Sunday, March 08, 2009

TV: Alessandra Stanley, far funnier than Tina Fey

We have no idea what they put in the Water Cooler but could someone ship it to sitcom writers? Alessandra Stanley (New York Times) usually steps aside from the Water Cooler Set and offers something other than group-think but last week she offered:

"30 Rock" on NBC is a new-economy sitcom. It's very funny -- even about turmoil in the Asian markets -- but its ratings are still mediocre. (Last week's episode was beaten by a rerun of "Grey's Anatomy" on ABC.)

That had us howling so loudly and ,we quickly realized, no sitcom's brought us so much joy in some time. If they can ship whatever Alessandra's sipping to sitcom writers, can they just hire her?

30 Rock funny -- wait! Excuse us, "very funny." Well maybe we missed it. We can take another look at 30 Rock, what would the harm be, right? And then we saw Poodle Hair. That hair looks more ridiculous with each passing day. But we agreed to table Tina Fey's efforts to be a Wella Balsam Girl and look for this new economy sitcom stuff. We'd missed all this economic commentary the show allegedly provides and couldn't believe that a new Roseanne had emerged without our even registering. We felt we'd been remiss -- if not sleeping on the job, certainly power napping.

We power napped before watching 30 Rock because it's so boring and we didn't want to risk missing any of that keen, economic insight.

NBC described the episode as: "Liz befriends a pregnant teenage donut shop employee, in an attempt to adopt her baby. Back on set, Jenna vies for more attention from the TGS staff as her birthday approaches." "Pregnant teenage donut shop employee"? Maybe it would be like Roseanne? Maybe the working class wouldn't be portrayed as stupid and ignorant? Maybe Fey would actually prove herself to be a writer? And maybe Barack would end the Iraq War.

Apparently any of the above was hoping for too much. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Liz was told that a group of people were going "to that bar where the waiters are dressed like ninjas, you in?" Everyone headed off to party? Well maybe this was an economic storyline? Maybe the bar trip would end with someone not having money or someone running up credit card debt they couldn't pay off, right? Wrong.

But that was the subplot, the plot was surely going to address the economy because we had that pregnant teenager, the one who works in the donut shop. Where was she?

Oh, there she is. She's on the phone behind the counter and there's Tina Fey's Liz showing how she interacts with working class people, hollering, "Excuse me! Could we get a little service over here!" That Liz, she's a regular Mother Jones. Or at least Norma Rae . . . by way of Leona Helmsley.

Liz treats the young women like trash until she notices that the woman is pregnant. Then, because Tina Fey can't think up storylines, we're back to the episode where Rhoda and Mary went shopping for young clothes. Excuse us, threads. Young threads. Yes, the whole point is how insulting can you be to Young America. That entire episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show shocked us because (a) it was poorly written and (b) the show didn't generally make an effort to run off viewers by insulting them. We were not surprised in the least that no-original-thought Fey would glom on it and rip it off. And why not, it allowed her to rip off Baby Mama (Amy Poehler's film) in an episode that had already mugged Harry and the Hendersons as well as How I Met Your Mother. In fact, it appeared Sticky Fingers Fey spent more time casing other writers than actually writing.

The pregnant teen shows up at Liz's work. Liz has hired her, Liz explains from a distance, as everyone watches the woman enter, because the CW does stuff like that. Does it? No one knows. But it let Tina Fey toss out to the CW and note another significant demographic that avoids her show.

What do you do after you're hired in this faltering, Bully Boy economy? You sip tea and nest. That's what Liz and the teen were doing. We wondered if possibly others might want to work at NBC and just sip tea all day? We also wondered how much that would pay?

The teen explained that her boyfriend wasn't interested in the baby and wasn't acting very fatherly. For example, "his MySpace page still says: 'Status: HORNY'." That poorly crafted joke stood out like the sore thumb it was.

See 'writer' Tina Fey, honed her 'craft' on Saturday Night Live. A show famous for 'dropping the cow.' Meaning a show famous for not being able to write a full skit. Not being able to write an ending to a skit. Get a few laughs and get out. How? It doesn't matter. Just get your laughs, that don't add up and don't make sense, and flee like the time thief you are!

