BEGIN WITH ONE LARGE FISTFUL OF SLIGHTLY DINGED, Mary Richards–brand feminist spunk. Add in two clumps of zany, Larry Sanders star-power narcissism, and a generous sprinkling of Dunder-Mifflin-style quirkiness, and season with Arrested Development’s brand of visual humor. Serve fresh from the oven, and you’ve got the triumphant showbiz farce 30 Rock (NBC, 2006–2013), one of the most consistently funny sitcoms of the past decade. Its humor and its mediocre ratings stemmed from the same root cause: it was a sitcom about the exhaustion of sitcoms, a summing-up and a parodying of all television’s tired appeals. The sitcom was triumphing by acknowledging its failings. And who would want to watch that?

Emerging at the tail end of the sitcom’s steady modernist accretion of self-reflexivity, 30 Rock takes the conceit of the workplace sitcom—the land of Cheers and Taxi and The Mary Tyler Moore Show—and transforms its conjoined savagery and bonhomie into a condition of existence for Liz Lemon (show creator Tina Fey), the perpetually overstretched head writer of a television sketch comedy show that seems like a less successful version of Fey’s own alma mater, Saturday Night Live. Liz is part no-nonsense comedy wizard and part pathetic single girl, stuck with the oddballs and narcissists who work on her TV show, TGS, because her devotion to her maddening job leaves little time for anyone else.

The series begins, in the very first scene of its first episode, by paying tribute to its predecessors while simultaneously enumerating the many ways in which Liz Lemon could never be Mary Richards. Liz stands in line outside 30 Rockefeller Center, where TGS is filmed, waiting to purchase a hot dog. Outraged by a middle-aged businessman’s attempt to cut the line, Liz impulsively purchases the entire tray, passing out frankfurters to strangers and passersby as an impossibly perky, Mary Tyler Moore–ish theme song plays: “Who’s that? I know that you’re wondering. That’s her! Who’s got the kind of charisma that the boys prefer? Who’s hot and you know that she knows it? That’s her!” The tune, it turns out, is not Liz’s theme song at all, but wafts over from a TGS soundstage, where rehearsals are under way for a sketch featuring Pam, the Overly-Confident Morbidly Obese Woman. Welcome to 30 Rock.

Liz definitively lacks the “charisma that the boys prefer.” She is diagnosed by her boss, foil, and soon-to-be mentor Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) at their first meeting as “New York, third-wave feminist, college educated, single and pretending to be happy about it, overscheduled, undersexed, you buy any magazine that says ‘healthy body image’ on the cover, and every two years you take up knitting for,” pausing and popping his lips for triumphant emphasis, “a week?” The series is given to denting whatever shreds of optimism and confidence remain for a single, thirtysomething Manhattan overachiever with too many overgrown infants to nurse and too little time for a life of her own. The main character of The Mary Tyler Moore Show would likely not have enjoyed romancing gentleman callers while wearing ice cream cone pajamas and futzing with her humidifier.

Mary Richards lived out the peppy-theme-song dream. Murphy Brown had been the bold feminist icon of a prior generation, proudly holding her own in a male-dominated workplace. The ladies of Sex and the City embodied the notion that women could have it all—fulfilling work, torrid sex, meaningful relationships, and good friends. Liz Lemon, in all her knock-kneed, poorly dressed, socially inept, sexually inexperienced, fun-hating glory, is the deliberate undoing of those fantasies.

Does that make her a satirical caricature, or a feminist icon in her own right?On the one hand, Liz is a strangely realistic depiction of modern, overachieving American women: dazzlingly competent, overworked, underloved, and exhausted. She is as efficient at work as she is hapless in her private life. She brings a live weekly television show to the air with a minimum of fuss but a maximum of hassle, the sole bulwark standing between TGS and utter chaos. On the other hand, Liz is the sort of person who sings hymns of her praise to her midnight snack of choice (“Workin’ on my night cheese . . .”) and creates a neologism, “lizzing,” to define the phenomenon of simultaneously laughing and whizzing. The show itself cannot quite decide how seriously to take her, and it’s all the better for it.

Skipping jauntily between wildly divergent modes of attack, 30 Rock thrives by refusing to settle on a single style.

Both explicitly and implicitly, 30 Rock is a clash of opposites. Its premiere episode is plunged into action by the unexpected arrival of washed-out movie star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, combining the worst of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence into a surprisingly lovable whole) to join the cast of what had previously been known as The Girlie Show. Sophisticated feminist humor meets the star of This Honky Grandma Be Trippin’.

