There is no lack of success in clever combinations (peanut butter and jelly, anyone?) and the television industry has caught on to the trend. Like the “rom-com” phenomenon, the comedy-drama (“dramedy”) genre has begun to establish itself as a permanent fixture in the entertainment realm. Developing over the past decade, dramedy as a distinct genre has recently entered a proverbial golden age with dozens of popular shows now adopting the “dramedy” label. But what makes this dual genre so appealing to such a broad range of audiences?
To understand the eventual blending of the comedy and drama categories, one must first recognize the defining characteristics of the separate genres that clearly divided the two in mass media until the 1980s. In the 1960s, comedies were restricted to half-hour specials, while dramas strictly lasted one hour. “Comedy” referred to family sitcoms, while “drama” was more of an umbrella term to encompass detective series’, westerns, science fiction and soap operas. Besides time restrictions and themes, the most obvious difference between the two was the presence of a laugh track in comedy series’. Around 1970, there was a purposeful alteration in time distinctions and the use of laugh tracks in comedies. Dramas now might only last a half hour and be followed by an hour-long comedy without a laugh track. These slight modifications in air times and sound effects broke the widely accepted rules surrounding the two genres, laying the groundwork for innovation in both categories.
The other defining discrepancy between the television categories is the depth of character and plot development. Instead of an emphasis on one-episode story arcs often seen in shows officially categorized as comedies such as “The Big Bang Theory” and “South Park,” dramas tend to have complex and extended storylines that make it unofficially mandatory to view the series in chronological order in order to fully appreciate and understand the events that transpire. In a comedy, a character’s backstory is most likely not going to be referenced every episode nor particularly relevant to every episode’s storyline. No one wants to start watching “Game of Thrones” in the middle of season three while that would be perfectly acceptable for starting “Modern Family.”
The late 80s witnessed the first use of the portmanteau “dramedy” in regards to a wave of shows that merged the characteristics of the two genres, including “Hooperman” and “Frank’s Place,” one of the shortest-airing shows to be nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy. “Frank’s Place”, with a plot centered around a New Orleans family restaurant, is one of the first successes of dramedies in the late 20th century. It explored weighty topics such as racial discrimination and class, while still managing to be witty and relatable. Although it only ran for 22 episodes, “Frank’s Place” laid the groundwork for future comedy-dramas.
“Moonlighting”, starring Bruce Willis, is widely considered to be one of the first truly popular and influential dramedies that established the genre as a distinct category in television. Airing from 1985-1989, the detective show effectively mixed humor, drama and romance in a new time format of 45 minutes. With ample mystery, precisely timed comedic relief and clever dialogue, “Moonlighting” captured the attention of millions of viewers, as well as a substantial number of accolades. “M*A*S*H” and “Eight Is Enough” similarly paved the way for the innovative genre throughout the 1980s and 90s.
Fast forward to the 21st century. With literally hundreds of shows now available through streaming services such as Hulu, Netflix, XFINITY and Amazon, television is more popular than ever before. In an age where time is increasingly valuable, the shorter running time on shows makes them convenient breaks from reality in comparison to full-length movies. Of the most popular shows airing regularly in the modern era, more and more shows are being distinguished as dramedies. The seemingly flawless balance of intrigue and humor is captivating to an eclectic array of audiences and it is becoming harder to distinguish individual shows simply as comedies or dramas in a black-and-white fashion. Thus, the gray area of dramedies is expanding constantly to include shows such as “How I Met Your Mother,” “Friends,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Monk” and “Scrubs.” Chances are, the majority of the shows you’re currently addicted to are labeled as “dramedies” — a pretty astounding change from 35 years ago, when the genre and term were practically nonexistent. Even awards shows are now embroiled in controversy surrounding category designations for their nominations. Why would “Shameless” be competing in the Emmy comedy categories, and not the drama ones, anyhow? As the stark divide between the two genres is becoming increasingly blurred, more television shows are taking advantage of their flexible classification and are therefore being nominated in multiple categories.
Serialized plotlines, sharp wit and just enough character development so as to provoke sympathy from audiences without drowning the series in flashbacks, the dramedy is a far more intelligent and intricate equation than most realize. However, it is noteworthy that the shows categorized as such rarely combine comedy and drama in perfect ratios. The amount of absurdity found in “Psych” or “The Office,” for example, doesn’t quite match to the substantially more drama-focused “Suits” or “White Collar.” But they are all classified as dramedies. Not too serious nor too frivolous, the dramedy strikes the perfect chord with masses of audiences, regardless of background, who seek some significance and personal relatability from the shows they watch, while still being able to laugh.
– By Megan Waples, Contributing Writer