Shakespeare's Sister passed on the news to me yesterday. Aaron's Sorkin's Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip isn't on NBC's schedule for the coming fall.
Sad news for me because it means there won't be any more Studio 60 live-blogging. I had a great time with all of you who took part in our Monday night Snark on Sorkin parties. But it's possibly good news for Sorkin himself because it frees him from a show his heart was apparently never in.
The premise of the show, the backstage drama of putting on a cutting edge sketch comedy show very much like Saturday Night Live, was promising---what would Sorkin do with a Belushi or a Chris Farley or a young Sarah Silverman? The answer, it turned out, was ignore the fact they ever existed or that any larger than life or difficult and brilliant and creative people had anything to do with putting on a show like Saturday Night Live.
Sorkin has no clue how Saturday Night Live was and is made. If you read the book Live From New York you can see there IS a story there. It's a fascinating one (and rarely a funny book, BTW), and a page turner: full of egos, battles with the network, fights and love amongst the cast, tragedy, redemption, comeback stories. For God's sake how do you make that boring? If you're Sorkin, you ignore how a weekly sketch show is written and performed so you can take out all the stress and tension that goes into making it. You cast bland and unfunny actors playing bland and unfunny actors, rather than actors playing out of control writers or young comedians straight off the improv stages at major cities getting their first taste of fame. Instead of the reality of a hard-ass creator/overlord who was the inspiration for Dr. Evil overseeing it all, you replace him with two smug, bland head writers who do nothing but mope. Instead of a shark-like network executive you turn a professional woman in a simpering little girl who has nothing better to do than pine about her sex life and take naps on her boyfriend's couch.
That last bit up there refers to the way Sorkin utterly wasted the talents of Amanda Peet, the only one of his two female leads who had a talent for comedy. I'll get to his other, unfunny, female lead in a bit.
Not only did Sorkin seem to have no interest in the real history of Saturday Night Live, he didn't seem to have any interest in what made it funny either. In fact, he wasn't at all interested in comedy either as something worth creating, or as an effect of someone's writing or acting, or as entertainment, something audiences might be tuning into his show in hopes of enjoying.
Sorkin didn't appear to care about television in general, period. Not as a medium for art or communication, at least. In fact, and this is something that impressed us live-bloggers every week, based on his ludicrously dated pop culture references, it was a good bet that Sorkin had given up watching television when he was in college and never gotten back into the habit. As Tom Watson observed, Sorkin's idea of a celebrity was anyone who had been a regular guest on the Merv Griffin Show. I think the only reason Tom tuned into Studio 60 week after week was that he was hoping to catch the inevitable Charro joke. Other than what he'd watched when he was a kid, Sorkin didn't care what had gone on in television after about 1982, a bad year for him to have unplugged his TV set, something else I'll get to in a minute.
Sorkin was overly-fascinated with network television...as an asset, a cash cow a multi-national corporation could milk to fund billion dollar deals in Asia (and thank God I'll never have to hear Ed Asner growl the word "Macao" again, except in my nightmares) which gave him an excuse to treat us to long lectures cribbed from a college-level intro course in macroeconomics. But the only fact about television that truly excited him was that it was the business that treated the world to that great literary and creative genius, Aaron Sorkin.
Sorkin loved writing about Sorkin. Studio 60 was his autobiography. The first half-dozen or so episodes had as their main theme what a brilliant writer Aaron Sorkin was and how badly television needed his brilliance to save it from itself.
The other main theme, the one that continued through all the episodes, unfortunately, was also autobiographical, and that was how foolish Sorkin's former girlfriend, Kristin Chenoweth, had been to give him up.
After the early critical lambasting the show took, most of it pointing out that Sorkin had created a show about comedy that wasn't funny, he began to describe Studio 60 as a romantic comedy.
The problem here was similar to the problem he was having with comedy. His comedy wasn't funny and his romance wasn't romantic.
Week after week, the romantic leads, Matthew Perry and Sarah Paulson, struggled mightily to convince us that they were passionately in love with each other and week after week they barely managed to convey the sense that they liked each other enough that each one was glad the other one wasn't dead.
And now, here I am at last, at the points I promised to get to, Sorkin's unfunny leading lady and the importance 1982 should have played in the writing of Studio 60.
