After years of TV being a wasteland for wastedness, a pair of woozy comedies have helped bring weed back in from the cold, says Henry Oliver. //
Like all things, drugs are subject to fashion. As one comes in, another goes out. In the 90s and early 00s, weed was most definitely IN: The Chronic, Dazed and Confused, Cypress Hill, Kyuss, Half Baked, Dude, Where’s My Car, Afroman. I could go on and on and on and … you get it. People liked to get stoned, and none more so than the stoner.
The stoner is distinct from other, garden variety marijuana users not necessarily in their appreciation of the sweet leaf, but in the way that it informs their identity. Plenty of people smoke marijuana, even habitually, with no outward signs of their predilection – they have jobs, wear suits, and eat healthily (a friend’s trainer once recommended a weight loss program of getting stoned, working out and resisting unhealthy temptations).
The stoner, on the other hand, is someone whose marijuana use is an integral part of their identity. Stoners look like stoners and, more importantly, stoners live like stoners. Yes, there are wine snobs and craft beer bores, but a wine snob’s love of wine rarely defines that person’s world view the way a stoner’s love of weed does.
The stoner has long been a staple of the big screen. From the underground movies of the ‘60s, the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls of the ‘70s, the video-store-classics of the ‘80s, the indie/festival hits of the ‘90s, and the meta-stoner romps of the ‘00s. But despite decades of this most lovable and hilarious of character tropes, the stoner has largely been absent from the small screen. For years, industry lobby groups have pressured television networks in the States to self-censor when it comes to any drug use that doesn’t have a anti-drug consequence. Every family values sitcom worth its salt has had the ‘just don’t smoke pot – it’s not worth it’ episode. Sure, it seems innocent enough, but who knows what it’s laced with/where it’s leading you/what embarrassing thing you will do in front of your crush while on it.
Things loosened a little in the ‘90s. In That ‘70s Show, implied marijuana use was central to the show. It usually wasn’t a plot point or a life lesson, the characters just liked to get stoned and talk shit. But, if you didn’t know what was happening, there was nothing in the show that told you. The kids sat in a smoky circle and talked. That’s it. They hardly ever spoke about what they were doing and you certainly never saw a joint or pipe. But when marijuana was explicitly included in the plot, it was used in the same after-school-special way most sitcoms used it, which made no sense given the implied regular smoking of the main characters.
During That ‘70s Show’s run, Freaks and Geeks – one of the greatest shows ever to be cancelled during its first season – took a demographically similar group of teens and portrayed them in a more honest light. In Freaks and Geeks – the Freaks being the stoners – marijuana use was treated in a way that was both less silly and less educational.
Now, in the age of cable television and the slow expansion of decriminalisation/legalisation (in the US at least, though surely to follow elsewhere in the not-too-distant future), the stoner is making a comeback and this time it is hitting TV screens without implication or obfuscation.
An obvious example is Workaholics, a juvenile comedy in the classic stoner tradition. Three stoner bros live together, work together (telemarketing) and get high together. Marijuana is present in nearly every episode, with the bros getting in some kind of trouble and finding their way out. Of course, this is the standard sitcom trope, but when it comes to the weed, it isn’t what’s getting in their way, it’s everything else. I mean, these guys aren’t scaling the corporate mountainside or anything, but they’re functional. They work to live not the opposite, and weed is just a part of that.
In the pilot episode, the crew end a Sunday afternoon party with a blunt on their roof. The next morning, they arrive at work only to find that there’s a drug test that day. One of the bros has organised some clean urine one of the other bros tips it out as part of their constant back-and-forth pranking. This sets off a 15 minute hijinks-laden attempt to pass the test. We’ve all seen a version of this story before, but what’s new here (new for TV especially) is that the show never says that the bros shouldn’t have smoked weed in the first place, only that they should have put more effort into doing so without detection. And, SPOILER ALERT: they get away with it.
Broad City, which recently returned in the US, is more subversive, taking the stoner buddy comedy and turning it inside out. Main characters Ilana and Abbi (played by Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, the show’s co-creators and head writers), get stoned on the streets of New York, dipping into doorways and alleys for a quick toke on a pipe, and getting into crazy only-in-New York adventures.
Abbi is the ‘straight man’ to Ilana’s free spirit. In the second episode, ‘Pu$$y Weed’, Abbi decides she is sick of relying on Ilana for her high (Ilana supplies the two with weed, which she transports, um, inside herself – apparently a true story) so goes about trying to procure her own. The show subverts the stoner trope in terms of gender (the female stoner being a relatively untapped comedy resource) and race, with Abbi heading to the park and trying to score by walking around saying “pot, pot, weed, weed”. A black man approaches her thinking she’s the dealer. She eventually scores off a lily white private schoolboy.
The procurement tactic that Abbi doesn’t try is the predominant method of modern day affluent New York: the bike courier. High Maintenance, a web-series hosted on Vimeo that is viewable here, follows an unnamed bicycle weed dealer from sale to sale. Each episode is 5-12 minutes long and focusses on the client’s story, with the dealer in a supporting role. The dealer sells to middle aged bird-watchers, fashion industry narcissists, vegan lesbians, personal assistants, cross-dressing screen-writers, and couch crashers.
More dramedy than straight comedy, High Maintenance documents the continuing normalcy of marijuana use through the eyes of a very stoner dealer. For a compelling 5-or-so minute show, it’s surprisingly meandering, moving at a stoner’s pace. If you’ve got a spare couple of hours, you could easily catch up on the whole thing.
So, if you’re so inclined, there’s never been a better time to sit in front of your television and roll, light, puff and pass. If you’re not, just relax and enjoy the contact high.