Okay, before you read any further, here’s what I want you to do. Go to Twitter, and tweet Saturday Night Live, and ask them to have Sarah Paulson on to host. She’s a household name these days thanks to Ryan Murphy, it’s not that huge an ask. Go do this. I’ll wait.
Okay? Thanks. I’m not a particular SNL fan (I enjoyed highlights over the years, but was never a regular), but having Sarah on would be the closest I’m ever going to get to having my beloved Harriet Hayes back. Even if her episode did nothing but spoof American Horror Story (and boy does some of that beg to be spoofed, so bonus), it would be close enough for me. And I miss funny Sarah. I’m glad that Murphy has made her the household name she deserves to be, but darn it, she is so very good at being funny.
It’s one of the reasons Harriet Hayes is one of my favourite characters from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Traditionally, women aren’t supposed to be beautiful and funny at the same time. Aaron Sorkin says screw that—all of the women on Studio 60 are hotties (secondary cast member Jeannie Whatley, played by Ayda Field, may know that she’s eye candy, but she’s also the cast member to pitch and successfully star in a commedia dell’arte sketch), and Harriet is one of the “Big Three”, the three headline performers on the show.
Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. Okay. Harriet Hayes is a character from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s (sadly) short-lived follow-up series to The West Wing. The show is essentially Saturday Night Live, and it could be argued that Harriet (Harry to her friends) is reminiscent of SNL’s Victoria Jackson, both a comedienne and a conservative Christian. That’s not confirmed, though. What’s for certain is that Harriet Hayes is based on Sorkin’s then-girlfriend, Broadway icon (and former West Wing cast member) Kristin Chenoweth. She told Time, “I think a lot of people thought, ‘oh, that’s Kristin.’ But it wasn’t—it was very loosely based on me. It was difficult for me seeing the character doing things like not believing in gay rights when I so do. It’s weird to see fights played out on TV that we had, but it was also an honor. He asked me first. He said ‘I think you’re one of the most wonderfully complicated fantastic women, and I think there’s a character here. Can I loosely’—and that’s the key word, loosely—base a character on you?’ And I said sure.”
The other half of that onscreen relationship is Matt Albie, played by Matthew Perry. He’s clearly Sorkin’s author-insert character, and he and Paulson play off each other beautifully. Matt is the head writer of Studio 60, and one of the executive producers, and as such, he’s Harriet’s boss. At the top of the show, they’re not together…mostly. Like with Will McAvoy and Mackenzie McHale on The Newsroom, Sorkin likes writing workplace couples who aren’t technically romantically involved, but they used to be, so there are all sorts of complications. Matt is a smart, Jewish liberal, and of course no one does snark quite like Matthew Perry. Matt and Harriet love each other like crazy, and it’s clear that they’re dying to be together, but something is stopping them.
The excuse at the top of the show that we first come into is one of the fights Kristin Chenoweth refers to in her quote. Harriet sang at a dinner given by The 700 Club, and Matt had moral objections because of what that organization stands for. When we first meet everyone, the show is in trouble because executive producer Wes Mendel (Judd Hirsch) has had a Network moment and told everyone, on air, that the show they are about to see sucks, and they should change the channel. Director Cal Shanley (Timothy Busfield) left him on the air just long enough to put his own job in jeopardy, and everyone is on tenterhooks. The press is buzzing about Harriet Hayes’s latest breakup with Matt (they’ve had several), but when Harriet arrives at the Addison Theater that night (that’s where they shoot the show), her first concern is for Cal, and I always find that telling.
I’m with Sorkin in his love for complicated people, and Harriet Hayes certainly falls into that category. Sorkin is thoughtful enough to give us her whole backstory in S1E5, “The Long Lead Story”—she grew up in Brighton, Michigan, to a devout mother who prayed for a girl child after having had six boys. Harriet (born Hannah Harriet, but there was already a Hannah Hayes in the Actors’ Union) was the answer to her mother’s prayers in more ways than one. She became her mother’s mini-me, it sounds like, right down to her love of Christ.
