Launching today (May 20) on Netflix is Lady Dynamite, a new sitcom from acclaimed stand-up Maria Bamford about the real-life mental breakdown she suffered in 2011. Jokes about psychiatric hospitals, the ups and downs of bipolar disorder: it’s all in there.
It’s the latest in a genre that could be described as comedy noir. While some shows are about friends, family life, or the regulars at a local bar, and some shows, famously, are about nothing, others delve into subjects that on the surface don’t seem funny at all—unless you have a particularly dark sense of humor, that is.
Does that sound like you? Then here are the shows that prove everything is funny, depending on how you look at it.
1. Flowers (2016, Channel 4/SeeSo)
This brilliant new British sitcom about the dysfunctional Flowers family stars The Mighty Boosh‘s Julian Barratt and Broadchurch and The Night Manager‘s Olivia Colman. Almost everyone in the family has a secret, and those secrets tackle tricky subjects such as sexuality, natural disasters, and even suicide.
Have we managed to sell it yet? It’s also quirky and funny as hell, without losing any of its sensitivity. Quite a feat to pull off.
2. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015 -, The CW)
No one bursts into spontaneous song when they’re sad, right? Wrong. Sometimes they do it because they’re crazy.
That’s the case with Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), who tips her Prozac down the sink and follows her ex-boyfriend to southern California in the firm belief it’s what’ll finally make her happy. Yes, it’s dark, and yes, it’s unsettling, but it’s also like nothing else on TV, because every now and then the whole cast breaks out into song and dance numbers that parody everything from Bollywood and Fred Astaire to boybands and R&B music videos.
Don’t assume from the show’s title that this show doesn’t take the issue of mental illness seriously, however. “The title ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ is meant to be a deconstruction of a stereotype,” the show’s Golden Globe-winning star Rebecca Bloom told Salon last year, “and the whole show is about deconstructing the boxes that we’re supposed to be put into.”
3. You’re the Worst (2014 -, FX)
Self-involved much? This series hits gross and sometimes taboo behavior head-on in its depiction of modern relationships in all their gory detail. There’s narcissistic Jimmy (Chris Geere) and self-destructive Gretchen (Aya Cash), who attempt to navigate the pitfalls of dating together, while Lindsey (Kether Donaghue) and Paul (Allan McLeod) endure a loveless marriage.
If anything, season two got even darker, delving into the clinical depression that almost all the characters suffer some form of, and dealing with Jimmy’s roommate Edgar (Desmin Borges) and the impact of his PTSD, without losing any of its edgy humor. A third season is due in the fall.
4. Enlightened (2011-13, HBO)
Don’t say “breakdown”, say “breakthrough.” Laura Dern won a Golden Globe for her performance as Amy Jellicoe, an executive who tries desperately to get her life back together after a breakup and the subsequent implosion of her professional life in a scene reminiscent of something out of The Shining (though it’s more cringeworthy than frightening, see video below).
The show’s ability to maintain levity while dealing with some of life’s toughest questions led to awards and critical acclaim, but low ratings led to its being cancelled after just two seasons.
5. Louie (2010 -, FX)
When Louis C.K.‘s show debuted in 2010, it was no surprise it tackled some pretty dark themes. Having explored tragic and taboo situations in his stand-up routines, Louis pursues them remorselessly in Louie, a barely fictionalized account of his life that covers divorce, the indignities of aging, and even the sight of a homeless man being beheaded by a bus.
This amount of self-loathing and depression in anyone else’s hands could have resulted in a gigantic bummer of a TV show, but in Louis C.K.’s, it’s one of the best recent comedies on television.
6. The Big C (2010-2013, Showtime)
The “big C” is of course cancer, which starts this show when high school teacher Cathy Jamison (Laura Linney) discovers she’s got it. Putting on a happy face and trying to think positively just isn’t her style, however, so she starts to live recklessly instead, kicking out her husband, buying a new car, and embarking on an affair. The humor doesn’t diminish the serious nature of the disease, and nor does the sadness lessen the laughs.
7. Eastbound & Down (2009 – 2013, HBO)
Substance abuse is not usually known for its hilarity factor, but in this four-season series it’s a recurring punchline. Washed-up baseball player Kenny Powers (Danny McBride) ends up back in his hometown, teaching physical education at his own middle school.
Big name stars like Will Ferrell, Don Johnson, and Matthew McConaughey add to the laughs, which are frequent and profane. Kenny’s hopes of a comeback are thwarted, however—by his own fondness for anything from booze to ecstasy.
8. Nighty Night (2004-5, BBC)
No list of black comedy TV shows would be complete without Nighty Night. Notorious for its pitch-black humor, it stars Julia Davis (Four Lions) as out-and-out sociopath Jill Tyrell, who reacts to the news that her husband (Kevin Eldon, soon to be seen in Game of Thrones) has cancer by joining a dating agency and telling neighbors he has died, when he is in fact responding quite well to treatment. Things eventually take a murderous turn, but one thing is assured: Jill will always come out smelling of roses.
9. Strangers with Candy (1999-2000, Comedy Central)
Created by Amy Sedaris, Paul Dinello, Stephen Colbert, and Mitch Rouse, this show used dark humor to spoof those after school specials of the 1970s and 1980s. And just like those specials, every episode carried a lesson or a moral theme, though let’s just say it didn’t always end on the most positive of notes.
For instance, in the episode “The Goodbye Guy,” Jerri (Amy Sedaris), the ex-con, ex-prostitute, and ex-junkie who’s returned to high school as a freshman, learns the valuable lesson that you “never really ‘lose’ your parents. Unless of course they die. Then they’re gone forever. And nothing will bring them back.”
10. League of Gentlemen (1999-2002, BBC)
Sherlock‘s Mark Gatiss started out in this jet-black sketch show about the rather strange inhabitants of a small village in the English Dales. Sometimes compared with the anarchic humor of Monty Python, it took a much darker turn, incorporating elements of horror and a Victorian freak show and making stars of its four writers.