Office Romance

A farewell to 30 Rock, the show that understood work is play

By Ben Wasserstein


When NBC’s comedy 30 Rock ends its seven-season run on Jan. 31, it will be memorialized for its fast and furious jokes, its 57 Emmy nominations and 10 victories, and the masterful, bone-dry line readings of Alec Baldwin as NBC suit Jack Donaghy, the most indelible 1 Percenter on television since C. Montgomery Burns. (At Harvard Business School, Donaghy was voted “Most.”) Yet 30 Rock should also be remembered for its upbeat perspective on the joys and satisfactions — and inanities and frustrations — of office life. As Jack says to Liz Lemon (played by the show’s creator and executive producer, Tina Fey) in season one: “Business doesn’t get me down. Business gets me off.”

30 Rock wasn’t the first of its kind, of course. “The big mother of office sitcoms was The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and pop culture at Syracuse University. “In the early ’70s, TV comedy moved its focus from the nuclear family to the office.” More women were entering the workplace, and then, as now, most of viewers’ waking hours were spent with their institutional families rather than their biological ones. “Liz Lemon owes a lot to Mary,” says Thompson. “But her and her colleagues’ Seinfeld-like self-absorption about their jobs is what makes the show unique and modern.”

Compare 30 Rock with other current workplace comedies. On The Office, also in its final season, work smothers the protagonists, who seek any momentary escape from its drudgery. On Parks and Recreation, local politico Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is devoted to her job wholeheartedly, but her satisfaction comes from its impact on the community. By contrast, the work accomplished on 30 Rock seems to please no one but the workers themselves. “Surprisingly enough 30 Rock embraces Freud’s dictum: All there is in life that is worth anything is love and work,” says Richard Walter, screenwriting chairman at UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Liz is head writer for the low-rated, late-night sketch show TGS with Tracy Jordan, a program that TV Guide once called “still on.” (Liz had the article framed.) Jack’s entire identity and astonishing ego revolve around being an executive. “Remember that time I came back from the World Economic Forum with mono and missed a week of work, and I wanted to pull my hair out but couldn’t because it’s too thick?” he reminisces. A General Electric lifer, Jack never became chief executive officer as he dreamed, because the fictional GE sold NBC to the cable provider Kabletown after the real-world network’s sale to Comcast. Desperate for some high-level business sparring, Jack negotiates Liz’s contract for her, against himself, in a back-and-forth tour de force at an Upper West Side Tasti D-Lite.

Liz and Jack’s careers are, essentially, jokes — jokes that each is committed to like crazy. They’re not helping others, making great art, or living up to their ambitions. Liz’s show stinks. Jack is tripped up by a CEO who refuses to announce a successor after “a beam of light” tells him to reappoint himself. Their work is ridiculous; and yet, it’s everything. “30 Rock is to working what The West Wing was to politics,” says Thompson. “It glamorizes office life in an amusing, over-the-top way. For all the problems at 30 Rock, and there are many, it seems like a fun place to work.” As Liz puts it, “As crazy and stressful as this place is, not being here is worse.”

But it’s not all frivolous. Liz is the rare female heroine whose love of her job is valorized, even though she isn’t saving babies or solving crimes. (The show skewered the conversation about women “having it all” — other characters ran away in terror when Liz brought up the subject.) Take the 2009 episode in which Liz is forced on hiatus due to a sexual harassment complaint; she’d tried to seduce a consultant to maintain her show’s budget. She befriends a group of stay-at-home women and gets into shopping and girl talk, but it turns out her new friends are so unfulfilled that their coffee klatch is a cover for a fight club. Liz returns to her beloved office, exulting, “I’m back, nerds!”

And though Liz’s tumultuous personal life was an ongoing thread, her marriage this season (wearing a Princess Leia costume) was a rejoinder to any suggestion that she put love before her job. The wedding was sweet, but it wasn’t the most important day of Liz’s life. It recalled a telling moment in Bossypants, Tina Fey’s book, when she describes breastfeeding as the most gratifying thing she’s ever done, “except for several very satisfying work-related things.”

Jack, impressed by Liz’s devotion to TGS, becomes her mentor, echoing the long relationship between Fey and 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. HR rep Jeffrey Weinerslav (“it’s pronounced ‘wiener-slave’”) describes the Liz-Jack relationship as “the longest and perhaps most meaningful [one] in your life.” At that, they both tear up in recognition. Similarly, Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), a wide-eyed NBC page, is so inhumanly dedicated to his job and his “best friends” at TGS that he turns down repeated opportunities for career advancement. “The overarching principle that drives 30 Rock is family,” says Walter. Even Tracy Jordan, the loose cannon played by Tracy Morgan, can’t shake the crew — after briefly quitting, he returns to continue his relationship with Kenneth. (“You and me, it’s not gonna be a one-way street,” Tracy says to Kenneth. “Cause I don’t believe in one-way streets. Not between people, and not while I’m driving.”)

“Workplace comedies inevitably end in the breakdown of the institution,” says Thompson. “On Cheers, Sam is left alone in the bar; on Mary Tyler Moore, everyone gets fired; on M*A*S*H the war ends. It’s a bittersweet notion, especially today when we aren’t staying at jobs for very long and know that feeling of leaving our surrogate families,” he says. How-ever 30 Rock ends, its cast is already in mourning. On the last day of filming, Alec Baldwin tweeted, “Lots of tears today at SilverCup as we head into the home stretch. Thank you, Tina Fey.” At the wrap party, Fey said, “The thing I’m most proud of about the show is that it was a really nice place to work for over 200 people for seven years. ... That will always stick in my mind, even more than the comedy we made.”

For viewers who toil in ever more metric-dominated jobs, where you’re only as good as your last quarter, one of 30 Rock’s most endearing traits is the way its characters’ passion for work wasn’t contingent on returns. That’s particularly welcome when the economy has kept so many of us grateful for any steady job, even one that doesn’t live up to our expectations. Fey and her writing staff also labor in a field where external results — ratings, renewals, syndication windfalls — depend on a fickle American public. Worthy shows fail; absolute garbage can run for years. The best work experience may have zero correspondence with success. The people of 30 Rock learned to appreciate a good gig when they had it, and for 30 minutes a week they gave us a place where business couldn’t get us down.


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