Mother Hayes recognized both faith and charisma in her daughter, and put her in church plays. Harriet discovered that getting a laugh was a good way to relax an often tense household, especially once her father got laid off from his job and turned to the bottle for solace. Harriet’s defining moment came during a church play when she was a child—she blanked on a line, and faked her way out with a Judy Holliday routine. The minister laughed out loud, Harriet saw how proud her mother was, and the very next day, Harriet was baptized. As reporter Martha Odell (Christine Lahti) observes, “you became a Christian and a comedian at the same time.”
I love that. I’m Jewish, by the barest technicality (my grandmother used to like to remind me that if Hitler was still alive, I’m Jewish enough), but I wasn’t raised with any religion at all, so when it comes to belief and faith, I’ve had to navigate my own as an adult. It’s occasionally very weird, and kind of lonely. I admire people like Harriet Hayes—people of honest faith, who believe what they believe, but who don’t try to beat you over the head with it. And she doesn’t try to—but as a person with such a high profile, sometimes that becomes problematic for her. Harriet spends her life trying to remind everyone that she isn’t an expert on Christian people, and she doesn’t represent all of them.
And even though she’s a Christian, she does sketches on the show all the time with titles like “Crazy Christians”, “Science, Schmience”, (and it’s not like Harriet Hayes is anti-science) and “Cheeses of Nazareth”, and all sorts that poke fun at the religious right. When Matt’s latest is a sketch in which Jesus Christ is the head of Standards and Practices, her statement is “It’s funny so I don’t care, but he’s sticking it to me.” She’s able to compartmentalize, and recognize the jokes as funny, even though she herself finds them kind of offensive, and that’s a quality I find admirable. She’s okay with being “the church girl”, she’s able to separate devout from funny, and she’s able to sing for Pat Robertson even though she knows he’s a bigot…he’s not the only one she’s singing for.
Harriet Hayes is a kind person. She doesn’t feel that the people of Ealing, Missouri deserve to be the butt of a News 60 joke, because they are a small town, centered around a bread factory. All these people are trying to do, she says, is bake bread and raise their kids, and we’re going to make fun of them? Her idea for a substitute bit is a doofy bear joke, and the boys all trust her enough to be able to make it work, and it does.
I love to see her friendships with everyone on the team. They are open, and they are genuine. She’s got different secret handshakes with everyone. When she finds out that Jeannie, the show’s resident bombshell (the one with the commedia dell’arte sketch) occasionally has a friends-with-benefits thing going on with Matt, Harriet is naturally very upset. It never occurs during the times Matt and Harry are together, but still, it is unnerving to suddenly hear that your ex has been hooking up with one of your best friends. Matt, she rips a new one. But her girl, Jeannie-with-the-light-brown-hair, as Harry calls her? Smashes a breakaway prop bottle over Jeannie’s head and is done with it. Doesn’t hold it against her for a second.
An early exchange between Harry and Jeannie is “I want my body to look like yours.” “I want my talent to look like yours.” For some reason, Harriet doesn’t seem to know she’s sexy, which is weird to me, because Sarah Paulson…damn. Still, Matt’s the only one who is constantly telling Harriet how sexy she is, yet even he thinks of Jeannie as “the sexy” one.
Perception of women in comedy is a strange thing. I meant it earlier, the thing about how traditionally speaking, beautiful women aren’t supposed to be funny. At one point in the show, Harriet is considering doing a lingerie spread in some magazine because she wants to prove that she’s sexy. Apparently Debra Messing (and I love that the example Sorkin picked as his example of a sexy woman is an actress who is known for being funny) got a movie, and Harriet is feeling insecure, so she thinks that being photographed in her scanties is the way to fix it. Fellow cast members Tom (Nate Corddry) and Simon (DL Hughley) spend the episode trying to talk her out of it. They’re the other two of the Big Three, and she’s like a big sister to both of them.
Tom reminds her that she’s the reason Studio 60 is able to get away with making some of the jokes against the religious right that they do, because they have someone like her on their side. That doesn’t help—Harriet’s response to that is along the lines of, you wanna use me as a shield, pay me for the privilege. She’s not wrong. Simon hits a little closer to home when he says that a lingerie shoot, no matter how tastefully done, will cheapen her because she’s perceived as pious. When she protests that they don’t think she’s sexy, he says “they will if you show them you’re sexy, they won’t if you show them your ass.” Even for one of the Big Three, the struggle between sexy and funny is real.
