Robert Carlock walks us through highlights from 30 Rock’s six seasons so far (Part 1 of 4)

Robert Carlock walks us through highlights from 30 Rock’s six seasons so far (Part 1 of 4)

30 Rock is a tentpole show in many ways. It’s beloved by critics. It’s won multiple Emmys. It’s a goofy meta-commentary on TV production that has made its way into the mainstream, thanks in large part to its stellar cast and comedic mastermind/creator Tina Fey. But credit is also due to Robert Carlock, who was brought on board early in the pilot process, and now serves as the co-showrunner alongside Fey. Carlock sat down with The A.V. Club right after he wrapped production on the show’s sixth season to walk us through a generous handful of episodes from 30 Rock’s history. Check out part two here.

“Pilot” (S1/E1, Oct. 11, 2006)
New NBC executive Jack Donaghy insists Liz Lemon add Tracy Jordan, a caustic but marketable celebrity, to the cast of The Girlie Show, so Liz spends the day with Tracy sizing him up. Jenna Maroney, the egomaniac star of the show, worries her place at the top will be snatched away.

Robert Carlock: I had worked at Saturday Night Live for five years, and produced “Weekend Update” when Tina [Fey] started doing it with Jimmy [Fallon], and had been a writer with Tina for three years. We stayed in touch when I was out in L.A. I’d left SNL just knowing that either you leave or you stay forever, and I knew that I wanted to run a show someday, and I just don’t think it happens that much out of the sketch world. So I went to L.A. to get half-hour experience, and I kind of thought that I’d be in Los Angeles forever, but Tina was grinding away at her thing, and had even sent me some drafts. She called out of the blue and ordered me back to New York, which I was happy to do. 

The A.V. Club: Originally the plan was that you were going to help with the show, just as a friend?

RC: Yeah, I looked at a draft or two and I flew out. The pilot shoot was eight days and I came out for four of those days and just helped oversee things. There wasn’t much that needed to be done, and didn’t really realize at the time that I was roping myself into being part of the show. We came back—my wife and I and our 1-year-old at the time—to New York just seeing it as a good opportunity, to work with Alec [Baldwin] and to work with Tina and Tracy [Morgan]. There were a lot of people that I’d written for before, and I really liked working. We moved to New York with six or seven bags for the three of us, having a lot of confidence that we could do a really funny and good show, but thinking, just from an actuarial standpoint that, especially with Studio 60 [On The Sunset Strip] out there and having billboards in Times Square and on Sunset Boulevard, that we would be back in Los Angeles before too long. That was now over six years ago.

AVC: So you knew about Studio 60 while working on the pilot?

RC: Sure. If you recall, how could you not be aware that Studio 60 was coming? It’s kind of that simple. It took a little getting my mind around the idea of picking up stakes—we had just bought a house in L.A., and now had moved back to New York. But I tend to bet on Tina Fey, so I’m going to continue to do that as best I can.

AVC: Were you involved with the first pilot that costarred Rachel Dratch, before they cast Jane Krakowski?

RC: When we reached out to Jane, that was technically our first week in production on the show. We did that in August of ’06. I don’t think I was there for any of Rachel [Dratch’s] work. Obviously, Rachel’s hilarious and great, and pilots are weird things. Weird stuff happens on pilots. 

AVC: This wasn’t your first pilot experience, was it?

RC: No, I’d been involved with a certain Friends spin-off that I refer to as Joseph, to make it sound a little more inspired. This obviously was kind of the inverse of that experience. There was no way for that show to be what it needed to be. It was going to be light and frothy, and it needed to hold Thursday night for the network, and it could only fail. Whereas we [30 Rock] were kind of the underdogs for years. We continue to be the underdogs, if only by definition. It can be very uncomfortable. We were living week to week a lot of the time at the beginning of the show—and not only the beginning. Not an optimal position to be in, but it does hone a certain fighting edge at least. You don’t get complacent. I guess Tina and I are more comfortable in that position than in any other, so it worked out okay.

AVC: Do you remember your initial impression when you first read the pilot?

