30 Rock showrunner Robert Carlock walks us through some series highlights (Part 3 of 4)
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Robert Carlock, 30 Rock’s co-showrunner alongside Tina Fey, is walking The A.V. Club through a handful of episodes from the show’s six seasons. Following Part 1 and Part 2, this section includes highlights from seasons three through five.
“Reaganing” (S5/E5, Oct. 21, 2010)
Jack tries to solve everyone’s problems; Liz is having intimacy issues with her boyfriend Carol (Matt Damon); Tracy is filming a commercial for the Boys & Girls Club Of America and keeps botching his lines; and Jenna scams the Carvel ice-cream company with Kenneth’s help.
The A.V. Club: You were talking about wondering what the show is like when you remove its central characters from the fold. “Reaganing” was one of those episodes, where everyone but Jack was in a different place.
Robert Carlock: That episode started with a similar question. We ended up opening it up just out of necessity, but it started with the question of, “Can we just put Jack and Liz in one place and have them talk about something?” In the original draft, they did that in the limo the entire time. It ended up feeling a little claustrophobic, and we needed to get them out of the car and have them doing some stuff. And that’s also another good example of the crazy silliness affecting the Jack-Liz story.
AVC: This episode prominently features Alec Baldwin doing a Tracy Morgan impression, which he did in an earlier episode, too. Did you always know he was capable of that?
RC: He came in with that. But as soon as we knew, we had him do Tracy’s whole family [in “Rosemary’s Baby”]. He likes to do his Tracy. We knew he had a De Niro and a Pacino. We weren’t sure about the Tracy Morgan.
AVC: So how does that even happen? Do you stumble upon it one day and then try to use it whenever appropriate?
RC: It can go either way. Yeah, you file it away, or you run into the end of an episode and you know more can come out of it. The other way it happens is that it’s born out of when Tracy was doing the therapy, and we were really beating our heads against how that story would end, because it was a fairly internal problem they were both having—a problem that would cross over for the two characters about their own childhoods. It was born out of finding similarities between Jack and Tracy. They just seemed to be on opposite ends of the earth. But they both had difficult childhoods and absentee parents, and that kind of thing. So we knew it felt like interesting ground. Playing the whole family—that’s asking an actor to really go out there on a limb, and boy, he did it. He just went for it, and that was when we knew we could have him do anything.
RC: I like that episode a lot. Just because there’s a Jack-Jenna story in there. We don’t do a lot of those. What’s been fun in the last couple years is, she is such a horrible, shallow person, and she was originally designed to be this kind of go-to for Liz and a best friend. But that felt like we were limiting Jane [Krakowski]; it was so funny playing this other thing. I feel like this past year has been so good. It’s been fun working ourselves back out of her being such a terrible person, and finding her way to telling a love story—which of course started as the question of “Whom could she fall in love with? Whom could she give a piece of herself to?” Of course, someone’s doing an impersonation of her [played by Will Forte]. So she basically fell in love with herself. Just trying to humanize that character has been a fun challenge.
AVC: You’ve said that season one was about developing Liz and Jack’s relationship, and season two was about fleshing out the world with these other characters. What was your MO for season three?
RC: Well, with season four, it was us really needing to explore deeply emotionalizing these people, because in part, I wanted more ammunition. I felt like it was getting a little convoluted. Over the six years have been two cycles. Seasons one and two set us up for the fun of season three. And it was paying off because we’ve done all this work for two years, of being able to tell Jack-Frank, Jack-Jenna stories. We can tell Liz-Jenna stories. We can tell Tracy-Jenna stories. We can tell stories with all our people. We can bring in all kinds of crazy guests. So season three was letting that motor run. Season four was, “All right, let’s take another step back and really delve into deepening Liz’s emotional life and her larger goals in life. Same for Jack and Tracy and Jenna.” So season three felt like hitting this sort of stride that we had earned for two years.
AVC: The cycle is firmly in place.
RC: This is the first time I’ve described it that way for myself. But it seems like it works that way, especially when you have a show that’s as information-hungry as this show is. We tell a lot of jokes. There’s a lot of density of story, and it can be exhausting for us as well, as I’m sure for the viewer. But that’s what it is. And that tank needs to be filled up again.
“Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001” (S4/E7, Dec. 3, 2009)
Liz’s new talk show is about to debut, and Jack is getting pressure from Devon Banks to make it a success. Tracy decides to “EGOT”—to win an Emmy, a Golden Globe, an Oscar, and a Tony—so he can be remembered as a success.
