Friday, December 17th, 2010

The Day Comedy Won: How 30 Rock Beat Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Last month, NBC picked up 30 Rock for a sixth season, which must be celebrated as a miracle when one considers what Tina Fey’s “comedy show about a comedy show” was up against during its first year.

In 2006, 30 Rock wasn’t the only NBC show focusing on the off-camera lives of the people who run a live sketch comedy show. The bigger, more highly anticipated, and frankly more popular show was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from power-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing creator and since-then writer of The Social Network). Of course, Studio 60 was a drama while 30 Rock a comedy, and NBC execs compared the situation to having ER and Scrubs on the same network. But Tina Fey was a little more wary, commenting in a New Yorker interview, “It’s just bad luck for me that in my first attempt at prime time I’m going up against the most powerful writer in television.”

We now know Fey’s concerns were short-lived. While Studio 60 started strong with a brilliant pilot, featuring a powerful homage to Network in the form of an embattled showrunner’s meltdown on live television, unfortunately it proved to be the high point of the series. During the rest of the season ratings declined, from 13.14 million viewers during the premiere to 4.20 million during the finale. Meanwhile, 30 Rock, despite a much smaller viewing audience (even when Studio 60 was at its low point), scored much better with the critics and slowly gained traction with fans. In May 2007, NBC announced that Studio 60 would not be returning for a second season.

So what happened? Well, money, for starters. Over the past few years NBC Entertainment executives have become bottom-line deciders (something we all got a taste of during Conangate), and the fact that Studio 60 was costing a reported $3 million per episode surely didn’t help its case. But I think there are three reasons rooted in the nature of today’s comedy community that explain why Goliath failed where David prevailed.

1. The Lorne Michaels Effect. If you’re a 30 Rock fan, if you’re with Coco, and if you loved the Three Amigos! script, you have longtime SNL helmsman (and Three Amigos! co-writer) Lorne Michaels to thank. Michaels has a surprising amount of sway with the string-pullers at NBC, convincing them to give then-unknown Conan O’Brien a chance in 1993 with Late Night, and later serving as executive producer for 30 Rock. Should Julian Assange ever tap Lorne Michaels’ blackberry, I’m sure we’d find quite a few intense exchanges between Michaels and execs worried about the show’s relatively low ratings (30 Rock typically scores between 5 and 6 million viewers per episode, a number CBS’s $#*! My Dad Says routinely doubles). Lorne Michaels is for 30 Rock what James L. Brooks was for The Simpsons — a comedy veteran who can act as an ambassador between the uptight, acronym-spewing Jack Donaghys of the board room and the punk, hygiene-less Frank Rossitanos of the writer’s room.

More evidence of Lorne Michaels’ role in the battle: When Aaron Sorkin asked to sit in and observe the SNL production process for a week, Michaels declined, claiming he disagreed with Studio 60’s focus on backroom politics (brooding network executives) instead of the role talent plays on a sketch comedy show (insane, egomaniacal actors). Personally, I suspect Michaels wasn’t crazy about Sorkin’s pilot featuring a Michaels-like figure ranting about his SNL-like show: “This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it's gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience.” Ouch.

2. Hollywood shouldn’t do New York. While I typically disagree with much of Entertainment Weekly’s coverage of SNL episodes, it made a good point when it said Katy Perry’s performance of “California Girls” during this year’s season premiere “seemed somewhat lost on an iconic New York show.” There are some things that just belong to the Big Apple, and a show that opens with “Live from New York…” every week is one of them. As brilliant a screenwriter as Aaron Sorkin is, his understanding of the inner workings of a live sketch comedy show felt secondhand at best. Tina Fey, meanwhile, could write directly from her years as the head writer for SNL. And while Fey kept her show light, aloof, and strictly about the comedy, Sorkin tried to bring the Hollywood romanticism to the television studio the same way he did to the White House. But this time, audiences weren’t buying it.