RC: I can probably make up what my initial impression was, because I don’t remember it that clearly. Every year you used to get this big paper packet of pilots, and your season would end; you’d have some time, so you’d wonder what people were up to. Your friends’ names would be on things, or people you knew’s names would be on things. I would always try and make an effort to read and see what was out there. [Our pilot] certainly distinguished itself by simply being funny. It’s pretty rare that you read a [good] pilot. For a couple of reasons, one of which is: A pilot is just a hard thing to do. You’re being introduced to new characters and new people and a new world, and to get pulled into that in a way that makes you laugh is just a difficult thing to pull off. Especially on the page. So you had the benefit of going, “Okay, I know this is Tracy. I know this is Alec. I know this is Tina.” So yeah, most things out there are pretty bad and this was really funny. That was the main thing that stuck out. I think to this day Tina denigrates her own pilot, just from a storytelling standpoint, but it’s rare you get the kind of stories the show becomes. The pilot is rarely the show. I think there are things you can look at and say, “Oh, the pilot told you exactly what you were going to get down the line.”

AVC: Story in comedy is usually secondary to character moments further down the line, but in pilots there’s a lot of story.

RC: I agree. I don’t know what kind of notes she got during the process, but absolutely, because what she did so well is every character had a big moment or two that told you what that character was, and told you what the fun of writing for them or watching them would ultimately entail. The big challenge coming off of the pilot was, “Okay, how do we take these fun people and these dynamics…” The dynamics between people were very clear. The tension between Jack and Liz, and between Jenna and Tracy, between Liz and Tracy, the whole spider web of show-business politics and interpersonal politics was all very, very clear. Yes, you’re right, from a structural standpoint it couldn’t be more different from the kinds of shows we do now, but that’s all entirely dependent on what she built there, which was this whole jewel box of weirdos. 

AVC: When I see a comedy pilot and it’s really plot-heavy, I find myself tuning out. It seems shows take their cues from dramas as far as pilots are concerned. 

RC: Yeah and there’s always the onus of exposition, the “Ever since I was a little girl,” aspect of it. “Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to work in advertising,” or whatever stakes you’re supposed to believe in the pilot. The “Look, we’ve been brothers ever since we were born,” kind of horrible, sweaty exposition that the writer deserves to pave over with some jokes. Give some specificity. But it’s a hard, hard thing to do when you have zero context. On the other hand, having done it for six years, there’s the fun of the shorthand that develops over those six years that you hope exists, at least in the writers’ room and hopefully with the audience as well, where you continue to not have to, hopefully, allow yourself to get dragged into the exposition quicksand that a lot of pilots get dragged down into.

AVC: At the time, how much did the critical comparisons between you guys and Studio 60 impact your work? How closely do you follow that sort of stuff?

RC: I tend to let critical reception trickle down. There just isn’t the time to absorb everything, nor is there, I think, a single voice anymore that I can say, “Oh, okay, I have to know what The Times is saying,” in part because of places like The A.V. Club where it’s become so much more democratic. And I just don’t have time to keep track of all of it, but I’m still very aware of what’s going on, or what’s being said. All of it is with a grain of salt, whether it’s praise or condemnation. In terms of the pilot? Yeah, that was inevitable. What I think started to happen fairly quickly is that we began to be compared favorably to Studio 60. Of course, Aaron Sorkin is one of the best writers out there and that was what was fascinating about that show, was watching him try to do something that he couldn’t quite pull off. He acted on our show as well. It was fantastic. He’s a double threat. 

I spoke briefly to Matthew Perry at the upfront. He was very gracious. I think maybe because he thought it was all over for us. [Laughs.] No, he was always a good guy to me… Look, I think at the end of the day it benefitted us, because his show, again, didn’t work, and [Sorkin] is one of the best ever. The comparisons began to be, “Oh, that’s the funny one that’s about a funny television show.” The underdog status, I think, was a great benefit. We could hide a little bit.

“Jack The Writer” (S1/E4, Nov. 1, 2006)
Jack attempts to interact with the staff by joining the writers for an episode, which causes Liz major frustration. The friendship between Kenneth and Tracy blossoms, to the point where Kenneth ends up dining with Tracy’s wife as his surrogate.

