‘Avenue 5’ and the History of TV Space Comedy

Cruise Ships, Garbage Scows, and Other Interstellar Junk

The world is cooing over the return of Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard. But over on HBO, Armando Iannucci’s Avenue 5 is putting a prick in the bloated balloon of space heroics. General incompetence and the unpredictability of space travel knock the title craft, a sleazy Carnival-style corporate “space cruise” ship, off course, forcing it into an interstellar Gilligan’s Island kind of situation. Avenue 5 takes place in the near-future, or an alternate present, where space looks more like the buffet line at the Bellagio. The captain is an actor, the only astronaut on board is a ponytailed Boomer, who refers to himself as “the first Canadian on Mars,” and billionaire Josh Gad bumbles around in a blond wig, bellowing stupid orders and eating all the food.

Avenue 5 is the latest iteration of a strange and intermittently popular TV subgenre, the space comedy. Space comedies fill needed gap in the sci-fi universe, which often takes itself very seriously. Sci-fi like The Expanse serves mostly as a metaphor for World War III. The most recent Star Trek, Discovery, bludgeoned the viewer, taking all the joy out of its phaser battles with excessively woke messaging. Avenue 5 may not be as overtly filthy or delightful as Iannucci’s recently-completed Veep, but it fits well into the history of space sitcoms. Here’s a rundown of that history, with strange clips to watch for hours.

Quark, 1977-1978

 

Created by the late Buck Henry, Quark ran as a midseason replacement on NBC just before the network entered its quality phase with Hill Street Blues and Cheers. Richard Benjamin plays Adam Quark, the captain of a ship tasked with cleaning up all the garbage in the Milky Way. His crew includes two gorgeous twins, one of whom is a clone of the other and both of whom are in love with him.

Also in the mix is a “transmute” named Gene, who at times is a macho blusterer and other times is a stereotypical housewife, a person who is actually a plant, a clunky robot, and a disembodied head who rules the galaxy. Quark predates even Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but Henry clearly targets the original Trek, with mixed and sometimes sexist results. Unjustly canceled after eight episodes, Quark was a trailblazer of sorts, and was often quite funny despite the laugh track.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, 1981

 

If modern audiences know an adaptation of Douglas Adams’s classic absurdist sci-fi satire, it’s the mediocre, if well-cast, 2005 movie. But this six-part BBC TV adaptation remains the definitive article. In the scene above, the crew of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s ship faces a nuclear-missile attack, which falls apart when bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent unleashes the “Improbability Drive.”  Though the effects are 40 years dated, Hitchhiker remains the mothership of all TV space comedy. Futurama’s Bender would never have existed without Marvin The Paranoid Android.

Red Dwarf, 1988-present

 

In Red Dwarf, the show that will not die, Dave Lister is a space janitor on a mining ship. His bosses cryogenically freeze him as a punishment after they catch him bringing his cat on board. While he’s frozen, a radiation leak kills everyone on board. The computer revives Dave three million years later, and he finds that he’s the last living human in the universe. However, he has various creatures, robots, and computers to keep him company. Dysfunctional sitcom relationships result.

Red Dwarf is a very strange program, and so popular in the UK that they’re currently making a 13th series. Your mileage may vary on the humor, but you can’t doubt its influence, including on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It was also an early show to use color-blind casting. Lister, a dead ringer for Jordan Peele, has dreads, and his anthropomorphic “Cat” is also black. Characters come and go, seemingly without explanation, only to re-emerge at regional Comic-cons across the British Commonwealth.

Homeboys in Outer Space, 1996-1997

 

A couple of brothers buy a used spaceship and head off on galactic adventures in this short-lived Fox sitcom so offensive, the NAACP condemned it. In retrospect, “Homeboys,” though definitely bad, was really just bringing the tropes of the 90s black sitcom into the universe. It featured some pretty inspired bits, including a planet of white people who worshipped George Jefferson as a God.

Futurama, 1999-2013

 

The sci-fi comedy reached its apotheosis with this animated series from Matt Groening. Futurama, as if you didn’t already know, follows the adventures of Philip J. Fry, a slacker who ends up cryogenically frozen and then re-appears in the 31st century to work for an interstellar delivery company. Futurama doesn’t only venture into space. It upends every sci-fi trope in every genre, and even takes a visit to Robot Hell. But space is its main place, and it’s hard to look at self-serious space operas like Ad Astra the same way after watching even five minutes of Futurama.

Other Space, 2015

 

This appealing Star Trek parody from the prolific Paul Feig had the misfortune of launching on Yahoo Screen, a streaming service that was ahead of its time and also had no chance to succeed. Like the final season of Community, Other Space disappeared into the void. But it featured a good-looking, funny young cast, and better writing than the somewhat schticky-feeling laugh-track-based space sitcoms of old. However, it did suffer from a kind of nerd pervert syndrome, as the least attractive male cast member attracted the eternal love of the death-defyingly beautiful ship’s central intelligence system. Hot chicks in space is time-honored, but Other Space didn’t seem particularly self-aware about its leering.

The Orville, 2017-

 

The world met the announcement of a Seth MacFarlane-created Star Trek parody that also starred Seth MacFarlane with almost universal derision. Consider everyone, including me, surprised, when The Orville turned out to not only be better than Star Trek Discovery, it also proved to be truer to the original vision of Star Trek. In an era of TV sci-fi hued darker than the Great Depression, The Orville’s bright palate, optimism, mild snark, and cheery character comedy has proven very popular, and Fox has just renewed it for a third season. Combined with Avenue 5, we’re in a good quadrant for space comedies on TV.

Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of ten semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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