Second Life for Studio 60
May 20, 2011 7:52 PM   Subscribe

The cast and writers and crew of Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip recently all joined twitter and began tweeting about their lives and the live comedy sketch show they all create each week. The catch is, Studio 60 is the fictional creation of Aaron Sorkin and was the subject of a failed weekly drama from five years ago, and nobody knows who is performing this remarkable charade.
posted by hippybear (41 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
That's kind of neat.

I wanted to like Studio 60 so much but it was the worst TV Show thing Sorkin has done.
posted by graventy at 7:58 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I wanted to like Studio 60 so much but it was the worst TV Show thing Sorkin has done.

That seems like praising with faint damns to me. "It wasn't as good as Sportsnight, West Wing, or The Social Network!
posted by Justinian at 8:03 PM on May 20, 2011 [6 favorites]

There was so much to love about Studio 60 and so many things standing in the way of the love. It was utterly frustrating. Like if thirtysomething had been made way out of date and had built-in loathing toward its characters.

It's a favorite of mine, but I have a long track record of loving series that everyone else hates. c.f. Huff!, My So-Called Life, Cop Rock...
posted by hippybear at 8:04 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Pilot was pretty engaging, but it quickly went downhill from there. They had Sting do "Fields of Gold" with a couple of lutes, though, so I ain't hatin'.
posted by curious nu at 8:05 PM on May 20, 2011

Studio 60 taught me that Matthew Perry is not so bad.

More recently, Episodes taught me Matt LeBlanc is not so bad.

David Schwimmer... yeah, still awful.
posted by robcorr at 8:05 PM on May 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

He was pretty convincing in Band of Brothers where he played an annoying incompetent.
posted by Justinian at 8:10 PM on May 20, 2011 [9 favorites]

I liked his cameo on 30 Rock.
posted by Artw at 8:29 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I liked Studio 60, but I really thought I was the only one.
posted by you're a kitty! at 8:31 PM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

The real shock here is that this happened, and not with Firefly.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:32 PM on May 20, 2011 [10 favorites]

kittens for breakfast: Are you kidding? I'd bet money you could find five different versions of the Firefly characters all tweeting at each other. It's just that nobody cares when it's nerds doing stuff like this, but goodness, an underappreciated Sorkin show? Well, time to alert the media.

Not that I don't believe that this isn't genuinely funny if you have the context, which I don't.
posted by pts at 8:40 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

hippybear, if there's a mainstream that hates My So-Called Life, I am unaware of them.

Studio 60 felt to me like something that could have become great had it not existed under such a harsh glare. Sorkin's gifts were recognized by that point, it was hugely promoted, and the pilot was awesome. Then, when the second episode didn't quite live up to the promise of the first (and what second episode ever really does?) the eyes of a nation were bearing down on him and Sorkin got the yips. The ratings dropped significantly after the pilot, though this was before ratings were properly adjusted for TiVo and some evidence showed that it was the show most likely to be TiVo'ed and viewed later, and Sorkin just started throwing everything he had at it, resulting in wildly varying tones and ideas.

Oh, is the brunette secondary cast member going to be a real character? Awesome! Oh wait, she's not, damn. Oh! She is, etc.

Timothy Busfield is the hero of the control room! Until we forget about him! Until he's fighting snakes!

Harriet Hayes is a Christian whose faith is important to her! Except that it isn't in any way which could create real conflict. Except when it is necessary to pull out for trite conflict.

And so on.

The show became a beautiful mess which I wanted so badly to succeed, but it just never found its sea-legs. In that time, it crafted some amazing moments, my favorite of which was when, in the Christmas episode, they realized that the band members were calling in sick to give subs from New Orleans a part-time gig as replacements, and gave a full performance of "O Holy Night" as credited to, "The City of New Orleans." That was cool.

I believe Matthew Perry can be excellent. In fact, I'd argue that while everyone was paying attention to Jennifer Anniston's hair, he was the real reason that Friends was such a juggernaut back in the day. He also works very, very well with Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme. As does Bradley Whitford, who slowly but surely became the first among equals in that ultimate ensemble show, The West Wing.