AVC: Jack and Liz started to become friends in “Jack The Writer,” which is different from their antagonistic relationship in the pilot. It’s amazing how far they’ve come in six seasons.

RC: Exactly. We knew that our No. 1 challenge, goal, opportunity as writers after the pilot was to make that relationship something more than just two people butting heads. 

AVC: What gave you that impression that you needed to change that?

RC: Well, first of all, that was Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey. If that wasn’t going to be the center of the show, I don’t know what was. We wanted to tell stories and have a show that was full of nuance between people and between jokes; and if we left it as she’s modern day Mary Tyler Moore trying to make it in the city, and he’s just going to be her nemesis or just going to be someone who thwarts her artistic fancies or whatever else? That’s using just the buffalo’s tongue when you’ve got one of the best actors ever, we wanted to use every tool at our disposal. And if we left Alec in that position, as Ted Knight, as the corporate buffoon, as the stuffed shirt that doesn’t get it, then we would be failing in our duty at the end of the day. My goal at the end of that season, in short, was to make them friends. They’d never be girlfriends, they’d never be singing into hairbrushes together. That’s the beauty of the relationship. There’s always that tension. He always knows a little bit better, or thinks he knows better and is usually right.

They’ll never be exactly equals. But by the end of that first year, there’s a scene where he goes to Liz for advice about this rash engagement he undertook with Emily Mortimer. To me, from a show-running point of view, that was the great victory of the year, that we’d managed to get them from that contentious relationship that could have stayed there. You knew what space she occupied, you know which space he occupied, neither of them was 100-percent right in their point of view, and they could have continued to just grind away at each other. By the end of the year I think we’d managed to earn that kind of scene, while not having given up the kind of “Lemon, those shoes are terrible,” of it all or, “Jack, your Republican platitudes are hypocritical at best,” kind of thing. So there was still that kind of friction, which I think is necessary, and “Jack The Writer,” while maybe not our best episode ever, it was an episode that was very conscious of that goal.

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AVC: It seems very direct, because you literally place him right in the writers’ room. 

RC: Exactly, and this is something that Alec talked about early in the life of the show that he was fascinated with. As a creative person playing someone who’s very much unlike him, obviously politically, but just in terms of getting or not getting what creative people go through—and one of the things that he wanted to emphasize is that this is a guy, and part of his character’s journey is he does not get it. I think a few years later, you could say that he does get it to a much greater extent. There were future episodes where he’s defending Liz’s creative prerogatives, and maybe even episodes where he’s selling out his business’ best interests for her or for the show. So we wanted to stake that claim of, “Okay, he doesn’t get what she goes through every day. He doesn’t get the creative aspect,” and that was sort of a naked demonstration of how little he gets it. Part of the journey for Alec, and us as well, is him starting to get it. I’ve always thought of the show as, in a lot of ways, if Jack and Liz are the axis on which it turns, then sort of pushing them towards a middle ground, a Venn diagram where they overlap. The character Jack might think that what he’s doing is pulling Liz up to the light and Liz may insist she’s making him less of a stuffed shirt and less of a suit, and neither of them are quite right, and they’ve both equally grown closer in orbit.

AVC: How much does that mirror your experience working as a creative person in the industry dealing with people who are the suits?

RC: That’s a good question. I think in general anything we try to do we’re hoping mirrors broader experiences than those within the industry, but of course, it is a show about the industry. For the most part we’ve been very lucky in terms of the executives we’ve dealt with. They’re people who get it. For the show to have survived, the people had to have gotten it. 

AVC: John Landgraf at FX gets a lot of positive attention because he’s famously very hands-off. He doesn’t want to be involved in creative decisions. So there’s that extreme, and then there’s the extreme of somebody who meddles constantly and then gets it wrong, but I imagine there can be somebody who can meddle constantly and get it right. 

