Shows Within Shows.

On the season finale of Curb Your Enthusiasm, which contained excerpts of an imagined “Seinfeld Reunion Show,” we saw once again how difficult it is even for a great writer like Larry David to find inspiration when writing a show-within-a-show. The segments were surprisingly lame. They weren’t intended to be lame, since we could hear the “Seinfeld” studio audience yukking it up and Larry and Jerry seemed happy with the product. But lame they were. If the original Seinfeld had been as unfunny as the excerpts of this fictitious reunion show, it wouldn’t have lasted a season.

What accounts for the classic difficulty of the “show-within-the-show”? It goes as far back as Hamlet; the play that Hamlet and his players put on within Hamlet is not as good as Hamlet. On Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 from a few seasons back, about brilliant writers who produce an SNL-type show, everything we saw of the SNL-type show stank, even though Sorkin’s writing for his actual characters was up to his characteristically good level. On 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon is presented to us as a smart, funny writer, but everything we see of the show she’s writing (“The TGS Show”) sucks.

I think the answer is twofold. One, writers can only write their best for characters they care about. And for Larry David, ten years after Seinfeld ended, that doesn’t include the characters of Seinfeld. Aaron Sorkin cared about his characters who created a sketch comedy show, not the characters in the sketches they created. Shakespeare cared about Hamlet, not so much the characters Hamlet came up with.

Two, it’s hard enough just to write a show, never mind a show-within-a-show. The energy it takes to write a great show leaves very little for the show-within-the show. When writers get to that point, I think they’re exhausted and just fill in the blanks as best they can. Inspiration is long gone.

Exceptions to the rule are few, and involve stretching the definition of “show within a show” a bit. In the movie Funny People, a comedy from last summer about standup comics, Judd Apatow managed the feat of making the material his standup comic characters delivered on stage funny. In Mad Men, Matthew Weiner has managed to make the ads created by his Madison Avenue characters good when they’re supposed to be good. In general, though, the show-within-the-show defeats the best of writers.


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