'Rock' bottom? Not if Fey can help it
By Matea Gold
Los Angeles Times
By Matea Gold
NEW YORK — Just this spring, the prospects for "30 Rock" appeared grim.
The behind-the-scenes look at a late-night sketch-comedy show, whose debut was overshadowed by another NBC series set in a similar milieu, had suffered paltry ratings in its freshman year and appeared on the brink of cancellation.
So no one would blame creator Tina Fey for exulting in her recent change in fortune. After all, not only was her sitcom picked up for a second season (while its dramatic counterpart, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," met an untimely end), but "30 Rock" also garnered a whopping 10 Emmy nods, including one for comedy series, making it one of the most-nominated television programs of the last year.
Last season, the sardonic workplace comedy, which gleefully plays off the dynamics between exasperated head writer Liz Lemon (Fey) and pompous network executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), drew glowing reviews but an average viewership of just 5.8 million people.
"It's very flattering that we're well thought of among our peers," said the show's executive producer and star, who also writes a large share of the episodes. "I'm hoping that maybe this will help other people know that the show even exists, and maybe we'll be able to pick up some viewers."
One of her strategies: shorter scripts.
"We were shooting scripts that were 33-34 pages long, and then jamming that into 21 1/2 minutes by talking fast and not letting anything breathe," Fey said. "While I think it makes the show good for reviewing, maybe we could leave a little more air around the jokes."
The crackling send-up of office politics, television culture and social mores is shaped by the chemistry of its ensemble, including Tracy Morgan as volatile star Tracy Jordan, Jane Krakowski as the self-absorbed Jenna Maroney and fan favorite Jack McBrayer as Kenneth the page.
After nine seasons on "Saturday Night Live," during which time she penned the hit movie "Mean Girls," the 37-year-old found taking on a weekly sitcom like nothing she had attempted before. But amid her exhaustion, Fey said she grew as a writer and an actress.
"Everyone on our writing staff had more half-hour experience than I did, and I've learned a lot about story and that kind of stuff," she said. "And just getting to sit opposite Alec Baldwin, hopefully, I've learned a little bit from him, because he's just such a great actor. I think a paper bag would learn something."
While her acting in some early episodes was drubbed by critics, Fey's performance later in the season drew comparisons to Mary Tyler Moore. She ultimately was nominated for an Emmy as lead actress in a comedy series, a category, she said cheerfully, "I do not have a chance in hell of winning." Still, "hopefully, it will legitimize me in some way," said Fey, who also got a nod for comedy writing.
Liz Lemon is based on Fey and other key women she worked with at "Saturday Night Live," but she said the character has evolved to be "less and less exactly like me."
"Her day-to-day life is much different than mine," Fey added. "She's just living a life that fortunately I never had to lead. I didn't have to be single in my 30s in New York."
The scenario has proved to be a rich comedy vein as Liz is cast about from one humiliation to another, including an embarrassing relationship with a beeper salesman.
"I hope women especially relate to the fact that we try to keep her pretty realistic and truthful," Fey said. "In some ways, she's the antithesis of a 'Sex and the City' lady, in that she's not constantly in fabulous environments with beautiful people hooking up. Watching that show about midgets and eating a block of cheese is a big night."