The Day Comedy Won: How 30 Rock Beat Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Last month, NBC picked up 30 Rock for a sixth season, which must be celebrated as a miracle when one considers what Tina Fey’s “comedy show about a comedy show” was up against during its first year.

In 2006, 30 Rock wasn’t the only NBC show focusing on the off-camera lives of the people who run a live sketch comedy show. The bigger, more highly anticipated, and frankly more popular show was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from power-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing creator and since-then writer of The Social Network). Of course, Studio 60 was a drama while 30 Rock a comedy, and NBC execs compared the situation to having ER and Scrubs on the same network. But Tina Fey was a little more wary, commenting in a New Yorker interview, “It’s just bad luck for me that in my first attempt at prime time I’m going up against the most powerful writer in television.”

We now know Fey’s concerns were short-lived. While Studio 60 started strong with a brilliant pilot, featuring a powerful homage to Network in the form of an embattled showrunner’s meltdown on live television, unfortunately it proved to be the high point of the series. During the rest of the season ratings declined, from 13.14 million viewers during the premiere to 4.20 million during the finale. Meanwhile, 30 Rock, despite a much smaller viewing audience (even when Studio 60 was at its low point), scored much better with the critics and slowly gained traction with fans. In May 2007, NBC announced that Studio 60 would not be returning for a second season.

So what happened? Well, money, for starters. Over the past few years NBC Entertainment executives have become bottom-line deciders (something we all got a taste of during Conangate), and the fact that Studio 60 was costing a reported $3 million per episode surely didn’t help its case. But I think there are three reasons rooted in the nature of today’s comedy community that explain why Goliath failed where David prevailed.

1. The Lorne Michaels Effect. If you’re a 30 Rock fan, if you’re with Coco, and if you loved the Three Amigos! script, you have longtime SNL helmsman (and Three Amigos! co-writer) Lorne Michaels to thank. Michaels has a surprising amount of sway with the string-pullers at NBC, convincing them to give then-unknown Conan O’Brien a chance in 1993 with Late Night, and later serving as executive producer for 30 Rock. Should Julian Assange ever tap Lorne Michaels’ blackberry, I’m sure we’d find quite a few intense exchanges between Michaels and execs worried about the show’s relatively low ratings (30 Rock typically scores between 5 and 6 million viewers per episode, a number CBS’s $#*! My Dad Says routinely doubles). Lorne Michaels is for 30 Rock what James L. Brooks was for The Simpsons – a comedy veteran who can act as an ambassador between the uptight, acronym-spewing Jack Donaghys of the board room and the punk, hygiene-less Frank Rossitanos of the writer’s room.

More evidence of Lorne Michaels’ role in the battle: When Aaron Sorkin asked to sit in and observe the SNL production process for a week, Michaels declined, claiming he disagreed with Studio 60’s focus on backroom politics (brooding network executives) instead of the role talent plays on a sketch comedy show (insane, egomaniacal actors). Personally, I suspect Michaels wasn’t crazy about Sorkin’s pilot featuring a Michaels-like figure ranting about his SNL-like show: “This show used to be cutting edge political and social satire, but it’s gotten lobotomized by a candy-ass broadcast network hell-bent on doing nothing that might challenge their audience.” Ouch.

2. Hollywood shouldn’t do New York. While I typically disagree with much of Entertainment Weekly’s coverage of SNL episodes, it made a good point when it said Katy Perry’s performance of “California Girls” during this year’s season premiere “seemed somewhat lost on an iconic New York show.” There are some things that just belong to the Big Apple, and a show that opens with “Live from New York…” every week is one of them. As brilliant a screenwriter as Aaron Sorkin is, his understanding of the inner workings of a live sketch comedy show felt secondhand at best. Tina Fey, meanwhile, could write directly from her years as the head writer for SNL. And while Fey kept her show light, aloof, and strictly about the comedy, Sorkin tried to bring the Hollywood romanticism to the television studio the same way he did to the White House. But this time, audiences weren’t buying it.

