The Friday before Mother’s Day I decided to get myself a present and that present is Netflix. We’ve never had the service before because when it was just dvds, I dreaded losing them and once it changed to a streaming service we only had a Wii to stream through and that thing was on its last legs brand new (we also had horrible internet service at our old house). So after living here a year and having a Smart Tv, I decided to take the plunge and with one month free…even better.
I’m not a tv-nut but I’ve always had “my shows” and one of them was/is 30 Rock. Getting to re-watch the series, I am reminded why I loved and continue to love it.
I don’t know that Tina Fey had the idea for 30 Rock the entire time she was a writer/head writer/cast member of Saturday Night Live, but it is pretty obvious she had something special in mind when she left SNL. Fey’s new show was not about writing for a weekly late-night live “variety” show of sorts, it was about a woman who was the head writer of a show and her struggles in her life and career and with the crazy people she worked with. And it worked.
Fey gained fame on SNL as the first (and thus far only) female head writer. And while people lauded her breaking the glass ceiling and further proving that “women aren’t funny” to be a myth, the show continues to this day to struggle under the scrutiny of the make-up of its performers.
Previous to Fey, writer turned US Senator Al Franken has reminisced that when original cast member Garrett Morris left the show, Franken and fellow writers realized a lot of missed opportunities to utilize the African American actor’s talents.With the notable exception of Eddie Murphy, African Americans cast on the show tended not to be front and center in most sketches. Chris Rock, Tim Meadows, and Ellen Cleghorn had their moments but they were too few and far between and in the interim mutliple actors of color made brief appearances before disappearing altogether. Since Fey’s departure from SNL, not only have the women increased in number and opportunities to perform but African American males led by Jay Pharoah and Kenan Thompson have taken center stage. Alas, the lack of minority women has continued to plague the show’s diversity although in the past few years Sasheer Zamata and Leslie Jones have been cast and made their presence felt (keep this diversity theme in the back of your mind).
Enter Tracy Morgan. Like Morris, Rock, Meadows and Cleghorn before him, Morgan felt more like a background character in other actors’ sketches. I have to believe Tina Fey knew he could be more and if SNL couldn’t show his hilarity, well, she could in her own show. Part of Tracy’s appeal in humor is his natural persona and Fey cast him as a character based on himself, Tracy Jordan.
Fey also made other important connections at SNL like with multiple time host Alec Baldwin who she cast as up-and-coming GE turned Kabletown exec Jack Donaghy. Baldwin was able to play a suave and dapper gentleman type with a ruthless business streak but who had a weakness for underlings not reaching their full potential leading his character to become a mentor to Fey’s Liz Lemon as well as advising Tracy, Jenna (Jane Krakowski), Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), Pete (Scott Adsit) and others.
Fey had personal connections with most of her cast which led to brilliant casting moves like her former Second City-ers Scott Adsit as TGS’s producer Peter Hornberger and Jack McBrayer as NBC Page Kenneth Parcells (both Adsit and McBrayer then went on to have starring voice roles in Disney Animation studio productions: McBrayer as Fix-It Felix in Wreck-It Ralph and Adsit as Baymax in Big Hero 6). For smaller recurring characters like Pete’s wife Paula she cast SNL writer/producer Paula Pell and hilariously as everyone’s doctor Dr Leo Spaceman (pronounced Spa-che-men by everyone except Tracy who calls him Dr Space-Man) former SNL performer Chris Parnell. Her title cast was rounded out with stand-up comedian Judah Friedlander as the writer with the trucker hats with funny things written on them Frank Rossitano and as Jenna Maroney actress Jane Krakowski (the only two leads not friends of Fey’s before the show and whose characters were not written with them in mind).
It’s impossible to create as series that is set in NYC without including famous people nor in the NBC building without running into some NBC personalities. Fey was well aware of this fact and so we saw NBC News‘ Brian Williams, Lester Holt, Ann Curry, Meredith Viera and Andrea Mitchell (among others) make cameos as themselves. Some of the familiar faces were those of Liz’s boyfriends: Floyd (SNL alum Jason Sudeikis), Dennis (former SVU co-star, current Brooklyn 99 recurring character, and All-State’s Mayhem Dean Winters), and Drew (the one and only Jon Hamm). Some of the cast members’ mothers have Broadway pedigrees like Jack’s mother Colleen Donnelly played by the late legendary Elaine Stritch and Frank’s mother Mrs. Rossitano played by Patti LuPone.
