Tina Fey, ex-head writer of Saturday Night Live, has created a sitcom that takes viewers behind-the-scenes of a SNL-style sketch comedy show. And turns out her show is funnier than the real thing.
Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey
30 Rock held a fairly obvious advantage from the beginning: Fey was a head writer at Saturday Night Live from 1999 to 2005, meaning she’s proven she knows how to make a sketch funny. Her recurring sketches for SNL, like the one with the kids with heavy Boston accents, were more harmless silliness than, say, the inspired lunacy of some of the Robert Smigel stuff from the show’s early 90s years (I’m thinking about things like TV Funhouse and the legendary “Get a Life” sketch with William Shatner).
But her style of humor may be better suited for the half-hour format. Instead of trying to wrangle as many laughs as possible out of the same joke in a six-minute sketch, she’s now got the space and time to develop a storyline.
As head writer at SNL, Fey often gets credit for both the show’s resurgence early this decade and its post-Ferrell decline. Fair enough, but it should be pointed out that Seth Meyers and Andrew Steele were also promoted to co-head writer positions during that time. And in 30 Rock, Fey’s eye for pop-culture satire remains sharp: the joke about Alec Baldwin’s NBC executive character attending Ann Coulter’s birthday party worked on more levels than anything Meyers has been able to come up with in his whole SNL tenure.
As Fey likely learned at SNL, the right combination of talent is usually enough to make any set of writers look great. And so it is with Alec Baldwin, who, between this and The Departed, has reinvented himself as the consummate supporting asshole. His character is nothing unique within the sitcom universe, but Baldwin gives it the gravitas that few others achieve. Also, 30 Rock has Judah Friedlander playing the slow-witted doofus role (which he’s suited to quite well) and Jack McBrayer as an uber-naïve page, both of them funnier than most current SNL cast members. Tracy Morgan hasn’t really brought the huge laughs yet, but give him time.
It’s tough to watch the show without thinking about what’s happening over at SNL, though. Saturday Night Live still has its moments – it’s just that none of them are coming to me right now. They’ve effectively driven the “SNL Digital Short” gimmick into the ground. And Weekend Update isn’t even worth sticking around for anymore with the giggley Amy Poehler (who’s great at everything else) and the smarmy Seth Meyers. They still haven’t found a good replacement for Will Ferrell as President Bush. And what is Darrell Hammond still doing there? Cutting the show by half an hour would help, but it's only a start.
NBC didn't do 30 Rock any favors in the start of the season: it was stuck on Wednesdays with an unfortunate lead-in (20 Good Years with Lithgow and Tambor? Give me a break). Now it'll be on Thursdays in the laughtrack-free lineup of My Name Is Earl, The Office, and Scrubs. Good move of NBC to show faith – surrounded by similarly quirky shows, it could gain an actual following. Since each episode has trumped the previous one, signs point towards a leap in quality between seasons one and two. But please: this is not a single-camera mockumentary like The Office or Arrested Development. It’s a straightforward workplace sitcom, like WKRP in Cincinnati. Get it straight.