Inside the Small Screen’s Sci-Fi Comedy Boom With ‘Avenue 5,’ ‘Upload,’ ‘Living With Yourself’

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Many of the best-known science-fiction comedies are parodies. Such films as “Spaceballs,” “Galaxy Quest” and “Mars Attacks!” work by skewering the genre. They are not really of the genre.
But since at least 1978, when Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” premiered as a BBC radio drama, there has been a separate tradition of comedies in major media that are rooted in character as well as the ideas, language and aesthetics of science fiction — similar to the best sci-fi dramas.

“Great comedy can be about ideas, as well as jokes,” says “Avenue 5” creator Armando Iannucci. “You can have fun with both.”

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Set on a passenger starship that ventures hopelessly off course, HBO’s “Avenue 5” premiered this year, part of a wave of television comedies set in science-fiction worlds. Those shows are creatures of the peak TV era, which has seen production values (along with budgets) increase across the board, and the boundaries that define television comedy expand.

“People higher up in traditional networks have never seen comedy as something that you put a lot of resources into, in terms of the look of it,” Iannucci says. “HBO is a different ball game altogether. They are all about the quality of it — specifically the writing and the directing and the casting of it.”

Iannucci also says series including FX’s “Atlanta” have “stretched the form” of the TV comedy.

“It felt like the right time to do something that would have a sci-fi element to it, but not be a parody,” he says.

Iannucci took the science of his show, set four decades in the future, seriously. He was amply rewarded for his efforts at a trip to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge where he was told that on long-distance space journeys, a coating of human feces would theoretically protect a ship’s hull from radiation — and, of course, made it into the show.

But Iannucci also wanted to make sure that his show was relatable, and that the audience would be able to focus on the humor and story that sprang from character, and not be distracted by some of the larger-than-life elements.

“It looks like a realistic future, but certainly not like a fantastic future,” he says.

The makers of Netflix’s “Living With Yourself” had similar concerns. The show is unquestionably high-concept — it’s the story of Miles (Paul Rudd), a man who discovers that he’s been cloned. But it is grounded in a mundane suburban setting and deals not with hard science, but the frustrations of day-to-day life.

“One thing that was important was the environment, the sort of dreariness of the suburban lifestyle that the old Miles was in,” says director and executive producer Valerie Faris. “You see the rut that he’s in, but also what it was originally for him, which was the American Dream. Then you watch that turn into something less appealing.”

Faris’ fellow exec producer and director Jonathan Dayton adds, “We always reminded everyone that we’re on some level shooting a drama — and if we treat it like a drama, the comedy will emerge organically and in the way that felt the most natural and unforced.”

The principal challenge that Faris and Dayton faced with the show was the “doubling” of Rudd — the actor played both original Miles and new Miles, often sharing the screen with himself.

Shooting one actor as two characters is something left largely to ambitious film directors, such as when Armie Hammer played the Winklevoss twins in David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” And in the current era of television, viewers expect feature-level production quality. With “Living With Yourself,” Faris and Dayton pulled off the doubling in a way that sold the show’s core sci-fi conceit — and did so under the limitations of a TV schedule.

“We wanted to treat it as if we were just filming two separate actors and not limit ourselves so much in the staging,” says Dayton. “It was all about staging at a certain level. Thankfully Paul was so good at remembering what he had done in the previous performance that he really freed us up to move the camera and treat it more like a conventional show.”

With his Amazon Prime Video series “Upload” — about a man who enters a digital afterlife — creator Greg Daniels also confronted the technical challenges of trying to execute a comedy series in a science-fiction world. And as often happens in dramas of the genre, science fiction occasionally ended up mirroring the real world.

“All the tech is stuff I actually think could happen, or it’s not outside the realm of plausibility,” says Daniels. “And some of it I exaggerated in the script for comedy. Like, they have that app where it’s like Tinder, but it’s also like Uber and they get rankings. And I thought that was just a joke. But then China put out that social credit app where they’re actually doing that. And you can’t get a loan if you don’t have five stars or whatever.”

Apps were not the only thing that Daniels got right. “Another joke that I had in there was that vaping led to a mysterious disease,” he says. “We shot that in the pilot in 2018, and last year it came out that there is a terrible disease from vaping. I don’t necessarily want everything to come true, but it is kind of funny that if you do the right kind of research, sometimes you do get it right.”

Michael Schneider contributed to this report.

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