Bright Lights Film Journal

Tina Fey’s <em>30 Rock:</em> At Last! A Cult TV Sitcom for the Tragically Self-Involved

You’ll come for the irony, you’ll stay for the tits

It’s true. A man could get lost in those A-cups,1 for five or ten minutes, at least. Fortunately, 30 Rock is also funny, despite achieving near-total self-referentiality, so that, on those unfortunate occasions when Tina’s boobs are off-camera, there will still be something to hold your attention.

30 Rock is former Saturday Night Live head writer/performer Tina Fey’s love letter to herself, a sitcom about Liz2 Lemmon, the sweet, naïve head writer of “The Girlie Show with Tracy Jordan,”3 a show that, surprisingly enough, is a lot like SNL, sort of.4 Tina’s nemesis/boss/bad boy/daddy figure/ongoing obsession is would-be Master of the Universe network honcho Jack Donaghy (played by SNL perennial guest host Alec Baldwin), a Scotch-swilling Irish egomaniac based on SNL and 30 Rock producer Lorne Michaels.5 As if that weren’t enough (and it is), former SNL star Tracy Morgan/Jordan is also featured, playing himself, sort of — a wacky, lovable, self-involved black superstar with a heart of gold.

From the beginning of time, writers have loved to portray themselves as poorly dressed, socially awkward losers, stumbling pathetically sideways or even down the stairway of life while all the cool people float effortlessly past them on the way to the top.6 And although the “real” Liz Lemmon is married with two kids, lives in a to-die-for co-op on the Upper West Side,7 and has surely been pulling down serious, Manhattan-sized bucks since her late twenties, TV Liz is a never-married, sweater and jeans wearing, piece o’ shit apartment renting, career-obsessed, junkfood-obsessed loser who would run five blocks through Midtown traffic to chase down a free dinner coupon from the Outback Steakhouse.8

There’s a definite Sex and the City vibe to 30 Rock. Manhattan is still the center of the universe, of course, but Liz is sort of the anti-Carrie, the harried, idealistic, sensible-shoes gal with hunched shoulders and zero panache, who thinks that Manolo Blahniks are fascist and would rather die than wear them.9 Jack is Liz’s Big — arrogant, privileged, and dangerous. “He treats me like shit and doesn’t even feel guilty about it! That is so cool!”

Like Sex and the City, 30 Rock is remarkably, even disturbingly Jew-free,10 reminiscent of the queer-free San Francisco featured in Tony Shaloub’s Monk. Of course, it’s always possible that either Liz or Girlie Show star Jenna Maroney11 (Jane Krakowski) will pull a Charlotte and convert to marry a sweet Jewish lawyer, but I’m not sure that that’s going to happen.

It can’t be said that 30 Rock breaks new comedic ground. Performers like Jenna and Tracy are vain, shallow, and pathetically desperate for attention. Black folks on the show are uniformly fat, jolly, and dumb (but funny and good of heart!), with the exception of token Harvard spade “Toofer” (Keith Powell), who is, naturally, buttoned down and boring. Hillbillies — basically, anyone born west of the Hudson River — are inbred and ignorant, alternating between Bible-drenched prudery and purdy little mouth perversions at the drop of plot point. Gays are always hilarious, and come in three flavors: gays who know they’re gay (funny!); gays who are trying to pretend they aren’t gay (very funny!); and gays who don’t know they’re gay (funniest!). Lesbians aren’t nearly as funny, for some reason, but to make up for it, sort of, it’s totally hilarious when a not-lesbo chick is presumed to be lesbo, which happens to Liz about five times an episode. Funny!

At the end of its third season (I watch it on disc), 30 Rock has been sliding pretty shamelessly toward sentimentality, featuring a tearful reconciliation between Jack and his ball-busting Irish mom Elaine Stritch, not to mention the revelation that Tracy has never cheated on his chunky butter-ball wife Angie (Sherri Shepherd) in twenty years of marriage. But, I’m sorry, 30 Rock makes me laugh. Maybe I’m just in the tank for Tina, and Alec, but for me this is Mary Tyler Moore meets the Simpsons, The Vagina Monologues without all the pussy, the Caroline in the City12 for the new millennium.


