“Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip,” Free Speech, The First Amendment, and The Importance of TV Comedy

“Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip,” Free Speech, The First Amendment, and the importance of television comedy.

A controversial person says something controversial on television. Uproar ensues. One side screams that the statement is reprehensible, indefensible, and completely unacceptable and threatens to boycott network sponsors until the offending individual is fired.

Who am I talking about?

"We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from two thousand miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly."

- Bill Maher, September 2001

"Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

- Rush Limbaugh, September 2003

Each was equally attacked and defended.

He was making a statement about the over use of military force and how easy it is for us to attack the smaller guy.

He was making a statement about how the media handles race in America.

He called the members of our military who put their lives on the line every day for a shamefully low salary cowards.

He’s a hateful racist, this proves it.

What amuses me is that both of these statements drew extreme reactions from the same people in totally opposite ways. The people who attacked Maher, for the most part, defended Limbaugh and those who defended Maher, attacked Limbaugh.

Each side had its point.

“He said something politically incorrect on a show called ‘Politically Incorrect.’ What did you expect?”

“Hey, you hired Limbaugh because he is controversial, and now he said something controversial. What did you expect?”

“What he said was irresponsible, insulting, and absolutely unacceptable. This sort of statement is damaging to America and our military.”

“This type of racist attitude has plagued our country for far too long. There is no place for it on national television and any network that allows it is complicit in fostering racism.”

In both cases The First Amendment was invoked, and there were fevered denunciations of how it did not apply in this case.

Both men lost their jobs.

Here’s the thing…

The First Amendment has nothing to do with either of them.

Period. End of statement.

But how can that be?

Well, most people don’t have any idea what The First Amendment is, does, or means.

Before I go on let me stress something. I am a strict Constitutionalist. To paraphrase Penn Jillette, it’s a little document that I happen to believe every single effing word of. I am a firm believer in and defender of The First Amendment.

However, neither one of these cases has anything to do with it.

Let’s start by taking a look at it.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Pretty cut and dried. However, as the ABC television network fired both Maher and Limbaugh, so The First Amendment did not enter into it.

Let’s look at it again.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The thing people don’t realize is that The First Amendment does not say, “You have the right to say whatever you want in whatever way you want to say it, in whatever place you want, and at whatever time you want.”

What it does say is, “The US Government DOES NOT HAVE THE RIGHT to prevent you from expressing yourself in whatever way you see fit as long as you are not breaking any laws while you do it.” So if your chosen form of expression is murdering schoolchildren, you are out of luck, but if your chosen form of expression is joking about the murder of schoolchildren, much as I would not be OK with it, you are free to do so.

So, if the government didn’t step in then what did happen? Well, in both cases, was a group of citizens got together and voiced displeasure at the comments and threatened to boycott the advertisers of the shows if they continued to provide financial support for the views presented.

Let’s look one more time.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Neither man lost his job because of governmental censorship. Both lost their jobs because they displayed shockingly poor judgment and said something that put their employer in a position to make a tough call. It’s like the ESPN online editor who was fired for the “Chink in the Armor” caption on a photo of Jeremy Lin. Intentional or not, he put his boss in a bad position and got nailed for it.

Did Congress intercede, make a law, or otherwise pressure the network to fire either of the people? No, it did not.

The same Constitutional Amendment that protected and empowered Maher and Limbaugh protected and empowered those who disagreed with them.

That’s the thing about freedom of speech; it goes both ways.

Do I think each of these men had the right to express his opinion? Yes, yes I do.

Do I think “The Dixie Chicks” had the right to express their disdain with George W. Bush? Yes, yes I do.

Do I think Tony Bennett has the right to go on Howard Stern and say things like, “They flew the plane in, but we caused it. Because we were bombing them and they told us to stop,” about 9/11? Yes, yes I do.

Do I think that the people who were upset with Limbaugh, Maher, The Dixie Chicks, and Tony Bennett have the right to publicly denounce and boycott them because of it?

