Comedy writers aren’t laughing about ’60'
It is generally accepted that doctors hate shows about doctors, lawyers hate shows about lawyers, and so on. So perhaps it’s the order of things that many comedic writers appear to hate Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” the dramatic series about a “Saturday Night Live"-like comedy show. But is it natural for them to take such pleasure in it?
Take Ken Levine, a seasoned writer who has worked on “Frasier,” “Cheers” and “The Simpsons.” His blog, By Ken Levine, has become the hub of an online community of viewers who loathe “Studio 60,” thanks to his running commentary on the first several episodes.
“After watching Episode 2 of ‘Studio 60' I must let you in on a little secret. People in television, trust me, are not that smart,” he wrote. “And they keep talking about how unbelievably talented that Harriet [Sarah Paulson] is. Have you seen evidence of it yet? I haven’t. But then again, I’m not that smart.”
One week later he was less forgiving, writing, “ ‘Studio 60' is like the Rand Corporation Think Tank doing a late night sketch show.” (Sorkin could not comment on this article because he was on vacation.)
After its debut this past fall, many pop culture commentators were quick to predict the NBC show’s imminent cancellation as it steadily lost viewers. But as “Studio 60" enjoys a midseason break over the holidays, with a full-season pickup and the confidence of its broadcaster, for now it looks like there will be plenty of opportunities for comedy writers to continue to riff on their anger to anyone who will listen.
Amelie Gillette, a blogger for the Onion-affiliated A.V. Club website, composed a recent post called “Aaron Sorkin Thinks You’re Stupid.” In it, she wrote: “So did anyone else watch ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ on Monday? Did anyone else wait a day to write about it so their boiling anger could slow down to a more manageable simmer?”
The love-to-hate feeling is fun for some, profitable for others.
A few months ago, the Los Angeles sketch comedy troupe Employee of the Month put on a show called “Employee of the Month Celebrates the Comedy of Studio 60.”
The tag line was serpentinely Sorkin-esque: “A sketch comedy show about a sketch comedy show in a drama about sketch comedy.”
Troupe member Megan Lynn said the idea for an evening of sketch devoted entirely to “Studio 60" came about because nobody in the group could talk about anything else for weeks. “Honestly, we were just wasting so much rehearsal time complaining about the show,” she said. “We thought, ‘We can’t shut up about this, other people talk about this, let’s put a show together.’ ”
Lynn has a lot to say about what she thinks “Studio 60" gets wrong, but most important, she doesn’t think the sketches are funny. And if the sketches aren’t funny, then the entire premise of the show is undermined, since “Studio 60" is a show about the making of the funniest sketch show on television.
The original plan for “Employee of the Month Celebrates the Comedy of Studio 60" was to put on sketches that are referenced as being successful in the show, if not necessarily seen. “We wanted to see if they hold up as comedy sketches, knowing that they wouldn’t,” said Lynn.
So they put on a commedia dell’arte sketch that was said to have “killed” on “Studio 60’s” show within a show, as well as “Nicolas Cage: Couples Counselor,” in which an actor played a hyper, desperate Cage as a relationship expert, and the fake game show Science Schmience, based on the premise that religious people won’t accept scientific evidence that explains the natural world.
Because Employee of the Month didn’t want to make its audience sit through sketches they didn’t think were particularly funny, they also had a backstage theme running with references from the show -- Matthew Perry’s character with a baseball bat, Nate Corddry’s character talking about his brother being deployed in Afghanistan and Amanda Peet’s character -- a network president who got an inordinate amount of media attention because of a DUI eight years in the past -- drunk and desperate for friends.
“We realized there was so much we wanted to make fun of,” said Lynn.
Sorkin’s “West Wing” was meticulously researched and seen as largely accurate about life in Washington: Did the auteur producer-writer raise the bar so high for himself that “Studio 60" is unfairly scrutinized? Is this segment of viewers in Hollywood simply too aware of what “Studio 60" gets wrong to enjoy the show?
One comedy show runner, who asked that her name be withheld, said: “The New Orleans crisis or the war has never touched my life in television.”
“They never laugh,” Levine said of the show’s characters. “We laugh all the time. It is the one saving grace of the job.”
“The fact that they don’t seem to know how a sketch comedy show like ‘SNL’ is written, that needs to be remedied,” said Joe Reid, who recaps “Studio 60" each week for Television Without Pity. “It doesn’t seem authentic at all.”
Gillette said Sorkin’s approach to comedy just seems off. “He wants to get big ideas across and change people’s minds,” she said. “No comedians work that way. They go for the laughs first and the lesson second.”
In contrast, all of these nitpicking writers and comedians seem to like “30 Rock,” the Tina Fey sitcom on NBC that is also about the making of a “Saturday Night Live"-esque show.
“Even though it’s essentially a cartoon, ’30 Rock’ is still a more realistic look at what behind-the-scenes life on ‘SNL’ is like,” said Levine. “And it’s worth watching just for Alec Baldwin.”
Lynn said, “ ’30 Rock’ isn’t offensive at all.... When they do sketches, they’re not thinly veiled opportunities for political commentary, they’re goofy, ‘SNL'-like sketches, which is appropriate for the show.”
But a former “Saturday Night Live” employee, now a screenwriter and director who has stopped watching “Studio 60" and “30 Rock,” said both shows gloss over everything that happens at the real late-night comedy show. “That place is so dark, they could never show what actually happens there,” he said.