For my money, no other sitcom, other than perhaps Arrested Development, has ever managed to match Tina Fey’s 30 Rock for sheer laughs-per-minute. Basically a live action cartoon created by and starring America’s foremost female comic voice, 30 Rock managed to spend seven seasons delivering jokes that still hit the mark today; indeed, it’s one of the few shows I can stand to endlessly rewatch, because I uncover new jokes every time. It really is an amazing show, perhaps made all the more amazing by its unlikely success, given what many believed would be stiff competition.
In Tina Fey’s equally funny memoir, Bossypants, she discusses how, after earning a development deal from NBC based on her longtime work as the first female head writer for Saturday Night Live, she eventually bowed to suggestions from the network to write about her experience in late-night live comedy. Of course, NBC could have hardly guessed that famed writer Aaron Sorkin would be premiering Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a show focused on late night sketch comedy as well. Virtually no one expected Sorkin’s show to crumble after one season and Tina Fey’s quirky show to last seven, but it did; 30 Rock eventually aired 139 episodes, welcomed a cavalcade of impressive guest stars that ran the gamut from Oprah Winfrey and Carrie Fisher to Al Gore and Condoleezza Rice, and won endless critical acclaim and Emmy Awards.
The alchemical magic undergirding 30 Rock’s success was its writing. Fey, who rose to fame as one of SNL’s best writers, unleashed her magnum opus on the world, even if it was slow in getting started; she eviscerates her own pilot in her memoir, and many critics place the true beginning of the series at season one’s episode “Tracy Does Conan,” a madcap romp through the show’s namesake building. While the show is fundamentally about a late-night sketch TV show—with Fey as head writer Liz Lemon, Tracy Morgan as star Tracy Jordan, and Alec Baldwin as NBC executive Jack Donaghy—it quickly abandoned any real devotion to workplace comedy and simply became a show about Liz, Jack, and the crazy contours of their relationship as everything around them whirled in fast-motion comedy.
In many ways, 30 Rock was a new beginning for female-led comedies; one can easily trace a line from Fey’s show to Parks and Recreation, The Mindy Project, and Girls. A writer-performer who proved herself to be one of America’s most essential comic voices, Fey’s seven-season triumph was only matched by the near-endless cast of perfectly formed ensemble characters and bit players, with characters like Jenna, Kenneth the Page, Dr. Spaceman, and Dennis Duffy making an indelible mark on the show’s canvas. In the end, while 30 Rock was rarely about the sketch show the characters worked on, it was always about television, that magical screen lighting up our living rooms. It’s little wonder that Fey’s love letter to her homeland can still manage to delight, years after Liz Lemon first blerg’d her way into our lives.