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The line between funny and exploitive when it comes to comedy about difficult subject matter is often soft and fuzzy. There are no specific rules as to what’s in bounds or appropriate. In fact, some of the best comedies ever start from topics most people wouldn’t be comfortable joking about. That’s why when Walton Goggins signed onto The Unicorn, a new CBS comedy about dating after the death of a spouse, he immediately recommended a key change: the removal of a studio audience.
He wanted the ability to improvise and to work to find the line between leaning into the sadness and finding the humor in a tough situation, and with the multi-camera approach of a live audience, he was worried it would impede his ability to do that. There's also, candidly, something a bit odd about hearing an audience laugh at something with strong undercurrents of sadness. So, according to the New York Post, he went to producers and asked filming be switched from the old sitcom style (think Friends, Seinfeld) to a single camera set-up on a soundstage (think It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Sex And The City). Here’s what Goggins had to say…
For me to go in front of a live audience and tell this story about a man who lost his wife to cancer and has two daughters, I don’t know that I could have pulled that off. Somebody else could have done it in a minute. I think it needed that space, that improvisation, for it to feel like a film. We talked and I said, ‘Let’s go do this.’ I’m going to lean into the sadness. I’m not going to shy away from that, but I promise you it will be funny.
The pilot, which premiered last week on CBS, definitely wrestles with that line between sad and funny. Not everything is played as a joke. The more serious moments don’t feel like set-ups to get to gags, but the show still never loses sight of the fact that it’s a comedy, not a dramedy. It’s more a comedy with depth, and Walton Goggins, whose first wife tragically died in 2004, walks that line perfectly. How the show will develop or whether it will be able to grow from its initial premise is anyone’s guess. The history of television is filled with good pilots that amounted to nothing and mediocre pilots that turned into something special.
It should come as no surprise, however, that Walton Goggins himself is the best part of The Unicorn so far. He’s been stealing scenes for a long time, whether it be as Boyd Crowder in the incredibly underrated (spoilers) Justified or as Venus Van Dam on Sons of Anarchy. There’s an honesty to his characters, and that really shines through in The Unicorn, as well.
The Unicorn airs on CBS on Thursdays at 8:30 EST/ 7:30 CST. Only one episode has aired so far. As such, if you’re interested, it won’t be difficult to catch up before the second offering airs this week. I would highly recommend it.