Thursday, July 8, 2010

Divine comedy

On 30 Rock 

Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, August 2010.

Contemplating the aesthetic properties of an Emmy statuette, you wouldn’t guess that the people behind the Emmys had especially good taste. The trophy, in salute to TV’s fusing of the arts and sciences, depicts a winged muse holding aloft an unusually large atom. She looks like a soccer goalie in drag, pulling off a fingertip save while being struck in the back by two bolts of lightning.

But when it comes to detecting on-screen excellence, the Emmy people seem to have their heads screwed on right. For the last three years, the Emmy for TV’s outstanding comedy has gone to the show that really is TV’s outstanding comedy: the dazzlingly clever 30 Rock. When the 2010 Emmys are awarded later this month, 30 Rock will be in the running for its fourth golden goalie in a row. But it will be facing some high-quality opposition. The established comedies Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office are also nominated, along with a trio of new shows: Nurse Jackie, Modern Family and Glee.

Each of these shows has its strengths, and its posse of line-quoting fans. But whatever your personal favourite happens to be, we can probably agree that this is an excellent time to be watching American sitcoms. “American sitcom”: there was a time, not long ago, when the very phrase was a byword for awfulness, like “English Beach” or “Christian Rock”. But after the innovations of Seinfeld in the nineties, the sitcom is no longer something that a self-respecting adult must pretend not to watch. We might even be living in the genre’s Golden Age. Today’s best sitcoms are fresh, formally adventurous, and packed with the kind of dialogue you no longer hear in movies: dialogue written with genuine literary flair. 

At the risk of firing up the Gleeks, and the Curb enthusiasts, and the Office aficionados, I’m bound to say that 30 Rock still strikes me as the wittiest of the current sitcoms. In Australia the show belongs to the Seven network, which runs it in the slap-in-the-face timeslot of 11.30pm on Monday nights. Fortunately, we're free to return the slap by getting the first three seasons on DVD. Each volume costs about the same as a novel, and there aren't many contemporary novels that will so generously repay the investment.

30 Rock is the brainchild of the former Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey. As SNL’s head writer, and anchor of its fake news, Fey established herself as a kind of female Woody Allen - significantly better-looking, but with a similar knack for the impeccably worded one-liner. Sample joke: when Hollywood was proposing a remake of Casablanca starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, Fey suggested it would be "the perfect film for people who liked the original but wished it was terrible".

When she left SNL to develop her own show, you wondered if Fey had walked away from her ideal format. Would she really be able to make a sitcom accommodate her sceptical, Grouchoesque sensibility? 

It turned out that she could. Her 30 Rock character is Liz Lemon, head writer of a weekly NBC sketch show called TGS. (30 Rock is short for 30 Rockefeller Centre, the address of the New York studio where TGS, like SNL, is shot.) In lesser hands, this self-referential set up might have yielded nothing more than a lot of tiresome in-jokes about American showbusiness. But for Fey, it's a vantage point from which to be funny about things most sitcoms wouldn't touch with a barge pole: corporate politics, the inanity of celebrity culture, the brazenness of the American Right, the wishy-washiness of the Left. She's also uncommonly fearless on the topic of race. When Tom Wolfe chides his fellow American novelists for shying away from such big public themes, he's not entirely off the mark. Yet here is Tina Fey, in a sitcom, pitching her tent right on top of these big American faultlines.

Lemon’s political nemesis is Jack Donaghy, the corporate executive in charge of her show. Beautifully played by Alec Baldwin, Donaghy is a vice president of NBC's parent company GE, and a perennial contender for the top job. He's also a hardline Republican, cocksure patriot, and firm believer in synergy. Exchanging fire with the liberal Lemon, he gets more than his share of snappy lines.

Watching Baldwin deliver them, you swiftly dispense with the idea that his move from film to television has been a step down. Artistically, it's been a step up. He has gone to where the decent dialogue is. Shows such as 30 Rock are resuscitating the art of sharp, lively screenwriting. Playing underwritten roles in average movies, Baldwin seldom got the chance to show what he could do with an intelligently conceived character. But in 30 Rock, furnished with dialogue that does a lot more than just advance the plot, he has been a revelation. He has evolved a set of mannerisms with which he can sell even the most information-packed Donaghy line: a distinctive head wobble, a mid-sentence pause for breath, a sudden surge of pace to drive home the laugh.

