Top 10 Comedies: #6 30 Rock

Previously, on Outkick the Coverage…

After a few weeks to digest NewsRadio for the newbies and then a chunk of time to take a look at the best of last year on television, we’re all set now that college pigskin is behind us for a few months (it’ll be okay, I promise) to jump back into our ten best comedies of the past twenty years. We’re weekly again starting right now, enough slacking. This list became even tougher after the decisions were made, because something else then pops into my head and I realized there’s just not a spot for it. Those be the breaks. Luckily, I don’t classify Louie as a pure comedy – it’s tremendous, but to pigeonhole it into a single genre undercuts the depth and achievement of that product. Louie is awesome, absolutely terrific. It isn’t on this list. That was the first one that jumped out to me that I had to cut, and I had a good reason. It’s downright depressing quite a bit of the time. To today’s entry…

Back in 2006, I remember the moment I read the news that Aaron Sorkin was putting together his first television effort since The West Wing. This would be a drastically different show, taking a dramatic approach to his Sports Night formula and depicting the life of the writers, producers, executives, and talent involved in a late night weekly variety show. It would be Sports Night, but with a focus on a Saturday Night Live rather than a SportsCenter, and with heavier subject matter and far less guffaws. I was extremely excited and immediately began to anticipate what could be, as Sports Night was and is one of my all-timers. The show would be called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

Around the same point in time, an SNL writer and cast member increasingly began talking about her own show. That woman was Tina Fey. Full disclosure, I had a massive thing for Tina since one of her earliest skits on Saturday Night Live, back when I was just entering college in 1998. True story, I actually dated a girl who jumped on my radar simply because she looked a little like Tina Fey and had those glasses. By the way, if you own those specs and even after seven or eight Manhattans, you think I could mistake you for Tina Fey, please inquire via Twitter. I’m not over it yet. But in the words of the late Leslie Nielsen, that’s not important right now.

What’s most notable about Tina Fey is that when I heard about her thoughts on Studio 60 in relation to her new project for NBC, I wasn’t thrilled, because I found them extremely arrogant. What’s maybe more relevant though is that looking back doing some of the preparatory work to write this article, I couldn’t find the comments I remembered. I received them secondhand, from a friend I trusted, who came at me with “Did you see what Tina said about Studio 60?” I hadn’t, but I took his word for it. I’m going to tell you the rest of this story as if the statements are true, simply because what she most likely didn’t say publicly – was right. If my friend made it up, that cat’s a genius.

You see, Fey’s show was also about the machinations of a variety and sketch comedy program, this one called The Girlie Show, and it, unlike Sorkin’s offering, would be a comedy, a thirty minute show to join the NBC Thursday night lineup. Her comments, which I now believe to likely be fictitious and dreamed up by a friend, basically centered around the fact that in the end, with two shows tackling a similar premise, it would be hers that would survive and Sorkin’s that wouldn’t make it. It just rubbed me the wrong way. So, as a result, I didn’t tune in to her show when it started, purely out of spite. I felt my girlfriend (Tina) had gotten too full of herself and needed to be taken down a notch, because I’m not just a viewer, I’m a teacher. Taking a look back on it, regardless of whether Tina Fey ever said anything even potentially close to what I was told as a college kid, it may well be the most ridiculous decision and even more absurd overreaction I’ve ever had to something pretty darn innocuous in retrospect.

But, let’s talk about the show, because thank all that’s holy, I did give in and start watching. Furthermore, regardless of who actually said it, Tina Fey (or more likely my friend) wasn’t just right, she (or he) was prophetically and unequivocally accurate.

NUMBER SIX: 30 ROCK (2006-2013 – NBC)

What I conveniently overlooked about Tina Fey’s confidence in a little show called 30 Rock, before its debut, was that as brilliant as Sorkin could be, Tina Fey wasn’t out of her league, and then there was this: she had just finished up a crazy-great run as head writer for SNL and her tenure cemented her as one of the most important personalities in the show’s entire history. It’s hard to think of many people who entered and left that institution with more universal respect and lasting acclaim than this Pennsylvania native who honed her chops in Chicago with The Second City, one of the true bastions of improvisational comedy that has spawned or fostered a ton of talented people in both the United States and Canada. In fact, the history of TSC is so unbelievably deep, we simply just don’t have the time to list all the players, but just a few: Robert Klein, Dave Foley, Amy Poehler, Jon Favreau, Aidy Bryant, Dan Aykroyd, and Stephen Colbert.    