None of them deserved for it to go down this way. All of them were trying their damndest. It was, perhaps, a misconceived project, doomed to the inevitable failure of one-step-removed comedy which takes itself deathly seriously.

But really, in retrospect, I think we can see that for all the fanfare surrounding it, for all the promotion, it actually never had a chance.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:45 PM on May 20, 2011 [11 favorites]

Being funny at some point probably would have been a good idea.
posted by Artw at 8:47 PM on May 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Everyone loves "My So-Called Life" hippybear. Matthew Perry is always good value I think but Studio 60 forgot that even when you're preaching to the choir you lose your audience if you wrap your MESSAGE around a brick and lob it at their heads every week with your eyes closed.
posted by joannemullen at 8:50 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I loved the show. It felt like it was heading toward being the show that Sorkin had always wanted Sportsnight (one of my all-time favorite things that have ever been on television) to be-- a West Wing about television. It had a fatal flaw though-- the comedy sketches just weren't good on any level. They were neither good-funny nor bad-funny (a la the sketches on 30 Rock)-- they were just non-funny. I think that, along with the inevitable audience confusion / comparison with the very different show-about-a-sketch-comedy-show-that-also-has-a-number-in-the-title that started airing around the same time, doomed it.
posted by dersins at 8:53 PM on May 20, 2011

Speaking of Sorkin-created characters on twitter, I rather like President Bartlet. The poster often catches that Bartlet sensibility (though neither CJ nor Sorkin would have ever let him on twitter). Whomever is behind it has posted some fascinating links to class issues and international affairs.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 9:05 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been following the Studio 60 twitter feeds since they began and they are remarkably in character, replete with pompous import and general inanity. Whoever is doing the tweeting both hates and loves the show in appropriate measures. The theory around Hollywood is that this is being done by television writers who're on hiatus right now -- this started at exactly the same time that most television writer's rooms shut down, and is the sort of thing that would get hatched in a room towards the end of the season when your shows were already written and you were twiddling your thumbs worrying about whether or not you were going to get picked up or were going to get on another show or...
posted by incessant at 9:15 PM on May 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

If I wanted to see a comedian frustratly trying to get a message out to America I'd watch the Bill Hicks stand-up videos again.
posted by Artw at 9:15 PM on May 20, 2011

(For those interested, here's my list of all the Studio 60 characters.)
posted by incessant at 9:18 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been working on a theory about the "non-funny sketches" since Studio 60 first started to fail. (See here.)

The theory is this, though it gets tricky: when situation comedy is one-step removed, it loses its ability to be funny.

Basically, comedy requires the suspension of disbelief. That can be carried to one level (i.e. watching actors play parts in a play or movie) but rarely if ever to a second (i.e. watching actors play actors playing parts in a play or movie.) We are cool with watching Tracy Morgan and accepting that he is Tracy Jordan, but when Tracy Jordan is on stage we don't suspend our disbelief enough to see him as whichever character he is portraying at that point. We see him as Tracy Jordan, the "actor," doing his job. We don't buy into the situation.

And since we don't buy into the situation of the show-within-the show, the laughter can't come, because that comes from a visceral place. Imagine the funniest movie for you, personally. Now imagine that it was framed by a device where those actors were other characters, actors themselves with their own quirks and drama that you were invested in. Now, you watch your favorite comedy as snippets as performed by those characters. It loses any humor.

There are three major exceptions here but they all go towards proving the main point.

1.) Roger Rabbit.
This is when a reality is presented as the primary reality first and foremost, and is funny, but then we see things peel back a layer to reveal that they are merely actors in the scene. This works because we begin with no other layer to deal with. The later shifting of disbelief becomes a joke in itself, but any further delvings into the initial "reality" won't work for humor in the same way.

2.) Larry Sanders.
This is when the supposed comedian in the fiction does his comedy in a non-situation-based format, e.g. stand-up. There's no second level of suspension-of-disbelief required. It's why Jerry Seinfeld's stand-up bits work within the show, and why the Studio 60 analogue of "Weekend Update" was the only part of the show-within-the-show which could render a chuckle.

3.) The Girly Show.
This is when the show-within-the-show is so bad that you are not laughing with it, but at it. You have not left the first layer, because you are enjoying the absurdity of the characters which you know as actors degrading themselves. See also: The play within A Midsummer Night's Dream.

