I am proud to be involved with contemporary American political satire.
A few weeks ago, the cast and crew of “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” joined Twitter en masse. And it’s not just head writer Matt Albie and multi-talented S60 star Harriet Hayes. Just about everyone involved with the show hopped on board, including producer Danny Tripp, director Cal Shanley, little-used cast member Dylan Killington, staff writer Lucy Kenwright and Albie’s personal assistant Suzanne (no last name). Even former S60 writer Ricky Tahoe, famously cut loose after butting heads with Albie, coincided his Twitter coming-out party with the social-network debut of his former co-workers (though maybe the upcoming premiere of his Fox show “Peripheral Vision Man” had something to do with it). It’s all laid bare in 140-character bits: the bonhomie, the backstage drama, the creative struggles, the 4 a.m. miracles and, every Friday night like clockwork, the live broadcast of the long-running comedy show they all work on. There are just a couple of catches—”Studio 60″ is actually a show about that aforementioned long-running comedy show, and it was cancelled four years ago. So why now, and why Twitter?
When NBC chose to debut two series about backstage antics at a comedy show in 2006, the safe bet was that the one from the guy that had the Emmys and “The West Wing” was going to outlast the one from the woman that was an actual actor and head writer on a long-running comedy show. One year later, and audiences showed they prefer their shows about making the funny to actually be funny, giving Aaron Sorkin’s resume its most inauspicious black mark. Creating fake sketches that didn’t revolve around Nic Cage impersonations and Gilbert & Sullivan numbers would’ve helped a bit, but failing to write good jokes was only one of “Studio 60″‘s failings. The attempts to portray the art of comedy writing as some sort of noble suffrage were laughably overwrought, as were the show’s soapier elements.
Of course, any TV show is going to have fans that want to continue the stories either untold or unfinished by the show itself, as the “Studio 60” section of fanfiction.net demonstrates. Give Albie/Tripp shippers another couple of years, and they might start to eat into the 25,000+ story lead that “Glee” fans have amassed. That still doesn’t explain why this “Studio 60” “hashfic”—a term for this Twitter-based type of fanfic that I’m really surprised no one else has coined (and that I’m about to trademark)—is happening.
Tuesday afternoon. It’s at this point of the week where we just start building random sets and hope they turn out to be the right ones.
Making stuff up on Twitter is nothing new; if it were, there wouldn’t be a need for Verified Accounts. Still, folks willing to cop to the charade can get their ya-yas out putting words in other people’s mouths. Sometimes, it even pays off: Just recently, Columbia College journalism professor Dan Sinker was revealed to be the voice behind @MayorEmanuel, the popular Twitter account that blatantly pretended to be the then-mayoral candidate. Sinker was rewarded for his efforts with a book deal collecting his Emanuel tweets, as well as a crapload of publicity (including an appearance on “The Colbert Report” and a meet-and-greet with Emanuel himself). Twitter’s found itself host to a wide range of accounts with people pretending to be actual people from all walks (and eras) of life: everyone’s favorite blockbuster director Michael Bay, music industry pundit/crank Bob Lefetsz, famous 18th century English lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson, and so on.
It’s also host to a wide range of folks pretending to be fictional characters, and not just for semi-promotional purposes, as in the case of author John Wray. Both the “Buffy” and “Firefly” sections of the Whedonverse are alive and well, as are the Marvel and DC universes, with Tweeters using the accounts for these characters as a way to engage in textual LARPing. (There are also outliers that are just out to have their own sort of non-continuity fun: pop-cult musings from @GodDamnBatman, @JJohanJameson‘s CAPS-LOCKed work-place rampages, all the “HULK” accounts regarding feminism or literary criticism or personal hygiene, etc.) Even “The West Wing” has inspired its own LARPing subculture, as this list of sixty-three WW accounts compiled by speech writer Elsie Snuffin (cough cough) attests. (So glad to see Mrs. Landingham is doing so well after that fatal car crash!) Still, these accounts are mostly people responding to current events (and each other) in the voices of the characters.
The cold open was flawless. The blood was perfect. Osama’s head wound was massive. The laughter was cathartic. You’re welcome, America
But what this “Studio 60” crew is attempting—coordinating a real-time story told between multiple Twitter accounts—is on a whole different level. For each of the past three weeks, the person(s) behind these fake accounts have put on a show pretending to put on a show. From Monday through Thursday evening, the creators voice their creative frustrations with comedy and with each other. Come Friday, 11 p.m. EST, though, “Studio 60” hits the airwaves, and showrunners (and buddies) Albie and Tripp, along with other members of the S60 family, dutifully detail the dram-com goings-on of a television show (and that show’s after-party) that no one else can see. They’ve even gotten some actual Twitterers in on the act as well; a discussion between Albie and Tripp about getting comedian Chelsea Peretti to replace an outgoing S60 cast member got a response (in the affirmative!) from the flesh-and-blood Peretti. Unfortunately, attempts to get Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim to publicly discuss or explain their S60 short films, or to get a what-what from Ashton Kutcher, haven’t earned any responses.
