Last Laughs

What seven years of 30 Rock taught us about TV and ourselves

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In the very first episode of Tina Fey's 30 Rock, stressed-out TV producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) took overeager NBC page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer) aside and asked him to dial back his enthusiasm when guiding studio tours. Kenneth apologized, then added wistfully, "I just ... I just love television so much." "We all do," Pete said with a sigh.

For seven seasons, that's the place where 30 Rock lived: between TV as a dream, a pilgrimage, a fantasy and TV as a grind, a headache, a job. Which of course only shows the show's--and Fey's--love for TV all the more. Real love drives you crazy. And since 2006, 30 Rock, which airs its final episode Jan. 31, has been the funniest love letter to its medium's silliness, power and craziness.

It would be too simplistic to say 30 Rock was just a TV show about TV. It was about a lot of things: politics, celebrity, family and surrogate family. It was also, through Fey's portrayal of sketch-show producer Liz Lemon, about a new kind of female lead: a proud feminist nerd who over seven years grew confident in her personal life and in managing TGS's staff of overgrown children.

But every episode was soaked in TV. 30 Rock was a sharp in-house chronicler of NBC's woes: its poor ratings, its Leno-O'Brien fiasco (in one episode, a janitor named Khonani got screwed over after being promised the 11:30 p.m. shift), its sale to Comcast (reimagined as KableTown), its reality shows (MILF Island and America's Kidz Got Singing!).

30 Rock, which Fey started developing while she was head writer for Saturday Night Live, was never a smash hit; media satire thrives in late night, but it usually makes people change the channel at 8:01 p.m. Thursday. Still, it stayed afloat--and won three Emmys for Best Comedy Series--by being damn funny. Fey once said she never wanted 30 Rock to get "clapter," the obligatory laughter an audience gives because it agrees with your political or social views. On 30 Rock, the jokes came first. With its wall-to-wall cutaway gags and its vast cast of bizarre characters like pill-pushing Dr. Spaceman (Chris Parnell), it resembled traditional sitcoms less than it did joke-dense animated shows like The Simpsons. (Who was Liz, really, but Lisa Simpson grown up?)

So 30 Rock engaged with controversies, but it never let anyone get off a speech beyond a 10-ft. radius of a banana peel. It addressed climate change in an episode in which guest star Al Gore rushed offstage declaring, "A whale is in trouble!" One of the strongest final-season episodes took on the perennial culture-trolling debate over whether women are funny by pitting Liz against her show's eccentric, infantile star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), who argued that no lady could be as funny as his pal Professor Wigglebottom, a monkey in a business suit and diaper. (Satirical double play: NBC had just debuted its short-lived sitcom Animal Practice, co-starring, yes, a monkey.)

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