Yes, yes I do.

You have the right to say what you want, but I also have the right to disagree with or ignore what you are saying. I am also not required to support you when say what you want.

So if someone pulls your comment off a message board they are not violating your first amendment right, they are simply refusing to provide you a platform to espouse your views. It’s like if your neighbor puts a sign in your front yard supporting a candidate you disagree with, you aren’t violating his or her First Amendment rights by taking it down. But you are if you try to get the government to remove one from your neighbor’s yard.

People tend to go with Voltaire on the subject of free speech, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

I love that quote. It is probably my favorite, but I also like to thrown in a little Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate,” on top of it.

Today we have become a nation of cowards who hide behind The First Amendment and use it to cover those who say things that speak to our own beliefs and actively attempt to quiet any opposing viewpoints.

Do we celebrate the endless choice we have in media, or do we obsess on the outlets with differing views and attempt to silence them?

Hell, it was barely a year ago when there was a tragic shooting in Arizona and before the motives of the shooter could be looked into there were people attempting to place blame on cable news and talk radio and people pushing for a “Fairness in Media Doctrine” that would place government mandated restrictions on editorial content.

Then it turned out that the shooter was a deeply disturbed, completely apolitical schizophrenic and the furor died down, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. That’s right, we live in a world where compassion for people whose lives were torn apart by a lunatic has been replaced with blatant opportunism and an attempt to silence those you do not agree with.

In the end it just boils down to some long buried evolutionary tick that dates back to when we were living in caves. As humans we have this odd tick where ideas and ideologies we agree with make us feel very happy and secure, and ideas we don’t agree with make us angry. No matter how evolved you are this does apply to you to some degree. You may not fly into a rage because someone is out of step with your ideology, but it does provoke some small level of anger.

And it’s happening again. People are again screaming for Limbaugh’s head because he called some girl a slut. I don’t fall on either side of this particular issue because I find it an immensely trivial waste of media attention. It’s not an issue to me because I don’t really care what Limbaugh thinks, so why should I care what he says?

But, people are jumping all over it as some sort of excuse to get Limbaugh off the air. Yet those screaming out were oddly silent when Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat,” described other conservative women as “bimbos,” “cunts,” and “sluts,” on his show and has joked about Rick Santorum’s wife using a vibrator. I’m not saying that either person is correct in using these terms, but if one is sexist then the other is sexist. I am wondering where the outrage is at Maher and when women’s groups will begin boycotting HBO. The answer is they won’t because as one woman I discussed this with the other night so eloquently stated, “Palin is a twat.” So I guess misogyny is totally acceptable if you happen to disagree with the woman being degraded. My, how far we have come.

In no way am I defending the content of Rush’s comment, I was actually quite reluctant to mention it here because people will perceive a political statement I was not trying to make. I think he was out of line for saying it, but I also think that the people who are so indignant about it need to admit that their problem is with the person who said it, not what was said.

Now the real question…

What does this have to do with “Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip?”

Well, this is a show that deals quite extensively with the issues of free speech, network censorship, and religious freedom. It also, inadvertently, deals directly with the very hypocrisy that I mention above.

I love living in this day and age because not that long ago shows like this were forgotten or relegated to AFRTS (Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, a place where production companies dump the shows they can’t make money off of. That’s right, military, you are risking your lives for little money and moving your family around the world constantly, but at least you get a few episodes of “Hawaiian Heat,” “Condo,” and two month old daytime soap operas to keep you and yours entertained). But today a largely forgotten, single season show can somehow provoke a 5000+ word 10 page article from some hack with a podcast.

Were I forced to describe “Studio 60,” in simple terms… well, it’s kind of like “Network,” meets “The West Wing,” by way of 70’s era “Saturday Night Live.”

This thing should have been a slam-dunk. This was Aaron Sorkin coming off the massive success of “The West Wing,” writing a show about an SNL analogue with Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford, there was virtually no way this thing could fail.