The other core characters, too, are a deliberate hodgepodge of clashing styles, existing in their own echo chambers of self-regard, starring in their own individual shows, only dimly aware of the existence of anyone lingering at the fringes of their spotlight. TGS star Jenna (Jane Krakowski) is, like Tracy, a permanent inmate of the prison house of stardom, tirelessly devoted to the maintenance of her fame. NBC boss Jack is a self-declared master of the universe, breathing the rarefied air of the corporate elite and permanently peeved at having to settle the minor squabbles of a third-rate show. And network page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) is the resident television cheerleader and critic, the only one on the show who actually seems to enjoy watching the finished product.

The clashing styles of 30 Rock are vividly reflected in the second-season episode “Rosemary’s Baby,” written by Jack Burditt. In its main storyline, the episode explores Liz’s feminism and her queasy relationship to power in the form of the preternaturally self-assured Jack. Liz and TGS producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) stand in line at a bookstore, waiting to have a copy of the new memoir by Rosemary Howard (Carrie Fisher) signed. Rosemary is not, as Pete suspects, “one of the ladies who tried to shoot Gerald Ford,” but a pioneering, legendarily outspoken comedy writer for shows like Laugh-In.

Liz brings in Rosemary, her childhood role model, as a guest writer for TGS, where she regales the writing staff with salacious stories of comedy’s glory days. “I’ll never watch Happy Days the same way again,” Liz exclaims after one anecdote, awed to be in the presence of her idol. In Rosemary’s retelling, comedy writers had once been edgy, snorting cocaine at their desks and writing sketches in which talking mailboxes were symbols of embattled Nixon chief of staff H. R. Haldeman (echoing the drug-fueled golden age of Saturday Night Live). Rosemary gets the TGS writers a bit too fired up to do their jobs, which revolve more around the telling of fart jokes than expert political satire—although the fact that 30 Rock itself does traffic in quite a bit of the latter adds to the richness of the joke. But 30 Rock, arriving long after comedy’s glory days had come and gone, was not going to force any presidents, or even White House chiefs of staff, from office. That would have required a degree of trust in its mission—and an audience share—that the show could not quite muster.

Liz admires Rosemary but is dismayed by the effect she has on the TGS staff, to whom her hero proposes such risqué sketch ideas as having Josh (Lonny Ross) appear in blackface. When Jack demands that Liz fire Rosemary, she refuses in feminist solidarity, and both women are fired instead. But what Liz finds outside the comforting confines of 30 Rockefeller Center is unsettling. She retreats with Rosemary to her idol’s neighborhood of “Little Chechnya,” where purse snatchers and drug dealers operate in broad daylight, as if 30 Rock had accidentally stumbled onto The Wire’s turf. Liz rapidly pinwheels from spunky vigor (“We could start our own network, called Bitch TV—or the second idea that we think of”) to a desire to flee from Rosemary and her roach-infested apartment as quickly as possible. “You can’t abandon me, Liz,” Rosemary shouts. “You are me!” Rosemary curses Liz like a mother damning an uncaring child: “You’re never going to get married, Liz—you’re married to your job. . . . You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for me. I broke barriers for you.”

Liz flees back to the comfortable corporate embrace of Jack Donaghy and NBC, determined never to turn into Rosemary. She pledges to send her idol $400 a month for the rest of her life and “to do that thing that rich people do, where they turn money into more money.” She also instantly caves to Jack’s demands that she rewrite a sketch about dog penises, preferring life as an employed conformist to an unemployed rebel. Not a groundbreaker, not passionately devoted to fighting the suits of the world, Liz is a woman standing up for herself in a tough business by craftily picking her battles—a refreshingly honest statement of purpose for a business where, as the episode notes, women become obsolete as soon as no one wants to see them naked anymore.

Liz’s predicament is also 30 Rock’s. What taboos remain to be shattered after masturbation jokes on Seinfeld and blowjobs on Sex and the City? The heroic era of comedy, in 30 Rock’s estimation, has come and gone, and trailblazers like Rosemary have been succeeded by the workmanlike Liz. Sitcom stars are no longer icons of American culture, nor are they symbolic representatives of larger shifts in society like Bill Cosby or Roseanne once were. There are no shocks left to be administered, no territory untouched by previous comic explorers of the sitcom, just some dog-penis jokes and a desire to survive.

