What ‘Scrubs’ Can Teach Us About Storytelling and Humour

Remember Scrubs? That hospital show that ran for eight seasons? (I know. Don’t say it.) I loved that show. It was ridiculous and silly and it blended comedy and drama better than just about anything else I’ve ever seen, and the reason for that is how they let their moments breathe. The writers didn’t feel the need to immediately lighten the mood whenever they got serious. There were no hasty retreats away from the emotional topics.

The show is genuinely funny, in ways ranging from imagine spots to funny rants. It did genre and homage episodes long before Community built an entire show off of doing just that. It weaves humour within seriousness, or starts light, then gets more serious, but whichever way a given episode goes, the impact of a serious episode is never diminished by a misplaced joke at the end.

One of the characters that only showed up in one episode was Nick, a fellow intern and the golden boy. Smart, skilled, charming, all of that. And the episode was dedicated to breaking him down. Not in the kind of soap opera melodrama where there’s an endless parade of bad luck way, not in the “we have to get this guy out of the way so our lead character can be the best” way, but in the more understated, “life is hard and the medical field is brutal and sometimes there’s not going to be anything you can do to save that seven year old”. And that was the end of the episode – it didn’t end on a joke, it ended on Nick walking away from years of work and a job he was great at because he couldn’t keep going through that.

The episode that introduced Kevin Casey played his OCD for laughs, through gags like showing him needing to touch every object in a room when he entered or repeatedly signing his name, up until the very end of the episode, where we see him, hours after his last surgery, still scrubbing his hands raw. The other characters realize they can’t blame him for all their problems because he has more than his share of them and go home, leaving him alone, flicking the lights on and off all night.

Characters die or move away. The lead character is defined by how emotional he is and the intensity of his relationships with the people around him. It handles issues like industry sexism and doctors performing outdated medical procedures and thus endangering their patients. People have to try to figure out if a patient is genuinely in pain, or just trying to score drugs.

 

Even during the parts intended to be funny, Scrubs did something that I really wish more works did: made characters funny in different ways, rather than everyone just snarking at each other without much of a unique voice. Cox goes on long rants, JD has his imagine spots and weird thought process, and so on. They acknowledged it, too – it one episode, none of Carla’s jokes were landing, and Cox told her that everyone is funny in different ways in a long snarky rant:

The show had plenty of flaws. Some of the jokes have not aged well – there was a lot of  homophobia and transphobia, as well as some very uncomfortable race comments – and the flanderization of characters got exhausting after a while. The female characters weren’t handled nearly as well as they should have been. But Scrubs deserves to be remembered, because it’s not only one of the goofiest shows out there, it’s one of the most profoundly emotional comedies you’ll find. It shows that there are no limits on the types of comedy you can use, so long as you’re sincere when you go serious. Characters can use humour to avoid the serious, but the work itself shouldn’t. Yes, Scrubs had its share of jokes that just aren’t funny, like most comedies. Yes, there were a couple seasons in there that felt tedious. And yes, some of it is just over the top goofy, including occasional jokes made during serious scenes. But if you look past those issues, you’ll find a show that manages to seamlessly blend comedy and drama in a way that few other shows have managed.

The Masterful Use Of Black Comedy In ‘Gotham’

Gotham has had a lot of high points and low points. I remember being hugely excited by the trailer and announcement. It was a great trailer – the story of how Gotham became Gotham, how it came to be a place that needs the Batman. I was watching it again the other day, and even now, three years later, knowing what the show became, I still love it.

They sold Gotham as a crime drama. It was dark, it was intense, it was exciting. David Mazouz looked, even then, as the perfect casting for a young Bruce. What they sold us isn’t what we got at all.

adore young Bruce and Selina. I think they’re some of the best parts of the show, and that they were fantastic casting choices. But as much as I love them, as much as I’ve always enjoyed their scenes, I have to also acknowledge that they kind of took over the show from the very beginning. The entire premise of the show was Gotham before Batman. And I was here for that in principle, but the point they picked as the start of darkness was the murder of the Waynes. By doing that, they had to involve Bruce, and whoever cast him did such a good job, it would have been an enormous waste to not use him in other plots.

The best way to actually do the Gotham before Batman and the villains would have probably been to focus on the crime families and how they created a world where masked vigilantes and themed supervillains roam the night, or maybe even Bruce’s parents. Maroni’s death way back in season one challenged that notion because he wasn’t supposed to die. He’s a staple of the Batman mythos, and he’s one of the few characters that has actually remained dead. (I think, it’s getting hard to keep track.) That death was the beginning of Gotham finding its footing as its own show, of the writers deciding that they didn’t care about the generally accepted canon.

Gotham took a while to figure out what it wanted to be. I remember loving the pilot, but being a bit let down by the next couple of episodes, because those were the days when it was a cop show, the days when it was trying to be the gritty drama the audience signed on to watch. Now? The show has almost moved past that initial question of what kind of city needs Batman, but I think it  handled the concept very well, just in probably a very different way than the audience initially expected – they crafted a world so absurdly dark that someone dressing up as a bat to go fight crime dooesn’t sound weird at all. In fact, it’s probably the least weird thing that’s happened. It’s glorious.

I used to be confused at how any of the timeline made sense – almost all the villains were full grown adults at the beginning while Bruce was still a child. What, was he going to be fighting senior citizens when he became Batman? By the time Dick becomes Nightwing in this universe, the villains should all be in retirement homes! But once I let that go, and stopped trying to apply logic to it, it became amazing, because Gotham is at its best when it’s so absurdly dark it becomes hilarious. It became a thousand times better once it gave up on plot in favour of the absurd. Like the ridiculousness of Oswald and Ed’s relationship. Nothing is funnier to me than the newfound Penguin and Riddler animosity. Oswald killed Ed’s girlfriend. Ed shoots Oswald. Oswald retaliates by freezing him and making him the centrepiece in his nightclub. Ed sends random people to rap terrible riddles at Oswald. Somewhere in there, the two of them bickered while locked up in a cage together.

Gotham is one of those rare, beautiful works that I can just enjoy. It’s kinda dumb and over the top. There are story choices that I don’t necessarily enjoy. There are characters that I’m not fond of. But it’s silly and enjoyable, while at the same time having some devastatingly powerful scenes. It’s beautiful nonsense that can’t be viewed logically. At one pooint, a mobster kills the former mayor with a rocket launcher. As this post puts it:

After a rocky first season, Gotham has become more entertaining by its sheer audacity and silliness, as well as its refusal to give a damn about Bat-canon. the stories have seemed random, characters and plot are introduced and then abandoned at a dizzying rates, anything can happen and anything can un-happen.

I don’t think the show handles women well. Partially because of how many of them die, but more due to the employment of sexist tropes. Tabitha and Ivy are especially poorly handled. Tabitha barely got to do anything until Selina, who apparently needs mentors now, teamed up with her. They replaced the original Ivy actress so that they could sexualize her, except her mind was still clearly that of a little girl. What was the point? It was disgusting. If they really felt the need to employ her “seductive personality from the comics” so badly, why couldn’t they just introduce Ivy Pepper’s older cousin, Pamela Isley? That would solve two problems at once!

I love Gotham and its black comedy. I grin like an idiot whenever I watch a new episode. It is so close to being fantastic, it just needs to treat its female characters better. As it is, they’ve mastered dark, absurdist humour and crafted a beautifully unique and watchable show.