This season’s funniest new comedy, 30 Rock, debuts tonight on NBC. But much as I love it, I fear it might help lower the boom even faster on the expensive, audience-shedding Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, this season’s (unintentionally) funniest new drama. That’s because 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s new sitcom about a fictionalized Saturday Night Live, where Fey was until recently head writer, makes Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 — a hilariously smarmy ode to Sorkin’s wonderfulness, also set behind-the-scenes at a Saturday Night Live-like sketch show — seem even lamer in comparison.
Like Studio 60, 30 Rock (the title comes from 30 Rockefeller Center, the address of the real Saturday Night Live) imagines a comedy writer tangling with corporate meddling. In 30 Rock, the meddler is Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy, a G.E.-like v.p. of TV and microwave programming, who wants to add the admittedly “mentally ill” comedian Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to The Girly Show, run by Tina Fey as Liz Lemon.
“So your job is, you take things that are already working and you fix them,” Liz deadpans to her new boss. “That’s a great kind of job.”
But while Studio 60’s comedy-writer hero, a thinly disguised Sorkin stand-in, is as heroic as The West Wing’s President Martin Sheen, Liz isn’t above trying to cravenly save her own hide. “He bit Dakota Fanning on the face!” protests soon-to-be-upstaged Girly Show star Jenna (Jane Krakowski) about Tracy, who by next week will have transformed The Girly Show into TGS With Tracy Jordan.
“When you hear his version, she was kind of asking for it,” responds Liz. Poor Jenna. Although she’s Liz’s best friend, by next week she’s no longer even the star of her own show — but never mind: All ends happily when Jenna discovers she’s tabloid fodder: “Liz, Liz!” Jenna yells excitedly, running in to the studio. “Did you see me in the New York Post? Oh, my God, it’s so embarrassing! And look how thin I look.”
In just these few lines, 30 Rock cuts more to the actual quick of fame and media misfortune than Studio 60 — which imagines bloggers breathlessly following its characters’ every move in a humorless bizarro universe — has in several episodes. Part of the problem is that Sorkin, of course, is not a comedy writer but occasionally needs to at least suggest why the cast of his fictional show are considered major comedic talents.
So when Harriet Hayes (Sarah Paulson), the conservative Christian star of Studio 60 — and the Sorkin character’s ex-girlfriend — persuades her writers not to make fun of some conservative Christians in the news that week, here’s what she suggests as a replacement: “New legislation in Wyoming allows bear hunters to equip shotguns with automatic silencers. When asked to comment, a bear said, ‘Rrroarr!!’” Stop, you’re killing me.
“You know she’s gonna make it funny, right?” a fellow cast member remarks. Uh, right. Other example of Harriet’s dazzling comedic talent: She cuts rehearsal tension by doing Holly Hunter imitations, and regularly addresses a character named Jeannie as Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair. Oh, please, Harriet, have mercy!
The network executive on Studio 60, unlike 30 Rock’s villainous Jack Donaghy, is the impossibly wonderful Jordan McDeere — played by Amanda Peet as a sort of brainy Barbie Doll with her mouth eternally half-open in a plasticine half-smile. But whereas bullying Jack is prone to misogynistic rants (“Oh, sure,” he says sarcastically to one of Liz’s suggestions, “then we can sit around and braid each other’s hair until we get our periods at the same time”), lovely Jordan is clearly on the side of the angels. “What percentage of the audience do I have to retain,” she asked briskly last week, “to keep pummeling the Christian right?”
Those who worry that the pleasurably smarmy moral posturing of The West Wing might move to the back burner now that Sorkin is dealing with behind-the-scenes machinations at a TV show rather than the White House have little to fear. Last week, for instance, we learned why the Sorkin character (Matthew Perry as Matt Albie) has been nasty to a writing team under his supervision. It turns out that in the wake of Sept. 11, one of these writers came out with a pro-patriotic statement distancing himself from the heroically anti-Republican Matt.
What an evil little weasel! That Studio 60 underling’s days may be numbered, but I sure hope Studio 60’s are not.
— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.