With just six episodes left to air (and one left to shoot), 30 Rock nears its end.
In post-Palin times, it is neither original nor rare to hear people – particularly women – proclaim love for Tina Fey. We’ve accepted, embraced, and even poeticized her brand of comedy. It must be every comic’s dream to define her culture’s vernacular – Fey’s style now resides in our American library of humor.
I didn’t watch SNL growing up, so my introduction to Fey was not Weekend Update. Rather, I came to know of her through promotional rounds for Mean Girls in 2004. As an aspiring writer myself, I was surprised that press coverage for Mean Girls focused as much on screenwriter Tina Fey as it did on Lindsay Lohan. Odder still, Fey’s promotional interviews were quirky and deeply – sometimes defiantly – funny, standing in stark contrast to those recycled antics of celebrity. She was polite, but had real edge. She didn’t look like a star – rather, she seemed perplexed by, and rightfully suspicious of, the spotlight. Authentic.
I grew up in search of authentic female oddities in mainstream culture – to reflect the humor, genius and strength of real women I knew in my own life. I looked for that elusive female comic who was sidekick to no one, who stood toe-to-toe with the boys and stood on merits of her comedy alone. Sadly, no one steered me in the direction of Mary Tyler Moore, Gilda Radner or Elaine May – growing up in the 90s meant that the most accessibly funny women on television were Rachel, Phoebe and Monica. (Others – like Karen on Will & Grace – were raucously funny, but painted as either oversexed or unfuckable.) Female-driven comedies in film were romantic comedies – of their leads, only Sandra Bullock could claim to straddle that line between actress and comedienne. Those were lean years. By 2003, I would’ve settled for Amanda Bynes. (Don’t ask. I still can’t.)
These examples don’t illustrate that women aren’t funny. Rather, they reflect cultural appetites of the time, which placed greater value on women as romantic leads than as comic voices. I concede that this is still true, that we still instinctively prize the next Julia Roberts over the next Lucille Ball. But what’s changed is that we have comedies like 30 Rock, and pioneers like Tina Fey. And, though her show never reached ratings gold as I – and I’m sure she – hoped it would, it’s nonetheless syndicated an entirely new oddity: Liz Fucking Lemon, whose romantic life will never command as much attention as her comic relief. This woman put an entire sandwich in her face before chasing after a boy. After nearly seven years, I remember Liz’s antics far more than I recall her romantics. And, as her wedding this week proved, no moment in her life can be bigger than her personality.
Yet, Liz Lemon is a believable romantic lead. Her only two viable romances were with Floyd (Jason Sudeikis) and Criss (James Marsden), and we rooted for her happiness where happiness could be found. But the series never postulated Liz’s happiness on the men in her life. “She’s fuckable,” the show seems to say, “but that’s not the point.” Onwards!
The thing I love most about 30 Rock is that every episode is an experiment – some work, some don’t. Heck, there are whole seasons (cough Season 4 cough) that don’t work at all. But Fey’s comedy protects no one – the one sacred thing about this show is that nothing stays sacred. No one is above ridicule, and nothing deserves to be taken seriously. Occasionally, 30 Rock fails to be snarky enough, but comedy is an ever delicate balance. This show has created enough classics that I trust its clunks come also from trial by fire. Daring can’t always be rewarded with success, but on this show, it usually is.
Fey just signed on to develop more shows for Universal; I’m glad, but not ready to think about that just yet. It will be hard to leave Liz Lemon behind, no matter what other great anti-heroines Fey has in store for us. 30 Rock and Liz Lemon took me through my early twenties, from girlhood to womanhood. There’s a piece of my adolescence in there – I discovered this series when I was twenty and in search of a sense of humor. It shaped me, and continues to live in some part of who I am. How lucky am I to have grown up with – and through – our Lizbean?
30 Rock is entirely its own, and remains a rarity. In some ways, I think it comes before its time – that many who claim to enjoy it are probably more mesmerized by Fey’s stardom than they are by her show’s wonderland of weirdness. The few of us who cling to 30 Rock as a cultural mecca are probably desperate weirdos (myself certainly included) who have waited decades for a show like this to manifest on our screens. On behalf of these weirdos, and on behalf of generations who will come to deeply appreciate (and shamelessly reap from) your show:
Thanks, Tina. From one cultural outsider to another: Nerds! Blerg. Shut it down.