Dying is easy, showbiz scripture dictates, and comedy is hard. But slipping into a coma, conceiving and delivering an illegitimate child, ending up in a “love rhombus,” and somehow doing all of it with a straight face — that’s a different matter entirely. Angie Tribeca burns through all that in the opening minutes of its currently-in-progress second season, compressing a heap of backlogged exposition and harebrained plot twists into approximately 100 seconds.
What’s funny is such rapid speed-joking is pretty much typical for this daffy TBS cop comedy produced by Steve and Nancy Carell, where sanity usually plays second fiddle to a ridiculous sight gag or cutaway goof. (Writer Ira Ungerleider says that they attempt to get “a blizzard of jokes, around 60 of them” onto each page of script.) A gruff L.A.P.D. officer with a passion for both justice and her partner Detective Jay Geils (Hayes MacArthur), Angie Tribeca (Rashida Jones) can literally sneeze her eyeballs out like a Tex Avery character and grow her leg hair to werewolfian proportions. The one thing you won’t find her doing, however, is cracking a smile; like everyone else on the show, she’s holds the rollicking barrage of absurdity together with a perfect stoicism.
“There’s a lot of stuff happening right now where the world’s just a drag,” Jones says. “Watch CNN for five minutes and you want to crawl in a hole. It’s terrifying, people are scared, and news stations want to feed them garbage that makes them scared. We want to feed you garbage to make you happy!”
The anything-goes spoofery takes cues from numerous influences — everything from the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movies of the 1980s (both Jones and Ungerleider cite Airplane! as a sacred text) and Catskills comedians like Mel Brooks and Sid Caesar to Mad Magazine and toilet-top joke books. But it’s the way the series synthesizes all those old-school traditions that sets it apart from virtually every comedy currently on TV. The show’s Vaudevillian gag-a-second schtick defies the format’s supposed line of evolution, where the laugh-tracked multi-camera sitcoms gave way to single-camera experiments like The Office (whose U.S. version featured Jones in a season-long story arc) that played everything way more muted. Those shows expected the audience to stay on their wavelength. Angie Tribeca is willing to carpet-bomb viewers with jokes until something hits.
“When I came to L.A., I wanted to work in comedy, but the only comedy on TV was multi-cam,” Jones says. “Then the mockumentary style hit comedy hard — and all of a sudden, there was no studio audience. When the characters look into the camera, that’s the only cue to laugh. The subtlety of that has cut through all these other styles of comedy that we’ve loved for the history of humanity — people falling, people doing stupid things, visual humor. There’s a universality to that.”
“In today’s landscape, we are kind of an outlier,” Ungeleider adds. “That whole broad-but-intelligent kind of humor, people haven’t done it in a while. The Carells wanted to do it, and to do it for the modern era.”
It began with Steve and Nancy Carell trying to come up with a project to produce, one which harkened back to an old-fashioned comic sensibility involving rat-a-tat sight gags and flat-out absurdity; while the former was no stranger to being involved with such free-for-all silliness on the big screen (see Anchorman), he wasn’t seeing it much on the small one. Then out of nowhere, Nancy came up with the slick-sounding name “Angie Tribeca” and suddenly began to craft a character around it: An all-business beat cop with a woman’s touch. One pitch later to TBS, and the show was born.
From the earliest stages, the network understood that it would stand the best chance of finding a devoted cult audience rather than trying to win over the mainstream. In a bid to convert new fans to the off-kilter comedic sensibility of the show, TBS ran the entire first season in a 25-hour marathon to bait possible bingers. It worked, too; after hooking a fledgling cult following with their unorthodox scheduling gambit, the second season has enjoyed a modest but growing viewership in its opening weeks.
Pulling off the show’s zany streak without losing control of that whimsy requires a delicate balancing act. “A comedic actor’s M.O. is to optimize the joke-telling,” Jones explains, “and it’s weirdly counterintuitive in this kind of comedy because the more committed I am to my character, the more the jokes can breathe and live around me. It doesn’t feel funny when you’re doing it, but you have to trust that when all the pieces come together, after all the editing, it will be funny. It’s a hard thing to do.”
“Everything is about backing away from the comedy instead of leaning into it,” Ungerleider adds. “You have to act very subtly, up until and through when something absurd happens. And the stories are always strong, which anchors the silliness. We’re trying to do a real police procedural, crimes with clues and witnesses and suspects and everything. That does follow a procedural style. But I think if the story was as nonsensical as the jokes, it’d just be like a drug trip. Which I’m not opposed to! But not yet.”
In the TV climate of, say, five years ago, there may not have been room for a show paying homage both to potboiler crime stories and the legacy of screwloose parodies. But with basic and premium cable bulking up as online streaming platforms grow into legitimacy, a slightly old-fashioned niche program like Angie Tribeca can find a loving home. In one episode, Geils infiltrates a possible crime ring among lifeguards and ends up in a combination Baywatch/Point Break parody when he starts going native. Another episode delves deep into the fragile balance of personality dynamics that make for a good boy band when a Timberlakesque crooner gets murdered. Following these tangential fascinations down whatever kooky avenues they roam has indeed charmed a certain type of faithful, pop-culture literate viewer. Which was really the plan all along, according to Jones, especially since TBS tapped into their idiosyncratic frequency from day one.
“They took a bit of a chance on us,” she says, “this is a weird show, and it had a weird launch. They let us do what we want to do, and I’m grateful because that has not been my experience with network. Network’s now one of your many, many options. So many ways to experiment, and so many places to make cool, weird TV.”