Do Not Adjust Your Set

NBC really is probing the perils of late-night sketch-comedy shows--twice

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Tina Fey, formerly of Saturday Night Live, is in the midst of a major career change, one that has taken her from a late-night writers' room to, um, a late-night writers' room. On her sitcom 30 Rock, she plays Liz Lemon, head writer of The Girlie Show, a decently rated, woman-oriented sketch show. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), an executive at NBC's corporate parent General Electric who made his career selling GE ovens, decides it needs more male viewers. So he forces Liz to hire Tracy Jordan (SNL alum Tracy Morgan), a wild and (literally) crazy comic who has starred in such Wayansesque hit movies as Who Dat Ninja? and Black Cop, White Cop ("One does the duty. One gets the booty"). Soon the show has been retitled TGS with Tracy Jordan, and Liz is left running a hit show that she's not sure is really hers.

On the sitcom, Liz is at odds with her boss. In real life, Fey agrees with what NBC says about 30 Rock, which she also writes and produces. First, even though the network has a second fall debut--Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, from The West Wing's creator, Aaron Sorkin--about a sketch-comedy show, neither series is about that other marquee NBC property, SNL. (Of course not. I'll assume they're about Mad TV.) Second, neither is in competition with the other. "I'm pretty sure we can never be on at the same time," Fey says dryly. "They're a drama. We're a comedy. We're different."

Well, kind of. The pilot of 30 Rock (Wednesdays, 8 p.m. E.T.; debuts Oct. 11) has a scene in which the writers challenge an actor to do impressions--Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano. "There's a new promo [for Studio 60] that NBC showed me," Fey says, "and someone in it was saying, 'Show me your Tom Cruise.' I said, 'Oh! I guess there is a little overlap.'"

Radio humorist Fred Allen famously said that imitation is the sincerest form of television. But usually it's different networks doing the imitating. How did NBC get two shows in the same unusual milieu in the same season? Apparently by coincidence. Fey, who had a four-year development deal with NBC, first pitched the network a sitcom about cable news. Kevin Reilly, president of NBC Entertainment, felt Fey was using the news setting as a fig leaf for her own experience and encouraged her to write what she knew. Sorkin, meanwhile, was shopping his return to TV with a show about TV--a topic that earned him high praise, if not high ratings, with ABC's Sports Night. SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels, a co--executive producer of 30 Rock, says Fey's sitcom was in the works when Sorkin asked to tour the SNL set for research. "I honestly believe he came to his decision separately," Michaels says.

NBC and both series' makers don't like the shows to be compared--the producers of Studio 60 refused to be interviewed for this article for that reason. And on the one hand, they have a point. The shows have different formats. (Helpful mnemonic: the one with 30 in the title is half an hour; the one with 60, an hour.) They have different tones: 30 Rock lampoons all its characters, even Liz, while Sorkin, as Michaels says with understatement, "tends to write in a more heroic mode." It's not a zero-sum game; as Reilly notes, "If these were two cop shows, we wouldn't even be having this conversation." On the other hand, come on. Any person not employed by GE is reasonably going to ask whether he or she wants to watch both shows.

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