Photo: NBC

I Watched ‘30 Rock’ For The First Time And It’s Got Some Problems!

Tina Fey’s celebrated TV show is very funny except for the blackface

The recent news that 30 Rock episodes featuring characters in blackface were being removed from streaming services and syndication was perfectly timed because I’ve been binge-watching Tina Fey’s sitcom for the very first time and I got to see one of those infamous episodes before it was yanked.

30 Rock co-creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, as well as the show’s owner NBCUniversal, requested these episodes be taken down. Hulu and Amazon Prime have already complied.

In a letter to platforms and broadcasters, Fey wrote: “As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America, we believe that these episodes featuring actors in race-changing makeup are best taken out of circulation.” She then apologized for the pain those episodes caused.

I have no reason to think Fey’s apology is insincere, especially considering the seismic shifts in the country. The last month has seen historic civil rights marches against police brutality and white supremacy. Statues celebrating Confederate generals are being toppled and giant media companies are poring over their archives looking for content that could be perceived as racially insensitive or offensive. Recently, HBO took down Gone with the Wind, the proudly pro-Confederacy classic, only to return it to their library with a new intro featuring film scholar Jacqueline Stewart providing historical context.

There were four specific 30 Rock episodes that were removed, two separate ones featuring Jane Krakowski’s daffy character Jane in blackface, and two special live episodes performed for the East and West Coasts. In those two live episodes, Jon Hamm appeared in blackface in a parody of minstrel show Amos ‘n Andy.

The reason white history is being torn down while white culture is being re-examined is that white people refuse to have a mature and honest conversation about our history and culture. White people did some good things? Yes, sure. But what about slavery? Or the genocide of indigenous peoples? But forget those grim hits: why do white people still hunt Black people in 2020, whether or not they have a badge? We don’t want to talk about our less-than-wholesome ancestors.

As a group — a uniquely powerful and wealthy group — we refuse to engage with the crimes of the past, or present. This is what we get, I suppose. If we can’t admit Robert E. Lee was an anti-American terrorist then he needs to be power-scrubbed from the nation’s consciousness.

I think Gone with the Wind is a beautiful-looking movie that’s important specifically because it’s a weepy, big-budget romance about the lost cause — which is Dixie-speak for the brutal pro-slavery paradise that was the Confederacy. That movie is a horror movie and it should be viewed as such. I grew up in the South surrounded by statues to men who treated other men, and women, and children like cattle.

I remember casually referring to Richmond’s celebrated Monument Avenue as “The Avenue of Second-Place Trophies” to a friend once many years ago and he was sincerely offended. The guy was my classmate but he was a true redneck. Talented, smart, but raised on propaganda. He wasn’t offended by my joke. He thought I was crazy: Confederate cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart was a hero.

The subsequent argument was maddening. I don’t necessarily support destroying monuments to ugly historical figures or erasing hateful movies or books — I would rather we talk about them honestly. It’s already far too easy for white people to forget the crimes of their ancestors. I want reminders of who we were so we can better judge who we are now.

But this is magical thinking on my part. White people are incapable of being honest about what granddad did. Or great-grandad. Or great-great grandad.

I cringed at the blackface gag in that third season episode. The bit wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t funny just because blackface isn’t funny — it isn’t. Imagine hating the color of another person’s skin so much you paint yourself up just to mock that person. 30 Rock’s blackface joke also wasn’t funny because it thought it was smarter than it actually was.

It wasn’t smart. The joke was privileged. The writers thought they were satirizing racial stereotypes when, in fact, the joke was reinforcing another stereotype: white people refuse to understand blackface.

I was also shocked by the show’s casual transphobia and homophobia and sexism. What shocked me more was that 30 Rock went off the air in 2013. This country has come a long way in the past seven years. What a wild seven years! I don’t think we’re, as a society, any wiser, or more compassionate, but it’s harder to get away with some shit.

But I gotta be honest: I really liked 30 Rock. I currently like 30 Rock. I’m only halfway through the fourth season. Who knows, maybe I’ll find a couple more derogatory or tone-deaf takes hidden away.

I understand why 30 Rock’s offensive episodes are being pulled but there’s a part of me that wants to them stay online, at least. Slap a warning on them. I think it’s important to be able to point at cultural mistakes. Even itty-bitty ones.

