How 'Ramy,' 'Awkwafina,' 'Work in Progress' Creators Mined Their Lives for Comedy

Five Comedies that Shine - Split-Final-Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Comedy Central; Ray Mickshaw/FX; Adrian S. Burrows/SHOWTIME; Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu; Allyson Riggs/Hulu

Some of the year’s strongest comedies shine because the creators weren't afraid to use their biographies for humor — and growth.

In the season one finale of Showtime's wholeheartedly dark comedy Work in Progress, neurotic protagonist Abby (creator and star Abby McEnany) sits in a bar across from her placid ex, Melanie (Echaka Agba), whom she hasn't seen in almost a decade. After years of feeling shredded by their split, which hinged on her mental illness, Abby has recently embarked on a renewing relationship with a younger trans man (Theo Germaine). But that bond, too, is nearing its end thanks to her unrelenting self-sabotage, and she's looking for answers: Is she just too broken to love?

"Abby. It's been eight years. Why do you think it's OK to reach out and expect me to make you feel better?" Melanie indicts while her companion balks. "But still, after all these years, you've managed to make it all about you."

It's a sharp, brave and painful moment, one of many that steers the semiautobiographical Work in Progress away from becoming an early 2000s-style cringe comedy predicated on watching a socially awkward person stumble into quirky messes. Chicago-based comedian McEnany, inspired by her years of struggling with how others perceive her androgynous gender presentation and severe anxiety disorders, extracts both laughs and pathos from her personal history, allowing viewers to empathize with and also, yeah, sometimes get annoyed by her defeatist tendencies. McEnany is far from the only performer shifting the parameters of self-deprecating humor: Many of 2020's Emmy-contender comedies come from a new generation of auteur who, like the Jerry Seinfelds and Larry Davids before them, aren't afraid to home into their pasts in order to amplify the amusement.

These artists are fueled by self-flagellation. On Hulu's Ramy, creator Ramy Youssef stars as a younger version of himself, a 20-something finding his place in the world as a faithful Muslim and the child of Egyptian immigrants while constantly making harmful decisions (like sleeping with a married woman in his congregation or helping a friend hook up with a high school girl). On FX's Dave, real-life rapper Dave Burd, aka Lil Dicky, satirizes the early stages of his career as a neurotic white Jewish upstart in hip-hop. On Comedy Central's Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, comedian Awkwafina borrows from her slacker persona and complicated family history to present a raunchy Asian American family sitcom. On HBO's Insecure, Issa Rae plays Issa Dee, a diffident young woman who realizes it's no longer cute to be a lost postgrad in your early 30s. And each of the creators behind memoirist comedies Shrill (Lindy West) and Work in Progress (McEnany) critiques her past immaturity to provide an emotional arc for the protagonist.

These programs all grapple with serious issues such as ethnic and racial identity, religious observance, gender discrimination, bodily trauma and mental health, but they all find comicality in self-rebuke. In the era of Peak TV and the ever-raging streaming wars, it's not enough for these leads to be classic "fool" archetypes, social clowns who demand that we laugh at their foibles. They also insist we learn from them. These series draw knowing laughs from onscreen selfishness, lack of self-awareness and underbaked existential woes. In doing so, they also satisfyingly peel away the layers of privilege that have swathed and pampered our leads most of their lives.

Ultimately, their power is in showing how their protagonists continue to molt and grow new skin. In the first season of Ramy, our lead earnestly travels to his parents' homeland of Egypt to reconnect with them and God after he commits an egregious sin … and ends up falling for his first cousin, much to their mutual discomfort. On Nora From Queens, our stoner heroine failingly grasps at the markers of millennial success, finally latching on to her Ivy-educated programmer cousin (Bowen Yang) to co-develop the next hit app. But when a Chinese company buys them out and ships Nora to Beijing to be their American puppet with no actual responsibilities, she realizes that "luxury" isn't all it's cracked up to be. Baby steps still lead to movement!

This "with age comes wisdom" approach is a signature of the Apatow-vian school of storytelling. Judd Apatow's oeuvre is filled with lived-in growing pains thanks to his work championing comedy's rising stars of that time — from Superbad (Seth Rogen) to Girls (Lena Dunham) to Trainwreck (Amy Schumer) to The King of Staten Island (Pete Davidson). In fact, Emmy-winning Girls, alongside Jill Soloway's Transparent, helped usher in TV's current fascination with the barely fictionalized confessional tragicomedy. And last year's winner in this category, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's personal series Fleabag, only cemented its place in the genre pantheon.

This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.