If you go back and read articles from 2006 about NBC’s conundrum with a drama and a comedy both on the same subject (unfortunately for antsy television executives, neither were about a police precinct, crime, the legal profession, or the day-to-day lives of hospital employees), one conclusion emerges: Aaron Sorkin was the Vegas choice. I’ll bet even our own expert, Todd Fuhrman, right here at Outkick, would have said, without taking a breath or slowing down for half a second, that Studio 60 was a one to five betting favorite. Everybody thought Sorkin had the inside track. Following the first week of both, the early thoughts seemed accurate. 30 Rock floundered in its pilot, though I still enjoyed it, and Studio 60 channeled Sidney Lumet (Network) as an on-air meltdown took place on the fictional airwaves of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’s…Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The Sorkin pilot was strong. The Fey pilot was mediocre. But within a few weeks and certainly within a few months, no one remembered either, and both had progressed in the opposite direction of their initial impressions.

Tina Fey would famously take a shot at Studio 60, answering a question about her outfit at the 2007 Writers Guild Awards, a quote that’s still mentioned to this day, but it hits to the heart of why her show worked and his ultimately and rapidly failed:

I hear Aaron Sorkin is in Los Angeles wearing the same dress – only longer and not funny.

When you move past the “Damn, you go girl” reaction, don’t lie, I know you had it, there’s a simple truth within those 17 words. Fey had said in 2006 that she respected Sorkin for trying something so difficult. It wasn’t just a show, no this time Mr. West Wing had decided to turn a show about a comedy show into a heavy drama. While it was somewhat rare, whenever Studio 60 would actually focus on it’s fictional program’s content, it was never funny. It was bad. I mean Hee-Haw bad (no offense to any Haw-ers out there), but presented as something like Saturday Night Live. So it missed the tone that Sports Night nailed. The fiction has to match up in all facets, and while some of Sorkin’s own writing still had the magic, these people weren’t funny, and honestly, they were mean, miserable, petty individuals. As Studio 60 decided to teach America why liberals are always right, from Christianity to abortion to war, and even took aim at Aaron’s insecurities and his critics, 30 Rock, a television program that never rated well, just stayed the course and quickly became one of the funniest and most well put together entities in the grand timeline of NBC history.

30 Rock was awesome almost from the jump. Fey created it, she starred in it, and in similar fashion to Jerry Seinfeld, who holds a writing credit in each of Seinfeld’s 180 episodes, Tina has a credit in all 139 episodes of her show. Incidentally, Studio 60 was canceled after 22 episodes and remains the only Aaron Sorkin program to be axed after just one season.

Despite ratings challenges that continually resulted in story after story about its impending doom, critics and the audience that did tune in — well, they loved 30 Rock. It was also highly decorated: 22 Primetime Emmy nominations in 2009, the most ever for a comedy series in one year. Overall, 112 nominations and 16 wins over the program’s seven seasons. The finely tuned, diverse cast created an eclectic ensemble that enabled Tina to go in a variety of directions, including two live episodes, something that’s the equivalent in television of seeing a unicorn outside your bedroom window on a random Thursday in August.

Tina’s Liz Lemon, head writer of The Girlie Show (TGS) with Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), is a character with staying power, as is much of the 30 Rock cast. Lemon struggled to find romance, but it wasn’t a beat-you-over-the-head kind of please let her find somebody deal, it was just part of her behind the scenes life. While Liz had to deal with her diva star Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski, replacing Rachel Dratch) and the over-the-top nuts Tracy Jordan, her most important screen relationship was clearly with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), a strange, but since he’s wealthy we’ll call him eccentric, super-controlling network executive at NBC. He knew what was right for TGS and inserted himself into that show’s decisions at every turn. It would be more appropriate to say in his own mind, he knew what was right for TGS. It was a parody after all, but not just of variety television from one of its own, but, as the Peabody Board put it when honoring Fey’s program, it was a “sly, gleeful satire of corporate media, especially the network that airs it” and it was a game-changer. Liz and Jack’s chemistry in their world was special, from day one to day last, and both Tina and Alec walked away with plenty of award hardware as a result.