RC: “Dealbreakers” was a tough episode. The end of that year, the staff gave me a T-shirt that—I write on the dry-erase boards. There was a scene at the top of that episode that was just EDB, “Establish Dealbreakers.” It was part of another scene, but the note in the outline was to remind the audience what “Dealbreakers” is, and why it’s importance to Liz or whatever. And it just became grinding gears. So they gave me a T-shirt that’s a picture of the board that says “EDB” on it. One of the hard things writing for Liz Lemon is because of Tina. Tina’s open to anything as long as it makes sense and is comically sound. Writing for Liz in some ways is harder than writing for other characters because she is kind of the moral center. We don’t want her and Jack to fly off into Tracy-Jenna land—which Tracy and Jenna get away with on I think a more grounded level because they’re actors, and there’s a certain kind of unacceptable behavior that is acceptable for actors.
But also, Liz starts the whole series having a lot of the things she wants. She has a show on TV, she has a nice apartment on the Upper West Side. And the things she doesn’t have, we’ve continued to explore them for six years, but it’s the perfect mate and the family and the whole picture: happiness, having it all. The things other shows have told in other ways. So a lot of her stories end up being other people causing problems for her. And “Dealbreakers” was an attempt on our part just to take a break from relationship stuff. We’ve done a lot of it. We didn’t want it to become a kind of assembly line of guys going by. We certainly didn’t want it to become that we’re investing in this guy intensely, and now he’s going to go shoot a movie and now we’re going to stop hearing about him, and the actor is going to have to leave. Sort of a trap we thought we could fall into.
AVC: So you were using “Dealbreakers” to raise the stakes for Liz?
RC: Right. Well, that’s how we were more successful, because I think if something goes wrong with [TGS] or what-have-you, that can affect Jack. That can affect Frank. That can affect Tracy. At that point, it felt like we had put the show into jeopardy enough times, and leaned on that. We were trying to find another place for Liz to go, and it was frustrating because we just found ourselves not caring about it too much. That’s always a bad sign. I think we are pretty successful at being our best critics, and usually by the time we’ve reached the point where we’re like, “This next rewrite is the thing we’re going to shoot,” we’re pretty diligent about getting rid of the junk. But sometimes you go down a road. You get my point that this wasn’t my favorite episode for Liz Lemon, but you have to be able to pull the ripcord and get out of there. It’s just hard, and at the end of the day, I’ve been so surprised how successful we’ve been.
AVC: Do you feel that way about Tracy—that you have to always have something new for him to do? This was the episode where he was trying to EGOT.
RC: In some ways, it’s less of a challenge, because that character can have episodes where he’s not featured, where he’s just the comic business—and it’s priceless the way he is the comic business. He can do anything—both because he has the means and the lack of superego—and that’s also a trap. It also can make him a character that you don’t begin to care about for a minute. To what degree we’re successful at this, I don’t know, but we’re very conscious of keeping—he epitomizes silly stories told with a foot in reality.
And if you actually look at the character, he has the most stable married relationship of anyone. He’s desperate to be a good father, but all his crazy flaws get in the way of it. All the clichés we could have fallen into of drug use and philandering are actually assumed for a little while, but turn out to be nonexistent. He has crazy but fairly sophisticated political beliefs. He’s actually a stickler for grammar, if you look at a lot of the consistent jokes we tell. And so the thing, to answer your question, of what we’re always trying to do with him is make sure he doesn’t fly off into the stratosphere. It’d be very easy to have him do that. Coming up with stories is not the hard part. But how can we tell stories that surprise? Admitting to Jack that he’s never cheated on his wife: He’s ashamed of that, because his whole persona is this wild person. So you wouldn’t want to center a show around Tracy every week, but the balance of that character is fun.
“Floyd” (S4/E16, March 25, 2010)
Frank, Toofer, and Lutz lash out at Danny, the new cast member, after he gets flattering press. Liz unexpectedly gets a call from Floyd, who happens to be in town, and she thinks things are about to be rekindled.
AVC: Danny was around a whole lot this season, and now we don’t see him much anymore.
RC: We don’t. Cheyenne Jackson is so talented. The world is just overpopulated.
AVC: What led to your decision to bring him on?
RC: Well, we have short attention spans. We thought it’d be a good source of story to have a new person, because we get bored quickly. Then we settled back into our old rhythm, and it was just silly. We turned around this year and realized we hadn’t used Cheyenne much. And he’s great, but there’s not a ton of room in our choked universe to bring him in there.
AVC: This is the same episode where you brought back Floyd, who hadn’t been on the show since season two.
RC: In our minds, his character sort of hung out there. Our intention at the beginning was that that character would be the one that got away from Liz Lemon. That he was perfect in every way, except that she couldn’t bring herself to move to Cleveland. That she would explore making that decision, and then maybe he would come back. And as you point out, we just hadn’t thought it out too well. We had moved on creatively. As much as we liked the idea of that being out there for her, it felt like time to have closure. Every time we brought on a new guy for Liz, we would have a larger discussion about what Floyd represented, and just started to say, “Let’s not have it be Floyd at this point. It’s been four years.”
