If you have any appreciation for well-crafted jokes, you were likely a fan of 30 Rock. In addition to plenty of other virtues — the immortal Jack-Liz friendship, the pitch-perfect satire of corporations and TV, the utter absurdity — this show was like porn for joke lovers. While sitcoms like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia tend to focus on ridiculous characters and situations accompanied by relatively realistic dialogue, 30 Rock embraced the joke. In fact, to quote Tracy Jordan, 30 Rock loved the joke so much it took it behind a middle school and got it pregnant.
I reckon 30 Rock had enough great one-liners to fill an encyclopedia and cure depression. Captain of Industry spoof Jack Donaghy was ever-humble: “I only pass gas once a year, for an hour, atop a mountain in Switzerland.” Tina Fey’s bumbling alter ego Liz Lemon had a useful lack of self-awareness: “I support women. I’m like a woman bra.” The Jiz — uh, Jack-Liz — relationship was a gold mine of comedy, including Jack’s bizarre mentorship: “Lemon, you look terrible, and I once watched you eat oysters while you had a cold.” Wise, impeccably coifed Jack could put anything in perspective: “You know how the media are. They wait for a mistake and that’s all you are. It happened to Hitler. No one ever talks about his paintings.”
Though the frequency of jokes created a certain predictability, the content of those jokes was a wild card. For example, when Jack announces he’s going to hire rival Devon Banks, Liz’s response starts as a straightforward joke, then goes straight to Mars: “He’s your nemesis! That would be like me hiring that mouse that keeps pooping in my slippers.” Tracy’s jokes were especially masterful, playing on his character’s idiocy, then delving into his insanity: “I do not want to disappoint my Japanese public. Especially Godzilla. I’m just kidding, I know he doesn’t care what humans do.”
Other show highlights included Frank’s hats, Pete’s doomed demeanor, Kenneth’s apparent immortality, and Jack’s vicious mother (played by the late Elaine Stritch). Jack’s mom was evil on a level that would scare Batman villains, and the performance took the show’s usual clever humor down dark roads that were more Edward Albee than SNL.
I’ll be working on this column for the rest of my life if I try to pick a Best Joke Ever, so let’s go with Best Episode Ever. Before re-watching the series, I assumed I would go with “Tracy Does Conan.” At its core, 30 Rock is about friendship and show business, and this episode is as laser-focused a look at both topics as the show ever achieved (MILF Island, aside). Also, “Tracy Does Conan” contains one of my favorite lines from any show, as an improperly medicated Tracy sees Pete with a toupee and makes the only logical assumption: “Past Pete came to kill future Pete!”
Despite the glories of “Tracy Does Conan,” I’m going with “Apollo, Apollo,” which centers on Jack’s attempt to locate two things: his favorite childhood toy and the more elusive feeling of childhood joy. Awesomely, Jack finds both.
In addition to Jack’s quests — both spurred by his 50th birthday — this episode is a gloriously overstuffed comedy meal. Tracy declares his intention to be a “hilarious astronaut,” a wish Liz and the gang fulfill by faking a space trip backstage, blindfolding him to prevent space madness. We learn the terms Lizzing (laughing while whizzing) and Jacking (laughing so hard you blorch). We see Jack’s fifth grade list of things he wanted to do by the age of 50, including items such as “Kiss Peggy Fleming” and “Hit Mom with a car” (both accomplished) and “Be friends with Batman,” which is sort of accomplished via a confused Adam West’s presence at Jack’s birthday party. We also learn that Tracy has longed since childhood to kill an Ewok. Man, who hasn’t?
The most important subplot involves Liz’s loser boyfriend Dennis, who returns claiming to be a sex addict — also, whoopsie, we learn that he slept with Liz’s best friend Jenna. This leads to big-time Liz-Jenna conflict, culminating in Liz passively trying to murder Jenna. When Liz is begging forgiveness, she plays the kind of card only longtime friends can play: she allows Jenna to tell the writers about Liz’s commercial back in Chicago. In this atrocious ad for a sex line, Liz is Bijou, a pizza-eating monster who isn’t even accompanied by a plausible phone number (1-900-OKFACE). Jack walks in, sees the commercial, laughs so hard he vomits, and experiences a moment of pure, giddy joy on his birthday — just like he wanted.
With the exception of unscripted fare like Curb Your Enthusiasm, you don’t see people laughing on sitcoms very often. Jack’s laugh explosion was refreshing and true to one of the best things that can happen in life: laughing so hard you almost have an out-of-body experience. I’ve only laughed like that a few times, and it’s a glorious release: like a juice cleanse for the soul.
As if that weren’t enough, this episode has a throwaway gag that steals the show, when we see the world through various characters’ eyes. Tracy sees everyone as looking like himself, which retroactively explains a joke in “Seinfeldvision” when Tracy thinks he had a threesome with Jerry Seinfeld only to realize, “I think that was a mirror.” Jack, ever the executive, sees everybody as price tags. But Kenneth sees everyone as Muppets, so for just a few seconds, 30 Rock turns into The Muppet Show.
Another show would have milked the Muppet motif for an entire episode. In fact, that’s pretty much what an episode of Angel did, when the vampire with a soul was turned into a Muppet by a cursed children’s show. But for 30 Rock, Muppetvision was just another gag, with no time to rest before the next one. Not even for Muppets.