Small world: How television ate itself

Entourage, 30 Rock, Extras...TV shows about the TV industry are bigger than ever, and tonight's episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm takes the conceit a step further. So what's behind this trend for self-examination? Tim Walker switches on to 'meta-television'

Once, there were two Jerry Seinfelds. There was Jerry Seinfeld, now 55, a stand-up comedian from Brooklyn, New York and the creator of his own self-titled sitcom, Seinfeld – one of the most popular TV shows of all time. And then there was "Jerry Seinfeld", a just-about-fictional stand-up comedian from Brooklyn, New York and the creator of his own eponymous sitcom, Jerry – which was cancelled after a single episode. "Jerry", as played by Jerry, was the protagonist of Seinfeld, and ceased to exist when that show wrapped for the last time in 1998.

These days, however, there is a third Jerry, hovering in the semi-fictional space between his two namesakes. Larry David, Seinfeld's co-creator, also has his own sitcom, Curb Your Enthusiasm, which is now in its seventh season. In it, he plays "Larry David", Seinfeld's co-creator, who has just come up with a plan to win back his ex-wife by casting her in a Seinfeld reunion special. In tonight's episode of Curb (on More 4 at 10.40pm), he must enlist his old friend Jerry (or "Jerry"), playing yet another version of himself, the rich and famous former sitcom star, just as Larry plays "Larry". Of course, this means that we must also prepare ourselves for the possibility of a fourth Jerry: the one that the third Jerry is planning to play in the reunion show, who is to the second "Jerry" – let's just call him Jerry Two – what Jerry Three is to Jerry One. Confused? You obviously haven't been watching enough TV lately.

Television has always salivated over itself; now it's eating itself. The prime-time schedules seem inundated not only with media procedurals – comedies and dramas that go behind the scenes of major TV drama productions, TV commercial shoots, middle-of-the-road BBC TV sitcoms or late-night US TV sketch comedy shows – but also with actors (and other celebrities) appearing as "themselves" in satirical self-portraits: David Duchovny played "David Duchovny" on The Larry Sanders Show as a gay man forever flirting with the titular talkshow host; Seth Green played "Seth Green" in Entourage as an obnoxious egotist trying to steal the hero's girlfriend; Patrick Stewart played "Patrick Stewart" in Extras as a sex-obsessed old ham pitching ideas for soft-porn movies. Where does reality end and fiction begin? Is playing "yourself" really any different from playing someone else? Does it matter?

This year's annual Emmy Awards ceremony was dominated – as was 2008's – by a pair of media procedurals: cable channel AMC's drama Mad Men, about an advertising firm in the early 1960s, and 30 Rock, in which Tina Fey plays Liz Lemon, the head writer on sketch comedy show TGS with Tracy Jordan. Fey herself is a former head writer on the sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. The comedian Tracy Jordan, meanwhile, is played by the comedian Tracy Morgan, a former employee of Fey's at SNL. Fey, 30 Rock's creator as well as its star, supposedly uses real episodes from Morgan's troubled life when writing Jordan's character.

30 Rock's current fourth season began with Lemon's boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) smiling into the camera and saying, "I want to welcome you to Season Four". It turned out that Season Four was the name of the restaurant he'd just bought. Both Mad Men and 30 Rock are about more than just the media, but part of their appeal is undoubtedly their insider's portrayal of the way media goes to work on an audience. Both shows seem to be letting us in on their tricks.

These are far from being the first shows to turn television's cameras back on itself. As long ago as 1961, Carl Reiner based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his experiences as a television writer on Your Show of Shows, which starred Sid Caesar. On The Dick Van Dyke Show, Van Dyke played Rob Petrie, a writer for the fictional Alan Brady Show, while Reiner played its tyrannical star, Alan Brady, who was based on Caesar. At the end of the programme's fifth and final season, Petrie (Van Dyke) tried in vain to publish a memoir based on his experiences. Instead, Brady (Reiner) suggested he turn the book into a television series, starring himself (Brady) as the hapless writer.

On this side of the Atlantic, Monty Python's Flying Circus – whose creators had grown up in a world without television, could see its conventions for what they were, and mercilessly subverted them at every opportunity – produced such classic sketches as Whicker island: "an island inhabited entirely by ex-international interviewers" with the features of BBC grandee Alan Whicker. The Simpsons-like stream of postmodern pop cultural references in shows like 30 Rock is nevertheless descended from the pure silliness of Python. In an interview for a recent documentary to mark Python's 40th birthday, Stephen Merchant admits, "I'd never seen anyone sort of explode the conventions of television before, mocking it... That seemed really naughty."

