Television is a vast wasteland, according to Newton Minow.

Going live, so to speak

Posted: 23 January 2007 | posted by David J. Loehr |

Having set this blog up some time ago, I'm only now getting around to using it. And rather than go into any explanations or rationalizations, I'm just going to post a comment I made to another post earlier today, on Alan Sepinwall's blog. Check it out to get the context.

His post, and this comment, reminded me how much I've missed writing about tv. So. Here goes. More on me later.

"You've got to be careful not to let too many voices into your head, or you're not going to get anywhere." -- Aaron Sorkin
On the other hand, you should have at least one or two people you trust to tell you what works and what doesn't. Any good writer knows that not every word he or she types is golden.
"If a character read something and laughed, I feel like the audience would be left out somehow. The character would be enjoying something they couldn't." -- Aaron Sorkin again
Um, no, the audience might be convinced it could be funny. There might even be some tension if one person laughed and another didn't, and maybe we'd see a snippet at the end of the episode and be allowed to decide for ourselves. And what about the tension created if the network found something funnier than the cast and crew? SportsNight showed it was possible to write intelligently about similar topics without going full tilt boogie into romantic comedy mode. (That was one of its weaker elements, actually.)

Full disclosure. I don't really blog. I don't have much time, because I'm a professional writer and theatre artist. I own SportsNight and the first two seasons of The West Wing. And I believe strongly in the creative vision of one person running and writing a show; I love the British system of shorter series written consistently by a single person or team.

But it seems to me that most of the press when SportsNight began was uniformly glowing. Same with The West Wing, and deservedly so. They were beautifully written from the start, if maybe a little hyper-dramatic, a little more theatrical than most shows. The bad press began only when the quality of the shows slipped, and when they slipped, it was precipitous.

Studio 60 has increasingly played more like someone writing a bad parody of Sorkin's writing, combining the previous shows and highlighting their flaws. Even then, it's remarkably boring compared to even the lesser Sorkin-written episodes of the previous series. And I've been a fan for years. I have no ax, no grudge.

What makes this book, "Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live" by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, such an entertaining read? The fact that it's so damn funny. And what makes much of it so tragic even as you're reading? Because it's so damn funny. Most of all, you get a sense of these people as human beings with particular talents and quick wits. Even if you had never seen the first five years of SNL, you would believe it was funny just from reading the book. More and more often, when I use the book in teaching, I'm coming across students who know the names Belushi and Ackroyd from movies--if at all--and have no idea who Chevy Chase is, let alone that he might have been funny once. And once they've read the book, they seek out what they can of the original shows.

The 60 pilot did a wonderful job of setting up the series, and finessing the question of talent. Since then, there hasn't been anything plausible about these people even having funny thoughts to themselves let alone being funny and/or talented enough to put on a comedy show. You never doubted that Jed Bartlett could run the country, you never doubted that Dana Whittaker could produce a sports show.

It should say something that I've still got four episodes of 60 stacked up on the TiVo--all of which I've tried to watch and slept through--but I picked up on 30 Rock thanks to iTunes and now watch it on TiVo the night it airs.

But what does Sorkin care? I'm writing a comment on a blog. [Editor's Note: Well, now I'm writing a blog. So there. Thank you, Aaron.] I'm working in a small theatre company in the midwest. I haven't ascended to the Ayn Randian heights of "you can't edit me, what I create is perfect because I created it"-ness. I actually listen to one or two people who give clear and concise comments on my work.

And I still miss SportsNight.