Despite being one of the most critically admired network comedies from the 2000s and launching Tina Fey to stardom, 30 Rock is unfortunately one of the recent examples of a show aging like milk rather than wine. Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is the head writer of a fictional live sketch comedy show before it gets retooled and intervened by network executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), who brings on Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) to increase the show’s ratings. Self-described as a “live-action cartoon” 30 Rock doesn’t shy away from the extreme, implementing surreal and absurdist humor in the lives of its characters, who are in essence, taken from Fey’s time as a writer for Saturday Night Live.
There are a lot of incredibly hilarious and memorable moments littered across 30 Rock’s seven seasons, that are regrettably subsidized by some less-than-okay jokes. While the humor of 30 Rock is, for the most part, meant to be taken in jest, a bulk of the sitcom’s screen time is, at least by today’s standards, pretty offensive and no longer appropriate in modern rhetoric. To address the elephant in the room, 30 Rock features a handful of episodes in which various characters adopt blackface, and while its intention is meant to be a satirical take on the concept of someone using blackface, as a punchline it makes for a collar-tugging moment that’s hard to watch. Said episodes have since been removed from streaming services with Fey issuing a statement and apology, but it does make you wonder how stuff like this gets approved in the first place. Sure, we’ve come a long way since then in terms of positive representation in media, but unfortunately, it’s hard not to let something as egregious as that leave a sour taste in your mouth.
Teetering the Line of Racial Humor
Moreover, Fey seems obsessed with using race as a punchline. Characters like Tracy are perceived as stupid and ignorant, whereas Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dotcom (Kevin Brown) are portrayed as sensitive, emotionally intelligent beings, only for the show’s other characters to shoebox them because of their skin color. Keith Powell plays writer James Spurlock, who the other characters playfully refer to as “Toofer” because in the words of Jack Donaghy “with him you get a two-for-one; he’s a black guy and a Harvard guy.” Toofer rejects the stereotypes of black culture, acting as a foil to Tracy, but rarely gets much positive screen time. Often he’s the butt of the joke where he’s commonly seen as a buzzkill or a wet blanket.
There’s even a cutaway gag of a fictional show “Black Frasier” which is, you guessed it, a parody of Frasier with an all-black cast. The joke is entirely built on the fact that the characters are black, which while isn’t malicious, is very much racist. One could argue that 30 Rock’s writing plays into these blind spots and biases based on race but rarely goes so far as to actually say anything worthwhile about them. Often characters will say something racist, then catch themselves, questioning if what they said was “offensive”, but for the most part, that’s basically the extent of the joke. Incongruity is certainly a valid formula when it comes to comedy, but when the punchline reverts to stereotypes without actually making a statement about them, it feels weak. And, to that effect, the punchline is still about the stereotype and not recognizing the insensitivity of the joke.
The Alec Baldwin of it All
Beyond the racist dialogue and situations, Fey’s co-star Alec Baldwin recently plagued headlines regarding a prop gun that had gone off on set during the making of his feature film Rust, which took the life of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins as well as injuring director Joel Souza. Baldwin was charged with involuntary manslaughter, which was later dropped. It’s a tragic incident that bathes the actor in a new light regarding negligence towards gun safety, and it’s hard not to have that thought wedged into the back of your mind when Baldwin’s character dominates much of 30 Rock’s screen time. The incident sparked discourse on occupational safety in the film industry and the use of real firearms as props.
Too Far, or Not Far Enough?
The main cast of 30 Rock is portrayed as a very dysfunctional family who likes to roast and cut each other down, but most of these jokes seem rather pedestrian by today’s standards and feel like lazy writing. There’s an arc in which Jenna (Jane Krakowski) dates female celebrity impersonator Paul (Will Forte), who she’s attracted to because he’s most often dressed like her, which is a hilarious premise for a character as narcissistic as Jenna, but most of the jokes involving Paul inadvertently come back to “Look, a dude in a dress!” More often than not the queer representation exists only as a means to an end, with characters often appearing as over-the-top caricatures. Comparatively, a show like Brooklyn Nine-Nine has been praised for its more positive portrayal of people’s sexuality and race and how it affects them, with the character of Rosa Diaz, played by Stephanie Beatriz, coming out as bisexual in an episode. It’s the difference between somebody’s skin color or sexual orientation being a defining character trait or being used as a punchline and instead exploring the nuances that come with that.
We’ve come such a long way in television comedy adhering more to positive representation, that watching something that plays these subjects for laughs feels a little alien. If anything, it’s a reflection of what society was like at the time and how far we’ve progressed in such a short amount of time regarding how we approach modern rhetoric toward tackling these sensitive issues. There’s a reason that 30 Rock was such an influential show for its time and why it’s still beloved by so many to this day, but by today’s viewing standards, those jokes certainly won’t help its legacy in the cultural memory.