But 30 Rock was too modest by half, and its achievements were far greater than the expert recounting of dog-penis jokes or the making of money into money. (NBC would likely beg to differ with the latter characterization of the perennially low-rated sitcom.) Instead, 30 Rock was brilliantly flexible, effortlessly riffing on the stray flotsam and jetsam of pop culture.

Sitcoms had found their new voice, just in time for their audiences to shrivel. Was TV still funny if no one was watching?

Even “Rosemary’s Baby” itself, as it articulates Liz’s, and by extension Fey’s, statement of purpose as a comedian and a woman after the heroic age of comedy has passed, is limber enough to be only half-devoted to its message. In a secondary storyline, Tracy develops a burning interest in dog fighting after Jack casually mentions that it’s the only vice a celebrity cannot be forgiven for partaking in. Fearing disastrous publicity for the network, and suspecting that Tracy’s contrarian impulse is the result of unresolved parental issues, Jack employs a nifty bit of reverse psychology to coax his star into a private therapy session. When the therapist suggests a role-playing exercise, Jack takes the elements of Tracy’s childhood—the North Philadelphia–born father with the Campbell’s Soup factory job and the droopy lip—as improvisational prompts, playing Tracy’s father and a cast of other characters in an impromptu one-man show that draws liberally on rancid 1970s television stereotypes.

Tracy’s father, emerging from Jack’s mouth, sounds eerily like Redd Foxx from Sanford and Son, and his monologue (which Jack interrupts with the calls of their downstairs neighbor, “Mrs. Rodriguez”) eventually devolves into a scene from some mediocre blaxploitation movie: “Da honkies shot me!” Tracy rushes to embrace his dying father, promising to give up dog fighting. Jack, invigorated, congratulates the patient on his unorthodox breakthrough, telling him, “It’s too bad you didn’t know Howard Cosell when you were growing up, because I had that one in my pocket the whole time.”

The man of a thousand inflections, many of them buffed to a dull glow during his numerous turns as SNL host, Alec Baldwin treats his voice as, in some elemental fashion, the essence of Jack Donaghy. Critic Jessica Winter described Baldwin’s voice as “a come-on, maybe, or a veiled threat, or a joke that you’re not quite in on.” Fey’s original sitcom idea had been for her to play a harried cable news producer working with Baldwin’s unruly right-wing pundit. When that pitch failed to achieve traction, Fey preserved Baldwin’s character in all his essentials, transforming him into an NBC executive.

Photo credit: NBC

Baldwin’s brilliant performance, Scotch-smooth, knowing, and ever so slightly menacing, lifts Jack far beyond the incompetent corporate talking head he was initially intended as to something substantially subtler and more compelling. Baldwin both embodies and mocks the figure of the square-jawed, blow-dried, pinstripe-suited corporate titan. He is the voice of AIG and Goldman Sachs and Bain Capital and, yes, NBC, convinced of his infallibility even as the ship he steers crashes headfirst into an iceberg. With his raspy voice and air of casually held authority, Jack specializes in weighty edicts and long pauses that lend even the most absurd pronouncements a veneer of wisdom. Even when we know he’s wrong, we suspect, on the basis of that voice if nothing more, that he may be right.

By season four, Jack had broken through what remained of the fourth wall separating him from the real-life NBC execs who eyed 30 Rock itself with disappointment. Jack requests that the struggling TGS undo some of its elitist, East Coast, alternative, intellectual, left-wing (“Jack, just say Jewish, this is taking forever!”) tendencies with some homegrown American talent in order to appeal to the average television viewer. Like its show within the show, 30 Rock never found the devoted audience that a previous generation of NBC Thursday-night sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends had—a fact that the show was only too aware of. For all its Emmy success and critical plaudits, 30 Rock was pulling in one-fifth the audience that Friends had in its prime.

“Though we are grateful for the affection 30 Rock has received from critics and hipsters, we were actually trying to make a hit show,” Fey sardonically notes in her book Bossypants. “We weren’t trying to make a low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality. We were trying to make Home Improvement and we did it wrong.”

