Looking Back at ’30 Rock’ with Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, and the Writers
30 Rock is gone. After seven seasons, Liz Lemon is no more. On Wednesday night, her real-life writers, Tina Fey, Robert Carlock, Colleen McGuiness, Josh Siegal, and Dylan Morgan reunited at the Paley Center in New York to reminisce and discuss just how a show like 30 Rock came to be. In a panel moderated by New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum, we learned all about the show’s origins, stories that never got to be told, how Tina felt about Studio 60, and who at TGS Jenna Maroney almost had an affair with. (Be warned, there are a couple tiny spoilers for the 30 Rock series finale in here.)
A lot of the conversation centered on the show’s beginnings and its evolution. When asked what guiding principles the show began with, Tina immediately brings up the show’s characters. She and Robert set out to create characters that would speak differently and have “different points of view on any topic that could come up.” In the beginning, Tina and the staff found the show easy to work on, cracking the stories for 12 full episodes before filming had even begun. Carlock attributes this to the fact that there was so much virgin territory that the show could cover, whether it is race relations in the form of Liz Lemon thinking Tracy was illiterate, or women in the workplace. To him it “felt like snow without footprints.”
But what set the show apart was the pacing; 30 Rock was crammed with jokes. One main reason for this was that in many ways, the show was the underdog. Premiering the same season as Studio 60, another show centered around the world of a Saturday Night Live-like show gave Tina more drive to make sure that her show succeeded. In fact, she claims that in any scene in season 1 that you see Liz typing, she’s writing the phrase “Studio 60 is great,” over and over again. This fear of their show having a short life inspired the staff to make the show they wanted to make and fill the show to the brim. In a world where sitcom episodes service one, sometimes two plotlines, 30 Rock would have three to four plot lines running in an episode. Carlock mentions pulling the “Page-Off” subplot from episode 208 because the script was already packed, but the episode didn’t feel like 30 Rock without it.
The outside world’s effect on the show came into play a lot throughout the discussion, particularly the fact that Liz Lemon evolved into a role model of sorts for many online. This inspired the writing staff to ensure that Liz stayed flawed; to not let her turn into the perfect woman who can balance her crazy job and her romantic life. In fact, Tina stated several times throughout the panel that she hates filming romantic scenes and feels that she “shouldn’t have to.” In fact, she’s much happier being ugly on the screen, such as when she spent an episode dressed as a Joker-esque bag lady in “The Tuxedo Begins.” Famed improv guru Del Close, whom Tina studied under in Chicago, said that your characters should be as smart as you, if not smarter, and Tina worked hard to make sure that this was true of Liz, and that she didn’t gradually get dumbed down over the years.
In the same vein, Colleen McGuiness points out that it took six episodes for Liz to say “I love you” to another person, which is kind of unusual for television, especially when one looks at other female protagonists like Sex and the City’s Carrie, who lives in the same city as Lemon but could not be having a more different romantic life. Ultimately it would appear that the attitude Tina has towards her female writer character is the same that she has for female writers in the real world. When asked by an audience member what advice she would give to women trying to make it in comedy, Tina says she’d give the same advice she’d give a man: “write as much as you can and get it in front of an audience.” Although, she did tell women specifically to “always wear a bra, even if you don’t think you need it that day.” When Colleen suggests facetiously that it might help to watch some football to join in that conversation with the men, Tina immediately shuts it down. “No. It’s boring.”
Even after seven years on the air, there are some plot lines that just never found a place on the show. For example, when asked if there were any romantic pairings that were ever discarded, Tina reveals that in one script that made it to the table read, a desperate Jenna had an affair with Pete. In general, she says, the show had pretty solid table reads but this one tanked because it “creeped people out.”
Another pretty substantial plot line that was up on the idea board for some time but was never produced also involved Jenna, pairing her with the strange, not-quite-right Kathy Geiss. In the show’s finale we learn that she has invented a machine designed to hug the elderly. In this idea’s original conception, this invention’s success would then prompt Jenna to play Kathy in a Temple Grandin-style biopic. However, when the movie is a success, Jenna is forced to go through the awards circuit along with Kathy Geiss, and as Tina delicately put it, “Jenna is not as fully formed as Clare Danes and would not have enjoyed that.”
One change that ultimately changed the course of the show somewhat occurred due to the network “tricking” them. At the end of the series, Liz ends up adopting two children that are not unlike Tracy and Jenna. The seeds for this were planted way back at the end of season 2, in which Liz is put on the wait list at an adoption agency. Initially, this was to be resolved in the tag for the episode in a scene that takes place six months later in which Liz returns from an Eastern European country with two muscular twelve-year-olds who, at the beginning of season 3, would rob her apartment and never been seen again. However, NBC informed the staff that the Promo Department really loves the adoption stuff and wants to promote that aspect of the show all summer, but that means they’ll have to lose the tag and treat it seriously. Obviously happy to get some promotion, they did so. Then NBC didn’t promote the show over the summer and they were stuck with a dangling plot thread for the next four seasons.
Also, I couldn’t figure out a good way to work this in to the article, but Dr. Zizmor turned down being on the show. His wife informed the staff that “HE IS A DOCTOR.”
Because 30 Rock is a show that talks so much about TV, a lot of the discussion centers about the current state of TV. While Tina has a lot of good to say about shows like Louie and Girls, ultimately she believes that the limitations of network television actually help the show. “It’s nice to have the constraint of not being able to swear,” she says. Carlock agrees, saying that the fact that the show was required to come in at a certain length and jokes needed to be trimmed only improved it. Especially since the show was so dense with jokes, according to Fey, by cutting one joke you’d give the other four right before it more room to breathe. Because 30 Rock so frequently satirized the state of current TV, particularly the TV that NBC makes, it’s easy to see the show as being pessimistic about its state, but ultimately the writers believe that that is not the case and that the ultimate message is that those who are passionate about television should be the ones in charge of it. Tina believes that soon “someone will make a hit… I don’t know how to fix NBC, but it’s not unfixable.” And having signed a four-year deal with NBC, let’s hope she figures it out soon.