Harriet Hayes puts up with a lot, even from her loved ones. She spends her life having to defend her faith to people, knows it doesn’t make sense (that’s why it’s faith, after all), and is genuinely sorry she upsets people. In the two-part episode “Nevada Day”, there is a kerfuffle in the press in which Harriet is asked her opinion on gay marriage. Her response? “I said ‘the Bible says it’s a sin. It also says ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’, and that it was up to people smarter than me to figure out.” She has nothing against gay people, but likes the Bible, and she doesn’t know how to reconcile the two, but that doesn’t matter to her because it’s faith, so she says honestly she doesn’t know. Of course, the world hears what it wants to hear from her response—half of it busts her for being intolerant, while the other half busts her for not being intolerant enough. Poor Harriet spends two whole episodes trying to get people to explain to her where she was wrong, and of course no one can, yet she’s still punished for her honesty.
Harriet Hayes is no doormat, though. When secondary cast member Dylan Killington (Nate Torrence), after a couple of cocktails, gets in her face with a remark about her relationship with God that he thinks is funny (it isn’t), she smacks him down. “You know what, rook? When you start making a contribution to this show, you can talk to me any way you want. But you had two lines tonight, and you stepped on one of them. So until you either accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, or make somebody laugh, why don’t you talk to somebody else.” But when everyone gets the flu and Dylan faints on set while wearing a dress, she’s the first one there with juice and a joke (well, a witticism—it is established later on that for all that she is a funny person, Harriet can’t tell a joke) to make him feel better.
Matt and Harriet may have been each others’ tickets to stardom on Studio 60, but Danny Tripp (Bradley Whitford) was the one who discovered her and asked her to audition for the show. Danny is Matt’s best friend as well as partner, and Harry is like Danny’s sister. All Danny wants is for these two crazy kids to work out their issues and be happy together, and it frustrates him to no end that they can’t find a way to make it work. Of course, Danny spends the length of the series with his own adorable relationship angst—his heart belongs to Jordan MacDeere (Amanda Peet), the new President of the network (and Harriet’s new friend).
Jordan is pregnant by her ex, and Danny is ready to raise the baby as his own, but there are complications and Danny and Harriet spend the last couple of episodes in a hospital waiting room, not knowing if Jordan and the baby are going to pull through or not. Danny is beyond frustrated because there isn’t anything he can do, so Harriet offers to teach Danny how to pray. Absolutely everyone rolls their eyes at this, but I’m with Harriet in the idea that prayer counts as doing something—go read up on noetic science and how plants grow better when you talk to them, and then tell me that concentrated positive good thoughts (deific or otherwise) don’t count as doing something.
The scene in the hospital chapel has Danny representing, I think, every skeptic ever, when confronted by a situation where faith is required. Harriet suggests that he kneel in supplication, and he balks, because none of what he has in life was the result of God. It was the result of him, of his own hard work, of his parents’ hard work to send him to school and give him opportunities, and why should God need all this sucking up before rolling up His almighty sleeves and helping an innocent little baby and its mother. Harriet listens to him (and I’m sure everything he says echoes any doubts she ever had as well), remains stalwart, yet isn’t pushy. He leaves the chapel, and before she follows, she glances skyward and quietly says, “This isn’t the time, but he made some reasonably good points.”
In the first few episodes, Harriet tries rebound dating a baseball player named Darren Wells (Teddy Sears), because he is, as she puts it, “the anti-Matt”. An accurate summation, certainly. If she’s being honest with herself, Harriet isn’t into Wells at all, but she’s trying to be because he is the opposite of Matt in nature, and she thinks this would make him more manageable in a relationship. They first meet at a baseball game at which Harriet, a trained singer long before she got into comedy, appeared to sing “The Star Spangled Banner”. Wells gave her a bat with what she assumed was some sort of player identification number on it.
