On my visits to 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the GE Building, I half expected to see Kenneth the page step out of one of the elevators, eager to reveal the showbiz secrets of this classic home to NBC. The TV network may have hit hard times lately, but still benefits from a PR machine that consists of the GE Building, with its tour of the NBC Studios and the souvenir shop, as well as the TV show 30 Rock. Never a ratings juggernaut, this is an example of a brilliant show that was kept alive thanks to a dedicated fan base, critics and a network that knew this was something to brag about.
Tina Fey originally came to Saturday Night Live from Second City, the Chicago-based improv group. On SNL she got a job as a writer. There she rose in the ranks and became not only a head writer but a performer as well. Her script for the film Mean Girls (2004) showed a lot of potential. When she got the chance to create her own TV show, the results were inspired by her years at Saturday Night Live. 30 Rock took place in the GE Building, had a single-camera format and portrayed the intrigues and general craziness behind a live sketch show on NBC called TGS.
Fey would also appear in front of the camera, playing Liz Lemon, the show’s head writer, a nerdy single woman who struggled with the antics of the show’s bat-crazy star, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the aging and utterly self-absorbed performer Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), as well as a neurotic writing staff. Liz also had her duels with Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the NBC executive who constantly meddled in the affairs of TGS. And then there was Kenneth the page (Jack McBrayer), a cheerful Southern evangelical who almost took on supernatural qualities over the years; was he in fact Satan…?
A strange yet appealing friendship
The cast was instrumental in the success of 30 Rock. Fey may be a married mother of two, but was incredibly believable and likable as the awkward Liz whose few boyfriends over the years were more or less disasters. A strange yet appealing friendship developed between her and Jack even though they were vastly different; having the outspokenly liberal Baldwin turn the money-grubbing Republican caricature that is Jack Donaghy into such a lovable guy was part of the show’s genius. It may have taken until the series finale for Liz and Jack to express a platonic love for each other, but there was ample evidence of it earlier. There was real emotion sometimes in those characters; Morgan and Krakowski’s on the other hand were simply nuts, but that worked very well as they reflected hangups, mannerisms and habits that I bet more than a handful of actors could recognize bits and pieces of.
The show’s cult status also made it easier for movie stars, politicians, media personalities and others to accept guest parts; Brian Williams of NBC’s Nightly News made appearances as himself, Matt Damon played one of Liz’s boyfriends and the final episode featured guest stars as diverse as Nancy Pelosi, Ice-T and Conan O’Brien (doing Fey a favor even though he had departed NBC in a rage). Elaine Stritch was wonderful as Jack’s harridan of a mother in multiple episodes.
30 Rock was not always on top of its game but funny and creative; its two live episodes (in 2010 and 2012) emphasized how talented everyone involved was. They also honored television history in hilarious ways, which was obvious in the series finale as well that featured an homage to St. Elsewhere. Oh, Liz/Tina, you’ve earned my everlasting love.
30 Rock 2006-2013:U.S. Made for TV. 137 episodes. Color. Created by Tina Fey. Theme: Jeff Richmond. Cast: Tina Fey (Liz Lemon), Alec Baldwin (Jack Donaghy), Tracy Morgan (Tracy Jordan), Jane Krakowski, Jack McBrayer, Scott Adsit, Judah Friedlander.
Emmys: Outstanding Comedy Series 06-07, 07-08, 08-09; Writing 07-08, 08-09, 12-13; Actor (Baldwin) 07-08, 08-09; Actress (Fey) 07-08; Guest Actress (Elaine Stritch) 06-07; Guest Actor (Tim Conway) 07-08. Golden Globes: Best Comedy Series 08; Actor (Baldwin) 07, 08, 10; Actress (Fey) 08.
Quote: “It’s after 6 o’clock, Lemon. What am I, a farmer?” (Baldwin, to Fey, on why he’s wearing a tuxedo)
Last word: “Sometimes [the show’s made-up words] come out of skits, skits that we’re shooting in our writers room, so that’s where ‘lizzing’ and ‘high-fiving a million angels’ came from. Some of them came from my daughter [Alice] when she was smaller and didn’t speak as well. [Laughs.] ‘I want to go to there.’ I remember our head of post, when we were trying to cut that episode down to time, said, ‘We could cut that’, and I was like, ‘I think we should leave it’, and I’m so glad we did, because you never know what’s going to stick in people’s brains.” (Fey, Vulture)