There’s something to the claustrophobia, the harsh weather, and the general frustrations of New York City life that blend so naturally with the anxieties of the people who pour their souls into an admittedly hit-or-miss sketch comedy show every week. Meanwhile, the “staff” of the on-screen Studio 60 – all with chiseled features and even tans, driving expensive cars, and acting more interesting at after-parties than at work – looked like they just wandered off a Michael Bay set. I’m not saying that New York is any better than Los Angeles in terms of either city’s comedic talent pool; The Simpsons, The Office, Community, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Parks & Recreation are all west coast produced shows. But if you’re making a series that’s an examination of an SNL-style show, having the announcer say, “Live, from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, it’s Friday night in Hollywood!” just feels a little off.

3. Studio 60 just didn’t “get” comedy. The 2006 film Man of the Year stars Robin Williams as a Jon Stewart-esque political comedian who runs for president. It’s an interesting concept (bested when Stephen Colbert actually ran for president in 2008), but the movie falls flat for me. It wasn’t the fact that the movie tried to balance between “being serious” and “being funny.” It was that the “funny” parts weren’t funny. We were shown all these shots of people laughing at Robin Williams’ character cracking jokes on his show, in stump speeches, and in national debates, as if the director was telling us: “See? He’s funny!” The problem is, I already know Robin Williams is funny – explicitly stating it just feels smug. And it’s even worse when the jokes themselves aren’t very good.

Studio 60 suffered from the same problem. There was a great deal of dialogue about sketches, and whether or not sketches are “funny.” In the rare moments we actually see or hear the written material, it sucks. And not in an ironic, self-aware way. A character reads aloud the following joke: “At schools today all the kids are diagnosed with dyslexia, hyperlexia, ADD, ADHD. In my day, you were just stupid.” The response: “This is funny!” In fact, it’s not just funny, it’s hil-arious; In the episode it’s the only funny joke to come out of the writer’s room in weeks. I don’t know, I think the joke is okay, maybe if delivered by Rodney Dangerfield. Even the ridiculous “mock premises” pitched in the TGS writer’s room (“Werewolf Bar Mitzvah,” anyone?) are funnier ideas than that.

On Studio 60, Matthew Perry plays Matt Albie, the head writer on the show, who spends hours and hours in his office writing entire 90-minute episodes by himself because he feels he’s funnier than his entire writer’s room combined, and the show leads us to believe him. In the second episode he runs into writer’s block when he has to come up with the cold open. Suddenly he has a eureka! moment and jumps on his lap top. Eventually we see this “amazing” sketch: A parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “A Modern Major-General” called “A Modern Network TV Show,” with the actors performing a song and dance number promising, “Although our producer was caught doing blow… we’ll be the very model of a modern network TV show.” The piece feels underwhelming – the actual actors’ singing voices are weak, which undercuts the operatic context of the sketch. And the jokes – buried by the song’s mouth-full speed – aren’t as visceral as the studio audience’s reactions make them sound. Yet Aaron Sorkin – er, Matt Albie – watches over the performance with a proud smile on his face: I did it! It’s funny! You didn’t, and it’s not.

30 Rock never makes the mistake of trying to legitimately impress us with TGS sketches. Instead, Tina Fey makes a mockery of the sketch production process, with charming, we-know-this-is-bad sketches about robots fighting bears and Star Jones spraying fake vomit everywhere. She also manages quite a few jabs at Studio 60, including: “This is worse than that time we did that Gilbert and Sullivan parody.” Ouch.

The bottom line here is that 30 Rock is a show in which hilarious comedians play mediocre ones. Studio 60 was the exact opposite.

Still, despite all the hate hurled at Aaron Sorkin for being a dramatic writer who assumed he knew just as much about comedy as the rest of us do, you have to give the guy credit for trying something different. I’m sure he learned a lot in the process, and the lessons have made him an even greater writer. Comedy is hard. I think the soon-to-be Academy Award winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is happier than most of us that the other “show about a sketch show” made it and not his.

And Tina Fey remains the hero from one of the few occurrences on television in a decade dominated by high-rated dramas in which comedy actually won.

Erik Voss did like The Social Network, however.

The Day Comedy Won: How 30 Rock Beat Studio 60 on the […]