RC: Well, that person would probably be a writer and not an executive. But yes, of course that could happen. And we’ve, over the years, gotten good notes and good big-picture notes. When we first started there was a little more, I think this is one of the episodes on your list [“Black Tie”], but when we dressed up Paul Reubens as an inbred Habsburg heir and had Jenna wanting to marry him, despite the fact that he had an ivory hand—I only bring it up because it’s an obvious example—and another one that was on your list, an example from earlier on in the show was episode seven, “Tracy Does Conan,” which was sort of an experiment in form. We’d been thinking of ourselves as a three-story show, and that’s sort of a one-story show, Tracy’s breakdown is kind of driving everything, with a little Jack runner where he’s getting ready for a dinner and he wants a joke from Liz, but it’s also driven by the energy from that one thing. At the end of the day it’s about Tracy being off his meds and seeing a purple creature and that, similarly, was an early attempt on our part to plant our flag and say to NBC, not every week, but, “This is the show and every week you are going to get jokes like this.” We want to tell stories about dating and marriage and relationships and things that are human and emotional, but they’re going to be through our lens. We’re going to be telling a story of two people breaking up, one of them is going to be holding a gun on the other one on an airplane. It’s not going to just be a quiet conversation in a parked car as the rain beats on the windows.

“Tracy Does Conan” (S1/E7, Dec. 7, 2006)
Liz decides to break up with Dennis, and the gang prepares Tracy to go on Conan O’Brien’s show without acting weird.

RC: There was a certain amount of resistance at the network level. In time, there was a lot of trust at the network level. We had to say, and led by Tina—and this is one of the many great benefits to having Tina, to having Lorne [Michaels], to having Alec—“The train is leaving the station. This is what we’re going to do.” We had to be able to say no to them. In that first season, there were things in that first year or two that they didn’t want us to do. I don’t know, maybe some would make the argument today that it kept us from being some enormous hit, but that was always what the show was going to be, what it wanted to be from our point of view, our sensibilities. Yeah, “Tracy Does Conan” was one of those episodes. 

To answer your question about executives, the show challenged them creatively, and I wouldn’t say there were fights, but there was resistance and at the same time. There were times where their resistance, their questions, highlighted things that we ourselves were feeling doubt about, and that’s sort of what pushed things over the edge. End of season two, we kind of adopted this idea that Liz wanted to adopt a baby, and we had an end game for it because we were hoping the show would go a lot longer, and obviously that kind of swing is the thing you do a little later in the life of a show, because the last thing you want to do is have Liz run around with a baby for five years. That wasn’t what the show was. That wasn’t what the character was. So we had a very 30 Rock way to get out of it next year, which was that she came back from Eastern Europe with a 14-year-old kid, that was the best she could do. We actually shot a piece of this as a tag to the end of that season, and they were going to be gypsy robbers to clear her out and rob her apartment, and she was going to say, “You know, I think I’m going to put the adoption thing on hold for a while.” We hadn’t fully beaten it out, but it turns out that she was going to have a Liz Lemon sort of disastrous adoption that was going to be in keeping with the show, twists and then twists. It was going to be the world’s worst adoption. 

So we had already shot it, we had cut it together with the tag of her pushing a stroller, literally, with a 14-year-old in it, the 14-year-old was smoking, sitting in the stroller. In the backs of our minds we had questions about whether that was too extreme, especially as the end of season. And season two, living day to day, that was something that we were pushed against, and we responded to the resistance and cut it. Now, years later we would be ruing the fact that we just abandoned that plot line sheerly out of necessity. Even if it does seem ridiculous, we did have a plan for it. We would tear our hair and beat our chests a little about the fact that we didn’t see it through. But I think it was for the best. In the later years of the show we can pick it up again, which is something we’re in the process of doing later in the season. 

AVC: “Tracy Does Conan” is the episode where Liz decides to dump Dennis, which is a big thing for her character. Considering Tina is the other showrunner, how do you approach her with stories about Liz? You’re writing for her character, which is a lot like Tina. What’s that relationship like?

RC: She is an ideal person to try and do that with. All of our actors are, in their way. They get what we’re trying to do. My relationship with her is much more day-to-day. Yeah, she’s the creator and other showrunner of the show, but it’s very easy to be honest with her. As much as possible, she’s in the room, she’s a part of that process, she’s a part of that conversation.