Seinfeld, which debuted in 1989, was always self-aware and self-reflexive. Indeed, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David expressly intended to undermine the sentimental mores of traditional sitcoms. The breakthrough fourth series, which won three Emmys, was based around a show-within-the-show – Jerry and his friend George's attempts to produce their sitcom pilot for NBC. (Jerry: "What's the show about?" George: "It's about nothing." J: "No stories?" G: "Nah, forget the story." J: "You gotta have a story." G: "Who says you gotta have a story? It's about nothing.")

Having refused for years to make a reunion episode – another standard television convention – with the new episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld's creators have managed to enjoy an onscreen reunion that also subverts the very idea. It's a hilarious, head-spinning collision of fiction and reality which means Larry and Jerry can have their cake, while "Larry" and "Jerry" eat it.

The UK's pre-eminent producers of this sort of meta-television are Merchant and Ricky Gervais. The Office was an example of that most self-aware of television genres, the mockumentary. As with Arrested Development (which is now being made into a feature film) and Sky's new sitcom Modern Family, the performances of the fictional characters are compromised, to comic effect, by the presence of the cameras. Sorry, "cameras".

Matthew Holness, an Office alumnus, played on another documentary format with Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, in which his character Garth Marenghi, the creator and star of a heroically awful Seventies sci-fi horror series (Darkplace), looked back on his achievements as if he were a talking head in a celebratory documentary much like the one recently made on Monty Python. Former sitcom actress Lisa Kudrow (of Friends) recently co-wrote and starred in The Comeback, an HBO sitcom presented as a reality TV documentary about a former sitcom actress, Valerie Cherish (Kudrow), and her attempts to return to the screen.

Luckily, the public's fascination with the inner workings of the entertainment industry is matched by the industry's eagerness to talk about itself. Understanding the incessant in-jokes that litter many of today's comedies allows an audience to feel like insiders. "Audiences like to see celebrities out of celebrity-mode," says Stuart Levine, assistant managing editor at Variety magazine. "Jerry Seinfeld is a very likeable person and people like to see him when he's not just Jerry Seinfeld the sitcom star, but Jerry Seinfeld behind the scenes, especially interacting with Larry David."

This was one of the many attractions of Extras, Gervais and Merchant's sitcom about film extras. Much of the comedy derived from the raft of celebrity cameos: Ben Stiller, Kate Winslet, Samuel L Jackson, Robert De Niro, Chris Martin, David Bowie – each willing to send themselves up in the service of laughter. In its second series, Extras transformed into a backstage "dramedy" about the conflict between commerce and art; its antihero, Andy Millman (Gervais), was forced to compromise his vision for the sitcom he'd written in order to persuade the BBC to commission and film it. Like his audience, Millman was fatally attracted to the world of television, film and celebrity. He wanted desperately to be an insider, yet he hated himself for it.

Extras was not alone in asking celebrities to appear as exaggerated – or just plain demented – versions of themselves. Perhaps the first sitcom to employ the technique in earnest was The Larry Sanders Show, which ran from 1992 to 1998. As Levine explains, "Larry Sanders was based on a real-life talkshow, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and to give a talkshow authenticity you have to have real guests. If you want people to believe that your show takes place in real-time Hollywood, you have to have real celebrities playing themselves. You can't have George Clooney playing someone else. And actors are more than willing to play themselves as long as it's funny."

Now the practice of having celebrities appear as themselves has become a mere convention of the media procedural comedy. Curb your Enthusiasm features regular appearances from the likes of David's fellow comics Ted Danson, Wanda Sykes, Mel Brooks and Richard Lewis. Entourage, HBO's sitcom about young movie star Vincent Chase and his friends (based on Mark Wahlberg's Hollywood experiences) has the town's great, good and not-so good lining up to make guest appearances. Like The Larry Sanders Show, both 30 Rock and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – a now-defunct drama starring Matthew Perry, also about a late-night sketch comedy show – require real celebrities to play the weekly guest stars in their shows-within-the-shows for the sake of authenticity. Incidentally, Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Studio 60 and The West Wing, who also made the short-lived Sports Night about a fictional sports news show, recently made a rare onscreen appearance as himself in Entourage. Wheels within wheels.

The phenomenon is not limited to television. In Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich played himself disappearing into his own head to find a world populated only by Malkovich clones, repeating his name over and over. The same scene was revisited in Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's next collaboration with director Spike Jonze, in which the protagonist, "Charlie Kaufman", visits the set of Being John Malkovich. Jean-Claude Van Damme recently appeared as himself in the Belgian arthouse action movie JCVD, while the centrepiece of the recent Zombieland is a cameo by a famous actor who shall here remain nameless, playing the version of himself that might exist were the world a post-apocalyptic horror comedy.

Celebrity self-portraits are scattered, too, throughout Judd Apatow's recent Funny People, another Hollywood insider story about the lives of stand-up comedians who enjoy varying degrees of success. One of those appearing as herself is Sarah Silverman, a reminder that the convention of actors playing extreme versions of themselves originates in stand-up comedy. The "Sarah Silverman" of The Sarah Silverman Programme, Silverman's sitcom series, is based on her stand-up persona: immature, foul-mouthed, bigoted. Ricky Gervais was playing an unpleasant version of himself, under his name, in his stand-up shows long before Extras was ever broadcast.

