Blërg. I don’t want to be saying goodbye to “30 Rock,” a sitcom that delivers more jokes per minute than seems humanly possible. You can watch each episode two or three times and still hear new bells ring.
Even in its later years, the seven-season series has been a vital, happy tap dance of jabs at politics, pop culture, and the media – including its own desperate network, NBC, and NBC’s corporate parent, Comcast. While “The Office” is sputtering out, “30 Rock” is leaving the air at the exact right moment; it’s as spiky and relevant as ever. As proof, I offer up its fall arc on the electoral system, as well as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, with the entire presidential election coming down to Jenna’s Parrothead-like cult in a single county in Florida.
The series, which reaches its finale this Thursday at 8 p.m. on Channel 7, has been far from a smash hit. After a strong start in 2006, with 8.1 million viewers, the “30 Rock” ratings dropped to anemic levels, finishing last season with only 2.8 million. By major network standards, that’s a major dud. But Tina Fey and the writers have never strained to boost ratings by giving “30 Rock” a mainstream makeover, and NBC never insisted on one. The vision of Fey & Co. has been to laugh at this country primarily by laughing at its pulse, TV, a venture that has been too left-leaning, too self-referential, and too frenetic for most. In less ratings-starved times, when “Seinfeld” and “Friends” made NBC Thursday nights king, the network would have axed the show; but in its distress, it held onto “30 Rock” for its name recognition and prestige, for its syndication potential, and for its affluent, if small, audience.
The sitcom, winner of three best comedy Emmys, still accomplished a lot during its run, outside of making you “laugh so hard that a little pee comes out,” as the urbandictionary.com definition of “30 Rock” puts it. Despite the ratings problems, “30 Rock” made a star of writer and actress Tina Fey, who has worn her fame with remarkable grace and with a minimum of vanity. She has captured an appealing mix of cynicism, goofiness, rebuke, and sophistication, while paving the way for the latest wave of female-led sitcoms including “The Mindy Project” and “Girls.” She’s a feminist icon to many, once defending Hillary Clinton’s campaign by announcing on “Saturday Night Live,” “Bitch is the new black,” but she is a funny feminist icon whose best weapon is comic ridicule.
“30 Rock” also miraculously found a way to harness the anarchic jawing that is Tracy Morgan, and it resurrected mass awareness of Alec Baldwin’s excellence, as he turned an ultra-conservative profit-obsessed boss into a sly fox instead of a buffoon. Just as Liz was more foolish than liberals would want (she once sexually harassed the leader of her sexual harassment course to get time off from work), Jack Donaghy was less foolish than liberals would want. It kept things interesting on the show, this jeering of left and right hypocrisy with almost equal fervor.
And “30 Rock” took on the crazy mixed-up mess that is American culture without blinking. It didn’t spoof the likes of reality TV (“MILF Island,” “Queen of Jordan”), Facebook (YouFace), viral videos (Tracy Morgan’s gay joke controversy became Tracy Jordan’s), and tabloid fame (everything Jenna does); it mocked them ruthlessly. It didn’t change culture like “Will & Grace,” which turned sexual orientation into one big punch line and made gays a lighter topic in the national conversation. But it served as a sort of home base for like-minded people who find humor and absurdism to be the best response to the worst of our times, from knee-jerk partisanship to “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.” It took on a far broader, less defined target than “Will & Grace” with a lot more fury. It was a sitcom, but it was also a biting “Network”-like satire of America right now, one that belongs in the same category as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” “The Colbert Report,” and “South Park.”
Most often, “30 Rock” gets fitted into a line of more conventional TV comedies stretching back to “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” since it revolves around celebrity ego and the making of a TV series. In almost every article written about Fey’s sitcom, it is compared to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” with Liz Lemon, like Mary Richards, as the archetypal single TV writer grappling with the gender standards of her time. Liz has made it after all, to some extent; but she still has to deal with a politicized, prejudiced Lou Grant by the name of Jack Donaghy. “I like when a woman has ambition,” Jack once said about women who choose career over men; “It’s like seeing a dog wearing clothes.”
And yes, it is true that Alan Brady gave way to Ted Baxter who gave way to Jenna Maroney and Tracy Jordan. “30 Rock” does belong to the family tree of TV shows about TV shows, some of which are the best workplace comedies ever written – most notably the cringey “The Larry Sanders Show,” the team-spirited “Sports Night,” and the withering “The Comeback.” Also in the family: “Murphy Brown,” “Grosse Pointe,” “Home Improvement,” “Episodes,” and specific seasons of “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” None of these series were as meta-conscious about TV as “30 Rock,” though, not even “Seinfeld,” with its plot about pitching a show about nothing, or “Larry Sanders,” with its real-world guests. On “30 Rock,” even the product placements were made into a joke. A few weeks ago, Liz was actually singing the “30 Rock” theme song to herself.
But “30 Rock” just as firmly belongs alongside the “fake” news of “The Daily Show,” and the character of Jack is in the same vein as the character of Stephen Colbert. Fey is a lot like Jon Stewart, who once described his job as throwing spitballs from the back of the room. Her inspiration similarly comes from watching the real world go by with a sense of outrage and humor. From her “Saturday Night Live” years, she brought to the sitcom format an overwhelming sense of timeliness and news-hound-ness that sitcoms often avoid so as not to date episodes that will appear much later in syndication. “30 Rock” has been as close to a narrative version of “Weekend Update” as is possible. Stewart took open aim at the Comcast-NBC merger in 2011 (“This monopoly’s awesome!”), Fey went after it in her fictionalized context by creating a Comcast-like company called Kabletown.
Like “South Park,” “30 Rock” has pushed today’s culture to some of its logical extremes for comedy purposes. It has been a brilliantly cartoonish take on our world, a reflection painted in bold colors and punctuated with quick cutaways and exclamation points. Blërg!Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.