But somehow it did.

How?

Was it because it came out at the same time as “30 Rock?”

Was it too revolutionary?

Was it just bad?

The “30 Rock” thing is foolish to me. Is there more than one successful cop show on TV? Is there more than one successful medical show? Ok, then your argument is invalid. To say that it failed because it came out at the same time as “30 Rock” is like saying that “Scrubs” was destined to fail because “ER” was on the air. Yes, they were both set in an ER and were both about doctors but they were completely different takes on that world.

I don’t know if it could be called revolutionary because it was essentially the same format as “The West Wing.” Yeah, it was taking on a different topic, but that isn’t revolutionary in and of itself.

Bad isn’t a word I would use. Granted, it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. Worst I could say is it was good. That’s all, just good.

So, what was the problem?

It’s a good show, but it is also a very self-important and preachy show.

When it comes to preaching in entertainment viewers tend to fall into two categories, they either completely agree and the preaching is invigorating and just hammers home how right everything they believe is, or they don’t agree and they find it annoying, off putting, and condescending. I tend to watch with a bit more scientific detachment. I studied media extensively. I know how people interact with it and how it impacts society. I know the tricks and the traps so I tend to watch with less in WHAT is being said than in HOW it’s being said.

The politics of this show are pretty firmly worn on the sleeve, which is to be expected from the creators of “The West Wing,” but the show failed to reach that level of popularity. I think the problem comes from the setting. Politics is a world that people understand the hardships of. I mean… if a president or a senator screws up the ramifications are pretty significant. But a TV show, especially a SNL style show… there isn’t as much sympathy. Everyone takes his or her job seriously, but for some reason people in the entertainment industry take that to the next level. Just watch an awards show like The Oscars or The Emmys and you will see how INCREDIBLY important these people take their work, as they should. Hell everyone should, but when you present that egotism as a vehicle for entertainment, you run into trouble.

Essentially, the problem is that it’s a drama about comedy and like any drama about comedy the show goes to great pains to make sure you know how important comedy is to the world. In fact, it takes comedy so seriously that it ceases to be funny anymore. Watching this show you get the feeling that our world as we know it would be thrown into a second dark age where intellectuals are burned at the stake, science is replaced by superstition, and religion is the law were it not for shows like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show.

The series kicks off moments before the titular show within a show is set to go live. Show producer Wes Mendell is informed by the network’s standards and practices attorney that a sketch has to be pulled for fear of protests from the easily offended Christian right. Aside from the logistical nightmare of having a big gap blown into the middle of a life show about to go to air, Mendell feels that this is just another sign of how his once important show has been watered down.

As the show begins with yet another lazy “look how dumb George W. Bush is” sketch, Mendell breaks. He walks on set and stops the sketch, telling the audience that it isn’t funny and then launches into the following rant.

“We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry, that’s just thrown in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12-year-old boys. Not even the smart 12-year-olds — the stupid ones, the idiots. Of which there are plenty, thanks in no small measure to this network. So why don’t you just change the channel? Turn off your TVs. Do it right now. Go ahead.

They say there’s a struggle between art and commerce. Well, there’s always been a struggle between art and commerce, and now I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked, and it’s making us mean, and it’s making us bitchy, it’s making us cheap punks. That’s not who we are. People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump? We’re eating worms for money. “Who Wants To Screw My Sister?” Guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo.

That remote in your hand is a crack pipe. Oh yeah, every once in a while we pretend to be appalled. It’s pornography, and it’s not even good pornography. They’re just this side of snuff films, and friends, that’s what’s next, ’cause that’s all that’s left.”

– Wes Mendell (Judd Hirsch), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Wow! First off, it’s a good speech, because that’s what Aaron Sorkin does, he writes good speeches.

But let’s look closer at it because herein lies the problem with this show.

