Every few months, a clip from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip goes viral.
The 2006 drama about the behind-the-scenes action of a fictional comedy show modelled on Saturday Night Live was written by Aaron Sorkin, and treated the production of late-night comedy with the same sense of urgency and import as the inner workings of the White House. This is neatly demonstrated by one of the more popular viral clips, which features a cast member of the show-within-a-show as he gives his parents a tour of what he describes as the ‘Paris Opera House of American television’. When his mother asks him how they write the skits, rage is sparked somewhere deep inside:
We don’t do skits, mom. Skits are when the football team players dress up as the cheerleaders and think it’s wit. Sketches are when some of the best minds in comedy come together and put on a national television show watched and talked about by millions of people!
If this doesn’t seem like the way a comedic actor might speak, it’s because it isn’t: Sorkin generally failed to portray anything resembling how comedy is actually written or executed, resulting in the frequent sharing of clips that fifteen years later people still can’t believe made it to television. Even as the show aired, it was widely ridiculed by comedians, who pointed out that no one in the industry behaved remotely like the characters in Studio 60. Worse, the sketches in the show were not funny – a flaw that, among others, contributed to the show’s cancellation after just one season.
Yet across those twenty-two episodes, Sorkin somehow managed to predict the state of political satire years into the future – not in spite of his strangely earnest approach to the subject of comedy, but because of it.
In Sorkin’s world, politics was destined to collide with late-night sketch comedy. The head writers in Studio 60 possessed a deep-seated sense of purpose and drive, marching in to do battle against politicians, corporations and other enemies. In rare instances when these fictional showrunners weren’t attempting to make grand statements through the power of late-night comedy, the world would intrude on the setting itself. Moments after the actor’s rant about skits, his father fires back: ‘That’s swell, Tom, but your little brother is standing in the middle of Afghanistan!’ This potent mix of overwrought drama, the intrusion of geopolitics into the lives and work of the characters, and a near total lack of interest in humour or the construction of humour, defined Studio 60’s year on air – and fuelled much criticism of the show.
The ultimate irony is that satire in the real world began to bear the weight Sorkin believed it should. What he really nailed, seemingly by accident, was not how comedy was made, but how it came to be received by the wider culture.
Like so many other trends, this was accelerated by the candidacy and election of Donald Trump. In 2017, Nathan Rabin observed that Saturday Night Live had transformed into a bland, self-righteous version of Studio 60 in its confusion over what to do with a Trump presidency.
But Saturday Night Live didn’t become Studio 60 – not really. In Studio 60, no-one in the writers’ room laughs, there’s no sense of delight in the absurd, and it’s rare that anyone pitches or defends a sketch on comedic grounds. Even at Saturday Night Live’s most unfunny, its writers would usually claim they were pursuing laughs over commentary. Colin Jost, co-head writer for much of this period, makes this abundantly clear in his autobiography.
Instead, the cultural conversation morphed around Saturday Night Live and other satirical shows, like The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Late Night with Seth Meyers, or any number of others appearing (and disappearing) in those booming years. As Rabin put it, Saturday Night Live became as central to the cultural discourse as Sorkin ‘angrily demanded a sketch show should be’.
Prior to Trump’s inauguration, in anticipation of the horrors to come, commentators reached for satire as the way to do battle or build strength. ‘This feels like a time when satirists are really needed to step up to the plate: not just to provide a bit of pleasure for progressives … but also to offer some much-needed moral clarity, a rough and ready, cartoonish shortcut to the truth,’ wrote Jonathan Coe in the Guardian. Within his first year, others were declaring that Trump had heralded the return of satire, like Frida Ghitas for CNN claiming that ‘political humor blossomed like never before’.
Treating comedy the way Sorkin treated it in Studio 60, as a singularly powerful political weapon, inevitably led to disappointment. Late last year, in the New York Times, writing on how Trump ruined political comedy, Dan Brooks put it pithily:
there is also a sense, as the president talks openly about defying the results of the election, that satire has not accomplished what its champions believed it could.
But why did these ‘champions’ hope that satire could achieve what journalism or activism or politics could and had not? It is rather odd that people not engaged in a profession seemingly believed that profession could change the country, even as hardly anyone working in that profession shared that belief (with the possible exception of Alec Baldwin, who seemed to feel his Trump impression made him worthy of some kind of beatification). Others, like Daily Show head writer Dan Amira, took the view that ‘if you’re putting your faith in satire to take the president down, I think you’re hoping for too much.’
Australia largely seems to have avoided the Studio 60 phenomenon, though this seems less related to our lack of a Trump-like figure of ridicule (we did have Tony Abbott, after all) and more due to the environment in which our political comedy operates. Australia’s most prominent responsive satirical programs – as opposed to shows like Utopia – are Mad as Hell, The Weekly, The Feed and sketches on 7:30, while online there are The Betoota Advocate, The Shovel, The Chaser and others. The Chaser team also produces various shows, though currently no ongoing satire program, and some podcasts have gained traction.
But none of these occupy the cultural space of Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show, and the idea of anyone forging a career by impersonating Scott Morrison, let alone holding him to account by doing so, is barely imaginable.
Australia has had sketches shared with breathless headlines, in the mode of those parodied in a poem constructed entirely using adjectives from headlines about John Oliver. But these pieces were not as extreme, frequent, or accompanied by legacy media figures who would regularly seek to handball their responsibilities to people writing viral sketches. In Australia, satire seems to be more of a community-building opportunity, or a way to seek relief, rather than being saddled with the Sorkin-esque expectation of comedy as a giant-slayer.
Meanwhile, in the US, these expectations continue to be expressed. Take the recent Washington Post headline ‘Comedians are struggling to parody Biden. Let’s hope this doesn’t last.’ A title like this holds several assumptions. One is that comedians successfully parodied Trump, or any other past president, and that there is some way to define ‘success’ in that context. The second is that it’s a process to be completed, because the struggle will be ongoing until they work it out. The third is that the world needs this! That we live in hope that comedians are able to parody Biden, because otherwise how will he be held to account?
This is the shape of political comedy as anticipated by Studio 60. Not from the perspective of its practitioners, but of those who would treat it as the last defence against darkness.
In this situation, where lofty expectations clash with the more constrained views of those actually making the product, satirical comedy becomes a cynical exercise – striving to preserve the illusion of being the real-world Studio 60 without truly believing it can or should be this kind of show. Resisting this lure creates space for more entertaining, interesting and effective political comedy.