But one thing 30 Rock assuredly did right was to maintain that clash of styles, playing its interest in matters political against its deliriously quirky sense of humor. This spared the series from the fate of its short-lived contemporary Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC, 2006–07). When 30 Rock premiered in the fall of 2006, it stood in the long shadow cast by Aaron Sorkin’s much-hyped Studio 60, which similarly concerned itself with the backstage goings-on at a fictionalized version of Saturday Night Live. But Sorkin’s show proved itself in short order to be fatally self-serious and self-congratulatory, treating television comedy writers like the political operatives on Sorkin’s previous show The West Wing. (In fact, 30 Rock poked fun at the Sorkin style in its first season, with numerous characters engaging in his trademark brisk-walking-and-talking maneuver. And in its fifth season, Sorkin himself showed up to walk-and-talk with Liz.) By contrast, 30 Rock is a sitcom about a sketch comedy show that feels like it was written by sketch comedy veterans.

This was apropos, for in addition to being a superb “Weekend Update” anchor, Fey had also been Saturday Night Live’s first female head writer—a notable accomplishment in that bastion of aggressive masculinity. Drawing on her SNL experience, Fey made her sitcom a comedy that was notable for its interest in the show’s writers: nebbishy Lutz (John Lutz, another former SNL writer), outlandish-hat-rocking, cleaning-lady-knocking Frank (Judah Friedlander), and Toofer (Keith Powell), so named for being both black and a Harvard graduate, thus providing two sorely needed perspectives for the show. The writers are the stars, and occasionally the stars are the writers: Donald Glover, who got his start on the 30 Rock writing staff while still working as an RA at NYU, went on to a leading role in Community. (He can be spotted in a handful of cameos in 30 Rock’s first few seasons.) Rob Petrie, meet your successors.

There are times—Jack’s brief stint in the Bush White House; the imaginary NBC reality program MILF Island; Liz’s boyfriend the beeper king; and the tongue-in-cheek product shilling for the McFlurry, Snapple, and other corporate products—when 30 Rock feels like a particularly inspired string of Saturday Night Live sketches. In numerous other instances, Fey shrinks down an array of SNL-style sketches into rapid-fire inserts, none lasting more than a few seconds, that allow 30 Rock to reference everything from Jenna’s starring role in Con-Air: The Musical to Tracy’s disastrous appearance as a “stabbing robot” on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. These jolts of comic punctuation are 30 Rock’s most recognizable stylistic feature, and they give the series, mostly enclosed within cramped writers’ rooms and offices, the feel of a much more varied show.

ON 30 ROCK, TRACY IN PARTICULAR REGULARLY REAPS the unexpected benefits of his ludicrous and inappropriate celebrity behavior. He creates a pornographic video game that sells sixty-one million copies; he purchases Lehman Brothers to escape the grasp of some hard-partying ex-investment banker interns; he is hoodwinked into believing he is preparing for space travel on a TGS soundstage while engaging in his own version of banter: “When do I get some Tang? Also, I’m thirsty. Wordplay!” Morgan’s affability conceals not-so-secret depths of profound strangeness regularly milked by 30 Rock. Tracy is immature, helpless, and prone to finding himself at his local strip club when he had intended to head to the kitchen to bring his wife a sandwich. He is also, in his particular gift for non sequitur punch lines bellowed at top volume (“I think I voted for Nader. Nader!”), the secret source of much of 30 Rock’s belly laughs.

Tracy is a master of surprise, thriving on others’ perceptions of his inadequacies. In one episode, Jack summons him to play golf with NBC honcho Don Geiss (played by none other than Rip Torn of The Larry Sanders Show). Tracy calls out Geiss for the lack of black representation at NBC and then proceeds to embarrass Jack with his imitation of every Hollywood saintly-ignorant-black-man stereotype: “I studied fried chicken at the school of hard knocks, ain’t that right, Mr. Jack?” Later, seeking to make it up to Jack for his golf-course impropriety, he delivers a deeply touching and surprisingly coherent speech at a charity benefit about his daughter’s struggles with diabetes, impressing Geiss with his seriousness. On his way out, he leans in to share a word with Jack: “I don’t have a daughter.”

Repeatedly, hilariously, 30 Rock bites the hand that aired it on Thursday evenings, raking NBC over the coals for its failing business model and mediocre reality programming. But 30 Rock knows that this inside-showbiz material, too, has been done before. Where could it go that Larry Sanders, with its jaundiced view of the television industry, had not already been? And so 30 Rock is less a backstage story than a burlesque of the same, elongated and exaggerated to the point of absurdity.

