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Friday, December 7, 2007

'30 Rock' on a roll

With “The Office” going through a period of transition, “30 Rock” (airing at 8:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC) can rightly claim to be the funniest sitcom on television. At its best, “30 Rock” delivers so many funny lines, you can barely keep up with them all.

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One of my favorites came from the “Rosemary’s Baby” episode with Carrie Fisher that aired Oct. 25. Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon was eating lunch with Fisher’s Rosemary Howard, a pioneering female comedy writer. The scene started in mid-sentence, like this:

Rosemary: “… and his foot lingered.”

Liz: “That’s such an upsetting story!”

And then the conversation went on in another direction, leaving the audience to wonder, “What was that about a foot? How did it linger? What would be upsetting about it?” “30 Rock’s” confident ability to craft such smart, strange throwaway jokes accounts for part of its appealing vibe.

A surprise winner for this year’s Emmy for Best Comedy, “30 Rock” has been on its game this fall. It took the show a while to find its voice after its debut in fall 2006, but has established itself as what feels like a fleet, fictionalized version of Fey’s life when she was “Saturday Night Live’s” head writer beginning in 1999. Created by Fey, “30 Rock” doesn’t restrict itself to the behind-the-scenes chaos of “The Girlie Show with Tracy Jordan,” however, encompassing a reasonably gentle, far-reaching spoof of show business, New York culture and corporate America. Finding comedic subplots about anti-terrorist paranoia and Michael Vick-inspired dog fighting, “30 Rock” is one of the rare shows that acknowledges contemporary social differences in American class, race and politics.

Alec Baldwin has been justly celebrated as Liz Lemon’s micromanaging mentor, alpha male GE executive Jack Donaghy. Baldwin’s intense, stage-whispery delivery proves perfect for lines such as this one, when he presented Liz with a “Follower” award: "When I think of the free-spirited Liz Lemon I met just one year ago, so resistant to product integration, cross-promotion and adverlingus, it pleases me to see how well she's learned to follow.” I wonder if the Liz/Jack dynamic contains a little bit of Fey’s real-life relationship with “Saturday Night Live’s” longtime executive producer Lorne Michaels, who’s clearly an older, more experienced authority figure and presumably also a kind of mentor.

Although “30 Rock” shows affection for its characters, I wouldn’t say it deeply cares about them. The stories can feel fairly superficial, not unlike “NewsRadio,” only set among richer, more famous personalities. It hasn’t quite found the warmth of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” although Liz’s tribulations in dating and broadcasting seem influenced by the earlier sitcom.

"30 Rock" has plenty of room to find more depth, though, and in the meantime, it has more laughs per episode than any other program. One gag, in fact, led to a surprising incident for me. One of this season’s early episodes had a reference, over the set’s intercom, to an “Illeana Douglas Talk Show” sketch (that we never saw). On my Livejournal blog, I wondered if that tweaked the fact that on Aaron Sorkin’s ill-fated "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the show-within-a-show apparently had a recurring Juliette Lewis talk-show sketch. Consequently I received a comment from one of the pertinent celebrities -- unless someone’s just jerking my chain.

I love the running joke that NBC is owned by GE, which is in turn owned by the Sheinhardt Wig Company. And some gags find their own life on the Internet, such as the revelation that Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan, funnier here than he ever was on "Saturday Night Live") recorded a novelty song and video. You only see a few seconds of it on the show, but online, you can find this:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/vRqavy1W65I" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

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