THE STATE OF THE AMERICAN SITCOM (IV): 30 ROCK by David Lavery
This is the fourth of five Telegenics examining the state of the American sitcom in the second decade of the 21st Century. Earlier entries were on Community, How I Met Your Mother, and The Big Bang Theory. A subsequent Telegenic will look at Modern Family.
L-R: Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), Liz Lemon (Tina Fey), Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer). Image from Hulu.com.
[W]e try to give everyone a full life in our weird idiom. . . . we try to tell emotional stories in as odd a way as we can without distancing ourselves from the emotion and we try to tell our weird stories in as grounded a way as possible.
Robert Carlock, 30 Rock Co-Showrunner in New York Magazine
From M*A*S*H (CBS, 1972-1983), set at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, to The Office (BBC, 2001-2003; NBC, 2005- , etc.) in all the manifestations of the original franchise set in, well, an office, the workplace sitcom has long been a staple of the genre. Like its most obvious American ancestors The Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1961-66) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (CBS, 1970-77), NBC’s 30 Rock is a workplace sitcom that takes us behind the scenes at a television program: TGS (The Girlie Show), a quite terrible comedy/variety/sketch show filmed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza (30 Rock), IRL (in real life) the location of NBC, the National Broadcasting Corporation, a once proud, “must-see” (in the days of Seinfeld) network now in sharp decline.
30 Rock is the creation of two major players from one of one of NBC’s flagship shows (now likewise in decline), Saturday Night Live (1976- ): producer Lorne Michaels and star Tina Fey, who plays TGS head writer Liz Lemon.1 Like The Simpsons, the show regularly satirizes its master. In the Pilot, Liz, head writer for TGS, learns she must answer to her boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), “Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming” for General Electric (IRL NBC’s parent coming), and the jabs at NBC (in the show a mere subsidiary of Sheinhardt Wig Company) keep on coming.
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon (photo from chicagotribune.com)
A complex amalgamation of feuding neuroses, liberal politics, ardent feminism, cognitive dissonance, and endearing sweetness, Liz is 30 Rock’s gooey center, but she shares the stage, and the laughs, with Jack, splendidly played by one-time movie star Baldwin, now finding his niche on television, a smug, vain, hyper-capitalist, ultra-conservative with a heart of gold; Jenna, a blond, vacuous, in-love-with-herself (in Season Four she falls for a drag queen Jenna impersonator), ineptly scheming singer/comedienne, at one time The Girlie Show’s star, now displaced by African American raunchy hip hop comedian Tracy Jordan (about whom more later) in its metamorphosis into TGS; NBC page Kenneth (about whom more in a moment); a large ensemble of the show-within-a-show’s writers and actors; and one of the most prestigious guest casts in television history: Arrested Development’s Will Arnett, The Larry Sanders Show’s Rip Torn, Mad Men’s Jon Hamm and John Slattery, Salma Hayek, Julianne Moore, The Sopranos’ Edie Falco, Matt Damon, The Queen’s Michael Sheen, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Vice-President Al Gore, Isabella Rossellini, John McEnroe, Whoppi Goldberg, Conan O’Brien, Steve Martin, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Jerry Seinfeld have all appeared, some in recurring, continuing roles.
Kenneth (Jack McBrayer). Image from tvguide.com
Perhaps 30 Rock’s most brilliant comic creation is Kenneth Parcell. An absurdist variant of the fish-out-of-water character (he is from Stone Mountain, Georgia), Kenneth is given some of 30 Rock’s funniest lines. This exchange with Jack, for example:
Kenneth: Oh no Sir, I don't vote Republican or Democrat. Choosing is a sin, so I always just write in the Lord's name.
Jack: That's Republican. We count those. (“Subway Hero,” 2.12)
Or his clueless insistence that “Science was my most favorite subject, especially the Old Testament” (“Kidney Now!” 3.22). Or his adorable statement of his faith: "There are only two things I love in this world: everybody and television" ("Believe in the Stars," 3.2)—a line I love so much I have made it an epigraph for my blog. Kenneth, however, is so much more than just a clothes horse and fount of wisdom.