AVC: Are there times where she’s like, “This is what Liz would do,” and you’re like, “I don’t think so,” and she counters with, “Yeah, but I play her”?

RC: No, she doesn’t play that card so much. It’s her show, so she has the right to and the ability to, and she exercises it sometimes, to say no to certain things. She’s on board with something big-picture, we can figure out how to execute it to her satisfaction. It’s not fraught, I guess is the answer. Conversely, it’s easy for her to say, “Look, I feel like Liz is getting beat up a lot lately. Let’s try to give her a win,” and we’re more than happy to do that. Ultimately, we want to, because in the life of a show you have to dole out the wins sparingly, but that’s always a line to walk with her, because she is willing to do so much comically. She is willing to have food thrown at her or to dress up like an old woman Joker, like she did this year.

Sandwich Day” (S2/E14, May 1, 2008)
Floyd visits New York for work, and asks to stay with Liz. She thinks there’s something more, but he eventually returns to Cleveland. Meanwhile, the teamsters get sandwiches from a secret deli in Brooklyn for the entire cast (an annual tradition), and Liz must decide whether she should eat her sandwich or corner Floyd at the airport.

AVC: Obviously we’re going to have to talk about the “Sandwich Day” episode, literally eating a sandwich in real time.

RC: Oh my God. It was amazing. I was on the set for that, and I thought there were three or four bites left, then she negotiated. They say men are better at spatial relationships, at like maps and stuff. But she shifted, Rubik’s Cubed that sandwich in which she turned those three or four bites into one glorious final bite. It was a masterwork. 

I think that’s a good example of a lot of what we’ve been talking about. Because we didn’t start with this question. It was, “Okay, Floyd comes back and they get in this fight,” and it sort of ended with it seeming like we’re ending with a run to the airport, which is something you’ve seen a million times. “So how can we make this run to the airport a 30 Rock run to the airport?” he said in a world-weary voice. But that’s always a fun challenge, to say, “Okay, maybe you haven’t seen this run to the airport before.” One of the things I always like is when the C-story, the little runner—in this case the sandwiches and the teamsters—ends up supporting or even answering or complicating the main story. I always feel like it makes the episode feel more cohesive and it makes that little C-story feel more important. When those runners are self-contained, I always feel like, was that worth it? Was it worth the crew’s time to shoot just that collection of jokes? To combine Liz Lemon’s love for a good sandwich with her very confused feelings about a man and to have that come together at the end, it was very satisfying for us. I think our best episodes do that, it all thematically ties together at the end, and that the sandwich could be the complication was very satisfying.

AVC: Dan Harmon on Community famously has a process by which he comes up with plotlines for episodes.

RC: Some people in the room were talking about it. The embryo? Is that what it is?

AVC: Sort of. He says there are eight parts to a circle, and episodes go around that circle until they’re back to the beginning. Do you follow a similar process, with circles for each of the characters?

RC: We have our own way of doing that. It’s not codified in that same way. I still lay out stories on the board, like most shows do, not in a circle.

AVC: That might have been an extreme example, because he’s a pretty obsessive guy.

RC: He is, I mean obviously, that show makes me laugh every time. There’s something about the circles. We try to ask ourselves consistent questions that might lead to a lot of the same process in terms of how this particular starting place is ultimately about the characters’ relationship. How does a story about Liz and Dennis become about Liz and Jenna, and how does that story affect the Jack story? Where are the thematic overlaps? Where are the ways where this is a cohesive whole and not three or four separate, if diverting, pieces? The goal is always to be doing our 22 minutes where there’s as much connection between people and between stories and between ideas as possible.

So I think we ask a lot of the same questions, but I’ve not yet reinvented boarding an episode. I’ll work on that next year. I’m going to invent the pyramid. It’s going to be amazing. It’s going to revolutionize the way comedy is talked about in writers’ rooms.

Tomorrow, part two covers guest spots from Steve Martin, Al Gore, and Jerry Seinfeld, plus getting Alec Baldwin to properly mispronounce “cock-fucker.”