Because 30 Rock is largely writers making writers’ jokes about writers and the shallow people who sign their checks, it was an immediate hit with the critics but languished in the “cult favorite” category until John McCain came up with the bright idea of choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate. Tina Fey’s spot-on impersonations of Sarah made Tina a “real” celebrity and gave the show a boost. So I laugh at 30 Rock, but really I wish that, you know.

The backstory to 30 Rock is the sort of thing that gets left out of 30 Rock. According to online gossip, the show was originally intended to star Tina and real-life gal pal and SNL alumna Rachel Dratch, but the suits wanted more boob power and went with Krakowski. The same thing happened in Tina’s first film, Mean Girls, which I didn’t really care for.13

If you buy or rent 30 Rock, make sure you don’t get The Thirty Foot Bride of Candy Rock (right), Lou Costello’s last film, made after he split with Bud. The Thirty Foot Bride of Candy Rock really is about a thirty-foot woman, but that’s about all you can say for it.14

  1. Yeah, yeah, they’re probably B-cups, but A-cups are funnier. Way funnier. []
  2. Tina Fey’s real name is Elizabeth, which she changed, apparently, to give herself more edge. In an old SNL “Weekend Update” spot, Tina ridiculed her mother for giving her a “whore’s” name, which means that Tina/Liz really gave herself a whore’s name so she could become famous and then blamed her mother for it, on network television. Classy, “Liz,” classy! []
  3. Originally, the show was named “The Girlie Show,” but when Big Jack came in he added Tracy as “co-star,” seriously pissing off both Liz and the show’s original star, Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski). There was probably a bit showing Liz and Jeena shitting bricks over the show’s new logo, with Tracy’s name all but overwhelming the original title, because we often see this logo in passing, but it’s never presented as a gag. []
  4. We see little of the content of the show, which is uniformly ridiculed and apparently consists of Tracy’s fart jokes and American Idol-style power ballads by Jenna. []
  5. Like 90 percent of the funny people in the U.S., Michaels is a Canadian Jew. Michaels loves to reminisce about the early days at SNL, about how the show first started to come together when “Candy” Bergen was hosting. Calling Candace Bergen “Candy,” suggests, to me at least, that he used to be screwing her. Well, if I had tapped Candy back in the ’70s, I’d still be talking about it too. []
  6. Many years ago, New Yorker writer Wolcott Gibbs warned would-be contributors that writers should not “be permitted to boast about having their phones cut off, or not being able to pay their bills, or getting their meals at the delicatessen, or any of the things which strike many writers as quaint and lovable.” []
  7. There’s one episode in which Liz tries to buy a place that probably makes Tina’s real place look shabby (“I can afford it,” she says), but when she’s rejected she goes back to her styleless, viewless hovel (her styleless, viewless hovel on Riverside Drive). []
  8. Despite her constant gluttony, Liz never gains a pound. Only in New York, n’est-ce pas? []
  9. And who would probably die if she did wear them, taking a swan dive on the first step and breaking her neck. []
  10. However, Tim Conway, one of an endless number of “golden era” celebrities (whenever that was) who appear on the show, says that in his day the writers’ offices were known as “the Jew room.” []
  11. According to online gossip, Jenna’s name is a riff on former West Wing chick Janel Moloney, an in-joke that’s way over my head. Because Tina wanted to jump Janel’s bones? Dunno, but it’s a theory. []
  12. OK, I get to make in-jokes too, you know. Caroline in the City was a proto Sex and the City except with no sex and no laughs and no anything else, one of NBC’s “hammock” sit-coms that hung between killer Thursday night shows like Cosby, Cheers, Seinfeld, and Friends. I found it even less watchable than Wings, which takes a hit in the last episode of the third season of 30 Rock. []
  13. Because it featured too much of Lindsay Lohan’s bust or not enough? I’ll pass on that one, if you don’t mind. []
  14. Dorothy Provine is the thirty-foot bride, which for at least one online reviewer was a definite deal-maker. []