How TV Comedy Writers Use Tech for Laughs

The most peculiar celebrity appearance at CES this past January had to be former NSA systems analyst Edward Snowden, who beamed in from Moscow on a screen mounted to a rolling pedestal. Beyond a few onlookers standing in the Beam booth as Snowden delivered an extended monologue, 50 remote viewers watched through a Peri-cast thanks to someone pointing a smartphone. At the end of the session, Snowden’s pedestal pivoted left and right to acknowledge the polite applause mostly from employees of Beam, which makes telepresence robots.

The scene should remind sitcom gluttons of last season’s Modern Family finale, in which Phil, stranded in Seattle, “attends” Alex’s graduation party through an iPad mounted on a Segway. “Isn’t this great?” he proclaims once too often, causing an exasperated Jay to throw a sweater over the incarnation of his son-in-law.

Personal video broadcasting, sent as a full-motion selfie and received by an infinitesimal audience, has taken 2016 by storm. The phenomenon hasn’t been lost on TV comedy writers, who regularly integrate the consequences of social media into plots or introduce virtual reality props as sight gags.

Take a recent episode of 2 Broke Girls, in which Caroline (Beth Behrs) uses her camera phone to showcase her cupcake business. “And this is the cash register where there will be money someday,” she exclaims.

“Stop filming me!” cries Max (Kat Dennings), her business partner.

“I’m not filming. I’m Periscoping,” says Caroline. Max retorts with a lewd remark about what the act of periscoping means to her.

Caroline explains, “Periscope is a social media app that streams live video to your followers.”

Later, courtside at a pro basketball game where Caroline and Max have stolen someone’s seats, Caroline says “Oh my God. I should totally Periscope this so people think we’re big shots.”

The most elaborate VR-inspired comedy this season is an episode of Portlandia, in which Brendan (Fred Armisen) and Michelle (Carrie Brownstein) “go to” an outdoor music festival using a pair of drones. Ensconced in Diver Dan-like helmets, the couple stays comfortably seated at home on the couch.

Ron Lynch, inventor of the You Had To Be There Absentee Concertgoer Experience, even comes to their home to install the equipment and pour disinfectant in the toilet to make it smell like a Porta Potty. “Here’s the kicker,” he says. “When the show is over, you get a certificate signed by the festival’s organizers saying you attended the show.”

“How close can we get to the band?” asks Brendan.

“Hover above the front row. Yeah. Why not?” says Lynch.

Unfortunately, a biker swats Michelle’s drone out of the air, and Brendan retaliates by cutting him in the face with a propeller. The couple’s home address is on the downed drone, so the biker knocks down their door and attacks Brendan, unbeknownst to Michelle, who’s sitting on the sofa in a helmet grooving to the Flaming Lips, the headliner.

Then there’s the episode of New Girl where Schmidt encounters a stranger (Armisen again) in his bathroom. “That’s just Brandon,” his roommate Nick explains. “I put a thing online. I’ve rented Jesse’s room while she’s gone. I’m going to rent out all the rooms.”

In the same episode, Winston discovers that his girlfriend is cheating on him after she posts her picture alongside another dude. Audience knowledge of unnamed apps like Airbnb and Instagram or Facebook are essential to the plot.

Tech themes pushing the laugh-track button are not new. A decade ago, Spence (Patton Oswalt) on The King of Queens was paranoid that his TiVo thought he was gay. On today’s sitcoms, it’s the apps that facilitate the farce.