Romantic Comedy, the new novel by Curtis Sittenfeld, falls into a trap I like to call “the Studio 60 problem.” The characters are comedy writers, and we’re repeatedly told how hilarious they are. But they take themselves very, very seriously.
The titular romance of Romantic Comedy is the unlikely relationship between Sally Milz, a world-weary writer at a Saturday Night Live–type show called The Night Owls, and Noah Brewster, a John Mayer–esque singer-songwriter serving as host and musical guest. Over the course of a week, Sally and Noah write, they rehearse, they banter. We see some of Sally’s sketches, including a bit about a law prohibiting attractive men from dating less attractive women. It’s a meta-commentary on her (male) colleague’s hookup with a (female) global sex symbol—think: Pete and Kim, or Pete and Kaia, or Pete and Ariana—but it’s also Sally’s cri de coeur.
“The sketch is about powerful, gorgeous women dating quote-unquote ordinary guys,” Sally says. Somehow, the ghost of Susan B. Anthony gets involved. Humor is subjective, but I suppose I’d rather watch that sketch than another of Sally’s ideas: “Nancy Drew and the Disappearing Access to Abortion.”
I found myself wishing for a greater helping of Sittenfeld’s dark humor, which I’ve admired since her fantastic debut novel, Prep, and which she wielded masterfully in her wonderfully acerbic 2019 collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It.
I wonder if the author, having decided to set a novel in the world of comedy, may have second-guessed her instincts. Some of the jokes here are undercut by apologies: Noah crucifies himself over a remark about Sally’s unsuccessful first marriage. “I was trying to be funny, but I crossed a line,” he tells her. “I want you to know I realize … that getting divorced is a very challenging life experience, and I shouldn’t have been flippant about it.” Sally responds that she’s impossible to offend, but why wasn’t she offended by his implication that Sally, a comedy writer, couldn’t take a joke?
Sally and Noah’s week of flirting—they bond over a shared love of Thoreau—is eventually ruined by a blowup that reveals Noah to be the most thin-skinned rock star since the Gallagher brothers. Then the global pandemic hits and it’s Covid ex machina. Soon enough, they reconnect over e-mail, swapping hand-wringing and handwashing epistles that are an eerily accurate invocation of the pandemic’s first sickly summer.
By the end, I was rooting for the two of them to make it to the romantic finish line. Noah, though, may be more of a woman’s fantasy of a man than a fully fleshed out (sparring) partner for Sally. “I want to give you affirmation,” he coos at one point. “But if I don’t give you enough, you should ask for it.” Later, he tells her, “You’re so terrifyingly, awesomely perceptive.”
Maybe it’s about time that the male protagonist of a rom-com were as schematic as the genre’s usual female love interests. Noah rarely, if ever, converses with another male character about a subject unrelated to Sally—Romantic Comedy may fail the Bech-dude test.
Which, come to think of it, is a little empowering on its own. Sittenfeld, with this diverting and easily devoured novel, may have scored an overdue victory of sorts for gender parity.
Juli Weiner is a five-time Emmy Award–winning screenwriter and an alumna of Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair. She wrote for the first six seasons of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and is currently a writer on the forthcoming HBO limited series The Palace. Previously, she has written for AIR MAIL about the perfect baby gift