We’re all being lobotomized by this country’s most influential industry, that’s just thrown in the towel on any endeavor to do anything that doesn’t include the courting of 12-year-old boys. Not even the smart 12-year-olds — the stupid ones, the idiots. Of which there are plenty, thanks in no small measure to this network. So why don’t you just change the channel? Turn off your TVs. Do it right now. Go ahead.

That is a powerful opening, but one that I have a bit of a problem with. So, television is to blame? Not the parents who allow kids to do whatever they want without consequences. Not the lack of parents in some instances where kids have no guidance. Not the culture that places more value on coolness than on education. NO! TELEVISION is the problem.

There is also a lot of arrogance in this statement. So, television is all powerful and everything that is put out is either high art meant to better society, or garbage for stupid 12 years olds. Wow!

So, a show like “The West Wing,” wouldn’t stand a chance at surviving 7 seasons, 156 episodes, or landing 94 Emmy nominations with 26 wins, or average 13 million viewers per episode. Oh, wait… I guess a lot of dumb 12 year olds are really into politics.

Also, what about people who work hard, very hard, and want to come home and relax for a while. Look down your nose all you want, but if you do you have lost any claim you might have towards populism. Most people have jobs that are a slight bit harder than working on a TV show, and by dismissing them you are essentially saying that you are better than they are and that what you do is more important.

I go off on the really bad mainstream TV and movies, but I don’t attack the audience. People work hard and want something to help them stop thinking about work every now and then. Life sucks. Yeah, it could be worse, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t pretty terrible a lot of the time. So I see value in anything that makes it suck a little bit less for a while. Watch Preston Sturgis’s “Sullivan’s Travels” for a much more poetic take on the issue.

They say there’s a struggle between art and commerce. Well, there’s always been a struggle between art and commerce, and now I’m telling you, art is getting its ass kicked, and it’s making us mean, and it’s making us bitchy, it’s making us cheap punks. That’s not who we are. People are having contests to see how much they can be like Donald Trump? We’re eating worms for money. “Who Wants To Screw My Sister?” Guys are getting killed in a war that’s got theme music and a logo.

Who is this “we?” Does he mean all of the viewing public or does he mean people who work in TV?

I think he meant the former but is correct about the latter.

TV doesn’t make people mean, life makes people mean. Having a shitty job, a boring marriage, and ungrateful kids makes you mean. That’s nothing new.

TV however, yeah that has gotten meaner, bitchier, and cheaper.

Yeah, we watch “The Apprentice” and “Fear Factor,” but you made it. YOU did, not us. You put it on the air and we were fascinated by it. But this is nothing new. It’s just the digital version of the traveling sideshow.

I don’t watch most reality TV but there are a few that I do get into. There is an inescapable drama to them. If you don’t believe me, try it out. Check your high mindedness and just watch a few episodes. It might do nothing for you, but odds are you will find yourself getting sucked further into the drama than you would care to admit.

Guess what, that is where the money is. I have a hard time hearing someone complain about art and commerce when their commerce is art and they make more money in a day than most people make in a year doing it. If they care more about the art than the commerce then why do they renegotiate contracts? Why do they hold out for more money? If the art is all that matters than you should be willing to do it for whatever you are lucky enough to get. But don’t ask for more money and then act surprised when the person paying you has to do something that will bring in more money. Everybody is looking to wet their beaks, so don’t go thinking you are superior.

That remote in your hand is a crack pipe. Oh yeah, every once in a while we pretend to be appalled. It’s pornography, and it’s not even good pornography. They’re just this side of snuff films, and friends, that’s what’s next, ’cause that’s all that’s left.”

You are correct, once a network figures out how to make money off snuff films they will hire writers, producers, and actors and start making money that way. And you will show up to work and write, produce, and act in them. You will cash your checks, buy your houses, hire your domestic staff, and complain about the hand that is shoveling the money to you.

Right off the bat this show wants you to know how important it is. Without us, you are left in the all consuming abyss of reality TV and pornography.