And that pretty much describes the approach to writing Tina Fey takes. The tea drinking stops for a music break. Where did that guitar come from? And suddenly the teen is performing one of her songs.

Cobwebs and rainbows or some such nonsense. A bit that exists, apparently, not to provide a laugh but so that Tina Fey can yet again grudge f**k The Doors. Jim Morrison -- like most attractive men -- would never have looked twice at Tina and apparently her efforts to comically lash out at the men who spurned her brought her no satisfaction so now she's going after the men who died before they could spurn her. Tina has Liz call The Doors untalented. Trust us, Tina, no one will remember you in 20, let alone forty years.

Just like no one's going to remember Seth Meyers in five years, except to groan over him collectively the way some still do over Kevin Nealon's mirthless run as a Weekend Update anchor. Seth's still soloing and still unable to get laughs. But, don't worry, that just means they put on the applause sign extra long. So the audience claps for Seth's jokes. It's really surprising that as Lorne relies more and more on that APPLAUSE sign, he's yet to attempt a LAUGH sign. There was Seth making the usual ass out of himself on camera. And anyone paying attention caught that four males joined Seth for Update and only one woman. The woman had to play a cartoon character, Jessica Rabbit, and they couldn't even get her curves right (the padded butt required a padded chest, her hair was also too flat for the character). She walked on and off and stayed just long enough to invite one man to bed her and suggest a three-way. That's what a woman can do in Seth's world. Seth would shoot back that Andy played the comic strip character Cathy. Andy's not funny in that character. Even if SNL had a ton of opportunities for women, it would be bad for Andy to play the character because he's not funny in the role and it only emphasizes his own unconventional looks and leads to him being dubbed "ugly." If he had an agent worth a damn, Andy would not do another skit where he played a woman.

But with a real agent, he also wouldn't have participated in the idiotic skit where he was overjoyed to see Barack tossing US senators out of a window at the White House. It's a sign of how pathetic Saturday Night Live has become that we're supposed to want King George behavior in America. The skit was built around the lie that Barack's 'eternal cool' and never loses his temper. Did they miss his hissy fit last month? If you did, we'd suggest you check out the February 13th broadcast of Washington Week which used a snippet of it in their opening. ("This is the epitome -- the epitome! -- of what I came here to stop!" snapped Barack sounding even more foppish than usual.) Typical in today's SNL, the skit was authoritarian, rooting for a dicatorship, uninformed, not funny and it featured four males (five if you count the two Baracks) and only one woman.

There's really nothing for women to do on Saturday Night Live. Every now and then, you get a Gilda Radner who can write and co-write wonderful skits and bypass the Boys Club that is SNL's writers den. Barring that, maybe you can wring laughs out of skits you're plugged into that feature no laugh lines for you (the way Jane Curtain managed for years due to her immense talents). You can always, as many a SNL tootsie has done, whore yourself out to the writers and they'll put your untalented ass into skits. We pondered whether to mention that or not. But we talked to three women who'd been performers on SNL and they asked us to include it because, in the words of one, that's actually the most damaging thing for women because (a) it promotes the myth of women as whores who'll sleep with anyone (just keep up the pressure!) and (b) it makes the women who actually do the work to get front and center have their abilities downgraded because the whores rep is widely known and it's assumed that, for example, Molly Shannon must have slept her way to funny skits. (She didn't. Molly earned her laughs in the writing and the performing.)

But it was better under Tina, right? When Tina was headwriter, it was better? We asked three men and two women who worked under Tina. She might be more encouraging of a skit written with a woman but that's really it. It wasn't like they had anyone actively supporting women. And Tina herself really didn't go out of her way to create skits for women. When she did, they were usually stereotypical.

That would have surprised us . . . once. But we've seen what she's done. The promise of 30 Rock in its first year long ago vanished. NBC didn't care for Rachel Dratch and Tina Fey -- who fights like crazy for her own perks -- quickly went along with ditching Dratch (who'd left Saturday Night Live to do 30 Rock). The first year, Dratch played various characters. Who knows what it might have been if Dratch had remained with the show?