A big obstacle to Sorkin's making his romantic comedy romantic and funny was that Sarah Paulson was neither romantic nor funny. This wasn't entirely her fault. She was badly cast. Good as she may have been in other things (and she had her fans among the live-bloggers here who remember her as Deadwood's proto-dominatrix, the duplicitous and sexually manipulative nanny, Miss Isringhausen), Paulson didn't have it in her to play the kind of character Sorkin needed his leading lady to be.
And that leading lady wasn't Kristin Chenoweth, although Paulson couldn't approximate her or her talents either. Chenoweth is a Broadway musical star. What Studio 60 needed, and what Matthew Perry's character would have fallen in love with, was a brilliant comedic actress like...
Long, remember, came out of Chicago's Second City. If her career had taken a different turn, she could have wound up where a lot of Second City alums landed, on Saturday Night Live, where she'd have been terrific, if the writers at the time happened to know how to use her talents (No guarantee of that. See below.), or she could have wound up her generation's version of Elaine May. I don't know if she'd have even needed her own generation's version of Mike Nichols.
What's more, Long's real life backstage paralleled her character's life on stage. Diane Chambers and Shelley Long had a lot in common, including the fact that when they both left Cheers, they left behind a lot of very mixed feelings.
Long occupied a place on the Cheers set very much like the place Paulson's character, Harriet Hayes, was supposed to occupy on the set of Studio 60. Long was a brilliant comic actress, the star of her show---it took a little while for Ted Danson to come into his own and for the first two seasons, Long was carrying him. Danson knew it, and didn't mind it, and went along with it, and learned from her. But that's another post. Long was an audience's favorite and an object of erotic fantasy as well as a great talent. She was also, onstage and off, one of the gang yet not one of the gang.
Long was often temperamentally at odds with her castmates and with Cheers' writers and producers. In her case the temperamental differences stemmed from Long's artistic perfectionism, while in Harriet's case the differences were supposed to be caused by Harriet's religious views, which Sorkin, true to form, treated as an excuse to lecture his audience and not as a part of Harriet's emotional make-up.
Now, the reason 1982 is important for Sorkin is that it's the year Cheers premiered.
It was also the year another romantic comedy about a pair of Can't Live With You/Can't Live Without You lovers went on the air, Remington Steele.
From all their influences showed up in his writing for Matt and Harriet, Sorkin might as well have not watched a single episode of any of them, and like I said, based on his pop culture references, he very well may not have.
At any rate, the very first lesson Sorkin could have and should have learned from Cheers and the rest is that casting matters above all. Writing is secondary.
I'm guessing he cast Matthew Perry first, so he had it somewhat easier than the creators of Cheers had it, because they had to find both their romantic leads. Sorkin just needed someone who could spark off of Perry.
Once you have two leads who can start a fire together, then you need to give them interesting things to say to each other.
But this puts the formula exactly backwards in the Sorkin view of the universe where writing, particularly writing by Aaron Sorkin, is the be-all and end-all.
Sorkin could never let go of the idea that he could write Harriet and Matt into sexual combustibility. In fact, he seemed to believe that the only reason we cared about their romance was all the great Sorkinisms they would spout at each other in their verbal foreplay.
This actually applies to all of Sorkin's characters on Studio 60 and the whole cast. Sorkin was only interested in his actors and characters as mediums for channeling the voice of Aaron Sorkin. Week after week the only reason any given character had to speak was that he or she needed to tell us what Aaron Sorkin was thinking or that he or she needed to prompt another character into telling us what Aaron Sorkin was thinking.
Instead of creating an entire television series, maybe Sorkin should have just started a blog.
Changing the channel:
Bill Nothstine sent me word last week that May 7 was the 20th anniversary of Shelley Long's last episode of Cheers.
And up above where I speculated about how Shelley Long would have fared on Saturday Night Live and said it would have depended on whether or not the writers knew how to use her, I was thinking of Julia Louis-Dreyfus who was so wasted on SNL that I never suspected she had a tenth of the comic ability she showed on Seinfeld.
But when she was on SNL only one of the writers had an inkling of what she was capable of. Unfortunately, that writer was kind of an odd man out on the writing staff. The producer at the time, Dick Ebersol, never got any of his jokes or saw anything remotely humorous in any of his ideas. He didn't last with the show long.
But one day he got a chance to create his own show and he remembered Julia and brought her aboard.
Soon to be cross-posted over at newcritics, but not today because there's a whole of good new stuff by others up right now for your viewing pleasure.