On Sept. 18, 2006, NBC debuted a highly anticipated series from one of TV’s hottest writers, taking viewers behind the scenes of a variety show with more than a passing resemblance to “Saturday Night Live.”
It was Aaron Sorkin’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” — and it faded after just 22 episodes.
Three weeks later, the network introduced a similarly themed show that faced even longer odds. Tina Fey had a successful run as “Saturday Night Live’s” head writer and had managed to make Lindsay Lohan look like a major comedy star in 2004’s “Mean Girls,” but when it came to cranking out a weekly sitcom, she was an untested entity.
“30 Rock” would go on to collect 103 Emmy nominations and three wins for best comedy series. It will conclude with a one-hour finale Thursday after seven seasons.
You’re forgiven if you didn’t know the show was closing up shop. NBC has been too busy heralding the wonders of “The Biggest Loser” to give the series a proper sendoff. Maybe it’s because viewership has been slipping since the 2008-09 season, and even then it only finished 69th in the Nielsen ratings.
That’s too bad. “30 Rock” deserves better, as does Fey, the ringmaster both on camera and behind the scenes. Lucille Ball, Mary Tyler Moore and Roseanne Barr may have blazed the trail, but Fey made it to the mountaintop, where she can rightly claim to be the most important woman in TV comedy history.
Someday, TV Land will erect a statue in Rockefeller Plaza of her character Liz Lemon wolfing down a street vendor’s hot dog. Until that much-deserved tribute, let’s break down the Fey Formula:
• Get by with a lot of help from your friends. Thanks to a nine-year stint at “SNL” and her non-diva personality, Fey has one of the richest Rolodexes in show business. She used it to recruit Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Jerry Seinfeld and just about anyone else who ever appeared in an issue of People magazine.
But her real genius was putting together a near-perfect cast. Alec Baldwin as driven executive Jack Donaghy was hypnotizing from the minute we met him, kicking down an office door and neutralizing Lemon. “I like you,” he said in a line reminiscent of Lou “I hate spunk” Grant’s introduction. “You have the boldness of a much younger woman.”
Recruiting Tracy Morgan may have seemed like suicide. The wild-card actor frequently tested NBC’s public-relations department with his off-duty antics, including an anti-gay rant. But Morgan is smarter than his stand-up persona suggests and his character Tracy Jordan was at the heart of some of the series’ best episodes. Hard to believe that none of the supporting cast, which also included Jane Krakowski and Jack McBrayer, has yet to take home an Emmy.
• Comedy isn’t pretty. Anyone who watched the Golden Globes knows that Fey can look va-voom gorgeous. But on “30 Rock,” Lemon mostly favored sweatpants — with Cheetos stuck in her unkempt hair. Like Lucille Ball, Fey knows that silly has more comedic juice than sexy.
The rest of the cast proved equally game to get down and dirty, starting with Morgan’s tendency to remove his shirt and show off his baby-fat belly while McBrayer made the best out of the world’s most unflattering uniform. Even blond bombshell Krakowski, who was hired by the network to replace Fey’s original choice, Rachel Dratch, got into the act, shining in a storyline in which she returned to the show 40 pounds heavier after her character’s star turn in “Mystic Pizza: The Musical.” Delicious.
• Boldly go where no woman has gone before. If you didn’t think “30 Rock” reveled in breaking taboos, you weren’t watching closely enough. I can’t think of any comedy in the past 20 years that dealt so directly with race, whether it was Lemon dating a black man just to prove she’s not prejudiced (then accidentally shooting him backstage at BET’s Source Awards), or Donaghy taking over a therapy session by imitating Tracy Jordan’s parents as if they were regulars on the chitlin’ circuit.
Talking about race can make us squirm, but when handled properly, it can also make us roar with laughter. The very fact that Fey could put Jenna Maroney in blackface and not offend any reasonably minded viewer is good enough reason to start building that statue at once.