Long Live 30 Rock

Because you never really know what you've got until it's gone.

30 Rock never occupied a revered spot or iconic designation the way other major comedies like The Office or Seinfeld did. That may change now, as critics and the bloggers look back on its 7 seasons favorably and wonder why we didn't celebrate it more while it was still on-going. We all enjoyed it a lot, it definitely had its following, but we took its lunacy for granted. It was a such a circus of a show, tightly loaded from end to end with silliness, that we didn't see the serious worth in it. Neither did the show itself. It was always characterized as a good time, but rarely "important."

I'll miss it as a unique comedic vessel. Without any hint of overarching drama or emotional cores, it was often the home of television's purest absurdity. It was a playground where nothing could be so serious that it didn't warrant parody including, and this is important, itself. A lot of comedy has the mission of making fun of "everything," but that often comes off as an elitist condescension. 30 Rock never felt like it was above the things it was skewering. It was honest and self-deprecating, so that when it would make fun of outrage or controversy, it wasn't looking down on it with disgust. We were in this big stupid muck of life and the media together. It was "Look at us!" not "Look at them!"

Politically, I didn't always enjoy how they handled certain topics, like the episode "Boycott" that took up the challenge of tackling Tracy Morgan's real life anti-gay rant that drew some fire. It didn't illuminate anything, or even take much of a stand, or invoke any kind of resolution — but we shouldn't have expected it to. It was a comedy first and foremost, one that avoids even basic emotional character growth, so Lesson of the Day style plots weren't ever going tobe a natural fit. It's the same approach that looked at the Conan/Leno split and came down the middle. It took the silliest parts of the situation and amplified them to hold jokes, not deliver consensus.

I love The Daily Show, but Anthony Jeselnik is right: it confirms your world view every 2 minutes. 30 ROCK may have done that sometimes, but it was always an accident of jokes. It may have come from a lefty place and lefty people, but its self-deprecation meant it would often say, "Here's what ridiculous about _our_ side." Except "our" points inward, not just at opposite political extremes, the way people make fun of both hippies and rednecks. It found the silliness and contradiction in their own moderate, mainstream thinking too, the way sad songwriters mine their self-loathing for verses, but here it's in service for laughs.

It's notable because self-importance in comedy should be tempered by people who just want to be a little bit loony. In the modern comedy world, controversy is inevitable, and with that comes backlash, think pieces, defences and conversations about the sanctity of comedy. I'm reminded of Scott Aukerman talking about complaints on hack comedy, or how some female comedians have taken to criticisms of female comedy by simply being funny. I'm guilty of it too, because it's an important part of the culture and all reactions have their place, but there is a point where the business of being funny is weighed down by so many unfunny things. It's not anti-intellectual, it's co-existance with the intellectual pressures; the kind that says even sitcoms should have developed characters, or long-running plots, or moral uplift.

Before 30 ROCK, it had always felt like Tracy Morgan and Tina Fey were funny people that rarely got to show it on SNL. I wanted to like them, but character-based sketches seemed to be a strange format for them. Brian Fellows was the funniest thing Morgan ever did on SNL, and even that is only half as funny as any given 30 ROCK episode. As for Tina Fey, in my young lifetime, she was the first one to do self-deprecation from a female perspective. I know she's preceded by everyone from Lucille Ball to Bea Arthur, but I grew up in a sitcom cycle where most comedies were about nagging-but-always-right wives and their funny-but-out-of-his-league husbands. When all you see on TV for years is just Tim Allen, Ray Romano and Kevin James and their second billing two dimensional wives, 30 ROCK was a game changer in 2006, putting the dagger in the heart of that old trope once and for all.

Then there's a guy like Alec Baldwin who I didn't even think could be this good. Were it not for this show, he would undoubtedly be one of the most obnoxious celebrities in Hollywood for all this breathy angry voicemails scolding his children, but like the other controversies that have followed the cast, making people laugh helps wash away bad will. Looking at the Baldwin family as a whole, you can't help but feel like this guy is a few bad turns away from nightmare territory, but the masterpiece that is Jack Donaghy will keep him revered for a long time.

The last episode was great and fitting. It was as strong as any episode I had seen. Not only was it overflowing with rapid fire jokes that you might not even catch the first time around, but there was an appreciable diversity to them too. A jab at congress here, a physical tackle gag there, a joke about fart jokes. It was the playground at maximum capacity. I wasn't surprised that the viewership reacted with sentimentality and sudden outpouring of emotion. I just didn't realize we had held it back for so long.

The show has never been big on character development, because that would require heart, and heart requires that it takes itself seriously, and taking itself seriously would mean it would no longer take jabs at all of us, but instead jabs at some unenlightened "them." A series finale was the perfect opportunity to finally do some of that — and it did, particularly with a tearful earnest farewell with Liz Lemon and Tracy Jordan — but it also threw that trope away. In one big, final joke, Jack Donaghy teases a character resolution, some conclusive evolution as he goes on a sea voyage to discover himself. They say last goodbyes and he sails off into the night — for less than a minute when he thinks of a product idea worth pursuing in his old life ("A see-through dishwashing machine!") Even when it has the full license to do something personal and heartfelt, the opportunity for the big joke takes priority.

I don't know if there's anything on television right now that can serve as a home for the humor that 30 ROCK housed. It was much like a cartoon, even deploying the cutaway non-sequiters that FAMILY GUY popularized, but they were always relevant and worthwhile. PARKS & REC is a great show, but its humor is character-based that requires emotional attachment. COMMUNITY is wonderful, but it was designed to be explicitly in contrast to the new school no-sap approach of 30 ROCK. There is no obvious successor to throne of smart & absurd comedy, and there may not be one for a while. Its absence will be felt, which is how the show ended up being a sweet, sentimental thing after all.