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Robert Carlock remembers the precise moment he knew he could make people laugh.
He was 8 and sitting in a Sunday school class at a Unitarian church in his hometown of Weston, Mass., just outside Boston. The teacher had given a heady assignment: Draw a picture of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus.
Glancing at Carlock's paper, the teacher laughed. There was Saul, blinded by the godly light, and over his head the caption: "What the...?"
"I'm not even sure I knew what the rest of that sentence should have been," Carlock says by phone from his home on the Upper West Side, just minutes after sending his two young children and wife on a trip to DisneyWorld, where he'll meet them later in the weekend. "I do remember enjoying that laugh."
In four seasons as co-executive producer of "30 Rock," Carlock has netted three Emmys, three Golden Globes and a Writers Guild award. More impressive, the noted "perfectionist" (according to "30 Rock" actor Jack McBrayer) and former editor of the Harvard Lampoon has pulled off one of the few workplace comedies worth watching since "Cheers," and given NBC a lifesaving shot at Must DVR TV.
It's been a grind. Carlock--slim, nebbish and friendly--oversees two writers' rooms, with each working on separate episodes simultaneously to meet the show's single-camera and locations challenges.
He's also written 14 of the show's 97 episodes. And, with fellow writer/exec producer Fey, he's made Alec Baldwin TV's most absurdly funny leading man--though not without some anxiety. "The challenge of writing for Alec was that if it wasn't funny, it wasn't a question of performance," he says. "He can do anything."
Carlock's boss says the same of him. "He is the funniest thing to come out of Harvard since the Henry Louis Gates incident," quips Fey, who's close enough to Carlock that she arranged her own family vacation to DisneyWorld to coincide with his.
But Carlock has some misses on his resume, too. After earning a history and literature degree from Harvard in 1995, he landed on the writing staff of "The Dana Carvey Show," where he wrote sketches with Steve Carell, Louis CK and Charlie Kaufman. The show crashed and burned after seven episodes.
"It was an amazing experience, in large part because it failed," Carlock says. "But I was a callow idiot. I was terrified to be there."
The "Carvey" connections landed Carlock at "Saturday Night Live" in 1996 as the show was again peaking in popularity. And the flop gave him the thick skin needed to survive the "SNL" writers' gauntlet. "Phil Hartman hosted my fifth or sixth show," he remembers. "I got two sketches chosen: a mad scientist trying to get a killer robot into the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and one with Chris Kattan in a cage as a parrot. I thought, 'I can do this!' And then neither made it on the air."
Within a year, Carlock was producing Weekend Update. By 2000, he and then-headwriter Fey (who had assumed anchor duties with Jimmy Fallon) quickly realized their "shortcut language."
Although he left "SNL" in 2001 to write for "Friends" in L.A., he returned to New York after Fey pitched the idea for "30 Rock." His initial reaction? " 'Studio 60' will beat the pants out of us!" he thought of the NBC dramedy, which, like "30 Rock," centered on the writers of a sketch comedy show. "We'll be back (in L.A.) in a year."
Four years later, Carlock has settled back into New York. On days off, he can be found inside the Arms and Armors section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his 5-year-old son, who is a few years away from tapping into his genetic predisposition toward irony.
Although it appears the younger Carlock is already warming up to his ingrained individuality. "We talk about which knight we'd like to be," Carlock says. "But I'm never allowed to be the same knight as he is."