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When NBC premiered 30 Rock in 2006, the results were, charitably, underwhelming. The pilot was pretty bad. The redone pilot that made the air was worse. The show was both forced and unsure of itself. And the next couple of episodes didn’t make much improvement.
That’s when I stopped watching. It’s also when I learned a valuable lesson regarding sitcoms. Not all of them come out fully baked. They need time to find their footing. But in the competitive landscape of television, who has time for you to get it right? Well, NBC did. Because NBC had almost nothing else.
Right when the fifth episode aired, my neighbor Ben, fellow television lover and fellow fan of Tina Fey, said it had become much better. I told him it was too late. But I did tape the sixth episode, which Ben noted also was good, then watched the sixth and seventh episodes together.
It was an entirely different show. No doubt the two pilots left a sour taste, and slow starts are often painful to endure, but I’m obviously glad I circled back and watched a not-very-good comedy turn into a brilliant one seemingly by magic. 30 Rock quickly became my favorite comedy and has been that for most of its run. It leaves Thursday night as unquestionably one of television’s greatest comedies of all time, and I’m gutted that it’s going off the air.
After that rocky start, I didn’t have nearly the same issues that others did in the “later years” of the series. There were very few episodes I didn’t like (some in Season 5, like “Queen of Jordan” I could do without). But when loads of others were saying 30 Rock had no heart, that it was just about the number of crazy jokes it could fire off, I said, “And the problem with that is what?” Comedies are meant to be funny. And I knew 30 Rock had heart where it was needed — between Liz (Fey) and Jack (Alec Baldwin). Every other character suffered if there was too much hugging, as we say. The more fearless or more ridiculous the humor, the better the show was. So I never got the knock on the show that being massively funny without likable or relatable or “real” characters was a bad thing. I wanted to laugh. And 30 Rock was one of those elite few sitcoms that could guarantee for me at least one uproarious belly laugh.
The reason 30 Rock could do that was it covered so many comedic styles. It was always funny verbally; the jokes on the page have filled so many columns in this farewell week to the series. Fey and her writers knew how to structure punch lines in seemingly endless forms — the straight put-downs Jack doled out; the long-windedly wrong Liz answers to anyone; the non sequiturs, malaprops and logic-free responses of Tracy (Tracy Morgan), etc. From Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) to Dennis Duffy (Dean Winters) to Devon Banks (Will Arnett) and Dr. Leo Spaceman (Chris Parnell), the lines were on the page. As they were for countless ridiculously constructed characters who floated in and out of the 30 Rock world.
But the show also was brilliant at sight gags (Liz crying out of her mouth after eye surgery was my all-time favorite; Kim Jong-il as played by Margaret Cho, etc.), physical humor (pretty much anything Tracy did, up to guest-star Jon Hamm‘s inability to play tennis or ride a motorcycle, etc.) and its hilariously childish fondness for dumb names and fake titles (“Fresh-Ass: Based on the Novel: ‘Tush’ by Ass-Fire”).
Few shows have used cameos as effectively and with such willingness on the part of those stars to be fearless and reckless in their roles than 30 Rock. Hamm, Matt Damon, Elaine Stritch, Chloe Grace Moretz, Matthew Broderick, Paul Reubens — it’s a super-long list and so many fond, funny moments.
This was a series that, like Arrested Development before it, worked the entire comedy spectrum and did it with audacity. The episode where Jack acted out Tracy’s parents was sheer brilliance. There was never a letup in skewering NBC and later Comcast (Kabletown), in race, religion or any kind of political correctness. With a fearless willingness to do anything to be funny — which takes intelligence and diligence — 30 Rock created a legacy that’s in rare air.
And the final episode airs Thursday night. Instead of numbering all the best episodes or one-liners — impossible tasks, each — the best advice in how to appreciate this gem is to watch it, forever, in reruns.
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