TV on Television

If you are a WPT member you may have already received the February copy of Airwaves.  Seeing it here at our offices, I was really struck by the cover picture promoting Pioneers of Television.  It’s a production still from the Dick Van Dyke Show of the early 1960s.  Rob and Laura Petrie are in their bedroom with the familiar, and odd to modern eyes, twin beds.  But the angle is from the back and the studio audience is visible behind Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore.

I was surprised by my surprise at seeing the studio audience. I usually think of myself a sophisticated TV viewer.  Obviously, the Dick Van Dyke Show was a situation comedy filmed before a live audience.  Each set was built with an imaginary “fourth wall” to allow cameras to record and the audience to view the action.  Yet somehow the angle of the picture seemed so apart from my experience as a viewer, it was almost disappointing.  It had all just been a show.

Adding another layer to this is the fact that the show itself involved television.  Creator Carl Reiner mined his experience as a writer for Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, making Rob Petrie head writer of a similar program. While some of the plots involved coming up with ideas for that week’s program, the shared office at the Allen Brady Show was mostly a convenient workplace setting for characters to interact, like the bar in Cheers or the bullpen from Taxi.

Similarly, the Mary Tyler Moore show in the following decade took on a behind-the-scenes TV setting, with associate producer Mary Richards at the center of a workplace family.  While the show reflected the reality of a time when local stations did a lot more local production (nearly every market had a clown-hosted show like WJM’s Chuckles), the setting didn’t really drive plots as much as provide a common space for the characters to intersect and bring their personal lives to the office.

These early favorites of mine are on my mind as we approach the end of a more recent television-centric comedy.  30 Rock is soon to leave the air.  Like MTM was when I was growing up, Tina Fey’s fast-paced, subversive comedy has been appointment television for my family.

But 30 Rock is much more about television than its two predecessors.  Yes, Liz Lemon struggles with relationships and changing times as Mary Richards did, but  more of the humor is derived from 30 Rock’s winking acknowledgment of the artifice and absurdity of TV.  Just the first example I can think of: as Liz and producer Pete are talking about saving production costs by using green screens to put in fake backgrounds, the wall behind Liz changes to several exotic locations and back again to an ordinary office wall.

All the programs reflect the times they were made.  Moore evolves from stay at home mother to independent single woman in her first job.  Liz Lemon runs the show, but what made the 30 Rock truly of our time was its constant lampooning of popular culture and corporate media.  It was a meta-comedy for our post modern age, both self-referential and self-deprecating.  Unlike Dick Van Dyke it was not filmed before an audience on a sound stage.  But it was well aware of the “fourth wall” and happily and hilariously broke it often.


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