Inside ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ with Matt Albie
This fall, the long-running NBS sketch show Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is set to enter its 29th season, and no one has been a larger part of the program’s success than its head writer and executive producer Matt Albie, who has been a major creative force behind the show since he was first hired in 1997.
I was fortunate to be granted a rare interview with Albie, who contacted me via his Twitter account to set things up during his summer break from S60. Albie and I discussed the show’s legacy, Emmy chances, and his tips for young comedy writers.
Take us through a typical week at Studio 60.
Well, on Sunday the staff comes in and we meet that week’s host. This is a tradition that Wes [Mendell] started, and I think it’s a good one. It sort of allows the host to feel comfortable. So, we go around the room and pitch the host sketch ideas. Mine are the best.
On Monday and Tuesday, everyone goes into their offices and silently thinks about comedy. They think about the history of comedy—where it’s been and where it’s headed. They have to stay all night doing that. This is where those legendary stories of Studio 60 all-nighters come from. One time, when Rhea Perlman was in the cast, she thought about comedy so hard and so long that blood came out of her eyes and mouth and she had to go to the hospital because of all the blood she lost. That doesn’t happen too much anymore.
Anyway, Wednesday is our table read. My stuff gets all the laughs.
Thursday, I throw everything out except for my stuff and write the rest of show.
Friday, we have a dress rehearsal where we put up five to seven extra sketches the people at home never see. This is when I like to put up a sketch written by a rookie writer that I know will die in front of the audience. What I’ll do is I’ll stand right behind him or her while the sketch is being performed and whisper things like, “That was bad,” or “This is terrible so far,” or “This line coming up is not funny and you are not funny.”
That’s how they learn.
Then at 11:30, it’s show time. You know, there’s a saying: “It doesn’t go up because it’s ready, it goes up because God loves Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip with all of his heart.”
I don’t believe in God, but I believe in that saying.
What’s the key to keeping Studio 60 relevant?
So basically Danny Tripp and I are these hip cool guys who have our fingers on the pulse. We are very cool. I can’t stress how cool we are. We talk cool and walk cool and, it’s just this big ol’ cool fest when we are around. Anyway, we make sure it stays relevant. Now, sometimes I worry the show is too relevant, too prescient. You know what I mean? Did the game show sketch, “Middle East or Middle Earth?” singlehandedly start the Arab Spring? I think so.
Another way we try to keep the show relevant is by reading the news. For example, if a news story happens and it’s about, say, Barack Obama (the president), I’ll ask the room, “Should we make a joke about this news story involving Barack Obama?” If somebody says, “I don’t know,” I’ll think about that and respond, “But it will make the show seem relevant if we do a joke about this particular topical news story involving Barack Obama.”
That’s when person who said, “I don’t know,” gives me a look that basically says, “You’re right, Matt. Sorry.”
Do you ever feel like, as a writer, you push the envelope too far?
I don’t push envelopes. I put pointed social and political messages in envelopes and then I send them to the powerful and the elite. They open up the envelopes, read the messages inside, and say to themselves, “I have just been satirically skewered.”
Then they cry. Then they change their behavior.
Studio 60’s comedy changes the world.
Do you read anything that’s written online about the show?
You know, I try to avoid that. Sometimes all the praise can get to your head and you can get complacent. For example, I’ll admit I was curious about what everyone thought about “Middle Name or Middle Lane?” It was this game show sketch about middle names and bowling and driving and other things dealing with middle lanes.
Here were the YouTube Comments: “Genius,” “Hilarious,” “Matt and company have done it again,” “A leap into absurdity that Studio 60 pulls off with great aplomb.” They just went on and on and on like that for pages. And everyone on Twitter was equally complimentary, same with Facebook. Basically, the Internet is a positive place, but maybe it’s too positive? That’s why it’s important to block it all out and assess the work without all the yea-sayers screaming in your ear.
You don’t have a background as a performer, but have you ever considered being an actor on Studio 60?
Not really. I’m more comfortable being this sort of behind the scenes guy who everyone somehow seems to recognize in public, and who is somehow popular enough to date super models, and who people—not just comedy nerds, but regular people—ask for his autograph.
What’s your relationship with Wes Mendell like these days? Do you two still talk?
If Danny is like my brother, and Wes is like a father to him, then Wes, by virtue of Danny and I being like brothers, must also be a father to me. Understand?
He’s like a father to me is what I’m trying to say.
I check in with Wes about once or twice a month. I mean, the man’s a legend. He wrote for The Smothers Brothers for Christ’s sake. There was a game show sketch we were going to do back in April called “Middle Man or Middle Manager?” and I asked him, “Should we repeat the word “Middle” in the title?” and he said, “Repetition is humorous.” So we put the word “Middle” twice and of course it got a huge laugh.
