Recently it was announced that Seth MacFarlane is going to be starring in a new sci-fi comedy show called The Orville. The trailer shows that it is very clearly modelled after Star Trek and has a few good gags. However, history has shown that sci-fi comedy on TV has been a difficult genre to be successful in.
I think you can count the number of successful sci-fi comedies on the fingers of one hand. Red Dwarf, Futurama, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Mork and Mindy and Third Rock From the Sun are the names that immediately spring to mind. I would even argue that those last two only get in on a technicality but I’ll get into that in a moment.
So what is it that makes those sci-fi comedies successful when other have failed? This is something I have given some consideration. While I’m not always a fan of explaining why something is or isn’t funny, as humour is very subjective, I think in this case it is something worth examining as it’s become a subgenre that is notoriously hard to get right. The success or failure of The Orville may well come down to the show not making the same mistakes as some its predecessors.
Firstly I’ll address why for the sake of this piece I’m discounting Mork and Mindy and Third Rock From the Sun. These are both examples of fish out of water comedies. Indeed TV Tropes counts it as an entire subgenre of the fish out of water trope which they call aliens among us. The sci-fi elements are in the setup of the premise but they are based around the comedy of misunderstanding and farce. That isn’t to say that they are not funny shows but for all that they contain aliens in them the settings are contemporary and domestic which isn’t what is being examined here.
The question a lot of nascent sci-fi comedy struggles with is who they are intended for. If it is a parody of something that exists then at least a passing familiarity with the source material or its tropes will be necessary in order for it to work. I have always felt that a good parody should be made with affection for the source material. Basing a parody on the premise of sci-fi back in the day looking a bit ropey isn’t enough of a foundation, it needs something more than just pointing at laughing at old TV going “Didn’t this look shit!”. For instance Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace revels in how shonky it looks but has the added element of the eponymous writer/director/star being utterly convinced of the fact that he has created transcendent high art that to this day remains unappreciated.
The best sci-fi comedies don’t set out to mock other sci-fi but create their own worlds to tell stories. Red Dwarf at its best is a fully functioning sci-fi universe in its own right. It tries to tell original science fiction stories but looks for the humor rather than the drama. For instance the series 2 episode Thanks for the Memory has, at its core, a sci-fi concept which is as serious an examination of what our memories make us as anything by Philip K Dick. A drunk Dave Lister, looking to cheer up an even drunker and miserable Arnold Rimmer, edits the hologram’s memory to include a passionate relationship of his own past. Rimmer promptly falls in love with the memory of Lise Yates and is subsequently devastated to learn that the woman he thought loved him loved Lister instead. If you stripped away the jokes from that it would work just as well as a serious sci-fi story. That isn’t laughing at sci-fi it is taking a uniquely sci-fi idea and then using it to make you laugh. Red Dwarf is chock full of interesting and original sci-fi concepts. One of the reasons that a lot of these concepts feel so original is that they have been specifically created to be funny. In the most recent series the episode Officer Rimmer introduces the idea of a 3D printed crew mainly so they can show what happens to the Captain when the printer jams. That is a great example of taking a good sci-fi idea and then extrapolating something funny from it.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a universe that is totally absurd but functions within the rules it has created to the point that even the oddest little things seem to have been properly thought out. The Babel fish could just have been a quick throwaway gag to handwave how everyone speaks English. Instead these is an entire entry about it in the guide which not only gives a full scientific explanation as to how it works but places the creature in a wider philosophical and sociopolitical context. If anything it does the opposite of Red Dwarf in that it takes very silly ideas and makes them appear scientifically plausible. Adams revels in the idea that maths can be silly. Both the infinite improbability drive and bistromathics propel ships via the medium mathematical nonsense yet are explained with the same straight faced seriousness as complex quantum physics. Hitchhiker’s is sci-fi comedy that often makes science itself the joke in a way that no one else has quite managed since.
Something that all the successful sci-fi comedies get right is characterisation. So many sitcoms seem to believe that long as there is a constant stream of jokes then characterisation isn’t important. What the good ones understand is that an inherently amusing situation is made even funnier when the character it is happening to is well defined to the point where the viewer has a good idea how they will react. Having a civilisation of tiny people worship the person they are growing on as a God is funny. Having that person be Bender from Futurama is funnier because you’re familiar enough with character to know that he is going to irresponsibly exploit the situation and things will get out of control. Both writers and audience know this, all that remains is to show exactly how.
Good sitcom characters need to be just as rounded as those in drama. If the characters exists for one joke they shouldn’t be there. This is why I have my reservations about the alien in The Orville who comes from an all male civilisation. If variations of the same joke are all that character brings that could get very stale very fast. Good sitcoms need to have central characters that feel like real people. Not necessarily people you would ever want to meet but they should have layers to them. Good character comedy combined with strong plots and funny ideas are the fundamental structure of a successful sitcom regardless of genre.
I would like to see The Orville do well if only because it has been too long since we had new, space based sci-fi sitcom that was actually good. Books like Space Danger and films like Galaxy Quest have shown that comedy and space can mix but TV still struggles to pull it off. I, ironically, take my comedy seriously and the current generation deserves a good sci-fi sitcom of its own. Whether The Orville proves to be it or not remains to be seen.