There’s something to the claustrophobia, the harsh weather, and the general frustrations of New York City life that blend so naturally with the anxieties of the people who pour their souls into an admittedly hit-or-miss sketch comedy show every week. Meanwhile, the “staff” of the on-screen Studio 60 — all with chiseled features and even tans, driving expensive cars, and acting more interesting at after-parties than at work — looked like they just wandered off a Michael Bay set. I’m not saying that New York is any better than Los Angeles in terms of either city’s comedic talent pool; The Simpsons, The Office, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Parks & Recreation are all west coast produced shows. But if you’re making a series that’s an examination of an SNL-style show, having the announcer say, “Live, from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it’s Friday night in Hollywood!” just feels a little off.

3. Studio 60 just didn’t “get” comedy. The 2006 film Man of the Year stars Robin Williams as a Jon Stewart-esque political comedian who runs for president. It’s an interesting concept (bested when Stephen Colbert actually ran for president in 2008), but the movie falls flat for me. It wasn’t the fact that the movie tried to balance between “being serious” and “being funny.” It was that the “funny” parts weren’t funny. We were shown all these shots of people laughing at Robin Williams’ character cracking jokes on his show, in stump speeches, and in national debates, as if the director was telling us: “See? He’s funny!” The problem is, I already know Robin Williams is funny — explicitly stating it just feels smug. And it’s even worse when the jokes themselves aren’t very good.

Studio 60 suffered from the same problem. There was a great deal of dialogue about sketches, and whether or not sketches are “funny.” In the rare moments we actually see or hear the written material, it sucks. And not in an ironic, self-aware way. A character reads aloud the following joke: “At schools today all the kids are diagnosed with dyslexia, hyperlexia, ADD, ADHD. In my day, you were just stupid.” The response: “This is funny!” In fact, it’s not just funny, it’s hil-arious; In the episode it’s the only funny joke to come out of the writer’s room in weeks. I don’t know, I think the joke is okay, maybe if delivered by Rodney Dangerfield. Even the ridiculous “mock premises” pitched in the TGS writer’s room (“Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” anyone?) are funnier ideas than that.

On Studio 60, Matthew Perry plays Matt Albie, the head writer on the show, who spends hours and hours in his office writing entire 90-minute episodes by himself because he feels he’s funnier than his entire writer’s room combined, and the show leads us to believe him. In the second episode he runs into writer’s block when he has to come up with the cold open. Suddenly he has a eureka! moment and jumps on his lap top. Eventually we see this “amazing” sketch: A parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “A Modern Major-General” called “A Modern Network TV Show,” with the actors performing a song and dance number promising, “Although our producer was caught doing blow… we’ll be the very model of a modern network TV show.” The piece feels underwhelming — the actual actors’ singing voices are weak, which undercuts the operatic context of the sketch. And the jokes — buried by the song’s mouth-full speed — aren’t as visceral as the studio audience’s reactions make them sound. Yet Aaron Sorkin — er, Matt Albie — watches over the performance with a proud smile on his face: I did it! It’s funny! You didn’t, and it’s not.

30 Rock never makes the mistake of trying to legitimately impress us with TGS sketches. Instead, Tina Fey makes a mockery of the sketch production process, with charming, we-know-this-is-bad sketches about robots fighting bears and Star Jones spraying fake vomit everywhere. She also manages quite a few jabs at Studio 60, including: “This is worse than that time we did that Gilbert and Sullivan parody.” Ouch.

The bottom line here is that 30 Rock is a show in which hilarious comedians play mediocre ones. Studio 60 was the exact opposite.

Still, despite all the hate hurled at Aaron Sorkin for being a dramatic writer who assumed he knew just as much about comedy as the rest of us do, you have to give the guy credit for trying something different. I’m sure he learned a lot in the process, and the lessons have made him an even greater writer. Comedy is hard. I think the soon-to-be Academy Award winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is happier than most of us that the other “show about a sketch show” made it and not his.

And Tina Fey remains the hero from one of the few occurrences on television in a decade dominated by high-rated dramas in which comedy actually won.

Erik Voss did like The Social Network, however.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Parker/12800386 Jeff Parker

    I think you're right about Studio 60's comedic flaws. The other issue it suffered from, though, was the same that all of Aaron Sorkin's shows did: it takes fantastic actors to pull off his ridiculous dialogue.