At this point it really does sound as though I dislike the show. That’s not entirely true. I think it’s interesting and has some really good ideas, but it’s more an exercise in hubris and pretension than anything else.

This show is exactly what you would expect from Sorkin at this stage in his career. It is sharply written, tightly paced, and brilliantly acted. He creates a world and then fills it with interesting, compelling characters. It also wears its politics on its sleeve, takes itself a bit too seriously, and can be a bit preachy.

Granted, there is a fair amount of self-deprecation, like when the based on Sorkin character Matt Albie states plainly, “Look, I hate Los Angeles just like everybody else, but I have to work here because in any other part of the country I'm unemployable.” He realizes that what he does, and does well (there is no shortage of reference to his genius), is so specialized that he is helpless anywhere else in the world. But at the same time the importance of the show is greatly overblown. It’s a funny TV show, not the cure for cancer. Yeah, it’s important in some regards, but if we are being completely honest… it’s a TV show. To me it’s only really important because it employs people, (a lot of people, not just the actors) and provides the audience with an escape.

What gets me is the handling of religion. I am not a religious person at all, so this isn’t some bible beater bemoaning yet another assault on his faith. The problem I have is that the general mocking of faith as a catch all for “edgy” comedy. It’s about as shocking as that feminist (be said feminist male or female) denouncing sports as homoerotic, or men using big sticks to make up for their deficiencies. Yes, penis imagery, how shocking! It’s lazy and hacky, pure and simple. But the network not letting you say “Jesus Christ” as an expletive is not the same as the government not allowing it. It’s also not the same as having your hours cut at an already underpaying job. Yeah, it’s annoying and you will complain about it, but you will complain in your Range Rover as you drive to your home in Beverly Hills.

The heart of my problem with the show is that it is a show that begs to be called brave, but does so by taking on easy targets… conservative Christians.

Yes, there is an attempt to present a conservative Christian character in Harriet Hayes star of the show within the show, and they make damned sure you know that she is a conservative Christian by mentioning her religion damned near every time she is on screen. Do people really do this, and if so… really? What kind of prick are you? You have a friend or coworker with different beliefs and values… so you handle it by mentioning it in almost every interaction. Talk about straw man tactics. You want to be brave, don’t make her religion such a bit topic of discussion. They even give her character a romantic past with Matthew Perry’s character to add some drama.

The thing is, in my opinion, this relationship presents a blatant hypocrisy that is the root of the problem I have with many free speech defenders. Matt Albie (Perry) was in a relationship with this conservative Christian woman, but ended the relationship because she appeared on “The 700 Club” to promote her album of spiritual songs. He objects to the content of the show and completely disagrees with the worldview of the host. So, she appeared on a show that he found offensive and should therefore not be validated. The man who wrote “Crazy Christians,” and pushed for it to be shown regardless of who would be offended by it could not be with someone who appeared on a show that presented views he found offensive. If this is not the dictionary definition of hypocrisy, then I evidently have no idea what that word means.

But my problem with the relationship goes way beyond the hypocrisy. Matt is a vocal atheist, she is a devout Christian and in one montage they show a continuing argument that ran the length of their relationship. Basically, Matt had to voice his disapproval with her religion at every juncture by calling her a “Bible beater,” saying things like “you believe in fairy tales,” and throwing statistics of abstinence pledges in her face to mock her appearance at a Catholic groups fundraiser. Now, one would that that as an atheist myself I wouldn’t have a problem with this, but I found it more insulting and offensive than I can say. For me it’s a question of respect. I may not agree with your beliefs, but I know that they are important to you and if I have any respect for you as a person I will not go around insulting those beliefs just for the hell of it. I couldn’t believe the love story because I saw Matt as fundamental disrespectful of Harriet’s beliefs.

