When the hit show about a restaurant swept last night’s awards, many wondered why it was rewarded as a comedy, not a drama. Is it a blow for “traditional” comedy?
In general, last night’s Emmy Awards passed without too much controversy, with the gongs going to obviously deserving winners – critically-adored shows like Succession, The Bear, Beef and Abbott Elementary.
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But were they recognised in the correct categories? That was the night’s key point of contention when it came to The Bear, the hit FX show about the workings of a Chicago restaurant, which went home with six awards in the comedy categories, including best comedy series, lead actor in a comedy series (Jeremy Allen White), supporting actor in a comedy series (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and supporting actress in a comedy series (Ayo Edebiri).
Over on social media, many viewers of the show, even die-hard Bear fans, seemed to be adamant that there had been some mistake – for the simple reason that they did not consider The Bear to be a comedy at all. Writing on X, one person said: “I LOVE it, viscerally, but it’s NOT A COMEDY and these achievements are unjust, to both the show itself and to other comedy nominees… it’s straight drama”, while another added: “The Bear is a phenomenal show but it is not a comedy. It is a drama, that has funny moments.”
While the first season of the show (which was up for nomination because of the Emmys being delayed from 2023) did indeed have some comedic moments – most notably the Xanax-spiked kids party, inflatable hot-dog wrestling and any scene with Fak (Matty Matheson) in – anyone who watched the boiling-pot of an episode, Review, or followed Sydney’s (Ayo Edebiri) struggle to find her place and voice in the kitchen throughout the series will have no doubts: this is a drama.
Is the out-and-out comedy – with its clearly-written jokes and genuine laugh-out-loud moments – losing out?
The show deals with issues of loss, grief, anxiety, identity and stress, and while, like in life itself, there are obviously moments of humorous levity within all this, you sense that comedy, and making people laugh, isn’t the prevailing reason why creator Christopher Storer devised this series.
The irony is that the night’s best drama series winner, Succession, arguably has far more laugh-out-loud moments, which led to Vanity Fair interestingly dubbing it “not an American drama, but a British comedy”. Indeed, in a reverse criticism of that applied to The Bear’s categorisation, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk commented in 2019 about Succession’s Emmy nominations that it was “weird to see [it] nominated as a drama, because, in so many ways, Succession is a comedy“. It was only as the series’ world-building progressed that it became more obviously a drama.
Why has it been categorised this way?
So why has The Bear been classified as a comedy? Perhaps, some have claimed, it was a strategic move on its producers’ part, the suggestion being that it had better chances in the comedy categories. As Screen Rant theorised ahead of Monday’s ceremony: “Opting to focus on their secondary genre increases the chances of The Bear’s success. Not only could the crowd be a little thinner in the comedy pool, but The Bear’s dramatic edge gives it an even greater advantage regarding how much it stands out from its competitors.”
The divisions between comedy and drama categorisation at the Emmys have looked increasingly tenuous: in 2015, the Television Academy (the organisation behind the Emmys) automatically and somewhat spuriously placed any show that clocks in at or under 30 minutes in the comedy category, and any show longer than that in drama. But in 2021, this all changed again when the Academy announced that they would no longer take into consideration a show’s running time when categorising it as a drama or comedy, instead allowing shows’ producers to position themselves in whatever sector they saw fit. If the rationale behind The Bear’s genre placement was a tactical one, then it certainly worked.
But was The Bear’s placement to the detriment of other more “traditional”, or obviously funny, comedies, like Abbott Elementary, Ted Lasso or Jury Duty, some of the fellow comedy nominees that lost out to The Bear this year? Possibly – and the reason some would say that matters beyond the Emmys is that it raises the question of how we view and appreciate comedy, perhaps the most subjective of all the genres. TV comedy has certainly gone through many fashions over the decades, from the half-hour studio sitcoms of yore to cringe-comedy mockumentary-style shows, to recently, more disparate, surreal series studded with flashes of comedy but far less easy to categorise, shows like Atlanta (which also picked up Emmys in the Comedy category), The Rehearsal, or, finishing just this month, The Curse. But, amid all this, is the out-and-out comedy – with its clearly-written jokes and genuine laugh-out-loud moments – losing out?
Or perhaps trying to split comedies and dramas is increasingly a fool’s errand, and awards should do away with these divisions entirely. As The Bear star Ebon Moss-Bachrach eloquently put it in last night’s winners’ press conference: “I feel like these ideas about comedy and drama are a little bit outdated… We’re all just trying to reflect the mess of being human which is deeply hilarious, and we’re all suffering.”
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