“Are you havin’ a laugh?”

Not recently, no.

It used to be that tragedy plus time equalled comedy, but these days comedians aren’t waiting around.

Television shows built around standup material are as old as the medium itself but they’ve taken a turn for the despairing of late, spearheaded by Louis CK’s sullen, form-bending Louie. He followed it up with the agonisingly unwatchable and relentlessly grim Horace and Pete, which was kind of like Cheers except everyone was awful and you wished the bar would just burn down already.

Plenty of imitators have followed in CK’s wake, on networks and streaming services big, small and seemingly imagined. (Vale, Seeso. Did you ever even happen?) That doesn’t mean they’re all funny, of course – but some of the saddest ones are better than TV’s most prestigious dramatic fare.

So, here’s your official “saddest of the sad” ranking, from least to most.

12. Pete Holmes in Crashing

A good-natured Christian comic (Holmes) walks in on his wife sleeping with another man, so he abandons his suburban life to crash on the couches of his New York pals, including TJ Miller. That’s right: he must find refuge in the home of bridge-burning blowhard and self-proclaimed emoji-prophet TJ Miller.

Hankies required? One. The very idea of a man having to rely on TJ Miller for shelter is heartbreaking.

11. Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite

Maria Bamford in Lady Dynamite
Maria Bamford stars in Lady Dynamite, a ‘gonzo comedy tour de force’. Photograph: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

The genius Bamford and Arrested Development showrunner Mitchell Hurwitz turned her personal struggles with depression, suicide, institutionalisation and, ahem, vaginismus into this gonzo comedy tour de force for Netflix.

How many hankies required? Only one. Lady Dynamite is actually really funny and, ultimately, joyous.

10. Matt Okine in The Other Guy

The new Australian show The Other Guy opens with a cuckolded radio DJ (Okine) lamenting his recent breakup, a piss-soaked mattress and his receding hairline. (Honestly, this is a pretty universal Australian experience.) But a wonderful supporting turn by Harriet Dyer as Okine’s off-kilter bestie keeps things light.

Hankies required? One. RIP, hair.

9. Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who created Catastrophe
‘Brilliantly acerbic’: Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, who created and star in Catastrophe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Twitter-famous Delaney and Sharon Horgan star as an unlikely couple who accidentally get pregnant and decide to stick it out because a) they love one another, b) they are brilliantly acerbic together, and c) their misanthropy renders them incompatible with any other human.

Hankies required? Two, because the late Carrie Fisher plays Delaney’s passive-aggressive mother, and you will miss her oh so much.

8. Marc Maron in Maron

Before Glow, Marc played another version of himself in the now-ended Maron: a burnt-out addict relegated to hosting a podcast in his garage, the success of which nudges him back off the wagon.

In real life, Maron is sober and his WTF podcast is one of the world’s biggest, giving comics an outlet to get “real”, confront demons (usually Maron himself) and cry. He might even be modern sad comedy’s patient zero.

Hankies required? Two, in case the rawness of his self-loathing inspires some critical introspection.

7. Donald Glover in Atlanta

Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, with Joan Q Scott as Lisa (left) and Zazie Beetz as Van, in Atlanta
Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, with Joan Q Scott as Lisa (left) and Zazie Beetz as Van, in Atlanta. Photograph: FX Networks/courtesy Everet/RE

Before its debut, Glover tried to prepare us for his strange vision of the Peach State by saying he wanted to make “Twin Peaks with rappers”. As the flat-broke, music-adjacent hustler Earn, he barely survives the first season’s trials, including multiple shootings, countless professional embarrassments, racially charged social gaffes and, most memorably, a run-in with Black Justin Bieber. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like.

Hankies required? Black Justin Bieber will likely remind you of White Justin Bieber’s many transgressions, for which you will need two hankies.

6. Jerrod Carmichael in The Carmichael Show

This just-axed sitcom was filmed in front of a live studio audience, on what appeared to be the honest-to-goodness set of Everybody Loves Raymond. But instead of extolling warm family values, the Carmichaels needled one another about Bill Cosby, gun control, euthanasia, domestic violence and consent, to name just a few of its gentler topics.

Hankies required? Most of the time. Jerrod seems almost sociopathically detached from the traumas of the world, but his father, played by David Alan Grier, will make you reach for no less than three hankies as he wrestles with his past of abuse, and, eventually, the assisted suicide of his mother.

5. Aziz Ansari in Master of None

There was no predicting that Aziz Ansari – he of Raaaaaaandy fame – would spend his first solo TV vehicle paying tribute to the films of Federico Fellini and pining over a beguiling Italian woman in what amounts to Netflix’s very own version of the Before Sunrise series. Aziz is our generation’s sadsack auteur, and he does the job beautifully.

Hankies required? Three, and you will need all of them exclusively for the season two finale.

4. Josh Thomas in Please Like Me

Josh Thomas, Debra Lawrance and David Roberts in season four of Please Like Me
‘The shock and pain of the penultimate episode wasn’t just felt by the characters on screen’. Photograph: Kelly Gardner

Please Like Me covered plenty of traumatic ground over its four acclaimed seasons, but Thomas’s semi-autobiographical series ended with an absolutely shocking tearjerker of a moment.

A glimpse at Twitter after the penultimate episode aired revealed the shock and pain wasn’t just felt by the characters on screen.

Hankies required? Four.

3. Louis CK in Louie

The original bad boy of feeling bad, Louis CK is always threatening to bring back Louie, which, spoiler alert, ended with a rival comedian accidentally killing himself on a toilet. Again, this show was still funnier than Horace and Pete.

Hankies required? The New Year’s Eve episode, famous for Parker Posey’s unexpected exit, remains the best thing CK’s ever done. It’s a four-hankie classic.

2. Tig Notaro in One Mississippi

Notaro almost died from a bacterial infection, and then her mother actually died, and then she was dumped, and then she got cancer. That string of unimaginable tragedy has resulted in a shattering standup album (Live, pronounced like the verb), a moving documentary (Tig), a decent book (I’m Just a Person) and now this, a low-key dramedy perfectly suited to its dry, deadpan star.

Hankies required? Four: one for each of Tig’s outlets.

1. Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag
‘The saddest of them all’: Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. Photograph: BBC/Two Brothers Pictures Ltd.

Waller-Bridge used to perform standup in character as Fleabag (she’s technically never named in the TV show) for 10 minutes at a time, alienating crowds with increasingly disturbing stories from her disaster of a life. Given an entire season of television to wreak havoc, Fleabag manages to ruin marriages, build upon festering family feuds, betray her best friend and, ultimately, cause a death. So, congrats, Fleabag. Not only are you the most darkly funny (thanks to the quick-witted Waller-Bridge), you’re also saddest of them all.

Hankies required? This is a five-alarm hankie situation.


Simon Miraudo

The GuardianTramp

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