There was a very clearly defined moment where I fell in love with 30 Rock.
It’s seven glorious seconds early in the second season, when comedian Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) performs his Monster Mash-inspired novelty song Werewolf Bar Mitzvah, containing the immortal couplet “Boys becoming men / Men becoming wolves”.
Up until then 30 Rock was an above-average workplace comedy drawing on creator Tina Fey’s time writing for Saturday Night Live. It had come out at the same time as another comedy-show-about-a-comedy-show, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and at first it seemed like the lesser of the two.
Nowadays, though, Studio 60 only ever gets mentioned in the context of articles about 30 Rock, which ran for seven seasons from 2006 to 2013.
It was one of the last of the single-camera, shot-on-film comedies ahead of the multi-camera, more improvisation-friendly series like The Office and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and now seems an artefact of a very different time. Perhaps that’s one reason why it is also my go-to comfort viewing.
Fey is excellent as the central character Liz Lemon, head writer of the show-within-the-show, TGS. It’s also one of the very, very few comedies that knew how to do a good running gag – whether that’s her boss Jack Donaghy (the never-better Alec Baldwin) and his frequent “good god, Lemon” or the impossible-to-copy vocal fry whenever Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) pronounces “cam-er-a” – an actorly touch presumably learned at her alma mater, the Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks.
I’ve watched it so often that I can drift off with it playing and pick up immediately whenever I wake up for, say, the moment where Liz sings her self-penned lyrics to the Star Wars cantina song, or what is rumoured to be the most expensive joke of all time: a five-word gag based on Bob Seger’s Night Moves which involved paying out an eye-watering amount for the music rights.
It also successfully explored increasingly weird backstories for their secondary characters. Sometimes it was there to force a plot point – such as discovering that producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit) was an Olympic-level archer or had a brief stint as third guitarist in Canadian rock band Loverboy – but at its best it evolved with the show, as with the gradual implication that perpetually chipper studio page Kenneth Parcell (played with gee-shucks brilliance by Jack McBrayer) is actually an immortal creature of mysterious provenance. (“I hope I photograph OK,” he cheerfully explains at one point, “because when I look in a mirror there’s just a white haze.”)
It should be noted there are some bits of the show that have aged less like fine wine and more like poorly refrigerated meat. There’s an episode in which it’s revealed one of the writers was groomed by his schoolteacher (played, inexplicably, by Susan Sarandon), which is played for laffs rather than horror. There’s also an unsettling amount of blackface, occasional gay slurs, rape jokes and some downright transphobic quips, which are now making me wonder why I love this show so much.
On the other hand, there are some jokes that resonate far more strongly these days, such as Tracy yelling “You’ve got a lot of nerve getting on the phone with me after what you did to my Aunt Paulette!” at Bill Cosby, for example, or the many (many, many, many) Harvey Weinstein jokes. Maybe they were trying to tell us something?
Incidentally, Werewolf Bar Mitzvah was written by one of the junior staffers on the show, Donald Glover, who became a comedy star in Community, then a serious actor with Atlanta, and then a globe-straddling hip-hop icon as Childish Gambino. That’s an origin story to rival Batman’s.
• 30 Rock is streaming now on Stan