"I wonder if people are always able to distinguish the Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld from the actual stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld," says Levine, "because they're two very different people. There's also the Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm and the real-life Larry David. Many people think they're the same person, but the real Larry David is much nicer. He always talks about the Larry David of Curb Your Enthusiasm in the third person."

The difference between real actors and their fictional selves becomes more obvious the more frequently they succumb to the urge to portray themselves onscreen. Appearing as themselves in Curb Your Enthusiasm, David Schwimmer and Ben Stiller seemed like reasonable, likeable guys shocked by Larry's extreme misanthropy. But the "David Schwimmer" of Entourage was seedy and arrogant, determined to bed a pretty young agent; while the "Ben Stiller" of Extras was a tyrannical, ego-crazed director willing to simulate murder to generate authentic performances from his actors. In Entourage, "Matt Damon" was earnest and aggressively committed to his charitable works; in Silverman's viral video sensation "I'm Fucking Matt Damon", he was the type of guy who'd happily steal Silverman from her boyfriend.

Entourage exploits the technique more frequently and deeply than any other show, including having its fictional characters become embroiled in relationships with their real counterparts. Vince, the movie star, had a relationship with Mandy Moore; his friend Eric fell for Lost in Translation and Scary Movie actress Anna Faris; Turtle dated The Sopranos' Jamie-Lynn Sigler (Sigler and the actor Jerry Ferrara, who plays Turtle, are also dating in real-life). Even more confusing, super-agent Terence McQuewick, who is played by the independently famous Malcolm McDowell, is married to Melinda Clarke, who plays herself.

Now that everybody's at it, what started as a brave experiment no longer seems daring. Entourage is very funny, but never achieves the awkward frisson of, say, Extras' Les Dennis episode, in which the British funnyman played himself as washed-up, self-pitying and pathetic – in other words, very close to the bone. If ever such a performance could be described as "brave", this was it. "It's edgy," said Dennis afterwards, "but if you look at Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Larry Sanders Show, people go a certain way to lampooning themselves. I'm prepared to go the whole way."

In other contexts, having people play themselves seems merely smug. The nonsensical con at the heart of heist movie Ocean's Twelve involved Julia Roberts's character, Tess, pretending to be Julia Roberts (because they look so alike...) – fooling even "Bruce Willis", who made a cameo appearance as himself. Where Ocean's Eleven had been fun and likeable, its sequel gave the impression that the performers were more concerned with their own amusement than the audience's.

There is a danger, too, that the ability to make fun of oneself might be seen as a universal panacea for unpopularity. People already liked Al Gore by the time he appeared in 30 Rock. But Sarah Palin must have gained some credit for agreeing to appear in Saturday Night Live alongside Tina Fey's lampooning impression of her. It made her seem, for just a moment, agreeable and smart enough to laugh at her own faults. At the 2004 White House correspondents' dinner, George W Bush presented a slideshow of himself "looking for WMDs" under a set of shelves in the Oval Office. Despite his failures as President – including leading his nation and ours into the Iraq war in search of those elusive weapons – his sense of humour almost made him forgiveable.

The same is true of television itself. 30 Rock's merciless mockery makes the industry likeable despite its self-involvement and creative bankruptcy. Its rival, Studio 60, made itself unpopular with its unabashed self-importance; it's fine for Sorkin to puff out his chest and suggest that politics really matters, as he did with The West Wing, but to do the same for a comedy show? In the uproarious arguments between Lemon and Donaghy, her corporate paymaster, 30 Rock demonstrates the necessary compromises between commercialism and art. Studio 60, on the other hand, tried to pretend that true artists – including comedy sketchwriters – never sell out.

So where can the tail-chasing of meta-television go next, now that David and Seinfeld have taken it to what seems a logical conclusion? Perhaps the only possibility is for different characters to start appearing in each other's shows. Vincent Chase is an actor. Liz Lemon is a comedy writer. Couldn't they both turn up to help out with the Seinfeld-reunion episode in Curb?

Or should television writers instead return to broader subjects from beyond their own experience? Media procedurals regularly garner glowing reviews and armfuls of awards, but the first Seinfeld-reunion episode of Curb was watched by just 2.6 million viewers in the US. At its ratings peak, Seinfeld attracted more than 21 million viewers. Granted, Seinfeld was on the network channel NBC, while Curb is on the pay-per-view channel HBO. But 30 Rock, also on NBC, had 6.3 million viewers for its recent series premiere, compared to Friends (NBC again), which never dipped below 20 million throughout its 10-year run.