Harriet, wanting to make a gesture of friendliness to Matt the sports fan before they start working on Studio 60 together (and tell the truth, Harry, to show off that another guy is giving you presents had to have been in there a little bit), gives the bat to Matt as a gift. Matt realizes that the number on the bat is actually Wells’s phone number, and that he had been trying to pick Harriet up. He, naturally, is less than thrilled by the gift. It was an honest mistake, but she feels guilty. Later on (when she and Wells are officially seeing each other), karma bites Harriet in the ass for this when Jordan asks Wells to sign a ball for her nephew and he does the same thing he did with Harriet’s bat—signs with his phone number. Harriet says “I deserved that” (did she really?)
The other major player in the Harriet/Matt saga is Luke Scott (Josh Stamberg). Luke was a staff writer on Studio 60 at the same time that Matt and Harriet were both new, and he too noticed both her talent and her face. Even back then it was a bit of a pissing contest over her for a while, sad to say. In “The Long Lead Story”, after much prodding, Matt finally confesses to Martha Odell that he broke as a writer because he was trying to impress Harriet. Some of the sketches that made her famous were Luke’s, however, and the two of them dated for a while. When we come into the action, Luke has gone on to make movies, and Matt thinks he’s out of the picture.
Unexpectedly, Luke reappears, not only wanting to date her again, but with a legitimate job offer. He’s doing a movie about the early days of the Rolling Stones, and he wants her to star as Anita Pallenberg. It’s a huge break for her and everyone knows it, including Matt, who, no matter what, is her biggest fan. Anita Pallenberg is a great role for her, Luke’s casting her is genuine, but it’s also got to be in his head that he gets to be the guy who broke her career that way, thus ultimately winning over Matt. Luke is kind of a jerk, but he’s got their number.
The Matt vs Luke tug-of-war comes to a head when there’s a dinner thrown in Harriet’s honour by a Christian charity she’s done work for. She auctions off the chance to be her date for the evening, and Matt, thinking Luke is bidding on her, loses all reason in trying to outbid him. He wins, but Harriet is so outraged over this objectification of her that she tells Matt they are finished, and goes over to Luke’s house after the dinner (not the best idea). The movie shoot happens, and everyone is perfectly professional until they aren’t. Harriet starts nitpicking at Luke over a script choice that has Anita guilty of manslaughter when she wasn’t, and they run into overtime, so Danny has to call and ask where she is, since according to the schedule they had worked out, now she is on Studio 60 time.
Danny, knowing things she doesn’t know about why the writing over at Studio 60 has been suffering (Matt has been crazed, knowing Harriet has been with Luke, and he’s been self-medicating with booze and pills), asks if she can “fake it” with Matt a little when she gets back. She’s not ready to forgive on command, though, and pushes back. Luke, however, notices her lack of focus, and she owns up. He finally realizes that there isn’t a Harry and him, there’s always Harry and Matt, and thus he can lean into being a hardass with her so the break between them can be clean-ish, and he can move back to a strictly professional relationship with her. “You pummeled him so he’d fight back, and then you confessed it to me so I’d free you, which I’m doing right now.” Like I said, Luke may be a jerk, but he’s got their number.
Okay, I’ve circled the airport long enough. Harriet and Matt, Matt and Harriet. You love these two so much, and yet you want to grab them both and shake them at the same time. And both of them are written so well and played with such conviction that you are honestly never sure which one of them you are supposed to be rooting for. Each is such a fan of the other professionally, it’s extra heartbreak when they let each other down personally, and it happens all the time. When she finds out that Matt has been sleeping with Jeannie (it’s during a cast meeting at which Matt isn’t present, and I love how Danny doesn’t even hesitate to excuse Harriet to go find Matt and kill him), she is deeply hurt. “If I slow danced with Danny, your head would explode and you know it. I have an active imagination, Matthew. I’m paid a lot of money for it. And you had to know I was gonna find out. So now I have this in my imagination. That’s just mean.”