In an early episode of Season 1, Jack explains to Liz his understanding of the page’s role: “In five years we'll all either be working for him . . . or be dead by his hand” (“Blind Date,” 1.3). As co-showrunner Robert Carlock confirms in his recent New York Magazine interview, 30 Rock is, in one sense, his show. “[T]he real goal of [30 Rock] is the moral education of Kenneth Parcell, the eventual discovery that he is immortal and the center for a reason we can’t begin to understand” (Carlock).2
On one of the Seinfeld DVDs, Larry David explains that genius sitcom's modus operandi: at all points, when a decision had to be made, they asked themselves how typical TV would do it, and they did it the other way (sort of like opposite George!). I suspect 30 Rock’s “weird idiom” is the product of a similar mindset. Not as meta or intertextual as Community,3 as inventive as How I Met Your Mother, or as cultish as Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock exhibits perhaps the highest “joke density” of any sitcom ever, and none is more fun (if not funnier).4
Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan). Photo from Yahoo.com
One of the signatures of the classic sitcom All in the Family (CBS, 1971-79) was Archie Bunker’s malapropisms—Carroll O’Connor’s WASP bigot insisted, for example, that he did not believe the Pope was “inflammable.” 30 Rock, in turn, excels at the non-sequitur. Virtually all of the major and minor characters, from Kenneth to Jack5 to Dr. Spaceman,6 utter verbal absurdities that provoke double and triple takes.
But it is Tracy Jordan who stands as non-sequiturer-in-chief.7 It is Tracy who insists in a rant that “Affirmative action was designed to keep women and minorities in competition with each other to distract us while white dudes inject AIDS into our chicken nuggets. That's a metaphor” (“Pilot,” 1.1). Who engages in this perplexing exchange with Kenneth:
Tracy: But I want you to know something. You and me, it's not gonna be a one-way street. 'Cause I don't believe in one-way streets. Not between people, and not while I'm driving.
Kenneth: Oh, okay.
Tracy: So, here's some advice I wish I woulda got when I was your age: Live every day like it's Shark Week. (“Jack the Writer,” 1.4)
Who champions his deepest convictions in this oration:
I believe that the moon does not exist. I believe that vampires are the world's greatest golfers but their curse is they never get a chance to prove it. I believe that there are 31 letters in the white alphabet. Wait . . . what was the question? (“The Fighting Irish,” 1.17).
Who vouchsafes that “Friendship and trust in the entourage is the most important thing. Like that HBO show, John Adams” and philosophizes that “Heavy is the head that eats the crayons” (“Jackie Jormp-Jormp, 3.1). Who explains (and remembers) that “Parties are like frisbees. If you throw them the wrong way, they'll veer off in a bad direction, and then your kid will fall into a quarry” (”Khonani,” 4.18). Tracey’s masterpiece, however (can non-sequiters be masterful?), is undoubtedly this declamation from “Emanuelle Goes to Dinosaur Land” (4.21):
I've seen a blind guy bite a police horse! A puppy committed suicide after he saw our bathroom! I once bit into a burrito and there was a child's shoe in it! I've seen a hooker eat a tire! A pack of wild dogs took over and successfully ran a Wendy’s. The sewer people stole my skateboard! The projects I lived in were named after Zachary Taylor—generally considered to be one of the worst Presidents of all time! I once saw a baby give another baby a tattoo . . . they were very drunk.
One of the reasons why 30 Rock’s non-sequiturs induce whiplash in both the audience and in the cast (the episodes are punctuated with reaction shots of characters flummoxed by what they have just heard) is because they hint at each character’s complex pre-history. Not just jokes, Rock-sequiturs deepen our knowledge of Tracy and Liz and Jenna and Kenneth and Jack’s complex, if bizarre, personalities and the merely-hinted-at unfathomable pasts of each.
“Believe in the Stars” and “Brooklyn Without Limits”
Let’s take a brief look at two representative episodes of 30 Rock at its best: “Believe in the Stars” (3.2) and “Brooklyn Without Limits” (5.7)
In “Believe in the Stars” Liz has to go back to Chicago to answer a summons for jury duty, but the pills Jack gives her to make her trip bearable (“No one travels without medication any more. Why shouldn’t you enjoy the same luxuries as a dog?”) cause her to mistake an African American teenage girl, her seatmate, for Oprah Winfrey and to invite her to 30 Rock to give life lessons. Meanwhile, Jack must deal with a potential scandal resulting from the revelation that NBC faked Olympic tetherball (and synchronized running, and octuples tennis, and . . .) for ratings, a development that leads to Kenneth’s disillusionment (he cherishes tetherball silver medalist Tyler Brody’s “Believe in the Stars” message in his autograph book), and Jenna and Tracey do battle in a “social experiment” over whether African Americans or women are more discriminated against. In the tradition of Seinfeld, all these situations converge in the end, and a kind of order is restored.
Along the way, we learn that Liz plans to get out of her jury obligation by again dressing as Princess Leia from Star Wars, that the same in-flight meds that result in Liz’s Oprah hallucination introduced Jack to his Smithersish lacky secretary Jonathan when he mistook the young Indian man for M. Night Shyamalan,
Jonathan and M. Night Shyamalan (photos from zap2it.com and thecinemasource.com respectively)
and that Kenneth, who is bribed to keep quiet about the Olympic hoax by being given free cable television, finds it oddly terrifying:
Kenneth: Mr. Donaghy, is SpongeBob SquarePants supposed to be terrifying?
