30 Rock recently completed its swan song in a season that matched Ray Lewis’s in every respect and overshadowed anything Daniel “Women Aren’t Funny Now Let’s Watch YouTube” Tosh will ever do one-hundredfold. True, we lost a lot as the lights dimmed on a great show and the trainwreck that featured the Fart Doctor, respectively. We lost one of the greatest bolsterers of sandwiches and cheese dust in Liz Lemon. Gone also are the husky-blue eyes, scotch sipping, window staring, and anti-farmer-wear of a parodic executive who was millimeters from the truth. Lutz got Blimpie’s as karmic revenge on a whole room of people who definitely deserved it, and the thunder clapped with every step Jenna took. But even as we practiced “losing farther, losing faster”, the greatest loss is that of meta-culture.
For me, 30 Rock’s crowning achievement was not inducing a David Foster Wallace-esque swell of hatred for the instances of irony. Often the attempts of television, movies, and music to be ironic feel like paying for a Pabst with a handful of old-timey mustaches in a Christmas-lighted-in-June AleHaus called “The Tickling Moose Lake”. These mediums believe that, if it doesn’t cover your face like a family-sized bag of Sabor de Soledad, it’s not enough irony. Perhaps the most gifted aspects of Tina Fey’s career were knowing when to walk away from a joke and knowing when to recall it – she is Hurwitzian in this respect. It may sound like Comedy 101, but even veteran comedies, like the once-fantastic How I Met Your Mother, have fallen into meta-traps that merit the unparalleled Liz Lemon Eye Roll. I guess what I’m saying is thank you for the Bitch Hunter promo curtain calls. Thank you for Jenna looking straight into the camera to say, “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve never even met Mickey Rourke”, followed by Liz looking around confusedly. They made my life.
So meta without Lemon is usually a lemon – Community excluded – but pre- or post-TGS, this brand of humor will make every attempt at thriving. The question of its existence remains, and I’m not sure I’ve got a full handle on it, but here goes. In the case of shows like The Big Bang Theory, meta is a half-assembled life raft that the whole cast is aboard. (Waters are calm for Sheldon and company at CBS, but not even the most refined meta-comedy could bail NBC’s Paul Greenblatt out of his Perfect Storm at this point.) An overabundance of pop culture references serve to connect with the audience, but on the lazy, Google-driven level rather than the complex and arduous emotional level that takes seasons of well-structured planning. Movies and television used to be driven by the studio’s prognostications of what a target demographic might like and they went at that idea full-force. In the 1990s, for example, if your comedy didn’t have a tinge of Seinfeld, Friends, or Cheers, you didn’t belong in the game. Same with ER, which opened the doors for Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, et al. Same with every show that featured a black family breaking the mold and living well after The Jeffersons did it. The Sopranos is challenging the cultural dominance of film? Push in your chips, boys. It’s HBO or bust now.
Of course, for every if-not-copycat-then-certainly-related hit, there were two catastrophic failures. (The weirdest genres to arise from all this were the ones that featured math-related detectives, dudes who can spot liars by looking at facial twitches, and dudes who remember everything.) And as The Playboy Club and Joey failures started to add up, networks began to sink into desperation until what looked like a Hail Mary started to come into view, that being meta-humor. Out of respect for the Michael Scott years, I refuse to mention what that Hail Mary recently looked like for The Office.
Since I have no intention of bruising anyone’s feelings specifically, as I work my way toward a Screenwriting MFA, let’s start with a T.V. hypothetical. I make a joke, you don’t get it or it isn’t funny, we move on. I make several of these jokes, you start to question how much effort was put into the episode. I continue to swing and miss, and the show takes on the critical opinion of Open Mic Night at your second-rate comedy club. Suddenly, you’re looking at the latter half of Mork and Mindy and death is all but certain. But this is not life at The Tickling Moose Lake AleHaus. Even if you’ve never picked up a copy of The Green Lantern, you were maybe proximally aware of the CGI-fest starring Ryan Reynolds, thanks to the beast of 21st century media. And so a joke about The Green Lantern doesn’t bomb, even though you were well outside of the intended demographic. What this means is that you’re not playing to your typical comedy club audience anymore and you still get to make jokes. Every time Community is threatened with cancellation, the common argument is not like the one for Friday Night Lights, in that it was clearly a great show and they’d have been fools to cancel it. The argument is that, yes, it’s weird, but weirdness can subsist in this supposedly expanding, interconnected meta-sphere. As the creator of a meta-comedy, one can nearly sit atop a high wall of obscurity and cast down arrows at those who aren’t on the other side of that wall, knowing that the joke has to be just close enough to something Aunt Alice has heard about to achieve critical immunity. This is also known as a comedian’s dream scenario.
And then there are the catastrophes we talked about that threaten to bring the castle wall to rubble. The nature of television dictates that a concept must be fully explored and devoured before new life and a new landscape can be created. Welcome to Shit My Dad Says, starring your shameless childhood. What was once a Twitter feed became a show, and in turn, what was once a magical genre became as funny as a YOLO hashtag. Even within the loyal meta-communities, who love nothing more than to hear their own lives and current events discussed and skewered for twenty-two minutes a week via the sitcom characters, there’s a goddamn line in the sand. We’re a hundred Honey Boo Boo jokes past that line.
But we can’t usher in a new era of comedies. We’re not even close to ready yet. R&D doesn’t have the vaguest of schematics to go by after Meta passes. Sure, we’ll always have Metropolitan White People Complaining About Relationships and Crime Procedurals, but the medical dramas have no signs of life and Outsourced pretty much killed the ‘Let’s make racism our base’ idea. (Shut up. 2 Broke Girls does not exist because we live in an intelligent society.) The excellent comedies that resist, or at least somewhat resist, meta are going to die; it’s no less confusing that Community, the current king of meta, might die with it. Bent got less than a handful of episodes and the greatest comedy on television, starring Leslie Knope, is still looking at uncertain waters and no life raft. Happy Endings is on a fucking Friday night now. It’s possible that we over-committed to meta, and it’s also possible that, in the given economic climate, some network executives were going to retreat to the safety of meta-comedy whether we liked it or not. But if ever were there an opening for Meta to go brilliantly into the night, Lesbian Frankenstein left the door open behind her.