BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 13 MAR 20

Avenue 5: Why Is Sci-Fi Comedy So Unfunny?

From ‘Spaceballs’ to ‘The Orville’, the reason why so many interstellar sitcoms fail to raise a smile

BY Tom Morton in Opinion | 13 MAR 20

Currently screening on HBO and Sky One, Armando Iannucci’s latest sitcom, Avenue 5 (2020), is set on an interstellar cruise ship, owned by a narcissistic young billionaire entrepreneur (played by Josh Gad) and captained by an alcoholic actor (Hugh Laurie), whose reassuring hero-of-the-cosmos mien hides his utter inability to navigate. When a massive systems malfunction strikes, the ship is thrown off course, extending its voyage from a leisurely eight weeks to a gruelling three years. Faced with the prospect of their luxury vacation devolving into a hell of claustrophobia, rationing and existential impotence, the passengers begin to rebel, led by a pushy stowaway (Rebecca Front), who one might equally imagine dominating a PTA meeting or a G7 nation. Hilarity, at least in theory, ensues.

Armando Iannucci, Avenue 5, 2020, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Is Avenue 5 funny? It’s a perfectly watchable, intermittingly amusing comedy of errors that morphs into a comedy of manners, although given the consistent brilliance of Iannucci’s work in radio, television and film across the past three decades – from On the Hour (1991–92) to The Thick of It (2005–12) to The Death of Stalin (2017) – that is faint praise, indeed. Seven episodes in, I’m left wondering whether the show might have been better had it been set aboard a present-day ocean liner. After all, aside from one (admittedly pretty good) sight-gag involving the bodies of dead crew members orbiting the spaceship’s glazed exterior while passengers practice yoga and eat brunch, little of Avenue 5’s humour depends on its futuristic mise-en-scène. What we’re really being invited to laugh at here is billionaire tech bros, entitled tourists and the rictus grin of corporate PR in the face of disaster. And yet, transposed to the future, these contemporary comic targets become curiously less vulnerable to satire, while the audience is constantly distracted by the show’s glossy CGI, and its genre nods and winks. (The 2003–09 reboot of Battlestar Galactica seems to be a particular influence.) Compare this to Iannucci’s exemplary sitcom I’m Alan Partridge (1997–2002), cowritten by Steve Coogan and Peter Baynham, where the titular failed television presenter inhabits a world of beige Travel Taverns and petrol-station minimarts that provides the perfect mirror for his bland and haunted soul.

Armando Iannucci, Avenue 5, 2020, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Given the impregnable humourlessness of most sci-fi – from the rigorously logical ‘hard sf’ of the novelist Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (1951–53) to the dreamy vision of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Solaris (1972) – the genre’s tropes should be an open goal for the comic imagination. Why, then, do so many sci-fi themed comedies fail to raise a smile? Partly, it’s that parody, as a form, is hard to sustain – witness Seth Macfarlane’s television series The Orville (2017–20), a directionless send-up of Star Trek (1966–69), or Mel Brooks’s movie Spaceballs (1987), a staggering unfunny Star Wars (1977) take-off. Comparatively better were the first two seasons of British sitcom Red Dwarf (1988–2017). Drawing on the aesthetic of John Carpenter’s slackers-in-space movie, Dark Star (1974), the show centred initially on a classic odd-couple relationship between the last human in existence, a warm-hearted scouse wastrel, and his foil, an uptight, socially ambitious hologram. However, when Red Dwarf’s popularity and budget increased, it fell into two traps familiar to makers of ‘straight’ on-screen sci-fi: an overreliance on special effects and (fatally) a fan-servicing emphasis on the lore of its own fictional universe, which destroyed any tension that once existed between the show’s ‘situation’ and its ‘comedy’.

Seth MacFarlane, The Orville, 2017-, film still. Courtesy: Fox

In the end, perhaps it’s simply that science fiction is always already ridiculous, so needs no additional ridicule, or that, while sci-fi invites us to speculate on a universe of infinite possibilities, the best comedies often turn on constraint. (Basil Fawlty’s inability to escape his shoddy guesthouse in Fawlty Towers, 1975–79, say, or Larry David’s inability to escape himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm, 2000–ongoing.) Maybe, however, the problem lies not in the inherent incommensurability of the two modes, but in science fiction’s habit of self-destructing through commercial overreach.

Mel Brooks, Spaceballs, 1987, film still. Courtesy: MGM

Many people point to Douglas Adams’s 1978 radio show The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as sci-fi comedy’s masterpiece. An inventive and witty reimagining of Voltaire’s world-spanning satirical novel Candide (1759), to my mind Hitchhiker’s comic charms have been diluted to near-homeopathic levels through adaptation into other media – novels, a television show, comic books, a feature film – and there’s something depressing about the fact that the franchise’s more humourless and tat-hungry fans can buy an action figure of Marvin the Paranoid Android to place on their mantlepieces, where it will presumably gather dust alongside effigies of Luke Skywalker and Captain Kirk. Should HBO be tempted to produce Avenue 5 merchandise to accompany the show’s forthcoming second season, the company should consider that Candide has been celebrated as one of the pinnacles of human comedy for over two and half centuries, without any help from a Professor Pangloss poseable figurine.

Main image: Armando Iannucci, Avenue 5, 2020, film still. Courtesy: HBO

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.