When NBC announced their fall slate, I took sides. I made my decision in advance. Looking back I’m not sure what I based that decision on – was it really the comparative level of experience of each show’s creator, or was it some deeper, uglier thing I don’t like to think about (but I do think women can be just as funny as men!)? But I made that decision, and I threw my support behind Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
I was a partisan. I didn’t even watch 30 Rock. When my friend Sam said that he didn’t get a part on the show, I said that it was for the best – 30 Rock won’t last*. I didn’t just TiVo Studio 60, I made sure to be home at 10:20 to see it (come on, I’m not sitting through commercials no matter what). And at first, it was good. I liked the pilot and was intrigued at what Aaron Sorkin, the genius from whose forehead had been birthed West Wing and Sports Night, could do with the behind the scenes shenanigans of a live comedy show. And that cast! Bradley Whitford, long my favorite on West Wing. Matthew Perry, hungry for serious work after Friends and for all sorts of food after kicking pills, Nate Corddry, the less-funny, less bald brother of Rob. Timothy Busfield, in a regular role! And the underappreciated Steven Weber, coming out the gate great.
Did 30 Rock start as strong? I couldn’t tell you – I still haven’t seen the first few episodes. But as strong as Studio 60 started, it just couldn’t maintain. For a couple of weeks I was making excuses, being the kind of apologist who I ridiculed when it came to Star Wars, or getting fleeced for Star Wars stuff on Ebay, or college football teams. Looking back now I don’t even recognize that man, a man who was scared to see what was right in front of his very face: Studio 60 sucked.
Studio 60 sucked hard. It sucked hard enough to leave hickeys on your eyeballs. And still I tuned in, week in and week out, decrying the soft-brained fools who were abandoning the show in droves. “This show is too good for you people!” I thought. How delusional. How sad.
Eventually I had become like an abused woman (no, not asking for it, you creepy jerk) – taking the beating and making the excuses. But like Farrah Fawcett in The Burning Bed, there was only so much Paul Le Mat I could take** and I ended it with Studio 60 (the one where Whitford and Amanda Peet are locked on the roof almost killed me. It was self-defense). But I don’t end relationships in quite the same fiery way Fawcett did in that TV movie – usually I just stop taking the poor girl’s calls. And that’s what I did with Studio 60; I let the TiVo keep on recording it, but I never watched the episodes and eventually let the machine just record over them.
It was the TiVo that allowed me to get away from Studio 60, and it was also the TiVo that brought me 30 Rock. It decided to record the show for me one week; on a whim I watched. And it was like new love. Tina Fey doesn’t have the track record that Aaron Sorkin does (and neither did she, as far as I know, ever smoke crack), but she also doesn’t have the need to shoehorn issues and weighty subjects into a show about a comedy program. The thing that Fey may have figured out that Sorkin couldn’t, though, is that conflict is what it’s all about. Also, Alec Baldwin is just so fucking funny.
See, Studio 60 is like Star Trek: The Next Generation. Everybody gets along. All threats are external. In space that’s pretty boring, but backstage of a comedy show it’s not just boring, it’s just plain unbelievable. It’s the 21st century, and even if people didn’t read Tom Shales’ excellent Live From New York oral history of the behind-the-scenes nuttiness of Saturday Night Live, they understand that performers are egotistical and selfish and childish and often have impulse control issues and get jealous of the other people in the cast and so on and so forth. They don’t sit around reading Harper’s, for the love of Jeremy Sisto as Jesus.
30 Rock has wonderful, hilarious characters who bounce off of each other. Where Sorkin needed to keep each of his characters as some kind of noble example, Fey and her writers let the cast of 30 Rock be petty and spiteful and stupid and make terrible decisions (oddly, Fey’s fucked up characters are infinitely more likable and watchable than Sorkin’s pompous, boring characters). But most of all these characters are allowed to be funny. I wish I could take credit for this, but someone once described the characters and situations on Studio 60 as ‘distressingly serious,’ and that’s just so true. These people do not feel like comedians.
And that’s totally because Aaron Sorkin doesn’t get comedy. He gets being funny – there are plenty of funny bits on West Wing and Sports Night – but funny is very different from comedy. A lot of people don’t see that distinction, and this is what leads a guy who kills his friends with jokes when they’re having beers to try out a disastrous set on open mic night. It’s like the difference between singing in your shower and singing at Carnegie Hall, and Sorkin’s great in the shower. He would have been much better off setting his show in another environment, one that didn’t require an understanding of comedy and comedians (here’s a hint, Aaron – comedy writers don’t sit in poorly lit rooms that look like they’re fit to negotiate an arms treaty). The real example of how much Sorkin doesn’t get comedy is in Studio 60‘s sketches – they’re like the example of unfunny, making MadTV look inspired. Fox News’ new unfunny comedy show The Half Hour News Hour should hire Sorkin stat since, while they may not agree on politics, that show and this creator certainly are in tune when it comes to being stupefyingly uncomedic.
Because Fey comes from Saturday Night Live and from comedy, she gets what the comedy world is like. Even though most of us have never stepped foot in that reality, 30 Rock’s presentation rings truer, so while you may argue that it’s unfair to compare two shows going for very different things, the point of comparison can remain how they deal with their milieus.
What’s saddest here is how badly Fey and her writers trounced Sorkin and his no writers when it came to the one thing Sorkin’s supposd to be all about – writing. Sorkin’s penchant for speechifying reached a nadir in Studio 60 as he expected us to believe that people on a weekly comedy show talked in the words he stuffed in their mouths. Not a single one of his characters ever felt real, but rather like vehicles for Sorkin’s thoughts on current events. This was particularly true with Harriet, the single worst character on network television this year, who was a Christian woman who always felt vaguely animatronic. Meanwhile, the dialogue on 30 Rock is zippy and enjoyable, and each characters speaks… gasp!… in their own voice! Give me a Studio 60 script and, without contextual clues, I couldn’t tell you if Danny or Matt were saying a line. Give me a 30 Rock script and I know I could pick Tracy Jordan out from Liz Lemon. No problem.
I don’t have to be partisan anymore, since Studio 60 is essentially toast. But if that show did come back, I would quickly purge my TiVo Season Pass (hey, I should do that anyway. Thanks for the reminder) and never look back. I’m sticking with 30 Rock, with it’s wonderful characters like the insane Tracy Jordan, the perfectly assholish Jack Donaghy, the amazingly naïve and yet sort of creepy page Kenneth. Hell, 30 Rock has allowed me to actually like Jane Krakowski, one of the most annoying people to get a major career in a long time. Now that’s speaking to some kind of genius on Tina Fey’s part.
* Don’t cry for Sam. His sketch comedy group, The Whitest Kids U Know, has their own show debuting on Fuse on March 20. Wait a second… they’re on Fuse. Maybe you should cry for them.
** In this case, Paul Le Mat is a metaphor for Studio 60, and not John Milner, and definitely not More American Graffiti.