The Emmys are coming up. How do you feel about Studio 60‘s chances?
I don’t care about awards or awards shows. AT ALL. All they are are frivolous ceremonies where producers, actors, and writers pathetically whore themselves out there, and for what? So they can say they won a goddamn award?
That said, if there is any justice, if there is any fairness in this mad, mad world, Studio 60 will walk away with every fucking award it’s nominated for. Because it’s the fucking best and deserves to be honored as such. Also my writing is the best. And yeah, if I lose, I’ll sit there and smile and clap and I’ll play their little fucking game, but inside? Oh, on the inside I’ll be a seething pile of rage, and all I’ll be seeing up at that podium is a person whose career I will personally and gladly destroy.
Again, award shows mean nothing to me.
Do you get the chance to see much live comedy these days?
I don’t because Studio 60 is the best. But when I do go out to live comedy shows, first off I’m usually I’m in my disguise—Richard Nixon mask, Groucho Marx mustache, big red clown wig—because if I don’t put that on, all the attention in the room will inevitably focus on me.
But, to be honest, I don’t get the material really. Here is what kids doing live comedy need to understand if they want to get hired at Studio 60: I want to see crazy characters. Characters where, if you put them in a sketch, the other actors in the sketch can have lines like, “Hey man, you are insane,” or “Your craziness is making me angry,” or “Hey, Jeff, did you have to bring your friend to the baseball game who coincidentally vomits when someone hits a homerun?” And then, you know, during the second third of that particular sketch, as a surprise, the person vomits when someone hits a double. That’s what we call in the sketch biz “the turn.”
That one’s for free, folks.
When did you first become interested in comedy?
When I was in third grade, I wrote a parody of Portnoy’s Complaint that absolutely killed. From that point, I was hooked.
Who were your comedic influences growing up and who are they now?
Well, Danny Tripp is my only comedic influence now. But when I was growing up, I was mainly into the classics: Nichols and May, Burns and Allen, Martin and Lewis, Ward and Flint, Poplar and Hyde, Vernon and Walsh, Brody and Jody, Reynolds and Jackson, Walters and Connors, Hayes and Page (If you haven’t listened to Hayes and Page’s first album, An Evening with Hayes and Page, it’ll change your life) Benson and Anderson, Dawson and Potter, Niles and Giles, Klein and Meyer, Poitras and Kemmis, Cleary and Watson, Schreiner and Bent, Kleppin and Nevin, Kikkin and Nikkin, Puffin and Muffin, Dilt and Silt, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and Pin and Din.
Do you remember the first episode of Studio 60 you saw?
I, like the rest of American, watched that legendary first episode on September 19, 1986. Host: Scott Bakula, musical guest: Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and The Rolling Stones.
I mean, once cast member Harrison Ford looked at the camera wearing those vampire teeth and said, “Live from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it’s Friday night in Hollywood,” I knew this was the show I wanted to work on.
What was your first job in show business?
Staff writer at Saturday Night Live.
Do you have a favorite sketch you’ve written?
A lot of people assume that my favorite sketch I’ve ever written is “Crazy Christians”—and yes, it’s brilliant and poignant and says something about our culture and who we are as a society—but the truth is the best thing I’ve ever written was a game show sketch called “Kate Middleton or Middletown, New Jersey?”
Reflecting on the show’s history a bit, how is Studio 60 different now from how it first started?
Well, it’s definitely better now. But it was excellent back then, so I would assume that the outside eye can barely tell the difference. I would say that the show really found its voice during the first line of the cold open of the very first show. That’s when it sort of hit its stride and never looked back.
If you were able to assemble your Studio 60 dream cast, culled from the show’s former cast members from all different eras (living or dead), who would be on it?
Thomas Haden Church
Harriet Hayes. Harriet, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry. You’re the only one out there for me. Yes, we argue about religion, and yes, I think your beliefs are moronic and equivalent to the thoughts of the most mentally disabled caveman, but by God we are perfect for each other. Listen, when it comes down to it: you think I’m the smartest, funniest, most talented person on Earth. Shouldn’t that be enough? Call me.
Thousands of comedians have auditioned for Studio 60 over the years and many of the ones who are passed over have gone on to impressive careers of their own. Is there one particular performer you regret Studio 60 rejecting?
Studio 60 is filmed in the Addison Theater, which has so much history. Can you tell us about any easter eggs or secret areas of the theater that you’ve discovered from years of working there?
Carl Reiner is buried in the basement. The Carl Reiner who is alive right now is not the original Carl Reiner.
How do Studio 60 and its legacy compare to other comedy institutions?
Studio 60 is the best and most important. Other comedy institutions can go straight to hell and die there.
Follow Matt Albie on Twitter @MattAlbie60