The Levels of Laughter in 30 Rock

While there has been plenty of traditional comedy present in television over the last twenty years, there has been a distinct increase in shows deriving humor from what film theorist Neil Harris calls the “’operational aesthetic,’ — shows in which the laughter is less about “what will happen?” and more about “how did he do that?”[1] NBC’s cult classic 30 Rock is perhaps the most brilliant television show to come out of this trend (and probably the best comedy absolutely ever bar none). The show mixes reflexive, self-aware winks at the audience and operational appeal with traditional sources of comedy such as character-based, situational humor and witty one-liners. Generating comedy through both traditional and innovative means, 30 Rock amassed a huge fan following (which is still growing, thanks to Netflix) and garnered critical acclaim with its uniquely complex narrative structure and consistent mix of long-running jokes, character humor, and slapstick gags. The show follows a fairly set episodic narrative pattern, introducing a conflict that temporally prevents television producer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) from achieving her goals, which almost always center on successfully producing that week’s episode of The Girly Show but also involve her silly and disastrous personal life. Liz always comes to her boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) with her problems— usually while he is involved in a sub-drama of his own, frequently involving his romantic interest of the moment. The stars of TGS Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) and Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan) are constantly mucking up everyone else’s lives, Liz’s in particular, while working out some absurd issue they’ve concocted or gotten involved in.

Each character has a few well-established patterns of dialogue and behavior that the audience can expect to see repeated in various iterations across episodic, seasonal and series-wide arcs. For example, Jack is incredibly elitist, condescending and intelligent while acting as a mentor to Liz; Liz herself is consistently cynical and snarky as she mothers the entire cast, dealing with absurd situations that arise while trying to navigate New York as single, working woman in her thirties. Jenna is prone to extreme fits and temper tantrums, usually stemming from jealousy about other people getting more attention than her; she histrionically threatens to kill herself in at least five different episodes. In season four, Jenna starts dating Paul (Will Forte), a male Jenna Maroney impersonator; their relationship provides a fantastic new source of comedy throughout the rest of the series, as they stay together and eventually get married. They make a big point of having as weird and kinky a sex life as possible, a joke that is threaded into many narrative sub-plots, such as in the episode “The Tuxedo Begins.”

Though it’s subtle at first, “The Tuxedo Begins” is a parody of the film Batman Begins— as the episode progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious, leading up to arguably one of the best final scenes in any 30 Rock episode. This episode is a fantastic example of 30 Rock’s various styles of comedy, from the self-referential winks and satire of New York City and pop culture to the witty dialogue and snappy one-liners. We open on Liz and Jack walking down the street as Jack talks on the phone and Liz complains about New York; as they pass a bus, a young girl gets off with a bag, belts out a few notes of a song, and then turns and says to Liz, “Say, where does a young prostitute get a start in this city?” Many of the best jokes in 30 Rock are based on this kind of over-the-top situation and subversions of expectations. Later in the episode, Liz sneezes into her elbow, leaving a snot stain in the image of Jesus, which her co-producer Pete (Scott Adsit) looks at and acknowledges with only mild disinterest. Jaded reaction shots frequently follow the especially ridiculous or unbelievable things that happen in the show to add a deadpan feel to the more slapstick gags and get more comedic mileage from the combination of the set-up and the unexpected reaction. 

30 Rock makes use of the operational aesthetic through frequent, self-referential jokes about and/or out of the fact that it’s a TV show, as well as through jokes about TGS. An example of this can be seen in the fifth episode of the first season, in which Jack tells Liz she needs to do a “product integration” sketch on TGS to market GE products. Liz starts to tell Jack off, saying she won’t sacrifice the integrity of the show to sell stuff, but is cut off by Pete prominently holding up a bottle of Snapple and exclaiming, “Wow, this is diet Snapple??” Liz then holds up her own bottle saying, “I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple!” Everyone at the table picks up the conversation, discussing their favorite flavors and showing their own bottles.

This reflexive self-awareness of the “show within a show” jokes are carried throughout the episode, as Liz tells Pete she wrote a product integration sketch to which he replies, “I cant believe you wrote a product integration sketch, the show isn’t a commercial,” just as a person in a giant Snapple costume exits the elevator behind them. The “show within a show” model functions as an inherent, recurring source of comedy throughout all seven seasons of 30 Rock, much in the same way it worked in The Larry Sanders Show in the 1990s. The influence of Larry Sanders in 30 Rock is significant, as it was a clear inspiration for the premise of the show, as well as the focus on strongly defined characters, which allows most of the comedy in the show to play out organically. 

However, 30 Rock calls more attention to the apparatus of the show with gags such as the Snapple placement and the live episodes. These threads continue to appear over the course of the series, with frequent jokes about the troubles of producing a television show and with the dramas that unfold on the TGS set exemplifying those troubles. Perhaps the best example of this is a scene in the eleventh episode of the sixth season, “Standards and Practices,” in which Kenneth the Page (Jack Mc Brayer) has been promoted to network censor. The scene opens with classic 30 Rock character jokes and one-liners, as Kenneth offers Liz “chickpeas, moonshine, or turtle meat” as a refreshment when she enters his office. After she starts talking, Kenneth interrupts her, presenting a list he made of “television no-nos,” which he hands to Liz. If you pause the show, you can clearly see the list is made up entirely of words directly relating to 30 Rock: “conflict”, “urban”, “woman”, “divorce”, “shows about shows”, “dramedy”, “New York”, “high concept”, “complex”, “niche”, “quality,” and, snuck in right at the end of the frame, “immortal characters.” This is a beautiful example of an Easter egg, a winking joke made specifically for the dedicated viewer who takes the time to stop and see it.

In this way, 30 Rock generates added comedy by tying in the self-reflexivity with previously established running gags. Any given episode of 30 Rock features multiple seemingly disparate narratives that eventually become intertwined and resolved or are just left hanging intentionally-- part of the fun is in not knowing whether or not a joke will reappear in a later episode, and if it does, there’s always an unexpected and whimsical twist. So if you haven't watched all of 30 Rock, I don't care where you are or what you're doing-- stop right now and do it. You can thank me later.


[1] Mittell, Jason. "Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television." Velvet Light Trap. 58. (2006): 29-40. Web.