Some of this audience decline can be attributed to the fragmentation of television audiences, the proliferation of competing cable channels and the encroaching internet. But there's also a good chance that shows like 30 Rock or Mad Men punch above their ratings weight in column inches because they're beloved by the industry and press. Outside the urban cultural centres, audiences could easily be turned off by the sight of smug media types talking amongst themselves.

The object of much meta-television is to implicate the audience – to suggest that we're all insiders, chuckling at the same in-jokes. Celebrities, it implies, are just like us, only with their own television shows. "Entourage does very well," says Stuart Levine, "but then The Comeback and Studio 60 only lasted one season. In Hollywood we love to watch ourselves. But maybe across the vast landscape people don't want to see how the sausage is made; they just want to eat the end product."

Top meta-television moment #1

Thomas Pynchon finally appears

Reclusive author Thomas Pynchon is never photographed, let alone interviewed. But in 2004 he agreed to voice himself in two episodes of The Simpsons. Standing next to a sign that points to his house, wearing a paper bag over his head and a sandwich-board emblazoned with his name, he provided a blurb for Marge Simpson's first novel: "Here's your quote: Thomas Pynchon loved this book! Almost as much as he loves cameras!" In a later episode the character appeared alongside other authors, including Jonathan Franzen and Tom Wolfe.

Top meta-television moment #2

Turtle dates Meadow Soprano

In the fifth series of Entourage, the hapless, ambitionless stoner Turtle unexpectedly found himself dating Jamie-Lynn Sigler, the actress who played Meadow Soprano in The Sopranos.

Their relationship lasted through the whole of the sixth series, too, only ending when she went to shoot a show in New Zealand, leaving Turtle to get his broken heart massaged by a beautiful UCLA student.

Jerry Ferrara, who plays Turtle, is also dating Sigler in real life. No, really.

Top meta-television moment #3

George Costanza auditions Jeremy Piven for "George"

The audition process for Jerry Seinfeld's show within a show, was one of many comic high points for the series – especially when Jeremy Piven's character, Michael, turned up to read for the part of "George". Jerry thought he was perfect, But the real George wasn't so sure. He seemed too needy, too neurotic, too bald: just like George, then. Michael got the part, and Piven went on to play Ari Gold, the super-agent who regularly steals the show in Entourage.

Top meta-television moment #4

Les Dennis shows he's game on Extras

Kate Winslet and Samuel L Jackson may have got bigger headlines, but it was Les Dennis who really bared his soul in Ricky Gervais's Extras, playing himself as a pathetic, burned-out TV light-entertainment star whose young fiancée is cheating on him with a panto stagehand.

After getting his kit off for a dressing-room scene, Dennis ended the episode by reciting those unforgettable Family Fortunes catchphrases during a one-night stand.

Top meta-television moment #5

Larry talks Jerry into a Seinfeld reunion

The “LarryDavid” of Curb Your Enthusiasm has split up with his wife, Cheryl, and to win her back he decides to cast her in a Seinfeld reunion show. The only problem is, he has to persuade the original cast – Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and Julia-Louis Dreyfus – to reunite first. The results will become clear on More 4 tonight, but the question is: is this all in fact a ploy by the real-life David to win back his real-life wife, Laurie, from whom he splitshortly before incorporating his marital difficulties into the plot of the show?

Top meta-television moment #6

Lisa Kudrow makes her comeback

In the short-lived HBO mockumentary The Comeback, Lisa Kudrow (forever Phoebe in Friends) played Valerie Cherish, the former star of a hugely successful sitcom whose career stalls after the show's cancellation.

A camera crew followed her as she auditioned for a new series in the hope of returning to prime-time.

Kudrow, who hasn't exactly been in the limelight since Friends, was very convincing. But The Comeback was cancelled after a single series.

Top meta-television moment #7

Jon Stewart replaces Larry Sanders

As ratings for fictional talkshow The Larry Sanders Show began to slip (faster than the ratings for the real sitcom The Larry Sanders Show), Jon Stewart – playing himself as the show's regular guest host – was groomed to replace Larry, the incumbent host. In reality, when Tom Snyder retired from The Late Late Show, his job was offered to Stewart. When Stewart turned it down, it was then offered to the original Daily Show host, Craig Kilborn. When Kilborn left The Daily Show for The Late Late Show, Jon Stewart replaced him.

Top meta-television moment #8

Al Gore saves the whales

Al Gore, a personal friend of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) arrived to host an environmental segment on TGS with Tracy Jordan, only to suggest that, if Donaghy's network really wanted to show a commitment to green issues, they should schedule an entire week of eco-programming. "Or," replied Jack, "You could put on a silly hat and tell the kids how outsourcing means cheaper toys for Christmas." As Gore was leaving the set with Liz apologising in his ear, he raised a hand and exclaimed: "Quiet! A whale is in trouble. I have to go!"

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