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The Last Days of '30 Rock'

The birth, death and unexpectedly long life of this century's strangest and funniest sitcom

January 31, 2013
30 rock 1175 cover
Tracy Morgan, Tina Fey, and Alec Baldwin on the cover of Rolling Stone
Mark Seliger

To everything, there is a season to shut it down. Through seven years, 138 episodes, 14 Emmy wins and what its writers estimate as 23,000 hard-won punch lines, 30 Rock and its frequently food-stained heroine, Liz Lemon, have taught us that much, at least. (Other key lessons: "Never go with a hippie to a second location," and beware of the white dudes who "inject AIDS into our chicken nuggets.")

The show's final episode will air January 31st, so for Jack, Liz, Tracy, Jenna and Kenneth, for Grizz and for Dotcom, too, these are the end times. But on a mid-November day at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens, everything’s still in place. Since 2006, this warehouselike space, three miles and a borough away from NBC’s actual 30 Rockefeller Plaza headquarters, has been the cast and crew’s second home/airless-14-hour-a-day prison, and they still have a month left.

The creators of the just-­concluded Gossip Girl, which shot next door, have already packed up their stuff. But 30 Rock’s universe is intact for the moment, from the lizard tank and “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” gold record in Tracy Jordan’s dressing room to the majestic but fake views of the Manhattan skyline in Jack Donaghy’s office. They haven’t even gotten rid of the set for Elaine Stritch’s elegant Florida house, and her character is dead.

NBC wasn’t begging for an eighth season of a show that’s never had more than 8 million or so viewers, but ultimately, 30 Rock seems to be ending because Tina Fey is done with it. “There is no more,” says Fey, the show’s creator, star and showrunner (along with former Friends and Saturday Night Live writer Robert Carlock). “I love our crew dearly, and I hate being in the position of saying, ‘Sorry, we’re ending this nice workplace you’ve had for seven years.’ But, you know, the ratings continued to drop.”

Alec Baldwin went from trying to quit the show a couple of seasons back to lobbying for another season, even offering to cut his salary. He’s convinced that having a second child, in 2011, may have been the breaking point for Fey. “I saw a real difference in her,” says Baldwin. “Tina always had her antenna up, but this year was the first time where she came in and laid down on the couch on set, and you could tell, she’s a mom. She’s fucking wiped out.”

Now, the table read for the final episode is looming, and the actors are starting to get emotional – particularly the one who, not long ago, would go on local morning shows and promise to get everyone pregnant. Tracy Morgan is sitting at a craft-services table in a huge open hallway, right next to a lady cooking hamburgers on a ­tabletop grill. In front of him is a tray of buns and a selection of condiments. As vintage R&B plays over someone’s boombox, Morgan begins to weep.

He’s still dressed as his slightly loonier 30 Rock alter ego, Tracy Jordan, which means he’s wearing a diamond-encrusted TJ necklace over his yellow T-shirt and unbuttoned plaid shirt. Someone hands him a tissue. Still moist-eyed, Morgan points at a crew member, possibly at random, and says, “I spent more time with this dude than my own family!” I laugh, and he looks slightly hurt. “Good times, bad times, ugly times,” Morgan muses. “Awards fun, looking forward to spring. It’ll never happen again. I can’t explain.”

There is a definite hall-of-mirrors thing going on in the 30 Rock set, or to be more precise, a watching-The-Matrix-and-­Total-Recall-simultaneously-in-a-hall-of-mirrors-while-on-bath-salts thing. You’re on the set of an actual TV show that’s dominated by an elaborate set of a fictional TV show’s set, surrounded by actors who can be hard to distinguish from the people playing them. There are hallways that precisely duplicate backstage corridors in the SNL studios in the real 30 Rock. (“It’s almost as if, after college, I moved into an apartment that looked exactly like my dorm,” Fey once said.) The fake dressing rooms are upstairs; the real ones are downstairs. But Morgan doesn’t see much difference. “This has been my dressing room for seven years,” he says, surveying Tracy Jordan’s memorabilia.