The point being that the sketches in Studio 60 were never going to be funny. The tragic flaw of the show was insisting to the viewers that they were.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:20 PM on May 20, 2011 [16 favorites]

JustKeepSwimming: "Speaking of Sorkin-created characters on twitter, I rather like President Bartlet. The poster often catches that Bartlet sensibility (though neither CJ nor Sorkin would have ever let him on twitter). Whomever is behind it has posted some fascinating links to class issues and international affairs."

Yeah, he's one of my favorite Twitterers. I can totally imagine Bartlet taking off his glasses, saying this in passing to someone in his staff, then moving on to something more pressing.

I am suddenly very sad that I have no more West Wing left to watch.
posted by brundlefly at 9:42 PM on May 20, 2011

We are cool with watching Tracy Morgan and accepting that he is Tracy Jordan, but when Tracy Jordan is on stage we don't suspend our disbelief enough to see him as whichever character he is portraying at that point.

I don't buy this, because there's nothing not-funny about a fart machine!
posted by meese at 10:47 PM on May 20, 2011

I always wish these pop-culture-emulating-tweet-nets had more of the banal day to day stuff that you get from real people and less of the significant stuff that clearly references a moment in the show and which probably wouldn't make it into a tweet in real life (Toby tweeting about Congresswoman Wyatt, for example) but I also spend hours designing and building realistic, loss-making transport networks in Transport Tycoon, often while rewatching the West Wing and Sports Night so I'm probably part of a niche demographic.
posted by doublehappy at 10:48 PM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is the future of TV. Almost no overhead. Studio 60 didn't really need another season, and it's cancellation freed up Bradley Whitford for The Good Guys which I enjoyed 100x more. Let's get Dan Savage on The Twitters immediately.
posted by bleep at 11:03 PM on May 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh my god not Dan Savage. You know what I meant.
posted by bleep at 11:04 PM on May 20, 2011

I loved Studio 60. It has dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin. What's not to completely fucking love? You can sit there with your eyes closed, not even watching, and it's shoulders above most TV. And OK sure the sketches were a bit hit and miss, but it wasn't a comedy show. (Despite that, Jenny Doesn't Have a Baby is still one of the funniest things I have ever watched. It cracks me up to this day, and probably will forever.)
posted by DarlingBri at 11:18 PM on May 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I bet it's done by the cast of 30 Rock.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 12:29 AM on May 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

David Schwimmer... yeah, still awful.

He's recently become a director of some acclaim.
posted by EmGeeJay at 12:58 AM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

My problem with Studio 60's second episode is that I began to get the same prickles I was getting on S2 of SportsNight when Jeremy started dating the porn star. I had always felt like that is when the volume of notes from the Network started to get too much for Sorkin and he started flailing. He righted himself by the end of the series, but I think it was an experience that scarred him, and he started equivocating and taking preventive measures as soon as it got picked up, leading to a great unevenness that made it hard for the show to be sticky in the same way West Wing was, or SportsNight was to a smaller audience.

The pressure must have been immense: his own past success (and ratings failure on SportsNight), the sudden competition with another show on his own network which should have been in an entirely different category (but by virtue of nomenclature were set out as a deathmatch situation: Only one could succeed! ... and he was not the plucky underdog in that thing), and a story and characters that were very personal.

I really loved parts of that show, but there were also times when I really did not care for what was on my screen, and times when I was just bemused (Amanda Peet's unexpected real life preganacy). It required a larger investment than I expected to watch the show, and I blame some of the protectiveness Sorkin had for getting in the way of me connecting with some of the characters and situations closest to him.
posted by julen at 5:03 AM on May 21, 2011

Studio 60 was in the uncanny valley -- trying with part of its effort to represent with some accuracy what it's like to produce a live comedy/variety show, but only getting close enough to be off-putting and distracting. In part this was the result of taking the eye off the ball of reality in order also to be an AARON SORKIN WORK OF IMPORTANCE. This second goal interfered with the first, because it tried to freight the proceedings with a lot more significance than they truly. The West Wing could do this because in the end the President and his staff really are actually ruling the country and (trying to) save the world -- importance thus didn't immediately signal pretension. The highest motive and mission of a television show, on the other hand, is to entertain people for an hour before they go to bed, and most of the effort in making a television show is tied to baser motives than that -- making money, building fame and power.
posted by MattD at 5:56 AM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

I wanted to like Studio 60, I really did. I love Sports Night, I love the first few seasons of West Wing, and I was ready to explain away anything for Studio 60.