    I enjoyed Studio 60, the West Wing, and Sports Night. Yet when watching a Sorkin show, I found myself constantly thinking "no one in the world talks like this." It breaks the suspension of disbelief. His movies always turn out great, because you have the level of acting to pull off that fast-paced, unrealistic dialogue. On television, however, the actors are clearly spitting out written lines (with notable exceptions such as Martin Sheen and Rob Lowe).

    • http://mattpayton.tumblr.com/ BobSacamano

      Exactly! Not only is the dialog completely fake, it's also just really fucking shitty and show-offy. It sounds as if it were written by an arrogant 11th grader.

      • http://notesfromthecellar.com Steve Paulo

        You must know some fucking smart 11th graders.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ryan-Sullivan/88300377 Ryan Sullivan

    I was a big Studio 60 fan, I'm also a big 30 Rock fan. In my own personal opinion, I think that most people didn't want to watch a show about comedy being "hard". They want to see a ridiculous show, where actors have all this money, don't care about the fans, etc. Studio 60, to me, was about how hard it was to be funny. Yes, I understand that many of the actual jokes used weren't, could they have benefited from actual comedy writers, maybe. I never saw Studio 60 pitched as "laugh every 10 seconds".

    30 Rock was and is a great show, filled with all sorts of rapid fire dialogue. I guess it would've been like if ER had incorrect usage of medical terms. The show isn't really about doing medicine, as it is the people doing it. Now, Scrubs came along and not only showed us that but did one better. I digress…

    I loved Studio 60 and I'm sad it was off the air. One final point, a reason it cost 3 million an episode? Look up Amanda Peet's salary. If she had taken a smaller paycheck, it might've developed further. Anyhow, thanks for at least mentioning Studio 60? Still love the site.

    • HerooftheBeach

      Are you serious about Peet's salary? She (and her terrible character) was the first reason I gave up on that show. God, she was awful.

  • riggssm

    I enjoyed elements of Studio 60, especially Stephen Weber and the way Sorkin wrapped up the Chinese-speaking businessman story:

    Jack: You speak English?
    Zhang Tao: I speak a few words.
    Jack: How many words?
    Zhang Tao: All of them.
    Jack: Why do you pretend you can't speak English?
    Zhang Tao: It's fun.
    Jack: It's fun?! [pause] Yeah. Guess it would be.

    Seems to me the biggest flaw was Sorkin writing out his grudges for all the world to see. Maybe Schlamme didn't want to or couldn't reign him in.

    Even with my limited familiarity with the history of their careers, it felt a little heavy-handed. I was embarassed for them.

  • http://recursivebee.blogspot.com Patrick M

    Totally agree with point 3: The sketches were supposed to be amazing but every glimpse they showed of one (like Nate Corddry in a Lobster Suit or something) seemed more like they were poking fun of tired SNL sketches (the fact that Mark McKinney came on board later reinforced that idea in my head).
    But maaaaaaaaaaan I watched every episode.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ted-Gillespie/1011360055 Ted Gillespie

    And we're going to completely ignore the huge boost in ratings for 30 Rock after the Sarah Palin impressions?

    That was probably the best thing that happened to Tina Fey's career and that 30 Rock. It was always that good, but the Palin impressions gave people who didn't know a reason to watch.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Stephen-Thompson/3312732 Stephen Thompson

      There was a bump in ratings, but it wasn't that huge and it has since subsided. And if we are going off that theory then why wouldn't Sorkin's audience from WW naturally stick around for more than a few episodes?

  • cherrispryte

    I got the impression that Studio 60 was more about "here's all the shit I ran into while trying to write The West Wing" than anything else, and for that, as a West Wing obsessive, I loved it. The 30 Rock comparison is inevitable and obvious, but at least for Sorkin, I don't quite think that's what he was talking about.

  • HerooftheBeach

    You totally nailed it right here: "The bottom line here is that 30 Rock is a show in which hilarious comedians play mediocre ones. Studio 60 was the exact opposite." That speaks volumes, and describes the problem that clearly ran up to the top.