Over by the fake writers’ room, Fey is shooting a scene in Liz Lemon’s office that will end the third-to-last episode, where she receives news that will lead nicely to the series finale. After completing a take, she snaps out of character, and her posture changes – she’s still dressed in Liz Lemon’s blazer, but she’s carrying herself as Tina Fey, standing up so much straighter that she grows a few inches. It’s oddly reminiscent of Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent straightening his spine into Superman. (“Awesome,” Fey says later. “Maybe I’ve been doing acting this whole time!”)

The scene also includes a bit where Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth (currently demoted to janitor) is pushing an overflowing hamper full of oranges around. As she emerges from Liz’s office, Fey asks, “Were they using the crateful of oranges in The Godfather style as the harbinger of the death of the show? I think we should say they were!”

“I don’t understand any of these references!” McBrayer says, sounding exactly like his character. Unsurprisingly, Fey created Kenneth for McBrayer, a Georgia native she got to know on the Chicago improv scene.

“In The Godfather,” Fey says, “whenever anyone dies, there’s oranges.” McBrayer, it emerges, has never seen the film. “But I’ve seen Hope Floats 13 times,” he says.

Back home, McBrayer says, people are similarly perplexed by 30 Rock itself – which may help explain why one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed and beloved sitcoms has never approached Seinfeld- and Friends-level popularity. “Hardly anybody in Georgia watches it,” he says. “It’s a very specific taste. My family doesn’t get it. They don’t watch SNL. There are no references for them to grab on to. There’s not a lot I can do to be like, ‘OK, here are these crazy references we’re making,’ because some of them I don’t get!”

For Fey, the biggest triumph of 30 Rock is its very survival: the unlikely persistence of a show sufficiently unhinged to use blackface on three occasions; to have Jane Krakowski’s monstrously narcissistic Jenna Maroney consummate her self-adoration by marrying her own male impersonator; to have Elizabeth Banks’ Avery Jessup kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il as an unfortunate consequence of NBC’s “Hot Blondes in Weird Places” initiative. “I feel like we made a lot of good episodes of the kind of show that usually gets canceled,” says Fey. “The kind where there’s 20 episodes and ‘only me and my hipster friends know about it.’ That part’s still true. But we made 140 of them!”

What’s really crazy about 30 Rock is its sheer verbal velocity – punch lines go by so fast that even smart people may need to rewind (an industrious blogger calculated that a 2010 episode averaged 9.57 jokes per minute). “It requires you to pay attention in a way that you don’t always want to at the end of a long day,” says Fey, “and I get that. I’m a professional comedy worker, and there would be days when I’m like, ‘I love Arrested Development, but I don’t want to watch it right now.’ ”

“They’re a throwback to a time where movies and television used words,” says 30 Rock executive producer Lorne Michaels, who argues that the show’s use of a movie-style single camera, with no laugh track, allowed them to speed up. “It doesn’t stop for jokes. You feel better about yourself watching it. At least I do.”

It’s not easy for the actors, though. I watch Krakowski burn through numerous takes as she attempts to make the following tongue twister sound like human speech: “I have this weird sick feeling in my stomach, like that time I drank antifreeze to frame José Canseco for my murder.” “We’ve all started speaking so quickly,” says Krakowski. “You have to really know your lines, because if you don’t say them fast enough, they’ll be cut.”

Fey had never written a sitcom pilot before she wrote 30 Rock’s, just as she had never written a movie script before Mean Girls. For all the show’s mockery of TV executives’ ideas, it was NBC VP Kevin Reilly who suggested Fey write a show about backstage life at SNL, after passing on her first idea: She would play the producer on a Bill O’Reilly-style cable program, with Alec Baldwin as the on-air talent. “The first pitch was not unlike The Newsroom on HBO,” she says. “It was good we didn’t try to do that, because I would have drowned trying to keep up with the subject matter.”

Fey was initially reluctant to pursue Reilly’s other suggestion. “It seemed so lazy to just write about writing.” It wasn’t until she thought of using Tracy Morgan on the fictional show that she reconsidered. “I thought, ‘Oh, this could be a thing.’ I was writing the pilot, I was writing a movie and I was trying to get pregnant, and I was like, ‘We’ll see what sticks,’ and what stuck was the pilot and I got pregnant.”

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