But I couldn't.

Look, the pilot was great if unoriginal. A good bit of the cast could handle their stuff. But not Amanda Peet. Not Matthew Perry, who just spent his time looking harried. And if you wanted to convince me how funny your ex, Kristin Chenoweth was, then you should have cast her instead of the charisma black hole that Sarah Paulson turned out to be. I know how entertaining Kristin Chenoweth is, I watched Pushing Daisies instead, and that show was wonderful.

I could have handled some of the Sorkinisms in the show, the characters who lecture on and on just for a chance to hit the punchline, the walk and talk, the subpar physical comedy, and the whiplash between COMEDY and SERIOUS ISSUE as if you're trying to convince yourself as much as us that you know what you're doing.

But damn, please stop writing the same episodes. How many more times do we need to see the episode where a character's father betrays their child-like trust (usually by having an affair), before you just go to see a therapist and work your own shit out a little bit?

And all of that might have been manageable if it wasn't for the biggest sin to me. Didacticism. Don't go lecturing to me on the importance of Saturday Night Live, when it hasn't been relevant in 30 years (at least), and wasn't nearly as relevant at the time as people like to say it is now. Don't lecture me on the importance of comedy. Or at least, DO IT BETTER.

Yes, it was a mistake to show the skits, because they were painfully unfunny. And only Sorkin would think that a Gilbert and Sullivan parody was the cutting edge of comedy, or even comedy at all.

I wanted to like Studio 60. But it was terrible, and deserves to be buried in an unmarked grave.
posted by X-Himy at 6:12 AM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

I love studio 60 even though it is terrible. And I love these tweets.

Whole series is available on Netflix you know. I may just go watch the damn thing again.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:20 AM on May 21, 2011

The fart machine has too many farts in it!
posted by Artw at 6:36 AM on May 21, 2011

The humor in Studio 60 isn't about how the skits are funny. It's about how making the skits is funny. The skits are lukewarm, mass-appeal, silly television, as they were written to be, and they're the background of the show, not the foreground. (I don't think a character in the show ever even laughs during the skits, although they're always watching them.) The comedic center of the show is matt and danny or whoever riffing off each other, a style that wouldn't make sense if it were in a skit in the show. I immediately enjoyed the show more when I realized this.
posted by churl at 11:13 AM on May 21, 2011

Basically, I'll watch anything where Sorkin is writing. I find myself watching A Few Good Men whenever it's on, network TV or otherwise. My Sports Night and West Wing sets have DVDs in my changer for easy switching over in case nothing is on the bazillion channels I get with cable. My Studio 60 "set" got scratched a few years ago, but I'd digitized it onto my hard drive prior to that.

Oh, and even if you're not a fan of The Mentalist, fellow West Wing and Studio 60 fans will enjoy the season-ender from this last Thursday. ("No, I'm just playin' with ya.")
posted by thanotopsis at 2:17 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's a little bit of Sorkin awesomeness -- a "Bartlet for America" campaign poster hanging in the "Studio 60" dressing room.
posted by zooropa at 4:55 PM on May 21, 2011

My frustration with Studio 60 began when the cast started singing "We are the very model of a modern network TV show" and the director didn't fade to black.

I don't doubt that Sorkin can write real life comedy or political speeches or sports television. He's a writer. Writers write. And they've got a whole world of culture and history and experience to draw on. But in television, they've got forty minutes or less to write not just the scenes we see, but the entire history of their made up world.

It's why we never saw more than a few tantalizing seconds of Bartlet's addresses, and we never heard more than the opening words of Dan Rydell's in depth analysis of the Orioles' awful third innings. It's why they got an ESPN production team in to film the fight scenes in The Fighter and, conversely, why it's difficult for anyone who's ever seen a game of rugby to watch Invictus. It's why banana flavoured anything tastes nothing like banana and why we cringe when we hear a network news report about The MetaFilter phenomenon sweeping the internet.