Enamored as it is with the ritual of television, 30 Rock dives deeply into the arcana of the sitcom in a manner that would inspire its eventual Thursday-night colleague Community. In order to get all the jokes, it helps to be an initiate in the ways of the sitcom. (Without knowing about the inexplicably lengthy run of Wings [NBC, 1990–97], Jack’s joke comparing Liz’s plans for twenty more years of TGS to the mediocre airport sitcom would make little sense.) The show’s characters live in a TV-drenched universe. In order to prepare for a TGS appearance, Jack watches the first season of Friends, enchanted by Ross and Rachel’s on-camera chemistry. On another occasion, Tracy and Kenneth, jonesing for a satisfying conclusion to one of their favorite NBC sitcoms, write and shoot a new final episode of Night Court (NBC, 1984–92), complete with the (purportedly) long-awaited nuptials of Harry Anderson’s Judge Harry T. Stone and Markie Post’s defense attorney Christine Sullivan.

This series is haunted by the ghosts of television past—the sitcom heroes who had once knit together a nation of TV watchers. This is comedy for the era of terminal decline, pining for The Cosby Show and Seinfeld less for their comic chops than their Nielsen overnights. In an effort to boost the flagging ratings of his network in the episode “SeinfeldVision,” Jack arranges for a series of computer-generated guest appearances by NBC’s last sitcom megastar, Jerry Seinfeld, on everything from Let’s Make a Deal to Heroes. Even the ghost of Seinfeld, it seems, is more popular than NBC’s current stable of stars.

The era of the sitcom as cultural colossus had ended, and 30 Rock was gleefully looting its desiccated corpse.

The very building blocks of the form had begun to wear with age, and 30 Rock was devoted to rubbing our faces in the rot. “I wish this were an episode of Night Court,” says Tracy as he stands on the reconstructed set of the once-popular sitcom, “because then there’d be some big joke right now.” Instead, he and Kenneth stand uneasily, waiting for a commercial to interrupt the awkward silence. In another episode, a bouncy interlude detailing Jenna and Tracy’s lunchtime shopping extravaganza is brought to a sudden halt by Liz’s whistle: “I get it. You went shopping. I don’t need the montage.”

When Tracy’s contract comes up for renewal, Jack and Liz reminisce about all the wacky good times they’ve had with their show’s star. Ignoring the immediately familiar sitcom cues to cut to a heart-warming montage, the show lingers on Jack and Liz staring into space, lost in their own memories. The series uses the history of the sitcom jujitsu-style against its audience, knowing our expectations and resolutely denying us the easy comfort of the familiar.

At the close of the sixth season, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who has kidnapped Jack’s wife Avery (Elizabeth Banks), suggests a new plot twist—that Jack and Liz get together—while offering proofs from sitcoms past: “On Friends, was so satisfying! They do on Cheers, they do on Moonlighting . . .” They don’t here. The series is not devoted to delivering that kind of pleasure. By the end of its final season, Liz does end up happily married—but not to Jack—while 30 Rock’s only lasting love affair is with television itself. Like the staff of WJM on Mary Tyler Moore, the cast and crew of TGS find their show summarily canceled, and they go out with one last broadcast. Jack appoints Kenneth as his replacement as NBC president, and Liz adopts nonidentical twins who bear a startling resemblance to Tracy and Jenna.

The series craftily mocks what it loves, paying enduring homage to the glories of its medium through its designated TV authority, Kenneth. “More than jazz, or musical theater, or morbid obesity, television is the true American art form,” he argues in the episode “The Head and the Hair.” “Think of all the shared experiences television has provided for us, from the moon landing to the Golden Girls finale, from Walter Cronkite denouncing Vietnam to Oprah pulling that trash bag of fat out on a wagon. From the glory and the pageantry of the Summer Olympics to the less fun Winter Olympics. So please, don’t tell me I don’t have a dream, sir—I am living my dream!” In love with the dream of TV, 30 Rock was the embodiment of “the true American art form,” even as that dream was dissipating in a premium-cable, Hulu-and-Netflix haze.

This is an excerpt from Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from ‘I Love Lucy’ to ‘Community’ by Saul Austerlitz. Copyright © 2014 by Saul Austerlitz. Reprinted by permission of Chicago Review Press, Chicago, IL. All rights reserved.

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Sitcom World

On a mission to explore the land of TV comedy

Saul Austerlitz

Written by

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era.

Sitcom World

On a mission to explore the land of TV comedy

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