Maybe no more than the crap it is now. Jane Krakowski has been with the show since the first episode. She plays Jenna. And Jane's wonderful in this awful role. It is an awful role. The character is nothing but a stereotype of women. An insulting one, of course. That is what Tina's comfortable with. She writes the "crazy bitch" and every other male-created stereotype to prove she is one of the boys. She writes them to put these stereotypes up against Liz so that every man can feel Liz is so special and so wonderful and one of the boys but with breasts -- not as big as Alec Baldwin's but boobs none the less.

Jenna was crazy bitch again last week. Not 'wicked fun crazy' like Tracy, just bitch crazy.

And, if you paid attention, you saw Tina with that male actor who wears a baseball cap. We're sure he has a name but who gives a damn. And Jack (Alec Baldwin) was busy running with another male (Frank?) who is just like the ball cap guy but that guy's going bald and this guy has long hair. And we saw Kevin, the page, try to move heaven and earth for Tracy.

Kevin's really the worst character because he's still the exact same and the actor's gotten older and thicker and can't really play it anymore. Is it worth noting that at some point that character either becomes gay or John Edwards -- or that becoming gay is more honest and probably more enjoyable?

Crazy Bitch Jenna. It's her birthday. But Kevin finds out Tracy doesn't have a birthday! He doesn't even have a birth certificate! And so, they turn Jenna's birthday party over to Tracy and ignore Jenna. And Jenna, Crazy and Stupid Bitch, can't go along with that.

That's how the episode is written and we're all supposed to roll our eyes at Jenna's latest 'womanly' issues. We can't imagine anyone not being ticked off to show up at their birthday party and find everyone fussing over someone else and pretending it's his birthday while ignoring us.

And we certainly wouldn't believe the story if it was told to us as an excuse. In fact, if we were Jenna (well, smarter than Jenna, if we had a walk on and played ourselves with no input from 'writer' Liz), we'd have said, "What the f__ is this lie about no birth certificate? You're a damn liar and, Kevin, you're a stupid idiot."

Why would we say that besides the fact that it would feel good? Because, unlike Tina Fey, we know the show's past episodes. Anyone remember Samurai I Am Awry? Where did Tracy spend nine months filming that? Japan.

So how did he get into Japan -- and work in Japan -- without a birth certificate and how did he get back into the US because no American citizen claiming they don't have a birth certificate is going to be given a passport.

But that's Tina Fey's 'writing' for you. It never makes sense. Things that we assumed in season one would get sorted out at some point never did. And people aren't refusing to watch this bad show because it's 'nervy,' they're not watching it because it's a sketch that never got developed. Because it's an insulting show that insults women and insults all viewers.

The economy? Really, Alessandra?

Here's reality on the economic issue. People in this country are losing their jobs. Unemployment is now over 8% -- "highest level in a quarter century." 30 Rock does not reflect it or speak for the anxiety. You've got a pampered group of characters who have no connection with the real world. This season alone, Liz has been able to take the network jet to go to her high school reunion. That's reflective of the bad economy? No cast member has been dropped from the show -- either from 30 Rock or from TGS, the show Liz allegedly runs. Has Liz had to fire any writers this season? No. Has she had to do without anything? No.

The economy has not effected these pampered characters in the least although Fey frequently crafts a line where they insult working class people. And people wonder why this show gets such lousy ratings? A good case could be made that the characters on this show are the fictional equivalent of those getting rich while the average American suffers.

The longer we watched, the more we kept coming back to how Alessandra divided up the sitcom world into twos, as if she were Noah on the Lido deck, working from a passenger manifest list. You were either a "new-economy sitcom" or an "old-economy sitcom." You're apparently either 'nervy' and taking on the economy or "comfort food." And then it hit us, Alessandra was just attempting to meet a deadline.

She had a deadline and she'd been thinking a lot of Judy Davis and, specifically, how Davis manages to make that dreary scene in Husbands & Wives interesting where she's ticking off who is a fox and who is a hedgehog. 'Judy. Judy is a fox. But Gabe. Gabe is a hedgehog. And I started thinking of everyone I know and who was a fox and who was a hedgehog . . .'

How does she make it interesting? By weighing her words. The actress weighs the word to make it appear she's thinking them up as she says them. Judy Davis weighs her words. That's something Alessandra Stanley didn't do last week and something Tina Fey's never learned to do.

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