise of 30 Rock – a sitcom about the head writer of a comedy sketch show, which NBC greenlit in 2006.

Dunham, on the other hand, agreed to join forces with producer Judd Apatow on an HBO pilot after making a splash at South by Southwest in 2010 with her film Tiny Furniture. This film featured herself in the title role of a Dunham-like character named Aura, and Dunham’s real life mother as Aura’s mother. The show that Dunham and Apatow developed together revolved around a recent college graduate and aspiring writer trying to find her footing in the world – a situation very similar to Dunham’s non-fictional life at the time she was writing Girls.

By tailoring her show to her specific worldview, Dunham, like Fey, has found a way to infuse fresh idiosyncrasy into stale network formulas. She has also provided herself with a cushion of employment security. As combined creator-writer-exec producer-lead actress (and in Dunham’s case, director) of their series, Fey and Dunham are emblematic of the rise in recent years of multi-hyphenate show-runners. Without their input, their shows couldn’t function – it would be impossible to fire Tina Fey from 30 Rock, or have a Girls episode without Lena Dunham. Their life experiences are their shows’ lifeblood.

Despite their roots in the real world, however, 30 Rock and Girls aren’t always as close to reality as we might think. For one thing, Dunham and Fey play somewhat inept versions of themselves when they are on-camera. While Liz Lemon writes for a struggling variety show, Fey’s real-life gig on SNL represents the cream of the crop of sketch comedy. Similarly, a trademark of Dunham’s is to cull awkward moments from her personal life and exaggerate them for laughs (or cringes) on Girls.

This strategy of enhancing ineptness – for male and female comedians alike – can be extremely appealing to viewers, as it makes characters relatable through vulnerability. While most of us aren’t head writers on a comedy show, we can laugh at Liz Lemon when she has to deal with an absurd request from a coworker, or when she makes one of her many romantic fumbles. Scores of Girls fans, meanwhile, say they watch Dunham’s show for how adroitly she captures the confusion of being a twentysomething with no clear idea of what to want from life.

Even shows that aren’t tied to the perspective of a single creator enhance their relatability when they invoke aspects of their writers’ biographies. Consider, for example, the teen comedy-drama Freaks and Geeks – an Apatow-produced series that became a cult hit after its first and only season was cancelled in 2000. One of the most commonly-cited fan responses as to why Freaks and Geeks attracted such a devout following is “it felt so real”– a statement probably explained by show creator Paul Feig’s encouragement of his writers to use their personal high school horror stories as episode plotlines. This dosage of reality helped keep the Freaks and Geeks characters honest, and the show’s fans loyal.

For all the ways in which autobiographical (and semi-autobiographical) comedy can keep a show relevant to audiences, it also has its dangers – to wit, when fans and critics start conflating fiction with reality.  Lena Dunham, for instance, frequently comes under fire for the assumption that many of Hannah’s flaws – her sense of entitlement, her self-absorption – are characteristics of Dunham herself. Indeed, given how intertwined Hannah’s life is with Dunham’s, it is difficult to determine where the character ends and where the person who created her begins. To our knowledge, 30 Rock does not receive these accusations – perhaps because, with its tendency to venture into absurdist comedic territory, it does not aspire to Girls’ realism. It is much easier to keep Liz Lemon and Tina Fey as separate personages in our heads.

An associated problem with drawing inspiration from real life is that writers can become lazy or narcissistic, to the point that their stories become too self-indulgent to be relatable to a wide audience. Again, Girls approaches this precipice more than 30 Rock, which skirts the issue because it is more obviously fictional.

That said, there are also many who praise Dunham for her storytelling candor, and it is here that we see one of the largest appeals of autobiographical comedy and perhaps, part of the reason its rise in popularity has come during this specific era: how it taps into our obsession with celebrity culture. In watching shows like Girls and 30 Rock, we feel closer to celebrities because we feel like we understand their everyday lives, even if it is a fictionalized version. Coinciding with the success of their shows, Dunham and Fey have provided mediums beyond the world of Girls and 30 Rock for viewers to get to know them. Dunham is a prolific Tweeter with well over a million followers, and both women are authors of bestselling biographies. Our television encounters with fictional and semi-fictional representations of funny people only feed our desire to learn more about them in real life.

 Our exploration of shows like Girls, 30 Rock, Curb and Seinfeld has taught us that invoking personal experience is a dynamic device that can be used, in various—potentially limitless—ways, to great comedic effect. Together these shows demonstrate that autobiographical comedy in fact exists along a gradient of reality, refreshing and revitalizing television comedy by keeping it real.