Well if you insist on going all Murphy Brown on me, let me give you a tip. Don’t smother your child with affection to compensate for not having a man in your life. Don’t say you’re the only man I’ll ever love, even babies know that’s creepy. (Jack Donaghy — S1E9)

Taking the Liz-Jack pairing out of it, what’s 30 Rock left with in terms of cast and compelling character development? In short – plenty. Morgan and Krakowski’s characters were gloriously insane and self-involved, Jack McBrayer’s played Kenneth Parcell, a soft-spoken Southern boy now working at NBC as a page. The role put him on the map and he received an Emmy nomination in 2009. Fellow Second City alum Scott Adsit’s Pete Hornberger was Liz Lemon’s confidante and lead producer of The Girlie Show. Judah Friedlander, the one and only “World Champion,” was one of the fictional writers of the program, Frank Rossitano. His obsessions with juvenile expressions of sex as well as himself as a stellar human being were utterly hilarious. Katrina Bowden’s sultry assistant character, Cerie, helped round things out and left the usual male gawking in plain view around the pseudo-halls of NBC. That isn’t everybody, not even close, but it gets the point across. When you watch, if you haven’t, everything will come into focus from a people perspective.

Then come the stories themselves, the weekly episodes with or without the frequent guest stars, a cast can only do so much, as Studio 60’s failure clearly illustrates. Luckily, 30 Rock’s writing was better than The Girlie Show. But, in stark contrast to Studio 60, the audience was supposed to be in on the joke about TGS. We were all supposed to note how stupid the show itself was and how bad it usually would have been had it actually been on the air. Again, parody on a parody…on a parody. There was Season 1’s arc featuring Jenna Maloney and her new film, “The Rural Juror.” How about Jack in a competition with Devon Banks (Will Arnett) over corporate (G.E.) chairmanship? Season 4 did center more on personal relationships as Jack attempted to choose between a pair of women and Ms. Lemon went through a barrage of dudes trying to find somebody that fit her. Then of course, there’s Kabletown. I leave it all vague so you can enjoy unwrapping the gifts yourself.

I don’t need anyone. Because I can do every single thing that a person in a relationship can. Everything. Even zip up my own dress. You know, there are some things that are actually harder to do with two people. Such as monologues. (Liz Lemon — S4E13)

In October of 2010, 30 Rock went live with both an east and west coast airing, which did differ a bit in performance as a result. To say that idea was both risky and ballsy would be a gross understatement. It was also smart, because again, Fey knew she had the cast to do it. She knew live television. Adsit was an improv veteran. McBrayer also worked with Second City. Everybody else was quick on his or her feet, so even if every second didn’t work like it would have if it were canned ahead of time, it was a statement that 30 Rock believed in 30 Rock.

And that’s really the underlying reality and the legacy of 30 Rock, the show that never rated higher than 69 in a season and never reached a 9 for any one episode. The show the critics loved, the small but passionate audience adored, and the one that some credit for the rise in female-specific creativity. Would there have been a Mindy Project, a Girls, or even a Broad City without 30 Rock? Would Amy Poehler have been cast as the lead in Parks and Recreation or would that choice have been network-approved without the critical acclaim of Fey’s work? The answers aren’t known and never will be, perhaps the answer to all of those questions is yes, but it’s undeniable that Tina Fey was a trailblazer for funny and talented women. She adapted the show when necessary but she also knew her vision was the right one more often than not.

Because the ratings weren’t ever in the Theory or Modern stratosphere, it’s quite possible you’ve never seen 30 Rock or haven’t seen much of it. The good news is, even though you’ve wasted plenty of time, it’s still available for you.

And my (insert preferred deity of your choice), is it ever funny. Damn funny. Consistently funny. Overpoweringly funny. Painfully funny.

Tracy took advantage of my white guilt, which is supposed to be used only for good, like overtipping and supporting Barack Obama. (Liz Lemon – S1E5)

I love this cornbread so much, I wanna take it behind a middle school, and get it pregnant. (Tracy Jordan — S1E15)

The Kid’s Choice Awards? Fine, I’ll set aside my feud with Raven-Symoné for one day, but she knows what she did. (Jenna Maroney — S3E18)

That would be a mistake, Lemon. Yes, you are the sexual equivalent of a million Hindenburgs, but you deserve someone like Carol in your life, and he deserves you because — and I’m only going to say this once a decade — you’re great. You’re Liz Lemon, dammit. In certain lights you’re an “eight,” using East Coast Over Thirty-Five standards, excluding Miami. (Jack Donaghy — S5E5)

And in a list about comedy, to say there were five exceptional seasons, two still very good ones, and a stellar finale. To say it was never lacking in clever-factor and the jokes assaulted the audience like an undefeated cage fighter, what more really needs to be said (after these 2600ish words) other than…

LEMON OUT!

All seven seasons of the award winning 30 Rock are available on NETFLIX and on DVD individually and as a series collector’s set. So what the hell are you waiting for? Get to it.

Follow a brother on Twitter @GuyNamedJason and unleash the hate or embrace me with your words of wisdom and encouragement. It’s a date. I’ll even open the door for you.

 

Written by Jason Martin