Stream On: Television sitcoms about television

By on September 3, 2020

On the set of The Dick Van Dyke Show, a TV series about the writers on a TV series. (IMDb.com)

The <Free On-line Dictionary of Computing> (from which comes much of the twenty-first century’s popular jargon) defines “meta” as “A prefix meaning one level of description higher. If X is some concept then meta-X is data about, or processes operating on. For example, a metasyntax is syntax for specifying syntax, metalanguage is a language used to discuss language, metadata is data about data, and meta-reasoning is reasoning about reasoning.”

Here are two landmark meta-TV sitcoms: The Dick Van Dyke Show and 30 Rock.

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW <IMDb.com> (Amazon.com; Prime Video; Hulu; and elsewhere) 1961-1965 [TVPG]

The Dick Van Dyke Show is about a group of TV writers on a variety show. It was created by Carl Reiner and often written by him…and he plays the star of the show-in-the-show. It’s an early meta-TV show—and also not unlike an <ouroboros>.

The show was preceeded by “Head of the Family,” which was an unsuccessful pilot starring Carl Reiner as the television writer, with many of the characters, although played by different actors, of its successor. After its failure, Reiner retooled it and hired Dick Van Dyke as the star. “Head of the Family” is included in most of the collections of The Dick Van Dyke show as the first episode.

“The two main settings of The Dick Van Dyke Show are the work and home life of Rob Petrie (Van Dyke), the head writer of a comedy/variety show produced in Manhattan. Viewers are given an “inside look” at how a television show (the fictitious Alan Brady Show) was written and produced. Many scenes deal with Rob and his co-writers, Buddy Sorrell (Morey Amsterdam) and Sally Rogers (Rose Marie). Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), a balding straight man and recipient of numerous insulting one-liners from Buddy, is the show’s producer and the brother-in-law of the show’s star, Alan Brady (Reiner). As Rob, Buddy, and Sally write for a comedy show, the premise provides a built-in forum for them to constantly make jokes. Other scenes focus on the home life of Rob, his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), and son Ritchie (Larry Mathews), who live in suburban New Rochelle, New York.” <Wikipedia>

The show was big and loud, unlike the quiet tone of the failed “Head of the Family.” It had a brassy Earle Hagen theme song, and a lot going on even behind the opening credits (which can be seen <here>). A good-looking black-and-white show, it seemed to be trying a bit hard. No occasion for a musical or theatrical number, whether it be Rob and the writers entertaining at a party, or a dream in which Laura is operating Rob like a marionette, was passed up.

It was fresh in 1961, but the show reminds me of nothing so much as the Mad Men “Zou Bisou Bisou” episode, in which Don Draper’s actress wife embarrasses him by performing at a party (which can be seen <here>). One of the characters afterwards remarks that he could see Don’s soul leaving his body.

This dated mixture of corn, cheese, and cringe nevertheless won 15 Emmy awards and is very fondly remembered by those who remember it, so there you are. <Here> is a contemporary promotional video.

TV writer Liz Lemon is caught between two loose cannons, eccentric network executive Jack Donaghy and unstable movie star Tracy Jordan, on 30 Rock. (NBC)

30 ROCK <NBC.com> (Amazon.com; Prime Video; Hulu; and elsewhere) 2006-2013 [TVPG]

30 Rock, on the other hand, starts out funny and builds from there. Liz Lemon (show creator and Saturday Night Live head writer Tina Fey) is waiting in line for a sidewalk hot dog when a Wall Street type comes up to the other side of the vendor. Liz protests that there’s one line, and Wall Street says there are two lines. As Liz attempts to garner support for her side, the people in her queue start lining up behind Wall Street, so Liz buys every hot dog in the cart, which she carries in a carton to her job at “The Girlie Show,” a live NBC sketch comedy based (like SNL) at 30 Rockefeller Center.

She hands the hot dogs to the producer, Pete, who says, “What’s this?” Liz says, “Know how I hate it when people cheat or break rules? Well, I just spent a hundred and fifty bucks on weiners.”

Liz and Pete are called upstairs to “Gary’s” office, which is undergoing renovations. When Liz asks for Gary, Jack Donaghy, new vice president of development for NBC/GE/Universal/Vivendi/Kmart, appears, saying, “Gary’s dead.” Jack (Alec Baldwin in a miraculous performance) is like a combination of a passive-aggressive Darth Vader and Hunter S. Thompson. He takes three messages from an assistant, answering in turn, “I’ll call her back. Is she at the White House line,” “Tell them I’ll need a 4 o’clock tee off time,” and “Five inches, but it’s thick.” A market-research expert, Jack is set on revamping Liz’s show, and tells Liz to take a meeting with unstable and unpredictable movie star, Tracy Jordan (an outstanding Tracy Morgan, SNL) who is in a career slump, to recruit him for it. Pete says, “We own Kmart now?” Jack: “No. So why are you dressed like we do?”

Tina Fey has said that she wrote the character of Jack with Alec Baldwin in mind, and was delighted when he accepted the part, and Tracy Jordan’s personality traits and life events mirror Tracy Morgan’s own life. They, and everyone else on the show, are brilliant in this parade of show-business egos, corporate bureaucracy and eccentricity on the clock. Following SNL‘s ongoing tradition, 30 Rock had several real-life politician cameos, examples being Al Gore (twice), Nancy Pelosi (series finale) and Condoleezza Rice (as Jack Donaghy’s former love interest).

30 Rock has won enough awards to fill their own Wikipedia page, <here>. And <here> is the first-season trailer.

Next time, before James Bond, there was Drake, John Drake, and after, there was No. 6.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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