Despite those minor failures, though, what the mastermind(s) behind this endeavor are accomplishing is pretty impressive. The only thing that comes close, in terms of scale, is last year’s Twitter “retelling” of Home Alone, and that was just a one-off occurrence working from an established script. If these “Studio 60” “writers” are merely doing this out of boredom, then they are some oddly inspired slackers. Thankfully for them, Twitter lends itself to lazy inspiration. The ability to indulge one’s fondness for purple prose is cut off at the ankles by Twitter’s limitations, but as far as getting quick-and-dirty fanfic out the door, there are worse ways. Instead of having to write actual paragraphs describing setting and character, you just write some dialogue that contains signposts of some sort—references to other characters or recurring thematic elements—and post it next to a picture of the character saying these words. Having mentions of “Dolphin Girl” and “walk-and-talks” in a blurb next to a picture of Matthew Perry’s face allows folks that were ever exposed to “Studio 60” to instinctually fill in the gaps that would’ve previously required lines upon lines of text.
However, this S60 hashfic doesn’t seem to be pitched at Sorkin apologists. Whoever’s behind this effort seems to have as much fun skewering the show’s oft-derided pretensions, and Sorkin’s writing tics, as they are making up stuff for these characters to go through. If Sorkin stand-in Albie isn’t continually fretting about his on-again/off-again relationship with Kristin Chenoweth stand-in Hayes, then he’s Twittering about the serious business of comedy and how his latest “Science Schmience” sketch is a pile of garbage. More often than not, a series of Studio 60 tweets read like one-liners “30 Rock” writers scribbled on bar napkins back when they were worried about getting the ax. Hell, the “first week” of Studio 60 tweets ended with the show’s cancellation, which seemed as noble a way to end this experiment as any.
Of course, with the death of bin Laden, the fine folks at NBS (Studio 60’s network) just had to bring “Studio 60” back in order to give America a way to fully grapple with the enormity of this historical moment. And of course NBS flew the S60 crew out to Abbottobad to film this important event. With Dakota Fanning and Alison Janney co-hosting because of a double booking mix-up. And the show planning to end with a building explosion that might or might not have been cleared with the proper authorities. And Harriet Hayes flirting with a local cricket player, to the dismay of one Matt Albie. Actually, I take back what I said earlier: given the absurdity and hyper-dramatized nature of the plots detailed in these tweets, maybe the folks behind the Studio 60 accounts are actually the folks behind “Studio 60.”
Still, despite the sarcasm and eye-rolling that seemingly oozes out of almost every batch of text posted by these characters, there’s something oddly endearing about this entire enterprise. In light of the way Sorkin took his licks in his recent “30 Rock” cameo, it’s only right for this take on “Studio 60” to be equally self-mocking. Yet this mockery, even at its most brazen and merciless, seems to come from a place of fondness. I doubt anyone would have the energy to come up with new stuff for these accounts for nearly a month if they didn’t care at least a little bit for what the show was, or what they hoped it would become. And short of someone trying to pay tribute to a stillborn show like “Lone Star or “Skin,” creating additional stories 140 characters at a time for a one-season show cancelled four years ago is as lost a cause as any.
That said, each ending from the past three weeks has been set up to give whoever’s behind this charade a pretty clear exit strategy, should they choose to pull the plug. In addition to the initial cancellation, and the aforementioned Abbotobad pyrotechnics, this past “episode” ended with all sorts of cliffhangers: in addition to being the season finale, both Hayes and Simon Stiles are leaving the show, and (most importantly) Studio 60 (the studio) blows up. Despite these easy outs, however, this enterprise seems to still be an ongoing concern: no one’s dead, Albie’s written 420 minutes of “good comedy” since the show went on hiatus, and Hayes is already booked to host the 4th episode of next seaon, as well as (according to her Tumblr) (yes, her TUMBLR) hosting her own talk show on Fox. From the responses and growing audience this back-handed tribute has garnered, the show’s “revival” promises to only get bigger and even more elaborate. Depending on where this endeavor goes next, this tweet (from sad-sack S60 staffer Andy Mackinaw) might prove to be this project’s most appropriate epitaph:
Seriously? We’re alive? That’s disappointing.