To be a celebrity as narcissistic and egomaniacal as Jenna Maroney or Tracy Jordan is to inhabit a world where you consider yourself the epicenter of the universe and to be surrounded by flunkies professionally and/or financially obligated to feed into that delusion.
On TGS, Kenneth The Page is one of those celebrity enablers who allow Jenna and Tracy to linger under the delusion that the world revolves around like them. No longer. In “Today You Are The Man,” Kenneth finally musters up the gumption to protest the way he’s being treated.
Kenneth is fine with being treated like a serf. He’s subservient by nature, the sort of cheerfully self-negating people-pleaser who happily gives 110 percent of his wages to his church, but he draws the line at being treated like an inanimate object. Kenneth is fine with being treated like a dog. After all, dogs serve a useful purpose in his world by providing milk for babies. But being treated like a broom? That’s one indignity too many, even for Kenneth. So he finally stands up for himself by changing places with Hazel Wasserman (Kristen Schaal), a page from The Suze Orman Show as misguidedly ambitious as Kenneth is generally content with his lot in life (Schaal is one of the only actors or actresses in the world capable of matching Jack McBrayer for moony innocence and daft sweetness).
Kenneth isn’t the only TGS fixture making an uncharacteristic stand for him or herself. Faced with yet another dispiriting, innately doomed contract negotiation with Jack, Liz discovers a secret weapon: a Jack Donaghy video on how to triumph in negotiations. Liz discovers that the only way to beat Jack is by using his strategies against him.
But it’s not enough to merely employ the Jack Donaghy method to gain the upper hand: No, in order to truly meet a corporate warrior like Jack on the field of battle, Liz must become Jack, down to his weatherproof, unmovable hair. Jack is of course savvy enough to realize that Liz is using his tools against him and is vain enough to welcome the challenge of essentially negotiating against himself. (In an unfortunate turn of phrase, Jack describes the situation as “Jack Donaghy: playing with himself. It’s a Jack-off!”) When Liz doesn’t prove a skilled enough surrogate, Jack decides to cut out the middle man (or woman) and negotiate against himself.
Jack-versus-Jack turns into a verbal clusterfuck so complicated and convoluted it’s hard to follow it, but Alec Baldwin takes such joy in squaring off against his most intimidating foe (shades of both The Colbert Report’s “Formidable Opponent” segment and the classic bit from this series' early years where Baldwin-as-Donaghy played multiple members of Tracy’s family simultaneously) that it’s possible to find the bit entertaining even if you’re completely lost.
It’s not at all coincidental that Jack Vs. Jack also recalls Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s On First,” a routine Jenna and Tracy are asked/forced to perform when they agree to appear at their accountant’s son’s Bar Mitzvah for a huge fee and discover, much to their horror, that the brat in question professed to love The Girly Show sarcastically and forces Jenna and Tracy to make his dream of a Transformers-themed Bar Mitzvah a reality. Sort of. A shitty, shitty, half-assed reality.
It’s the old sitcom switcheroo: The normally subservient Kenneth and Liz find themselves angling for positions of power (or at least respect), while the normally arrogant and powerful Kenneth and Jenna find themselves at the mercy of the capricious whims of a snotty 13-year-old boy who behaves like a monster of id and ego because, like many 13-year-old boys, he’s afraid of girls.
In “Today You Are a Man,” everyone learns a little too pat and neat a lesson. In a rare moment of self-reflection and honesty, Tracy and Jenna realize that, like the Bar Mitzvah boy who whines and complains because he’s terrified of dancing with a girl, they order people around and flex their power in arbitrary ways that have nothing to do with how they’re actually feeling or what their real needs are. They vow to use this epiphany to improve their lives, and the lives of everyone else at work.
Jack, meanwhile, learns, as Jewel has taught us, that emotions aren’t just a form of weakness; they can also be a form of strength and a powerful tool. He’s equally surprised to learn that he gives Liz all she asks for because he genuinely likes her and wants her to get what she wants.
Ah, but it’s all an elaborate negotiating tactic: Liz can't bear to see Jack look weak and defeated, so she concedes all her demands, only to have Jack relent, having scored a moral victory and learned a lesson or two about money and emotions himself. In the end, everyone gets what they want. Jack gets to remain the master negotiator; Liz gets both her cut of the merchandising and the mentorship of a happy, dominant Jack. Kenneth, meanwhile, finally begins to envision a world and a life beyond the NBC page program.
This last development represents an actual change. More than any other character, Kenneth is defined by his job; he’s Kenneth The Page, for chrissakes, and it's weird to envision him as Kenneth the non-page. In a mostly justified bit of self-congratulation, Liz/Tina Fey breaks the fourth wall and looks into the camera and optimistically opines, “After six years, there’s still room for growth in this friendship!” Yes, there is. There’s also room for new characters: Apparently, Schaal is booked for a multi-episode arc. It’ll be interesting to see what the show does with this new addition, though “Today, You Are A Man” illustrates there’s plenty of juice left in the show’s well-oiled machinery as well.
- “You’ll be back to submitting topical menopause jokes to Joy Behar by fax”
- Jack’s patented negotiating tactics (Sorceror’s Apprentice, Pirate’s Holiday) sound like sexual positions and/or theme park rides at Disneyland
- “How Jewish is everyone here? Because I may need to change my act.”
- “Getting paid to help a boy become a man. It’s kind of my wheelhouse.”
- “Have you not read the poetry of Jewel?”
- Nobody can deliver a line like “He’s a white man with hair, Lemon. The sky’s the limit!” like uber-alpha-male Baldwin, God bless him.
- “I am using my once in a lifetime interruption to point out I am not even a dog to you. After all, when a dog’s gone, everyone’s upset because there’s no dog milk for the babies."
- “Your charity is nothing but a front that has done nothing to make this country safer from Godzilla attacks.”
- “I bet he’s going to tell me I can’t write off my shoplifting.”
- “I have a new assistant. She’s a cool college student from South Africa.”
- “May I please talk to pizza?”
- “Who’s on first? That’s the phrase I couldn’t remember.”
- “An amazing rendition of 'What’s The Guy Who Plays First Base?'”
- People under the age of 30: Are y’all familiar with “Who’s On First?” or has that been relegated to the realm of comedy geekdom? Just wondering.