You think at first she’s overreacting, because she does get irrational when it comes to him, just as he gets irrational when it comes to her. His other way of dealing with the way she makes him feel is by acting detached with her and hiding behind professionalism. And it is so very clear right off the bat that they’re still in love with each other. And since the show starts with him and Danny taking over as executive producers of the show, now Matt’s got the perfect excuse to keep her at arms’ length—you work for me, so we can’t be together. Even though absolutely everyone thinks this is stupid, and the two of them should just work it out already.
Danny asks Matt right up front, are you and Harriet going to be a problem, because if you’re in love with her, it’s going to be a problem. Matt says no, absolutely no problem. He goes on to say, “I love her talent. The woman’s got millions of fans, but there are maybe 50 guys in town who really understand how good she is, and we’re two of them. That’s all, I admire her. I’m knocked out by her talent. I like it when she makes me laugh, and I like making her laugh, which isn’t an easy thing to do, so it’s gratifying. She’s undeniably sexy. And I like it when she smiles at me, and a couple of other things, but that’s it.” And Danny knows they’re screwed.
Part of Matt’s problem is that he’s a frustrated Democratic liberal—when Studio 60 aired, the President was the guy they referred to once as “Skippy McDumbass”, and liberals like Matt were frustrated with the choices the conservatives were making, and the little or nothing the Democrats were doing to stop it (not trying to get into a reflection on the real life politics of the time, this is me talking about a TV show). So when the person closest to you (your girlfriend, who also works with you) shares a lot of the same core beliefs as these “honey crusted nut bars”, it makes her an ideal punching bag, especially when she is as smart and outspoken as you are. When the kerfuffle over gay marriage happens and everyone is calling her a homophobe, Matt is right there with them, even though he agrees that Democrats who believe in civil unions are the same. When that kerfuffle leads to Harriet being uninvited from a Christian activism dinner, Matt recognizes that this is the real reason she is considering doing the underwear shoot. He tells her, “Don’t be vengeful, you never are. That’s what people love about you…be not afraid of who you are.”
In “Nevada Day”, when two guys get in Harriet’s face over the homosexuality quote, it gets physical, and Tom comes to her defense. Matt spends the whole two part episode snarking her and calling her a homophobe, and finally fesses up that all his bluster was mostly because he should have been the one to defend her, not Tom. She gently mocks him, “God, Matthew. Are you crazy about me, or just crazy?” Later, she smacks him because she had to find out from Danny that Matt had been taking booze and pills. When he protests that he had kept it from everyone, she says no, not me. Never me. “I’m the one person.” No matter what happens, they are supposed to be That Guy for each other, and deep down, they know it.
Five years previous, Matt had quit the show on a matter of principle, and Danny had quit with him. Harriet has been carrying around guilt over this, because she thinks he holds a grudge against her for not quitting with him with Danny did. It’s not true, but I can’t really blame her for not being able to tell sometimes. Harriet Hayes is a big softie at heart, and the times she tries to be a hardass with the rest of the cast, it is almost comical, because even she doesn’t really buy it.
For the record, Matt can’t resign himself to prayer any more than Danny can, but when Jordan has been rushed to the ER and there is a whole K&R thing happening overseas with Tom’s little brother who is in the military, Matt lets his guard down. No one is looking, and he puts a hand over his heart, looks up, and says “show me something”, which is the closest he can get. Later, when everything turns out okay, Matt thinks he’s alone in the studio, and allows himself a “thank you, God.” The response? A booming voice saying “I heard that” followed by Harriet—“it’s me, jellohead”. He tells her not to be a wiseass. She says, “I’m paid to be a wiseass.” They live happily ever after…at least, until the next kerfuffle.
So yeah, I miss Harriet Hayes. I like the idea that honest faith can coexist alongside a sense of humour. I like the idea of being able to compartmentalize, so that you can find objective humour in things that maybe you don’t personally agree with. Most of all, I like the idea that people who are complicated enough to be this interesting can also be smart and ultimately big-hearted (as well as pigheaded) enough to find their way to each other, and make it work. Come on, Saturday Night Live. Just one episode. Give her back to me for just a little while.
“Thank you for giving us one of your greatest gifts, a sense of humour…We say this prayer in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, who had to have been funny to get so many people to listen to him.”
Amen, Harriet. Amen.