Even Fey’s real-life husband and co-creator/producer and show composer Jeff Richmond had a role as TGS musician Alfonso.
But casting was only part of the equation. After all, plot matters! Just the antics of the writers who get into frequent prank wars or Tracy and Jenna’s antics as stars or Liz’s personal disasters or even the sweet, albeit unusual, friendship of Jack and Liz would make for a great show. But Fey didn’t want great, she wanted to hit it out of the park and so she did. Each episode was chockful of all of the above.
Take, for example, the season five episode, Mrs Donaghy, it is revealed that Jack managed to accidentally marry Liz at his destination New Year’s wedding to Avery. When this comes to light, Liz’s response is to say she’s sorry he “got caught up in another of Liz Lemon’s adventures.” This adventure then leads to a stand-off between Jack and Liz over the company’s profitability, her own show’s profitability, their personal relationship as friends/mentor/mentee and comes to a head when Liz appears on television as Elizabeth Lemon-Donaghy and pledges $5 million to a program for the arts in schools. They resolve their issues in a human resources office meeting about personal relationships in the workplace and nepotism (after all, at least on paper they were married!).
The show also wasn’t afraid to take risks. They poked fun at their own network’s policies with episodes about product placement in primetime shows (Snapple and Verizon were targets) and NBC’s “green week” where Liz dares make fun of the green peacock on the screen, among other things. They drew back the curtain of the back-biting and competitiveness of network news when Avery went up against multi-ethnic reporter Carmen Chao (Vanessa Lachey) for an open spot as an economics correspondent for NBC Nightly News (this particular episode also highlighted discrimination against pregnant women for promotions as the chief thing Avery’s competition held over her was Avery’s pregnancy). They even exposed stereotypes for what they were when Jack and Liz traveled to Georgia to find new talent and met Jeff Dunham and Bubba J (called Ron Wayne and Pumpkin for the episode). And remember how SNL struggled with diversity? Fey found a way to deal with that too by having a US Representative (played by Queen Latifah) accuse NBC of lacking diversity and Jack trying to use TGS’s writer “Toofer” (Keith Powell)- a play on “two-for” because he’s African American and attended Harvard (it is later in this episode is is also revealed he is gay) and promoting him to “co-head writer.” And then there were the two episodes shot live in front of a studio audience.
The risk taking took off in the series’ second episode when Liz comforts Jenna by reminding her that “it’s still called The Girlie Show and you are the girl.” This is immediately met by new posters going up calling the show “TGS starring Tracy Jordan” and replacing Jenna’s image with Tracy’s. Fey established early on that women in the workplace in entertainment, particularly comedy, was a risk that didn’t always work or at least not the way some want it to. Double standards became a theme that the show tackled in multiple interesting ways.
To top all that off, in knowing the background of the show, it had multiple setbacks to overcome off screen including a writer’s strike and Tracy Morgan’s health issues (he required a kidney transplant). While writer’s strick simply had to be waited out, there was creative writing that solved the issue of Tracy’s absence (after having him EGOT, he cracked under pressure and went into hiding…he then had to be found). The real-life pregnancies of the two female leads, however, were dealt with in very different ways. While Jane Krakowski’s pregnancy was carefully hidden through the magic of tv (ie having her shot from the chest up mostly) with the exception of the 100th episode when during a gas leak in the NBC building when for a brief moment Jenna is shown pregnant as a “hysterical pregnancy”, Tina Fey’s pregnancy was more complicated. It resulted in a mid-season start for the show as Fey’s character is the main character. Fey and Richmond had not planned on having a second child but the pleas of their oldest for a brother or sister meant they carefully planned out all the details because for them, they had too many people depending on the show’s success. (Jenna did not have a pregnancy because that character would have been a truly terrible mother, Fey revealed in interviews after Krakowski’s pregnancy became known.) The final season of the show only happened after Alec Baldwin volunteered to take a pay cut.
Yes, you could say I’ve fallen in love with the show once again.
It’s reminded me that creative, talented people are complicated and strange stuff can totally happen but it’s nice to have ridiculous stuff to take our brains on vacation as well. And this show is a great reminder that what shouldn’t work on paper, with all the right elements can shine.
I laughed at the same scenes years later and the same moments that touched me at the first viewing were still poignant. Although it’s only been a few years, 30 Rock is showing signs of being a show that will stand the test of time and, thanks to services like Netflix, will be discovered by a whole new generation of viewers.