I had the pleasure of spending some quality time last night with D.L. Hughley, one of the Original Kings of Comedy, and a star of NBC’s new hourlong drama (?), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Hughley and I had talked on the phone earlier yesterday, some of the results of which you can read here. Hanging out with him in the green room of the Comedy Connection, though, you truly get a sense of how focused and balanced this guy is — listening to him talk logically and eloquently about Iraq, North Korea, Darfur, education, health care, then watching him get up, walk onstage and deliver another hour-plus (and the plus can be plussss, depending upon how much crowd work Hughley feels like putting in) of laughs. He also was quite honest and forthright about how he views his current primetime network TV opportunity. Everyone is bringing their A games to the table, he said.
When I asked him earlier if he has gotten to the point yet where he wants to stand up during a table read and yell, "Don’t you know I’m an Original King of Comedy," Hughley knew to instinctively fill in the "God Damnit!" I had on my screen but didn’t say. "What’s funny is, it’s about comedy," he told me. "Comedy is something people, to their detriment, all think they’re experts. They all think they can tell a joke. They all think they know someone who’s the funniest person in the world." Hughley, on the other hand, has been telling jokes for a living for two decades now, which means he actually qualifies more as an expert on this sort of thing. Except Studio 60 isn’t quite a comedy, even though it’s about a comedy show. Which makes these initial episodes all the more odd — or is it odder? Either way, Hughley recognizes what other comedians and fans have seen: the show hasn’t quite brought the funny yet.
How much of the chatter among fellow comedians has he heard? "I know the cast from Saturday Night Live is very rabid about the show. I know that. I think it’s more vainglorious than anything else. They like anything about them, and by them, I mean us….But you’ve had shows about newspapers and newspaperpeople can’t get enought about them."
What about from your comedy friends? "They’d like to see more skits. They’d like to see more comedy." That’s what most viewers were expecting. "Anytime you do a show about sketch comedy, they think that’s all they’ll see." Hughley acknowledged, though, than even he wasn’t up on his Moliere (subject of a supposed sketch earlier this season that no one saw), and said he, too, wanted to see the Crazy Christians sketch that caused so much hubbub in the first two episodes. More of the skits and jokes are making it into the show, slowly but surely. Hughley, like many of us, would like to see even more comedy. That may happen soon enough, if its Nielsen ratings continue to bleed (Note: You can watch Studio 60 online, though, so maybe the ratings aren’t as valid). More likely, though, you’ll see the show moved out of its 10 p.m. Monday slot to 9 p.m. on another night. NBC won’t and shouldn’t dump Aaron Sorkin’s show, but they need to 1) let him know that a show about comedy should be funny and accessible, and 2) give him a chance to build an audience in a worthy timeslot.
Getting back to Hughley, though. I wondered if the ABC network executives visited him on the set of The Hughleys as much as Amanda Peet’s character visits Studio 60. "You know what, every day," he said. "And I haven’t seen one yet (on Studio 60). Which tells you the difference between Aaron Sorkin and D.L. Hughley. I was on ABC at the same time that Sorkin had SportsNight. And I’ll tell you, it wasn’t uncommon to see a lot of Jamie Tarsis."
My suggestion? Get rid of the inflatable mannequins that serve as the "audience" and put some real people in those seats, at least to film the sketch comedy show scenes (sorry, Joe Biggins!). Then you’ll see whether your show about a sketch comedy show has any sense of reality — if you can’t imagine any of the sketches airing on primetime network TV (yes, we’re talking Moliere again, although I might see a way to make it funny, so call me, Sorkin!), then you shouldn’t be having them as plot points.