Why am I laughing at New Girl?

Season 2 of New Girl (Fox, since 2011) has started on E4 in Britain, and I’ve been trying to reflect on what it is that I find funny about this show. Because, although I study comedy, I don’t actually watch a lot of current sitcoms, because I don’t find them very funny. Girls is another exception, and I’m still hoping they’ll do another season of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But those are both quite innovative sitcoms, in terms of form and content, while New Girl feels pretty conventional to me. The other night, while we were fast-forwarding through an ad break, I asked my partner if it has a laugh track. I couldn’t remember any audience laughter, but it seemed like the kind of show that would have one, and I thought I might just not have noticed because I was laughing myself. But it doesn’t. It’s also a single-camera sitcom. So how does it still feel so conventional to me?

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I think it’s because the premise seems so familiar – a group of straight people (Jess, Schmidt, Winston and Nick) in their late twenties or early thirties sharing a big flat, struggling a bit with figuring out what they want to do with their lives, and dating various attractive people. The representations are rarely particularly challenging, and the characters are generally pretty nice to each other. Pretty comforting viewing, really. I do feel like it’s safe to laugh here, while Schmidt’s (Max Greenfield) enthusiasm for “brown people” would probably have been awkward in a sitcom with a more “naturalist” style. And it’s a reasonably snappy show that is unapologetic about its frequent use of jokes and visual gags. It doesn’t tend to dwell on uncomfortable or emotional bits, so I don’t have the time to get too invested in characters or storylines. As a result, I don’t really care if Jess (Zooey Deschanel) embarrasses herself, and I’m someone who’s otherwise easily uncomfortable on other people’s behalf. I actually smile politely during scenes where fictional characters meet and greet new people, as if I can help keep things running smoothly. But while watching this show, I feel comfortable and I’m ready to laugh.

I found the season 2 premier particularly funny. Jess had lost her job (I have no idea why) and followed Nick’s advice to “go off the grid”. So, completely out of character, she got drunk in a bar in the middle of the day, gave her phone number to one guy and pretended to another (Sam) that she was the “Katie” he had arranged to meet via a dating website. Plenty of academic studies on comedic representations of femininity will tell you that this kind of behaviour is usually punished within the narrative, and I was fully expecting Jess to embarrass herself or just feel terrible about her deceit. But no. Instead, Nick (Jake Johnson) and Schmidt told her this was a fantastic and unique phase in her life during which she was somehow irresistible to men, and she happily continued to have casual sex with Sam. This jollity was even maintained when she told an unwanted date that she was feeling poorly, only for him to catch her with Sam in a public toilet shortly after. And when Sam found out she wasn’t Katie? He just turned up at her door for more sex. I think this comic incongruity made me feel quite relieved. It was “no hugging, no learning”, and the lack of responsibility felt refreshing.

Of course, the second episode saw things returning to normal, with Jess struggling to have sex with Sam without engaging in any romantic activities. Oh well.

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