You might be familiar with the "very special episode" format employed by sitcoms in decades past, in which a show that typically made viewers laugh would get serious for a week to address a social issue. It's an admirable way to get people to pay attention, but a comedy doesn't always have to change its tone to examine important issues — TV can make us laugh and think at the same time.
One of the best examples of a show that never compromised its comedic point of view to make a statement is 30 Rock, which first aired on NBC 10 years ago today. Creator Tina Fey has called the show "a sardine can full of jokes." Indeed, as anyone who has watched 30 Rock knows, you can barely finish laughing at one clever line before it's on to the next one. But don't expect that concentration of jokes to diminish much just because the show is addressing an important issue.
30 Rock was adept at satirizing both the entertainment industry and society at large. Watching it in today's tense political climate, it feels ahead of its time. In an August 2016 Wired article titled "In a World Gone Blerg, We Need 30 Rock More Than Ever," Brian Raftery explains how the show "offers a soothing alternative to reality: A series in which a bunch of at-oddsballs attempt to openly (and clumsily) talk about racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, and classism — all without shouting each other down."
Let's look at five episodes of 30 Rock that touched on real issues through spot-on humor. As Liz Lemon herself said of the variety shows she watched as a kid, "it's funny 'cause it's true."
1. "Somebody to Love" (Season 2, Episode 6)
Liz has a new Middle Eastern neighbor named Raheem (Fred Armisen) whose behavior she finds suspicious — not shaking her hand, maps on the wall, training in the park. She defends her liberal mindset ("I never make assumptions about race") but eventually reports Raheem to homeland security. It later turns out that everything Liz saw as a sign of a possible terrorist attack was actually just Raheem practicing for The Amazing Race. Liz's teachable moment shows that even those of us who preach progressive values can fall into biases — a message that is just as relevant today as it was when the episode first aired in 2007.
2. "Stone Mountain" (Season 4, Episode 3)
In an effort to appeal to "middle America," NBC exec Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) travels to Georgia to find a new comic who will speak to "core American values." Liz accompanies him, although she insists that "no part of America is more American than any other part." Jack soon learns the truth when the ventriloquist he initially admired begins telling offensive jokes. 30 Rock adopts a cynical view of things ("All God's children are terrible," says Liz to Jack), but it's important to remember that no single group should be put on a pedestal — there's good and bad to be found everywhere.
3. "Let's Stay Together" (Season 5, Episode 3)
When Jack is criticized by a congresswoman (Queen Latifah) for NBC's lack of diversity, he quickly promotes Toofer (Keith Powell) to co-head writer of TGS. It backfires, of course, as the episode highlights the way the entertainment industry often does the bare minimum in terms of representation and expects an immediate pat on the back.
At the same time, the show also spoofs political pandering through Rep. Bookman's ridiculous appeals to emotion. At one point she shouts, "I may have lost my train of thought several minutes ago, but if I continue to talk like this, no one will notice, and when I stop, you will applaud my energy!" We can all probably think of a politician who does the same.
4. "Stride of Pride" (Season 7, Episode 3)
This episode is a double-whammy of feminist issues. When Tracy (Tracy Morgan) tweets that women aren't funny, Liz sets out to challenge him. It's an assertion that's been made by several male comedians, and even by the late Christopher Hitchens in an infamous Vanity Fair article. Of course, the hilarious episode itself is all the argument you need that yes, of course women are funny — it was written by Tina Fey.
Meanwhile, another plot in the same episode tackles ageism in Hollywood. Jenna (Jane Krakowski) plants stories that she's older than she is in order to garner praise for her comparatively youthful appearance and "escape the curse of the middle-aged actress." One need only read what countless female celebrities have said on the subject to understand just how much this problem rings true.
5. "Florida" (Season 7, Episode 10)
Jack travels with Liz to Florida to handle his late mother's estate, and Liz soon puts together that she was romantically involved with her female live-in nurse. Jack doesn't initially accept the idea that his mother was in a same-sex relationship, but when he realizes how happy she was in her final days, he thanks the woman she was with.
It's also worth noting that this episode briefly addresses the question of why Jack and Liz, the show's male and female leads, never became a romantic item. It was refreshing for a series to portray such a close relationship between a heterosexual man and woman as purely platonic, with no hint of future romance. While some fans still wanted to see them together, others hoped the show would never take that route. And it didn't.
Cover image via NBC / Netflix