A bizarre, hilarious and extremely smart comedy with a strong platonic friendship at the center and a cast of eccentric but lovable characters, “30 Rock” is not only the best standalone comedy ever, but it is a show that influenced and inspired an entire generation of television. Forget “SNL” and “Mean Girls” (although actually don’t, they’re great), here are four reasons why “30 Rock” is Fey’s crowning achievement.
1. Fast, Sharp Humor
The one major flaw in American sitcoms is their tendency to assume a low level of engagement in their audience. With a few notable exceptions—“Arrested Development,” “Community” and, of course, “30 Rock” come to mind—sitcoms tend to be funny, but not particularly smart. Most television humor requires only a few active brain cells to be processed, which itself is completely fine, but can lead to a rather passive, almost comatose reaction from the viewer. I, for one, have watched an entire season of “Friends” while lying sick in bed just because the incessant laugh track helped lull me to sleep.
“30 Rock” has a different kind of humor. Jokes and insults alike are tossed out at a mile a minute, often with a straight-faced delivery from the actor, and every time I rewatch an episode of “30 Rock” I discover a joke I previously missed. Take the fast-paced Season 1 episode “Tracy Does Conan,” during which so much hilarity ensues that, the first time around, I missed Tracy’s physician Dr. Spaceman reasoning that “medicine’s not a science” and admitting that he “should not have taken those blue things.” Witty humor continues until the very last episode of the show, which has been praised as one of the best television finales ever made.
2. Running Gags
Anyone who watches “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix will be familiar with Tina Fey’s affinity for running jokes. “30 Rock” loaded on so many that even I—a super-fan who has watched the show at least seven times through—cannot possibly catch them all.
Running jokes like Fey’s character Liz Lemon’s catchphrase “blerg” are transformed into visual gags (as when Lemon’s unopened boxes of Ikea-style furniture are labeled “blërg”), television tropes like voiceover are clearly pointed out (“How’d you say that without moving your mouth?”) and product placement is repeatedly lampooned (as when Tina Fey looks directly into the camera and asks, “Can we have our money now?”). One character’s notoriously unpronounceable film, “The Rural Juror,” even produces a song sung in the show’s finale that ends on the non-word “flerm.” Part of the engaging joy of “30 Rock” is examining each episode for just how many running gags you can catch.
3. Guest Stars
Obviously, guest stars don’t make a show, but stellar cameos and a rotating door of top-notch recurring roles can make one better. “30 Rock” proved this, as the main cast was joined by amazing guest stars such as Will Arnett as an ambitious, gravelly-voiced executive out to get main character Jack Donaghy’s job; Chris Parnell as the incompetent, probably-not-licensed doctor Leo Spaceman (pronounced Spuh-CHEM-in) and the late Elaine Stritch as Jack Donaghy’s demanding, judgmental mother.
In addition to the recurring guest stars, notable public figures like Al Gore, Buzz Aldrin and Oprah drop by just to spout lines like, “My boyfriend’s in ninth grade” (I’ll let you guess who said that one). In addition to all the others, there is the long list of men lucky enough to play one of Liz Lemon’s boyfriends—it’s always a treat to watch a respected dramatic actor like Jon Hamm play a doctor so dumb he can’t perform the Heimlich maneuver and puts orange Gatorade on salmon.
Episodes of “30 Rock” often have the manic, unstoppable energy of a high-speed train derailment, but the good news is that there’s always room for one more passenger.
It may seem strange to posit that the often-surreal and always-ridiculous “30 Rock” is inherently relatable (we don’t all work at a fictional version of “Saturday Night Live” complete with megalomaniacal executives and reef shark-owning movie stars, after all), but in many ways it is. Liz Lemon, the main character, often functions as an everywoman and a surrogate for the audience, the one (mostly) normal person dropped into the ever-crazier circumstances of her workplace.
It’s hard not to empathize as Liz spends season after season running around putting out fires and dealing with the demands of her superiors, stars, crew and writers. Plus, what’s not relatable about a woman who eats night cheese and uses a wedding dress as a ham napkin?
Deeper than the humor of “30 Rock,” though, is how it addresses the problem of “having it all.” The societally constructed dilemma of work versus personal life unquestionably strikes women the hardest, and Liz Lemon is no exception: When the show starts she has her dream job, but still has to figure out how to balance the demands of her work with her desire for a family. It’s a tricky balance, one that is difficult both to obtain and maintain, and “30 Rock” handles it with aplomb. “Having it all” isn’t just a problem for Liz, either, as her boss/friend Jack Donaghy pretends he knows exactly what he is doing in life, only to get everything he ever wanted and feel completely empty.
Jack and Liz’s problems have no easy answers, and one of the many great things about “30 Rock” is that the show doesn’t try to shell out simple solutions. Like all of us, the characters struggle to make their way through life, and, like us, most of the time they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. This honest, if comically exaggerated, look at life is what makes “30 Rock” so relatable.
Tina Fey’s show knows that “having it all” is essentially a meaningless phrase, and trying to live the life you think you should have rather than the one you want never works out. So if you’re in the mood for a smart, funny, ridiculous but heartfelt comedy, consider giving “30 Rock” a try.