AVC: So when you were bringing in Jon Hamm’s character and the others, you were still talking about Floyd?
RC: Yeah, the original goal of the character was that the only thing between them was geography.
“Lee Marvin Vs. Derek Jeter” (S4/E17, April 22, 2010)
Jack must decide between his past love, Nancy Donovan (Julianne Moore) or his new fling, Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks). Toofer is afraid he was hired on TGS due to affirmative action.
RC: What I like in terms of Jack and his emotional life is that with a lot of these high-powered guys who are used to being in control and succeeding at a very complicated level in a lot of fields in life, their romantic life is a mess. And this was the most complicated it got. We liked the idea of someone from Jack’s past. Now Julianne’s character, Nancy, coming back and being able to call bullshit on him and on his [lack of] accent—we were trying to build the obvious dichotomy for the character: the warmth of the past, and home memories, and age-appropriateness and everything, and the other person.
AVC: Did you feel the need to actively spell out that dichotomy on the show?
RC: Well, we try not to. My memory of that was that it was a network note, and we kind of mocked it a little bit. I think it was Liz. We try to show rather than tell, and when we’re forced to tell, we do it as intentionally ham-fisted as possible. I think we got a strong note to make sure his conflict was clear. We felt like it was clear, so like school children, we do it in an obnoxious way. But that’s not usually our M.O. We prefer to be a little more subtle. You could say that that’s just a lazy way to take a note, but I’ll leave it to the reader to decide.
“TGS Hates Women” (S5/E16, February 24, 2011)
The self-proclaimed “Joan Of Snark” blogs about how TGS doesn’t have any female writers, so Liz hires Abby Flynn, who acts like a “sexy baby.” Liz becomes determined to uncover exactly who this writer used to be. Jack encourages Kaylie Hooper to become a marine biologist, not knowing she’s playing him for a fool.
RC: When Tina first pitched the show, when we first sat down as writers back in 2006, we knew we wanted to tell stories about race, gender, and socioeconomic differences—things we don’t feel get touched on too much in a half-hour. It was virgin snow we could play in.
AVC: Was this episode intentionally about the Jezebel article calling out The Daily Show for not having enough females involved in production?
RC: Jezebel says plenty of snarky things about Tina Fey. It was sort of fun to take a thinly veiled shot/tip of the hat to Jezebel, but it was also that we’re always talking about those kinds of conversations and those kinds of stories. I don’t know that The Daily Show/Jezebel thing was happening when we broke that story. But Jezebel exists, and the conversation exists, and whether it was started by them or not, our story brought us back to the online blogosphere effluvium of opinion that’s out there. But it started, and I think in my memory, in a smaller place of Tina’s own experiences, of very much being in the center of those kinds of conversations. Certainly some of them are positive, and some of them aren’t.
AVC: It’s unfortunate people feel the need to keep having those conversations.
RC: That was our starting point—“Boy, this conversation keeps happening; we should have a take on this conversation.” I don’t think our take is terribly deep. It was more about having this conversation more than anything else.
AVC: There was a New York Times article recently that led with something to the effect of, “Every few years, people ask whether women are funny.” And I thought, “Yeah, it keeps getting asked because you ask it.”
RC: Well, and The New Yorker had Anna Faris a year ago, said how she’s funny like a guy, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading in 2011. That anyone is still interested in that article of how women can be funny. That anyone is still interested in an article where its angle is, “Can women can be funny?” is appalling. It’s a conversation to one’s own navel, I think. It really is. I’m phallus-skeptic. I think the point of Tina Fey’s existence is to prove that that’s not a conversation worth having. And so that was a fun episode for us to do. Certainly zeitgeist-y, but not specifically about that. It was more, I think, that Tina and her friends who are female comics get caught in that crossfire all the time. So we thought to put Liz in the holier-than-thou position of supporting women, and getting it all wrong. Because as soon as you start talking about someone else’s inner life, you’re probably going to be wrong. Because that’s what most of that conversation is about, other people’s intellectual processes, and it just feels self-defeating.
AVC: You were able to set yourselves up at the beginning of the show to have these conversations.
RC: Yes. The base goal—which can sound perhaps too high-minded—was always comic, but people don’t do funny stories about race and gender and sexual politics and economic politics so much. And at the very least, that’s stuff for us to take advantage of. One of my favorite stories ever was Liz, in her horrible liberal nonsense, thinking Tracy might be illiterate, and deciding to treat it in the most kid-gloved way possible. Tracy, meanwhile, wanted to take full advantage of that, pretending to be illiterate so he could do whatever he wanted. That was episode four or something, very early, but it was one of those moments when you have a little breakthrough of, “Okay, maybe this will offend some people who don’t get it, but we have this to ourselves. No one else is fighting for this territory.” [Laughs.] Maybe that should have been a hint.
Tomorrow: part four.