Studio 60 is not so bad after all

Gavin Edwards uses the latest Rolling Stone (November 30, page 44) to talk about what ails NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” except he misdiagnoses the problem. His solution is to make the sketch comedy, in case you do not follow “Studio 60” is a show about a Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, funny. This is not the problem, rather I think it speaks to a larger desire Edwin has, and that is the real problem for NBC.

If Edwards’ theory is correct then it means people tune into an hour long show for a glimpse of A joke (usually at the end of the show.) I doubt that is what motivates people and consequently I doubt making that change would keep people coming back for more. If the sketch comedy were funny maybe there would be more viewers in the last half hour, just as SNL these days is viewed exclusively (at least by my friends) for the first half hour, but this seems to be a pretty low mark in quality that I doubt would make any show’s producers happy.

There is another problem with Edwards’ theory. I do believe the American public is able to watch TV with a necessary suspension of disbelief, not everything has to be an accurate representation of our current world. People know the sketches are supposed to be funny in the world of “Studio 60.” This is the same world where Matthew Perry’s character is established as a comic genius. This is the same world where everyone in Pahrump, Nevada is a country yokel. This is not our world and yet Edwards’ basic complaint is that it is too different. “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica,” and “30 Rock” are some of the success stories that disprove Edwards’ need for realism.

The real problem of “Studio 60” is that it is based on SNL, a successful SNL. I suspect Edwards longs for the good-old days when SNL was funny. I suspect it is this appeal which compelled NBC to buy Sorkin’s latest text book – writing text books is what Sorkin does. “West Wing” was his way to educate us about politics. “Sports Night” was an education about ESPN. And this should teach us about SNL. The problem is that SNL is an anachronism. Maybe the quality has dropped and that has led to its demise as a cultural force, or maybe its importance was declining which is why it is no longer a quality show (maybe both) but the result is the same.

“Studio 60” is held on by NBC not as a vehicle in itself to make profits, but also as a way to invigorate a once great NBC institution. I will admit I watch SNL more than I used to because of what I am learning from “Studio 60.” While I think the comedy writing for “Studio 60” is not funny, I do not think it should be. SNL is based not on just being funny but also on being witty (even though those moments do not make it onto the greatest hits highlights). People know what is funny, they need to be taught on what is witty and why it is witty. “Studio 60” does a great job teaching that. The last episode contained a brilliant running commentary on humor, Quentin Tarantino and gore. I feel smarter having seen the last episode.

People are judging the show based upon the show it purports to be, a SNL that is a cultural force. No show airing these days matches up to that standard and a new comparison for profitability needs to be found.

That better model for “Studio 60” to follow is “ER”. The big concern then was if people would watch a show that was steeped in medical knowledge and refused to dumb it down. But people watched, learned and loved it for a long time. Surely the educational quality was not the sole reason people watched but regardless it was a bold gamble. I am confident the “Studio 60” gamble will pay off. It could be funnier and have more of a draw, but I am happy with the show and I will continue to come back to NBC on Mondays.

If I were at NBC I would wait until the show was losing money before pulling this plug. It may take some time, but I think it will pay off. This is, after all, what leadership and being a cultural manager is all about. Sometimes you may think things can be better, that does not mean you can just plod ahead, but you need to plow through resistance. I am confident people will come around.

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