"I have the entire liberal media establishment at my disposal," he brags to Lemon at one point. "The same manipulation machine that got people to vote for Barack Obama and donate all that money after Rainstorm Katrina." This is a typical 30 Rock line, dense with American backstory. If you are unfamiliar with the kind of real-life cultural warrior who says things like that, your reading of Donaghy will be seriously compromised. 30 Rock keeps up with the news. In theory, sitcoms have always been free to do that. But they have generally preferred to set their action in some semi-mythical America, hermetically sealed off from the real one. Gilligan's Island was the ideal sitcom premise. Such shows were effectively generic: you could get every single joke whether you were an American adult or an Australian child.

30 Rock asks a lot more of you. In one episode, Donaghy falls in love, inadvertently, with a Democratic congresswoman. The congresswoman, while dallying with him, misses a chance to vote down a Republican bill to legalise recreational whale torture. A caption on a TV screen reveals that the bill is sponsored by senators Lott and Specter. A non-American would have to know an indecent amount about American politics to recognise both those names. But this is the essence of information-age comedy. It throws a blizzard of highly specific cultural references at you, and dares you to understand them all. The Colbert Report is one big reference. Its tone would mystify anyone who hadn’t seen the kind of God-awful news show Colbert is sending up.

30 Rock moves at such a hectic tempo that the occasional allusion is bound to fly over your head. Its scenes are short and brisk. Characters are always on the move, chased around the set by a dynamic camera. The frame is full of information. There is no laugh track, let alone a studio audience. When sitcoms were lumbered with those devices, a given piece of dialogue was either a laugh line or it wasn't. But these days, no particular line is under pressure to deliver the big, show-stopping laugh. 30 Rock is playing for lower stakes than TV used to. It can risk the obscure joke that not everyone will get, but that will make a small number of people laugh very hard.

This, for example, is how Donaghy offers Lemon his services as a mentor. "Lemon, I would like to teach you something. I would like to be Michelle Pfeiffer to your angry black kid who learns that poetry is just another way to rap." Even if you haven't seen the movie he's talking about, you've seen that kind of movie. And it’s startling to hear a mainstream American TV show venture the heresy that such movies might be a bit naff. When a joke like this connects with you, you get the thrill of being reached on a wavelength that not everybody is tuned to.

You will notice, too, that Baldwin's character doesn’t take the precaution of saying "African American" instead of "black". Neither does anyone else on 30 Rock. The show talks about race in a bracingly robust way. It's a satire about American excess, and it doesn't stop satirising when the perpetrators of the excess happen to be black. TGS's marquee performer is a black ex-movie star named Tracy Jordan. Played by the comedian Tracy Morgan, the character is a grotesque parody of rapperesque self-indulgence. He wears solid-gold shoes; he has an entourage; he carries, and at one point plays, an actual race card. He says things like: "If it wasn't for you people I'd be back in Africa - gorgeous, politically stable Africa."

Inevitably, a few nervous pundits have wondered if 30 Rock is a little racist. But the show's unpatronising openness on racial matters, its readiness to joke about them in an atmosphere of intelligent goodwill, has a boldness that makes the timidity of the politically correct seem musty and irrelevant. The show is way ahead of such people. Indeed it pre-empts them, by mocking the empty pieties of its own twitchy white liberals. Lemon is forever congratulating herself about her colour-blindness, in terms that suggest she might have a little way left to go. "I never make assumptions about race," she insists. "Remember when I asked that black guy if he’d seen Sideways?"

On another occasion, after loftily protesting that she is free of racial hang-ups, she steps into an elevator occupied by a lone black man. "And good morning to you, sir," she says, with a flourish of self-approval, as if she's clinched her case.

