Conflict is the essence of drama. But it can also be pretty goddamned essential to comedy as well, as evidenced by “Standards And Practices,” a standout episode of 30 Rock chockablock with psychological warfare and intergenerational battles of the will.
“Standards And Practices” pitted Jack against Kaylie, the blonde teenaged granddaughter of his boss and his unlikely but formidable professional nemesis, writer Liz against censor Kenneth, Jenna against her long-lost demon-spawn and the gullibility of the American public, Tracy against all recognized standards of decency and ultimately a censorious Kenneth against Tracy’s incorrigible potty mouth.
There very well could have been something creepy and borderline unsettling about a middle-aged shark like Jack squaring off in a no-holds-barred mental skirmish with a girl barely into her teens, but Chloe Moretz of Kick Ass imbued her schemer with such smiling, sneering malice and guile that their psychological chess game came off like a war of equals instead of an unfair fight.
Moretz’s Kaylie undermines Jack and sabotages the much buzzed-about finale of America’s Kidz Got Singing by getting the prepubescent finalists smashed on beer. Jack is predictably apoplectic but Kaylie is able to manipulate Jack by toying with his emotions and presenting herself as a hysterical teenager overwhelmed by the Darwinian cruelty of high school politics, which are every bit as complicated, cut-throat and impossible to navigate as the boardroom of any corporation.
That’s why Jack and Kaylie are so evenly matched: each has to negotiate their way through an impossibly cruel system designed to crush the weak and reward the strong. In 30 Rock, as in real life, the boardroom and the high school class room are two sides of the same coin and two of the harshest realms known to man or teenaged girl.
Alec Baldwin was at the top of his game tonight. What other actor could pour such pathos as well as comedy into the line, “I once took a log with googly eyes to a father-son picnic” or make such a meal out of the line, “Once again, Lemon, I leave your office more confused than when I entered but having glimpsed yet another tile in the rich mosaic that is your menstrual history.” There is a rhythm and a cadence to Jack’s dialogue on 30 Rock when it’s firing on all cylinders that is utterly unique. At best, it’s the perfect fusion of actor and material, character and exquisitely crafted banter.
Jack wasn’t alone in facing down the unconscionable horror that is the contemporary teenager. When Jenna’s plans to trick the public into liking her by weeping during the big America’s Kids Got Singing (using “an old acting trick I learned from Glenn Beck’s prostitute!”) is upstaged by the finalists’ onstage drunkenness she resorts to another ploy to win over the hearts and minds of the public.
Reasoning that nothing humanizes a monster like children, Jenna reconnects with the six children she helped spawn by donating her eggs during her lean years at the Calumet Egg Donation Center House of Blues. Jenna’s demon-spawn consist of five perfect blondes who all seem to share her bone-deep superficiality and underlying awfulness and a chubby brunette Jenna regards with barely concealed horror.
Jenna sets out to exploit her instant quasi-family by showcasing them during her appearance on Barbara Walter’s Ten Most Over-Exposed People but they turn the tables on their would-be mentor by excluding her from their Bravo reality show for being too old. In their minds, they’re the impossibly beautiful Girls Next Door and Jenna is nothing but “the old boat captain who shows up some times.”
That’s a great line that speaks to the cruelty and fickleness of the pretty and vacant and young. One generation’s ultimate alpha-male exemplar of upscale cool is another’s “old boat captain who shows up sometimes.” The young were put on earth to devour the old.
Liz, meanwhile, finds herself facing an unexpectedly fierce adversary in Kenneth, whose raging prudishness and love of television find their ultimate expression in his new position as a network censor. A power-mad Kenneth decrees that nothing more objectionable than “dingbat” will ever afflict the viewing public, much to the chagrin of Liz, who has come to rely upon cheap shock and profanity in lieu of genuine inspiration.
It’s a testament to Liz’s fundamental powerlessness that she oftentimes doesn’t seem to have any sort of control out of the words that come out of her mouth. When she sneaks into a bathroom stall next to one where an overwhelmed Kenneth is weeping because he doesn’t think Liz respects him under the guise of being one Kenneth Toilet Hole (a familiar but inspired riff on the old comedy convention that people in desperate need of a fake name will choose one based on whatever they’re looking at during that exact moment), she seems shocked and more than a little horrified by just about every she ends up saying, even if she does end up giving Kenneth the pep talk that he needs.
In a bid to work around Kenneth’s censorship, Liz unwisely empowers Tracy to devote an entire episode of TGS to his unrelentingly filthy and offensive stand-up act. A revitalized Kenneth climactically swings into action by heroically live-bleeping Tracy’s entire performance and wins a promotion and the undying appreciation of his peers (especially Liz) in the process.
“Standards And Practices” ends with a series of callbacks to the episode’s clever running gags. Kaylie obliviously ends up recycling both Jenna’s trick for faking tears and Liz’s ploy of creating a fake name by combining the person she’s talking to with items in her immediate field of vision (in this case, she creates a phantom being named Jackie Office Coach). Liz ends the episode by having dinner with Kenneth both as herself and the mysterious Kenneth Toilet Hole and Jack closes the episode by squaring off against a man he hired to attack him at random intervals to keep him sharp and on his toes.
A professional and personal Royal Rumble for the 30 Rock gang, “Standards And Practices” wasn’t just consistently funny and filled with inspired conflicts and memorable lines: it was also understatedly elegant in its storytelling and language. For a show that begins with a dude falling down and yelling, "Ow, my penis!" that's not half bad.
- Jenna calling children “condom accidents” was cruel and funny in equal proportions
- Kenneth’s overjoyed delivery of, “a wonderful new show from D.L Hughley that’s already been cancelled!” was perfect. I always like it when 30 Rock references the corpse of its old adversary Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, directly or indirectly
- I like that Kaylie’s mother’s “charity” is a place “where poor children make shoes” otherwise known as a sweat shop
- Adults terrorizing children: almost always funny
- According to Jack, The PATRIOT Act deputizes any white male to arrest any other person. Good to know.
- Tracy figures out the twist ending of M. Night Shyamalan’s masterpiece: “I finally understand the ending of The Sixth Sense. Those names are the people who worked on the movie!”
- I similarly enjoyed Kaylie’s sinister delivery of “I just had Fruit Roll-Ups for dinner…at a strip club.”
- Is it just me or was Jenna’s line about her “children” suckling at her teat to kick off their reality show an homage to the infamous Louis C.K-written opening of The Dana Carvey Show?