30 Rock: too far is just about right

In the last week, with 30 Rock ending, I’ve been trying to come up with a viable theory of what made it special. My starting point was one bit that has echoed in my brain whenever I thought of 30 Rock in the past few years, a short exchange between protagonist Liz Lemon and the inimitable Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin and Alec Baldwin’s glorious hair):

It’s a 30 Rock classic and I came across it in two prominent best-of lists (on salon.com and avclub.com). This isn’t the only kind of joke on 30 Rock, but it feels like the most distinctive kind. If I have to explain it (and, yes, explaining it takes half the fun out of a joke), I’d say the laugh lies in the wild exaggeration of a stereotypical trait, in this case, Jack’s smug pretension.

In a lot of ways, this particular style of humor isn’t so obviously different from other sitcoms that you’d notice. 30 Rock can pass itself off as a regular sitcom, and a lot of its laughs come from the expected places — clueless, hapless, and scruple-less characters.

Reading 30 Rock as a your average comedy, you might think of Jack Donaghy the same way you take Karen (played by Megan Mullally) from Will & Grace: They both get to dish out great put-downs and bowl through life with a sense of natural superiority and entitlement. Jack’s even more cunning and willful than Karen, and we’d only be jealous and hate him for his self-satisfaction if it weren’t for his occasional vulnerability and the qualified goodwill he shows Liz. Okay, and maybe because his quips are so damn good.

But anybody familiar with the show will realize with a little reflection that 30 Rock isn’t really much like Will & Grace or any other sitcom that remains in the realm of the mildly plausible. To match 30 Rock‘s disconnect from reality, your best bet in live-action is probably Arrested Development. A lot of that show’s humor, like 30 Rock‘s, comes from the lead characters’ insane lack of self-consciousness.

Still, I feel like this comparison doesn’t account for all of Tina Fey’s comedic sensibility. As zany as both of the shows are, some of Jack Donaghy’s best lines don’t fit AD as well as they would another infamous representative of the establishment, the Simpsons‘ Mr. Burns.

This is where the “farmer” line comes in. My take on it is that the joke would seem out of place on just about any show besides the Simpsons, 30 Rock, and a handful of other programs, most of them animated. Mr. Burns (with nearly every line) and Jack Donaghy (at his best) come out with comments that are so utterly improbable, so absurd in their characterization of the well-heeled and the corporate, that they can only be thought of as the writers joking about the very stereotypes they’re employing, as if they’re saying, “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if they actually fulfilled the very worst of our fears about them?” If this seems unlikely, think about whether you really think Jack changes into a tux every night at six. Or, more to the point, would he really be so out of touch to think that anyone who doesn’t must be a “farmer”?

Put another way, to complain that the line is unrealistic is to miss the joke completely, since the humor is in the fact that no one would ever actually say that. Whether this is a “veiled criticism” of the stereotypes portrayed (as my girlfriend puts it), or just explosive comedy, I don’t know.

The same principle can be extended to the rest of the leads’ best moments, many of which involve the most unlikely “what if” scenarios applied to their respective types. It’s probably not an accident that 30 Rock‘s big five characters are easier to identify as stereotypes than most of Arrested Development‘s gang. Jenna’s a vapid, thoroughly narcissistic actress, and Kenneth’s a preposterously backward hick. Tracy is harder to pigeonhole — he’s more all-purpose crazy — but sometimes he’s just another self-absorbed celebrity, even though Jenna already nails that role. Liz Lemon, while often sympathetic, also obeys a lot of cliches we have about single 30-something educated women in Manhattan, as well as nerds.

For his part, Jack Donaghy is a great example of the Magnificent Bastard delineated by TVtropes.org, which has an extensive list of Jack’s counterparts on other shows. Almost all of the other live-action shows featuring a Magnificent Bastard are hour-long dramas, and many of them are sci-fi or fantasy series, which just shows how Jack’s ridiculous scheming is so over-the-top that he could seamlessly step into a show with superpowers, starships, or both.

My point here is that the stereotype quotient of 30 Rock is much higher than that of Arrested Development, whose Bluth family is full of screwballs, but fewer that match well-known caricatures. Is Buster a classic geek? Not quite. Is Gob a send-up of magicians? No, not really.

Having packed in the stock figures, 30 Rock can run them through their paces and then let them just go bananas. “Are you pickling squirrel meat? ‘Cause I can lend you my skull presser,” Kenneth says to Liz (season three, episode 14). Another time, Tracy’s wife is mad that he has no follow-through, so he decides to prove to her he responsible. “I’ll do the Christmas shopping this year,” he says, “to prove to you that I can be reliable and that I can finish everything that I…” He simply stops speaking and leaves (season four, episode seven).

Are these jokes about the characters or jokes about their own ridiculousness? I vote the latter.

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