Tina Fey’s demented behind-the-scenes comedy about an SNL-like show is very funny. It was really getting me through some pretty existential days and nights. I’ve been laying in bed with a laptop warming my belly watching anarchic episode after anarchic episode. 30 Rock is a very silly show. But it’s also a wiseass show that thinks it’s entitled to offensive jokes here and there. At its worst, 30 Rock has proto-Karen energy.

I had heard from comedy nerd friends of mine for years that 30 Rock was a special show to them and I get it now. At it’s best, it’s an absurdist comedy that plays like a live-action episode of The Simpsons. There are jokes every moment, some corny, some surreal. Are you a fan of slapstick? Witty repartee? Fart humor? 30 Rock has got you.

The characters are all lovable stereotypes. Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth is a goofy good ol’ boy and Tracy Morgan’s Tracy Jordan is a celebrity detached from reality. As mega-executive Jack Donaghy, Alec Baldwin is a riot as a corrupt and powerful heterosexual white man. And Tina Fey’s insecure, workaholic alter ego Liz Lemon is a very charming creation, despite all of the body-shame jokes she endures.

The show clearly prides itself on being an equal opportunity offender, too. This is an admirable goal, I suppose. But it’s rare. 30 Rock tried but I don’t think it ever truly dared to offend itself. There’s a smug aftertaste after some bits. It doesn’t spoil the comedy for me but 30 Rock is often forgettable. Which is why I’m probably gorging myself on it.

One excellent example of comedy that successfully pulled no punches are the first few seasons of Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show. The blind Klansman who doesn’t know he’s Black? Amazing. In Living Color had its moments. And then there’s Blazing Saddles, a movie with both fart jokes AND smart jokes about American racism.

There are multiple generations of comedians out there who want to create the next Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks’ legendary 1974 western-comedy about race, co-written in part by Richard Pryor, the greatest stand-up comedian of all time, in my opinion. Blazing Saddles is a courageous and clear-eyed satire that is still shocking by today’s standards.

It’s a movie that uses the “N” word successfully because it understands exactly what that word is: a word white people used to remind Black people that they weren’t human. It’s an evil word. Blazing Saddles mocks it, and everyone who has ever used it.

That said, I can’t think of a more misunderstood comedy than Blazing Saddles. At least, by white comedians.

30 Rock is the smarty-pants wiseass humor of another generation. A very, very recent generation who is also currently producing and creating comedy. The most important part of any joke is the timing — when you tell the punchline and, also, when you tell the punchline. There was a time when enlightened liberal white people showed they understood racism by subtly mocking racist tropes. The problem with subtly mocking racist tropes is that racist tropes are not subtle and you come off as someone using racist tropes.

30 Rock’s crime wasn’t really that it’s writers and actors are racists or sexists or transphobes. I mean, I have been guilty of prejudice before. I am a white heterosexual man. White heterosexual men are to ignorant opinions as quills are to porcupines.

One of the advantages of my race and gender is if I don’t want to see how others suffer I don’t have to. I have been colorblind before, which is to say I’ve been blind to other colors. I’ve also been blind to other genders. Luckily, everyone on this planet has two choices: Grow or rot.

(The fact that I’m also biracial doesn’t matter — I look white therefore other white people think I’m white. It’s why cops are nice to me.)

I’m not making a confessing my sins. I’m just admitting what I know: I’m part of the problem. If you’re like me, a white heterosexual man, and you don’t know what I know then now you know.

Blazing Saddles is a very angry movie. It’s a movie full of joyful fury. Blazing Saddles despises racists and rednecks and the powerful. Blazing Saddles was brilliant satire because brilliant satire is angry humans aren’t better than they are. It is so easy for one human being to hate another human being.

30 Rock’s crime was that it wasn’t really angry. 30 Rock was made by people who thought their side had won the fight but the fight was just beginning.

I never got the feeling that 30 Rock had anything profound to say about systemic racism… or for that matter misogyny or classism. There are political jokes on 30 Rock but I never got the sense the writers took politics seriously.

The writers just skewered those topics because they thought they should. Scratch the surface of Blazing Saddles and you’ll find multiple commentaries about injustice, prejudice, and how America works. 30 Rock is a joke machine. It exists to make people chuckle, not to viciously ridicule human folly. I prefer the latter, but I am always open to the former.

Writer/editor. NYPost, CONAN, Sirius XM. 2X James Beard Award winner. I created Humungus, a blog about movies, tv & feelings.

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