Television is supposed to appear real. Writers should be able to answer any question about a piece of information they present to us (to the extent that any character in the show would know):

That Orioles game? All we know is that there was an Orioles game and they had a poor third innings. There's not a lot we can ask about it. Was there a good crowd? Have the Orioles been playing well? But as soon as we see quick cuts of the coach in the dugout and the pitcher Ramirez' look of frustration we've got a barrel of questions. Why did we see that? Is Ramirez' ethnicity relevant? Is the fact that he's frustrated supposed analogous to Casey's sexual frustration we saw earlier in the show? Did Ramirez only recently join the Orioles? Has he been performing badly all season?

Bartlet's speech about the bombing at Kennison State University? We saw the minute, and it was moving and epic. But that was an education speech to a Teacher's Union. Watching, we assume that Bartlet made some salient and partisan points about education policy and, judging by the response, they were well received. But if they had shown us even one minute of that speech, how real would it have seemed? Could we have asked Sorkin what the guy in the third row thought about the teacher tenure paragraph? I doubt it.

So when we saw the entire skit, it took us out of the show wondering whether the audience in the Studio 60 world thought it was funny or not and whether they thought it was funny or not for the same reasons we did or didn't. We weren't watching to see Saturday Night Live, we weren't watching the West Wing to see speeches and political maneuvering, and we weren't watching Sports Night because we wanted to see how the fictional Orioles were performing in the fictional American league. We've got all of those things in real life. Refer to them and use them as a backdrop, but don't tell us because we already know.

So uh my thesis statements would be, I guess, that Hemingway would have been a great television writer and Tolkien wouldn't have, and that Studio 60 would have been infinitely better had we never had to see a skit.
posted by doublehappy at 5:42 PM on May 21, 2011 [4 favorites]

The West Wing gang are doing something similar over here. A favorite:

@McGarrysGhost: No rapture today. But let it serve as a reminder to live each day as fully as if it were your last. Because one day you'll be right.
posted by Bluecoat93 at 8:27 PM on May 21, 2011

and nobody knows who is performing this remarkable charade.

I'm laughing at how effective this little hook is at the end of your post, given how utterly commonplace anonymous silliness is on the internet.
posted by straight at 8:58 PM on May 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Fictional characters are my favorite thing about Twitter - many of the people pretending to be daleks are quite hilarious.
posted by jbickers at 8:03 AM on May 22, 2011

I also wanted to like Studio 60 and didn't hate it but just sort of drifted away from watching it.

I thought the sketches being sort of "meh" were part of the realism. They were in a rebuilding phase after all, and had a skeleton crew of writers. I like to think that if the show had continued they would have progressed from worrying about the ratings all the time to worrying about how to keep control of a show/actors at the top of the ratings.

And as said above, the key is to show less of the sketch. It is easy to come up with a funny idea/headline/title/one liner for a sketch. It is another thing entirely to develop them (whether for a real show or for a fake show in a show). So they should have just been sprinkling titles and characters and one-liners around (a la 30 Rock) and letting our imagination fill in the rest.

I recently caught up with the last episodes on Netflix and I'll offer a theory that Sorkin decided he wanted to go back to writing The West Wing, even though he now had a bunch of actors running a TV show instead of in the oval office. The last three episodes are all about politics and a hostage/rescue situation. Honestly, I was waiting for John Amos to bust into Bradford's office with a briefing.
posted by mikepop at 6:33 AM on May 23, 2011

And since we don't buy into the situation of the show-within-the show, the laughter can't come, because that comes from a visceral place. Imagine the funniest movie for you, personally. Now imagine that it was framed by a device where those actors were other characters, actors themselves with their own quirks and drama that you were invested in. Now, you watch your favorite comedy as snippets as performed by those characters. It loses any humor.

There are three major exceptions here but they all go towards proving the main point.

I'll see you your three major exceptions and raise you one. The Muppet Show. Where there was a show within a show and the internal show itself was funny. Although possibly the extra layer of unreality on the show caused by the puppets was itself subversive to the framing device.
posted by Francis at 3:58 PM on May 23, 2011

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