Santa Clarita Diet is a bloody mess—quite literally. The canceled-too-soon Netflix series about newly turned zombie Sheila Hammond (Drew Barrymore) is full of chopped limbs, grotesque corpses, and disgusting amounts of bile. This is all standard zombie fare seen in TV dramas like The Walking Dead, Black Summer, and Korean thriller Kingdom. But in its three-season run, Santa Clarita Diet distinguished itself with pulsating absurdist humor.
Recent TV horror comedies like Santa Clarita Diet, FX’s What We Do In The Shadows, HBO’s Los Espookys, and CBS’ new sitcom Ghosts present an exciting amalgamation of two already massive genres in their own distinctive ways. This deadly combination has had wide appeal, pulling in audiences who might not usually be able to stomach gore, and inviting fright fans to enjoy heartwarming and slapstick content.
Santa Clarita’s Sheila isn’t up against a horde of brain-eating monsters; she is one. She’s also a real-estate agent working with her doting husband, Joel (Timothy Olyphant), and balancing motherhood with her career. Barrymore’s disarming performance turns Sheila chomping on Nazis for food into great physical comedy. Santa Clarita Diet explores her complicated new identity just as well as it does bizarre zombie mythology.
The rise of TV’s horror-comedies
Examining various horror dimensions through a comedic or satirical lens isn’t a novel concept. Shows like the macabre The Munsters and The Addams Family brought the approach to the small screen in the 1960s. Netflix’s upcoming coming-of-age Wednesday, about Wednesday Addams, and Rob Zombie’s The Munsters reboot for Peacock will keep the respective IPs going strong.
Dark dramas of the ’90s like Twin Peaks and Buffy The Vampire Slayer added gallows humor to offset the horror. More recent shows like Fox’s slasher parody Scream Queens and Starz’s Ash Vs. Evil Dead take a stab at expanding the style on TV. The latter cable network also has Courteney Cox-led Shining Vale in the pipeline for 2022, wherein her character gets possessed by the ghosts in her new house. This genre fusion is being revitalized on TV through horror comedies that are character-driven and on a smaller scale.
Santa Clarita Diet contains itself within the Hammonds’ titular location; the undead antics don’t balloon up to a national or global scale. Showrunner and creator Victor Fresco tells the A.V. Club this limited purview was very intentional. “When I first pitched it, I was clear there won’t be tanks on the street or people running around chasing neighbors,” he says. His previous experiences on Better Off Ted and Mad About You led him to hinstinctually ground such grand ideas.
“I knew Sheila’s decisions will be on a micro level, like ‘How do I eat now?’ or ‘How do I still have relationships?’ The challenge was to keep it funny and horrific while answering those questions.” Fresco has found that comedy blends best with horror because “jokes and mysteries are similar in how they thrive on tension and ever-increasing stakes… The more you can keep the suspense percolating for either of them, the tenser and better the result will be.”
TV’s zombies and vampires are only human, after all
FX’s stellar mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, based on Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clements’ 2014 film, keeps its tension up along with a barrage of ironic humor. Its quartet of centuries-old vampires—Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch)—can barely manage their home, let alone rule over the new world as they envisioned.
One of the more prominent ongoing hybrid shows, WWDITS also mines jokes from mostly confining its protagonists within Staten Island as they discover mundane activities like grocery shopping, or joining gyms and wellness clubs. TV’s bloodsuckers are often broody, entangled in love affairs, or fighting dangerous creatures themselves. WWDITS breaks from this mold with an acute sense of self-awareness, without losing the savage on-screen kills.
Not all current horror comedies thrive on depicting outrageous deaths, or any deaths at all. HBO’s Los Espookys further reinvents the format with a touch of magical realism instead of carnage or outright otherworldly elements. Series co-creator Ana Fabrega tells The A.V. Club that comedies like WWDITS or Santa Clarita Diet are rooted in subverting tropes of one specific mythology. Los Espookys is inspired more by Ghostbusters or Scooby Doo’s Mystery Inc.
“We purposely keep it abstract to open up what a horror-comedy is and can be. [Co-creator and co-star] Julio Torres and I wanted to keep it open-ended to play around in all aspects of what’s considered as magical realism,” Fabrega says. She echoes Fresco’s sentiment that high emotional stakes actually helps dial up the strange hilarity. “It’s a good way to remain grounded.”
The show’s initial pitch came from Saturday Night Live vet Fred Armisen, who also co-stars. Fabrega reveals he was in awe of Mexico City’s goth scene when the idea came to him. Los Espookys follows a group of friends who, at the behest of gore-obsessed Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco), start a business to engineer horror movie-like situations to trick people. Fabrega plays the eccentric Tati, who is usually at the center of the pranks, including undergoing a fake exorcism and dressing up as a sea monster to increase tourism.
Through the dry wit of these capers, the Espookys writers challenge what makes different types of horror tick (in this case, it’s costumes and lots of logistics). “We want to give a nod to a range of subjects, from Scooby Doo to Latin telenovelas, before putting our own weird spin. It resonates because it’s not cartoonish, but it’s also not seriously scary. We were happily surprised by how much the show connected with fans in both Latin America and in the U.S.,” Fabrega says, before confirming that the crew will return to filming in Chile in early 2022 to complete the second season, which was delayed because of the pandemic. “In season two, we move from typical horror to even more fun stuff. It’ll definitely be a nice way to bring those who love both genres together.”
Horror-comedies aren’t just grisly, they’re also feel-good
CBS’s take on British series Ghosts premiered earlier this month, with a recent full season pickup. It brings familiar hangout comedy flair akin to The Office, partly due to showrunners Joe Port and Joe Wiseman’s work on the NBC sitcom, as well as New Girl and the sadly short-lived The Crazy Ones. Broadcast networks don’t usually count horror-comedies as a go-to, especially not Chuck Lorre’s home base. But the network is venturing into this niche with an adaptation of the BBC One sitcom led by iZombie’s Rose McIver and The Mindy Project’s Utkarsh Ambudkar. They play married couple Samantha and Jay, who move into a country house she inherited to turn it into a B&B, unaware it’s inhabited by a slew of spirits from different eras trying to scare them away.
Ghosts offers the fewest scares, instead using supernatural elements to drive a feel-good network comedy as Sam starts to communicate with the ghosts after a near-death incident. Wiseman tells The A.V. Club he felt the genre wasn’t being utilized in this manner just yet. “We want to be character-driven in an inspirational way. The ghosts add an unusual flavor, but become a launching point to tell relatable stories.”
Some of the souls trapped in Sam and Jay’s house have been around for centuries, unable to move on. Port describes: “We get to tap into weighty emotions with that, while using the thinking ‘What if ghosts were real?’ to play around with fun ideas.” This includes the addition of drab-looking, bored ghosts in the basement. Their greatest desire? For a human to leave the light on in the room.
The Ghosts showrunners are huge admirers of WWDITS. Their hope is that their CBS show resonates with fans of the FX comedy, as well as NBC’s The Good Place, which also tapped into larger commentary about life after death. “We’re trying to carve out a specific comedy for those who enjoy ghost stories. It’s similar to watching something like hangout comedies where a disparate group of people are forced to hang out, but with occult and other additional special effects,” Port says.
The unconventional shows tackle established lore, whether of the undead or just unearthly variety, in creative and funny ways. But their true narrative substance lies in executing effective small-scale horror. The stakes feel personal, not apocalyptic, because of a tight emphasis on character and relationship development. Being undead (or, in the case of Los Espookys, being obsessed with the undead) isn’t the end of the world for these horror-comedies. It’s actually just the beginning.