When a sitcom can make such a nuanced joke about racial attitudes, you wonder if America has become definitively less tongue-tied about race than it was ten years ago. Then again, not many other voices in America sound as untrammelled as Tina Fey’s. If there is a trend in America towards freer talk about race, 30 Rock isn't following it. It's setting the pace, by daring to crack jokes that are right out on the boundary of what the public will tolerate.

Seinfeld, operating back in the heyday of political correctness, was similarly unafraid to go after the dangerous, liberating laugh. The show flourished under the strictures of PC, for the same reason Al Capone flourished in the era of prohibition. It took the rules as a provocation. During Seinfeld's golden period, one episode after another seemed deliberately fashioned to take on the big taboos. Even the Holocaust wasn't off limits, although the writers approached it in a typically tangential way. (Jerry got caught making out during a showing of Schindler's List.)

But the one taboo that Seinfeld conspicuously didn't take on was race. Unlike 30 Rock, the show had no permanent black cast members. It was therefore poorly positioned to defy America's ultimate no-no. Students of Seinfeld lore will know that the staff writer Larry Charles once pitched a storyline in which George got himself into trouble by observing that he'd never seen a black person order a salad. But the idea was deemed too controversial to proceed with.

30 Rock, just 15 years later, is constantly getting away with stuff a lot more confronting than that. You could choose to believe this is because America has become more racist over the intervening period. But it seems more reasonable to suppose there has been a gradual loosening of America's uptightness about race. This seems an unambiguously good thing, and American comedy writers ought to take some of the credit for it. On TV of all places, they have been gently expanding the limits of the sayable. 30 Rock is keeping that honourable tradition up. It continues to push its luck. It continues to address itself to that portion of the audience that wants to hear things it hasn't heard before.

AND then, on the other hand, you have the movies, with their terrified reluctance to say anything that might startle or provoke you. Still weighed down by the fiscal albatross of having to entertain everyone at once, Hollywood “product” seems destined never to entertain any single viewer very deeply. If a movie's ending upsets the expectations of the test audience, a new ending will be shot. For your convenience, each movie's plot will describe an "arc" that is unashamedly designed to follow the arc of every other movie you've seen. If the movie is a comedy it will probably be a romantic one, and everyone knows how the romance will go. In the penultimate reel, the hero will make Julia Roberts hate him for a while. And then, no more than 15 minutes later, he will get her back. This he will achieve by apologising to her, lavishly, in a public venue. Ideally a giant screen at a sporting event will be involved.

Have movies lost the plot? At a time when the best TV shows whip every 20-minute script through an almost fanatical succession of quality-control checkpoints - the busy writers' room, the hands-on executive producers, the cast read-through, the last-minute tweakings on the studio floor - Hollywood no longer even seems to want its scripts to be good. It wants them to be rudimentary. It wants dialogue that does nothing but move you straight ahead as fast as possible. Lines that sound interesting in themselves are an impertinence, a distraction.

You could call this an unwritten rule of the business, except it's more than that. It's a written rule. The screenwriting manuals, for which there is a huge market, insist on it. Robert McKee's Story, the Bible for Hollywood's next generation of hacks, has this to say on the matter: "The best advice for writing film dialogue is don't. Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual impression."

The screenwriter William Goldman, in his moderately diverting books about the film trade, pushes the same Hollywood dogma. Screenplays, he says, are all about structure. Dialogue is "one of the least important parts of any flick". His italics.

But does this have to be true? No doubt it's true of the films Goldman writes. Then again, the films Goldman writes have rarely been all that great. So one is tempted to reply, after a bit of this word-bashing: Fair enough, gentlemen, but perhaps American films would be a lot better if they weren't all written by guys like you.

If the screenwriters won't stand up for decent dialogue, at least one Australian director is ready to. Bruce Beresford's 2008 book about Hollywood, Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This ... , was a lot more literate than anything by Goldman or McKee. It was also scandalously frank about the consequences of lousy scriptwriting. Halfway through the book, Beresford reluctantly attaches himself to a dodgy action film, The Contract, even though he finds the screenplay alarmingly thin. Among its many deficiencies, "it doesn't have a plot". A script doctor named J. D. Zeik is called in to perform surgery. Beresford is unimpressed by his work. To Beresford's ear, Zeik's dialogue sounds "perfunctory". All his characters have the same speech pattern. When Beresford asks Zeik if White House staffers would really use the same slang as the bad guys, Zeik says yes.

