In the fall of 2006, NBC debuted two series that offered a behind-the-scenes look at a comedy variety show. The first was Aaron Sorkin’s drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The second was Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. If you don’t remember Studio 60, you’ll be forgiven — it was on television for all of five seconds. 30 Rock, on the other hand, aired for seven seasons. This was great news because 30 Rock was a good show and Studio 60 was overwrought and self-important. This was also great news because Fey’s success signaled that, for the first time, there were some cracks in Aaron Sorkin’s prestige (remember, this was well before The Newsroom came along). Back in the halcyon days of 2006, Fey was worried about having to compete with Sorkin: “It’s just bad luck for me that in my first attempt at prime time I’m going up against the most powerful writer on television.” But now, a decade later, she seems to have become Sorkin. When you ignore any and all criticism, your work becomes tone-deaf, which is exactly what happened this season on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when Fey portrayed legitimate concerns about racial insensitivity on her show as histrionic.
Sorkin has never been great at taking criticism. Last year, when Apple CEO Tim Cook expressed discomfort with the multiple Steve Jobs films in production so soon after the Apple cofounder’s death, Sorkin clapped back at the London junket for Steve Jobs. “If you’ve got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour, you’ve got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic,” Sorkin said, basically reading Cook for filth. But what else would you expect from a man who got into a fight with one of his own writers on a West Wing message board? After accepting the Emmy for the first season episode “In Excelsis Deo” and claiming he wrote the entire thing, Sorkin was called out for stealing credit from cowriter Rick Cleveland (who based the episode on his father’s death) on Television Without Pity, a site that once housed message boards and snarky TV recaps. Sorkin responded to the backlash, only for Cleveland to join the message board to contradict him. (Full disclosure: I was a member of Television Without Pity at the time, but I was busy in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer forums during this melee.)
Sorkin apologized to Cleveland and retreated, but much like Jason Voorhees at the conclusion of any Friday the 13th film, he was far from finished. In The West Wing’s third season in 2002, America witnessed one of the pettiest hours of television in history. The episode — titled “The U.S. Poet Laureate” — featured Bradley Whitford’s character, Josh Lyman, discovering and eventually becoming obsessed with the website, lemonlyman.com. The site was devoted to talk about how hot he is, except for when it was devoted to people criticizing him. Whitford gets hooked on the message board and fires off critiques of his own at the users, who have been deemed “hysterical” because they “haven’t taken their medication” by his coworker Donna Moss (Janel Moloney). Sorkin used his show as a surrogate to slam his own “unmedicated” critics.
These days, it takes far less effort to retaliate against critics on the Internet. You can drag them on Twitter, and if you’re famous enough to have a ton of followers, your fans will often descend upon them without you having to do much work. But for a creator like Fey who has gone on record as not having time for social media, the only chance you get to twirl on your haters is on your show. In 30 Rock, she was great at it. The series bit back at critics and satirized the media and pop culture landscape with a hilarious, biting wit. Take for instance the episode “TGS Hates Women” in the series’s fifth season. Joan of Snark stands in for the website Jezebel in this episode, and accuses Liz Lemon’s The Girlie Show with Tracy Jordan as being anti-woman. In an effort to appease her critics, Liz hires stand-up comic Abby Flynn, a favorite of Joan of Snark. But Abby speaks in a baby voice and sexes herself up to appeal to men, which Liz finds degrading. In the end, her determination to make Abby act “correctly” outs her as a woman hiding from an abusive relationship with a new identity — which is darker than most 30 Rock episodes get. The episode manages to satirize online PC culture, while also critiquing the gatekeeprs in the comedy scene. In fact, the episode wasn’t even about critics of 30 Rock. In Law and Order fashion, it was “ripped from the headlines.” The episode was based on Jezebel’s 2010 dust-up with The Daily Show, when writer Irin Carmon accused the show of sexism and hiring Olivia Munn merely for her looks.
The beauty of “TGS Hates Women” is that Fey isn’t lashing out at her own critics. In fact, she was operating as a pop culture critic herself by taking the situation and exaggerating it for comedic value. In order to pull off something like that, you gotta hear both sides. Which makes Fey’s Achilles’ heel on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt even more apparent. When the show was heavily criticized for its problems with race in its first season, Fey didn’t listen and hear both sides like she did on 30 Rock. No, the criticisms were lobbied at her this time and she was not here to get clocked by anyone’s Twitter fingers. In an interview with Net-a-Porter, Fey said, “Steer clear of the Internet and you’ll live forever. We did an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode and the Internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist,’ but my new goal is not to explain jokes. I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.” Never mind that the “culture” demanding apologies from Fey was the very one she was making racist caricatures of, because she refused to hear any criticism whatsoever.
Who can blame her? She has the privilege to ignore it. When 30 Rock debuted, she was fearful of going up against “the most powerful writer on television.” In 2016, she’s one of the most powerful writers on television and she can afford to not give a fuck what anyone thinks of her. But therein lies the problem. When you’re privileged enough to not have to listen to naysayers, sometimes you stop listening altogether. It’s how the writers of The X-Files reboot ended up writing episodes that talked about transgender and other LGBT people like we were still in the ‘90s. Money affords you insulation from the real world. And so Fey, the woman who abhors social media, still found the time to write about social media in “Kimmy Goes to a Play!,” the third episode of Kimmy Schmidt’s second season.
In the episode, Titus believes he was a geisha in a past life and puts on a play about it. This local play without any sort of publicity budget somehow manages to draw the ire of an Asian-American message board that wants to halt the play. Never mind the fact that Asian-Americans have better things to do, like deal with the whitewashing of films like Ghost in the Shell, than be worried about Titus’s damn play. Let’s suspend our disbelief. When the critics attack Titus, they’re proven to be narrow-minded and rude destroyers of a good time. Can’t Titus just dress up like a geisha in peace, without being put on their list of Top Five Hitlers, which doesn’t even include the real Hitler? One of the men even calls himself “transracial,” which isn’t a thing, but ha ha ha, isn’t that Rachel Dolezal funny? The entire episode shows a supreme lack of understanding of how Internet culture actually works, which is common for people who are constantly offended by it instead of using it to learn how to, I don’t know, not be racist. For all of the beautiful diversity that Kimmy Schmidt has to offer (there are no white male leads), there’s also a lack of realization that just because you cast people of color to say racist jokes doesn’t mean they magically become acceptable. And to sink to the level of referring to all of her critics as “anonymous hosers criticizing geniuses,” Fey is no better than Sorkin lashing out at those he sees as anonymous chain-smokers in mumus.
Back when Sorkin was her competition, Fey made jokes at his expense. At the 2007 Writers Guild Awards, she remarked of her outfit, “I hear Aaron Sorkin is in Los Angeles wearing the same dress — but longer, and not funny.” Four years later, in the fifth season of her acclaimed NBC show, Sorkin guest-starred in a scene with Fey. He asks her to “walk with me.” Now, she finally has.
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