Granted, they try to redeem Albie by having him admit to his hypocrisy. He created a sketch that called attention to Dick Cheney coming to Hollywood to pitch studios on patriotic films and how terrible and dangerous he thought it was, but admitted that he wouldn’t have minded at all had it been a democratic administration doing it. Here’s the thing calling out your hypocrisy doesn’t magically wash your hypocrisy away; it just shows that you don’t mind being a hypocrite. That is not what a brave or intellectually honest person does.

You want to talk brave? Look at “South Park.” This show is not only smartly written and relevant, but it is completely fearless in how it approaches even the most delicate subject matter. In its 15 year, 233 episode run it has been censored two times, and for the same reason. Trey Parker and Matt Stone are clear, if making fun of one thing is ok, then making fun of everything is ok. It’s difficult to pin down the politics of it. Every side is attacked with equal fervor. They mock conservatives and liberals alike. The show exists to take on taboos on all sides.

Oh, and the two instances of censorship? They attempted to show and image of the Prophet Mohammed. That’s it. Not an image of Mohammed doing anything untoward, just Mohammed entering a room. They went so far as to “hide” him by drawing a large mascot costume, but were still told that it was “offensive to Muslims.” Let me be clear, they didn’t draw a picture of Mohammed and then put a big mascot costume over it, they just drew the costume.

To give perspective on “brave,” this was around the time that Theo Van Gough was killed for making a film that basically just said, “You know, perhaps Muslim countries could treat women better.” That’s it.

And it cost him his life.

This was also a time when newspapers showing depictions of Mohammed received credible bomb threats.

How did Trey and Matt respond? They planned to show Mohammed in an episode. To embrace the controversy and show that their show did not recognize sacred cows.

They were threatened repeatedly on the internet and were ultimately censored by Comedy Central who “didn’t want to offend people of the Muslim faith.”

How did Trey and Matt respond? They did another Mohammed show, this time featuring the central figures of every religion they could. Mohammed was the only figure not depicted doing something completely offensive and blasphemous, but he was the only one censored, again.

According to the network, Buddah doing cocaine is fine, Mohammed standing in a room unacceptably offensive.

What does “Studio 60” hold up as their “too shocking to be aired” bit? A sketch cleverly entitled “Crazy Christians.” Cute, but it plays more like something a high school kid tries to throw out to be offensive in lieu of developing a personality.

I am an atheist, but even I am ready to protest Christian sketches. Not because they are offensive, but because they are overplayed and weak. I’ve heard it before and it doesn’t interest me.

They did better with a sketch called “Science Schmience” where different devout religious people competed to give the least scientific, most faith based answers to common scientific questions. I found that funnier because it that, for all the fighting between denominations, most religions agree on some pretty fundamental levels.

But, let’s not kid ourselves. The sketch was not intended to open eyes; it was intended to get nods of approval from people who already agreed with the sentiment.

Therein lies my main problem with the show. It’s a long sermon to the choir. All the politics espoused are done for the benefit of the enlightened who are already on message. The battles with the network are for the benefit of those who work in TV and see themselves as the thin blue line between freedom and religious totalitarianism.

I agree that there is a need for the free and unrestricted exchange of ideas. Without it there is no society. But having the freedom to express does not mean that you should be guaranteed an outlet. In the end if you are on a network TV show you are singing for your supper. You are asking someone else to pay for production and distribution. When you do that, you are giving up your unrestrained freedom. It’s like being a teenager. My house, my rules and if you don’t like it, move out.

It’s sad to say, but the truth of it is that when you work for a big production company the only time you have any creative freedom is when you write your first draft.

Right now, I am in a better position creatively than anyone with a TV show. Why? The show I do completely self-produced, self-promoted, self-distributed, and, most importantly, self-financed. If you don’t like it, you are invited not to listen and given a full and complete refund of the $0 you have paid for each episode. Yes we have no budget, but we also have no limits.

It’s what Adam Carolla and Kevin Smith have done, just on a much smaller scale. If you don’t like the rules, take your ball and go build a field where you can play the game you want to play, but don’t expect someone to keep writing checks to you without eventually writing the rules for you.



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