Morgan Freeman and John Cusack commit to the film. Beresford sardonically wonders whether either actor can have read the script. The production date looms. The screenplay continues to strike Beresford as underdone. "Interesting that no one seems to be worried except me, probably because no one in the production company other than [one producer] has read the script." He wonders whether the movie will go straight to DVD.

Which is exactly what it did. When you consider how much money producers gamble on such a film, their languid indifference to the quality of its screenplay is hard to credit, unless you suppose that a near-suicidal contempt for scripts is simply a given of the movie business. Sometimes this contempt pays off, at least financially. A lot of the time it doesn't. Almost always it results in bad art.

The film buff will protest that the cinema has finer flowers to offer than The Contract, which probably wasn't even meant to be good art in the first place. But if we raise our sights towards the films that are meant to be art, we encounter an altogether more sinister enemy of decent writing: the giant furphy of the director as auteur.

Consider Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. It's hard to believe that more than 10 years have passed since that movie was made, not including the year it took you to watch it. Frederic Raphael, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kubrick, published a memoir of their collaboration titled Eyes Wide Open. The book is out of print, but anyone sceptical about the claims of auteur theory should hunt down a copy online. Proponents of the theory who can read books might also want to take a look at it. 

As Raphael tells it, the story of the script's evolution confirms everything you had feared about the illiteracy of the great auteurs. Unable (of course) to bring a screenplay into existence himself, Kubrick provides Raphael with some rather hazy specifications about what he's after. Raphael delivers drafts, which Kubrick actively purges of every remotely "literary" feature. He stamps out jokes, wit, backstory. He wants types instead of characters. Above all, he seems "not very interested in words". He rejects dialogue on the grounds that it's "too good". "You're not seriously suggesting we make it worse?" Raphael asks. Kubrick seems to think maybe they should.

Some time after submitting his final draft, Raphael is presented with Kubrick's revision of it. Elegant dialogue has been systematically replaced by tripe. It’s as if Kubrick "had to possess the script ... by swallowing it", Raphael says. "It had, so to say, to pass through his gut."

Raphael declines to follow this metaphor any further south. But we are free to reach our own conclusions about the merits of what Kubrick ultimately delivered. Of course, we have to take Raphael's word for it that his own draft scripts had more "literary grace" than the final product. But why disbelieve him? We already know that the big directors don't want their films to sound as good as they look. Just take a listen to them.

Before the concoction of auteur theory, it was generally felt that a director's job was to realise a good script. On TV shows such as 30 Rock, this ethic is still in force, and a lot of viewers like the results. 30 Rock has many different directors, and all that's required of them is the technical competence to transfer the writers' work effectively from page to screen. The show is written to such a high standard that it would be superfluous, indeed damaging, for a movie-style director to impose his "vision" on the script. The script is the vision. Interestingly, Tina Fey reveals, during one of her DVD commentaries, that certain sequences of one episode had no director at all. It doesn't show, because the real auteurs of 30 Rock are the people who write the words.

When television caught on in the 1950s, Hollywood responded to its threat with technical gimmicks: wider screens, bigger formats, 3-D. Now that the best TV shows are getting remarkably good, Hollywood is resorting to more visual trickery: CGI, more CGI, 3-D (again). It's throwing awesome sums of money at teams of geeks on computers, who create not-very-convincing virtual environments in which not-very-convincing virtual people utter dialogue that would disgrace a high school play. A staggering amount of work went into the visuals of Avatar, but the script was so cursory that you should have been issued with earmuffs along with your 3-D glasses. It was hard to quarrel with that movie's success, but listening to its characters talk made you want to. As long as the producers were spraying all those millions around, couldn't they have lobbed a few dollars at that other kind of geek on a computer: the kind with something original to say, and the power to say it well?