Jack: You're darn right he is, Kenneth.
Image from Amazon.com
Like “Stars, “Brooklyn without Limits” interweaves several threads. Jack considers throwing his support behind Steven Austin, a political candidate (played by Mad Men’s John Slattery), in the hope of defeating a congresswoman opposed to NBC’s corporate takeover; Liz buys some new, very-flattering-to-her-behind jeans, at Brooklyn without Limits, a new boutique. Self-servingly Jenna helps frenemy Tracy mount a campaign to win a Golden Globe award for his Precious-ish film Hard to Watch. None of this goes well. Austin turns out to be a lunatic whose campaign for an American renaissance—literally “rebirth”—is built around baby talk, and Liz discovers to her dismay that the titular store is owned by Haliburton (the Iraq War co-conspirator once headed by VP Dick Cheney). When she realizes Tracy just might win a Golden Globe without the need of her unethical complicity, Jenna loses all interest. Slattery’s character is a creepy but delicious parody of the Tea Party that played such an influential role in the mid-term US elections in November 2010 and in the current debt limit debacle. “The government shouldn’t interfere in anything,” Austin assures Jack. “What happens inside a man’s own rain poncho at a minor league baseball game is his own business.” The episode features several of Austin’s ads, including one in which he takes his rebirth theme fully loaded into a delivery room. Watch the ads here.
Steven Austen (John Slattery) advocates American rebirth (screen capture from “Brooklyn without Limits”)
“It makes us crazy when it’s not perfect and there’s no way for it to be perfect,” Robert Carlock confesses. It’s true that 30 Rock is anything but flawless. Perhaps more than any of the five sitcoms I am considering here, it feels no need to hide its imperfections. Its makers have made their peace with its wonderful messiness: “But that’s the key to running a show, making it clear what the parameters are and then having really good people work within those parameters and being okay with not having control over this thing that you’re supposed to have total control over” (Carlock). Visitors to 30 Rock love the disarray. Chaos, after all, is fertile soil for laughter.
1 In addition to Michaels, from its inception Saturday Night Live’s mastermind, and Fey, who was already SNL’s brightest star when her parody of Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin made her truly famous, other SNL alums migrated to 30 Rock: Baldwin and Steve Martin (its most prolific hosts), Morgan, Chris Kattan, Will Farrell, Rachel Dratch, Jason Sudekis had all made their names on SNL prior to contributing to the Rock. ↩
2 Carlock has thought long and hard about Kenneth’s narrative function:
The character of Kenneth was, in the early going, maybe the most important character, because he would do almost anything for these people. If Tracy wanted or needed a fighting fish to be picked up in Chinatown or if Jack needed a human mannequin or whatever; he would do it because he loved them so much and loved TV and what they represented so much, and so it allowed us. So instead of just having Liz say, "You’re crazy, I’m not going to do that," which she would have to with her character, we had this goon who was able to justify other people’s bad decisions and understand them. And for writers and maybe for viewers, it’s a way into getting that ‘Oh, Tracy is not a nonhuman because this other person is happily helping realize his goals.’" (Carlock). ↩
3 Rock does have its postmodern moments, of course. In “Señor Macho Solo” (3.7), Jack considers the wisdom of having Jenna play Janis Joplin in a forthcoming film: “Ongoing train wreck aside, I love this idea; it's great synergy. By putting a TV actress into the movie world we can promote both. It's like how we're including a Heroes DVD with every missile system we sell.” And in “The Moms” (4.22), Rock’s Mad Men fans are delighted to learn that Liz Lemon's mother had worked in the 1960s at Sterling Cooper! ↩
5 “Sexual performance issues? That does happen to men,” Jack admits in “Reaganing” (5.5). “I've faced it myself, with Greta Van Susteren, before her head transplant.” The reference is to a FOX News host whose plastic surgery did not turn out so well.
Before and after photos of Greta Van Susteren (from a course blog for BMC 277: Media and Diversity at Baldwin-Wallace College). ↩
6 Consider this exchange (“Retreat to Move Forward,” 3.9) between the idiot MD and Tracy:
Dr. Spaceman: Tracy, I don’t know how to say this . . . de-ay-bah-tees?
Dr. Spaceman: That's it! Well, now we know what we're dealing with. ↩
7 It comes as no surprise that Tracy owns the world's only professional giraffe basketball team, the New York Necks. ↩
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