    I attempted to watch Studio 60 pretty much blind a couple years after the fact, since I just ran into it on Hulu, without knowing its background, and I gave up after episode four. The very idea of a humorless drama about comedy–apparently produced by humorless people–just doesn't seem wise, and then the drama itself was awful. (I'm supposed to believe the entertainment media actually cares about some random studio brass's degrading sex history? Really?)

    The bottom line is if your plot calls for someone or something to be The Best, it better be the fucking best. In comedy, it might be an impossible trick, since the very challenge completely warps our expectations, nevermind that Sorkin was outside his element to begin with. Studio 60 was doomed from the start.

  • http://www.joeyheadset.com joeyheadset

    This would be more convincing if 30 Rock had ever been funny. Even once. By accident. Studio 60 had a lot of problems, but it's worst episode was funnier than 30 Rock's best. The hipster-lite demographic that pretends Tina Fey is a comedic genius has certainly "won". Comedy, however, was never in the fight.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Wiebe/579721912 Jeff Wiebe

      Hm. I don't think I'm any kind of hipster. My wife and I watch 30Rock with delight and loud laughter at several points in pretty much every episode. I have a good friend who thinks it is dull and can't understand why we like it. My point? Deliberately declaring that something "is" or "isn't" funny, objectively, doesn't make sense to me. Declaring that you subjectively don't like it, or find it funny, is fine.

  • barleyherb

    @ Jeff Parker: Yes, yes, yes. You've nailed it: not just the ridiculousness of the dialogue but the fact that he gets away with it if the actors are good enough. There must be other examples of other writers with the same issue. 'Shakespeare', shouts some wag from the bleachers.

  • barleyherb

    Also: it's worth slogging through Studio 60 for the insane four-part season finale, which features Sorkin's LOUD THOUGHTS ON THE IRAQ WAR, some deeply regressive family drama, and a super-creepy final scene. You'll believe you can hate Bradley Whitford!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brad-Brown/100000125787018 Brad Brown

    First, I have never understand the problem people have with this type of dialogue. You do know you're watching fiction, right? In this show, that's how the people talk… It's funny that the dialogue gets made fun of in this show, but in The Social Network, the script is one of the things that gets praised the most.

    Second, Studio 60 isn't a comedy. It's a drama that is based around a fictional comedy show. The reason it's not very funny is either because Aaron just isn't good at comedy (although I enjoyed all the Nicolas Cage bits) or he is making some kind of meta-joke about SNL not being funny anymore. And comparing it to 30 Rock makes no sense because, again, Studio 60 isn't a comedy. It's comparing a drama and a comedy, then complaining that the drama isn't as funny as the comedy.

    Last, complaining about the location of the fictional show is laughable. Why in the world does it matter where the "show" is located? If it was based in New York, would you give it extra points?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Phil-Parsons/661241448 Phil Parsons
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Phil-Parsons/661241448 Phil Parsons
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Phil-Parsons/661241448 Phil Parsons
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Phil-Parsons/661241448 Phil Parsons

    I think this article expresses every misgiving I had about "Studio 60" except one: The incessant political preachiness in the writing and the annoying sense of self importance the characters seemed to have.

    For example, there was a two parter where John Goodman played a judge in Nevada who detains some of the cast and writers. He makes a real point of telling them how he objects to the way their show portrays Middle America and ridicules his beliefs and so on. It felt like the writers were trying to say "Look Red States – we understand your feelings and we're giving them a voice in this lovable cranky judge character. Our liberal regulars are sure gonna learn a lesson this week!" I just don't think Hollywood or New York are NEARLY as important to the rest of the country as they think they are. It would have been more realistic and dramatically interesting to me if the Studio 60 staff had accused the judge of harrassing them because he found their program offensive only to be told that he didn't watch their show and frankly didn't give a shit what their little sketches had to say about his way of life.

  • Boyd

    Studio 60 was one of those shows that you can watch and actually become dumber. It was full of the most unlikeable characters who somehow we were supposed to like. I was a big fan of The West Wing. But when Sorkin has full control he sucks. He is good at the technical act of writing snappy dialogue. He sucks at every other aspect of writing. Horrible story and character development. Back in the west wing days sucked, it was nothing but cheap sitcoms. Now after a decade of so many great shows it becomes clear how overrated Sorkin was.