NBC Turns the Comedy on Itself
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Four episodes into its first season, NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” about a hotshot writer-director team called in to rescue an ailing late-night variety show modeled on “Saturday Night Live,” is a potentially great series about comedy that’s only intermittently funny. Contradiction? Perhaps.
As you’d expect from a program written by Aaron Sorkin, the famously wordy creator of “The West Wing,” “Studio 60” is hyper-verbal, showily erudite, deeply politicized, and for the most part, dazzlingly staged and acted by (among others) Matthew Perry, Bradley Whitford, Amanda Peet, Sarah Paulson, and Steven Weber, all of whom talk a mile a minute, and intelligently at that. (Newspapers may be struggling, but the spirit of “The Front Page” lives on.) In many ways it really is the model for smart network television it so openly aspires to be.
Unfortunately, “Studio 60” can also be pompous, vainglorious, and madly in love with the crackle of its own rata-tat-tat dialogue. Worst of all, it pretends to be courageous about things that require little courage — like railing against the Christian right at a time when Muslim fundamentalists make your average evangelical look as threatening as a jelly bean. If you’re as obsessed by the dangers of religion as Mr. Sorkin, but can barely bring your characters to mouth the word “Islam,” you’re inevitably going to look like a phony.
There’s another problem. While “Studio 60” is mostly about a show strikingly like “SNL,” every so often it tries to demonstrate that it can also concoct a vastly superior brand of humor in the same genre. So far, however, its tentative attempts in that direction have only demonstrated that soaring majestically above the generic comedy of one’s time is no simple feat. In fact, as George W. S. Trow pointed out in his memorably quirky study of media, “My Pilgrim’s Progress,” it’s pretty damn hard. (“Just try to avoid the aesthetic of the sitcom, for instance: Just try,” Trow wrote in 1999, with a hypothetical comedy writer in mind. “The sitcom is fact, just as Napoleon was fact in 1804.”).
That is as good an explanation as any as to why a Sorkin sketch like “Science/Schmience,” a quiz show in which religiously inclined celebrities predictably answer questions about science with theological dogma, just seems like a typical “SNL”-style skit. It certainly doesn’t represent a comedic breakthrough or make you think that Mr. Perry, who plays the head writer on “Studio 60”, is some sort of genius, no matter how many times he runs his hand through his moussed hair.
By an odd coincidence, NBC is bringing us a second behind-the-scenes television show about a television show this season. That’s “30 Rock,” which makes its premiere tonight. The brainchild of SNL alumna Tina Fey,”30 Rock” is fluff, but for a comedy it’s got one thing going for it — it’s funny! And that’s because, unlike Mr. Sorkin, Ms. Fey is a bona-fide comedian, which is a definite plus given her chosen field. Watching it, you see some of what “Studio 60” could do with a bit more of: a sense of the absurd, for one thing, and comedy as opposed to talking about comedy.
“30 Rock” includes a slyly hilarious performance by Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, vice president of a conglomerate (NBC-Universal-GE-Kmart) so massive he’s in charge of both television programming and microwave programming. Donaghy is a former marketing wizard whose mantra is “research, research, research.” What this means in practice is that he knows everything about the people he talks to down to their precise weight or even (we are subtly led to believe) their penis size. This, of course, is his key to power.”Studio 60″ has plenty to say about the evils of corporate America, but “30 Rock” does it one better by embodying and satirizing it simultaneously.
The dialogue also has its moments.”I like you. You have the boldness of a much younger woman,” Donaghy says, backhandedly appraising Ms. Fey, who plays Liz Lemon, the head writer of the program (“The Girlie Show”) to which Donaghy is about to lay waste.
Then there’s Tracy Morgan (another SNL alumnus), who plays Tracey Jordan, a deranged black movie star once arrested for walking naked through La Guardia Airport. He’s been parachuted in by Donaghy to inject “The Girlie Show” with a megadose of testosterone, or maybe just lunacy.
Mr. Morgan, a likable egomaniac with a face that looks like it just met a speeding truck, has his own ideas, however — a few of which could be usefully slipped to Mr. Sorkin in an envelope marked “HUMOR.”
“This show,” he tells Ms. Fey over a memorably chaotic lunch, “is our chance to break the shackles of the white dudes who want us to fail.”
“What white dudes?”
“All of ’em. Jack Donaghy, General Electric, George Bush, Karl Robe …”
“Karl Robe, you say?”
The bottom line is that “30 Rock” is comedy that lets its hair down, while “Studio 60” is fascinating drama that needs to loosen up. It should also do away with patently dishonest lines like, “And by the way, I’d be glad to take shots at the Democrats if only one of them would do or say something.” If Mr. Sorkin can’t think of any Democrats, or Democratic issues, to poke fun at, there are plenty of people who could help — Ms. Fey among them.
But politics and comedy are only part of what “Studio 60” is about. If you happened to catch the rerun on Turner Classic Movies last week of Dick Cavett’s fabulous 1971 interview with Bette Davis (another, with Groucho Marx, airs tomorrow), you may recall her saying how no work in the world involves nerves as much as public performance. That high-wire tension is what entrances Mr. Sorkin and fuels every aspect of his show, from its adrenaline-soaked dialogue to its friendships, enmities, and ideological passions. It may be awfully self-important at times, but it’ll get you thinking and talking like few programs on television. And judging from Monday’s episode, it is getting funnier.