Serious Comedy at Aaron Sorkin’s ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’

In the war of the low-rated backstage-at-SaturdayNightLive TV shows, there can be only one. And in 2006’s race to viewership mediocrity, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which spoofed her time as SNL’s head writer, was Christopher Lambert. And we’re all better for it.

Well, everyone was better for it, except for this guy: Aaron Sorkin.

Despite 30 Rock garnering fewer viewers than Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a backstage drama and thinly veiled allegory for the writer’s time on Sports Night and The West Wing, NBC pulled the plug on the show and condemned it to an eternity in this column. After 22 episodes, Sorkin was off the air, but how could TV’s most successful creator not win this one?

Surely there was enough room on TV for two shows to bite the hand that feeds them and lash out against the commercial and corporate interests of network television. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time it happened. Trends usually take over TV at the same time. That’s what makes them trends. As NBC president Kevin Reilly told The New York Times in 2006, “I just can’t imagine the audience would look at both shows, choose one and cancel the other out. In some ways, why is it any different than Scrubs and ER, which are tonally very different?”

Danny Tripp directing Hardball with Juliette Lewis

And different it was. For instance, in the 30 Rock pilot, fictional SNL head writer, Liz Lemon, searches for the mad, and disgraced, comic genius that can save her terrible show. Studio 60’s pilot takes different route. You see, after slumming it in the ratings, a brazen network head goes in search of the critically acclaimed, yet disgraced, comic genius who could — oh, I see what’s going on here.

OK. So the shows weren’t that different on the surface, but in tone, the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. 30 Rock’s playing with sitcom tropes gave it an Airplane! meets Mary Tyler Moore vibe, especially in the pilot. Studio 60 is far more self-righteous, if you could believe it, with the pilot mimicking and openly referencing the classic film Network, particularly its famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” speech. Sorkin uses the show as an affront on the commercialization of art and humor, rather than a lampoon of the lives of funny people. In the below clip from Studio 60, Judd Hirsch gives an amazing monologue about the state of TV comedy after Taxi.

If that clip feels oddly familiar, it’s because Sorkin used it again last year.

The Newsroom, also created and penned by Sorkin, also has much in common with Studio 60. Like Studio 60, it revolves around the egomaniacs that run TV and their own delusions of grandeur. Studio 60 has Matt Albie and Danny Tripp, Newsroom has Will McAvoy, and all three are virtuosos of their respective fields (at least that’s what they think). Sorkin also relies on a will-they-won’t-they dynamic between a behind scenes showrunner and the show’s star. Studio 60 has Matthew Perry and Sarah Paulson; Newsroom has Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer. But what The Newsroom has, which Studio 60 shouldn’t, is a consistent tone to set its action. The Newsroom deals in the tragedies, horrors, and fears of the modern world. Studio 60 worries that a sketch called “Peripheral Vision Man” isn’t edgy enough. Is the level of seriousness taken to comedy appreciated? Sure. Should it be this joyless? Eh, probably not. Would it kill these comedy writers and comedians to be funny once in awhile? Yes, comedy is very deadly.

Sorkin is an auteur that loves backstage drama, whether it’s at ESPN or The White House. He loves capturing people who are passionate about their work, talk fast, make grandiose speeches, and stare hopelessly into the abyss as they soon realize just how alienated and alone they actually are. Studio 60 is no exception. Sorkin just doesn’t handle the stakes very. It’s hard to feel sorry for a comic genius like Matt Albie when Aaron Sorkin never properly shows off that genius. Studio 60 offers something new and refreshing, something that probably would’ve evolved into The Newsroom with more likable cast of characters, but Sorkin seems less equipped to handle the funny.

Studio 60 has been made the butt of a lot of jokes since cancellation — look no further than a few paragraphs up — but it does manage to entertain even when moving characters back and forth on treadmill of exposition. Sorkin takes comedy seriously (if not a little too seriously), in ways that could’ve been ironed out with a second season. But putting together a fake sketch show isn’t cheap, and Studio 60 was cut because of budgetary restraints. It’s a shame, too, because it probably would’ve been a great Breaking Bad to 30 Rock’s Weeds instead of a Playboy’s Club to 30 Rock’s Mad Men.

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