The Meta Follies

Illustration by Wes DuvallPhoto: Mary Ellen Matthews/Courtesy of NBC (30 Rock); Trae Patton/Courtesy of NBC (Community); Bob D’Amico/Courtesy of ABC (Modern Family); Courtesy of FOX (Simpsons)

Watching six hours of documentary might sound brutal, but IFC’s epic interrogation of Monty Python not only didn’t bore me, it knocked me into a state of ecstatic, nostalgic bliss. The dead parrot! The penguin on the television set. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition”—these sketches should have felt dated, written as they were in the sixties, by Brits raised in the forties. Yet they made me laugh as hard as they had when I’d first seen them as a nerdy teen, in the eighties, in reruns. All that silly, dirty, angry imagery, the furious policemen and batty grannies and upper-class twits—caustic surrealism and high-flown wordplay that had blown my tiny mind back in those earnest days of The Cosby Show. Even today, they were still funny.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was created by writers who had grown up without television: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, and Terry Jones. The BBC itself was in its youth at the time, and yet the troupe scrabbled aboard like pirates, mocking their corporate sponsor’s conventions just as they’d begun to harden into clichés: pompous voice-overs, glib game shows, earnest nature films, and do-gooder propaganda. “I’d never seen anyone sort of explode the conventions of TV before, mocking television,” British comedy writer Stephen Merchant marvels in the documentary. “That seemed really naughty, you know, saucy and quite adult.”

This is the nature of TV comedy: The most brutally original material so often originates in a satire of television itself. Almost all sketch-comedy shows cling to TV clichés like snickering parasites, from Saturday Night Live to SCTV to Jon Stewart. I Love Lucy starred a famous woman playing a nobody desperate for fame. Mary Tyler Moore was about TV news. The early Simpsons was a caustic blowback to the corny Cosby era, stuffed with critiques of traditional family series. Similarly, Seinfeld was designed to subvert the sentimentality of other sitcoms; Strangers With Candy parodied afterschool specials; Arrested Development riffed on the then-new conventions of reality TV. (In an age of self-documentation, mockumentary has become the natural format of today’s comedies, including this season’s best new series, Modern Family, which plays like an Arrested Development with warmer undercurrents.)

30 Rock is, of course, the latest and currently the greatest of these Ouroborosian comedies—the satirical snake that eats its own economic tail. Just as Monty Python mocked the BBC and The Simpsons satirized Fox, 30 Rock has a perverse, nearly sadomasochistic relationship with its corporate masters at NBC, making it the rare modern sitcom to be centrally concerned with money and class. Like Seinfeld and Lucy before it, it’s a meta-autobiography, a mirror of the troubled television industry seen through the biography of its creator. But while the series began as a meditation on Tina Fey’s experience as head writer on Saturday Night Live (it was the underdog, back then, to Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), it has become, with critical success and Fey’s own growing fame, a surreal reflection of her job as show-runner of 30 Rock itself. Take that, Larry David.

For the first two seasons, the series mined beautifully the dark dance between Fey’s Liz Lemon and her boss Jack Donaghy (brilliantly played by Alec Baldwin). Liz was a great creation, a nerd Mary Tyler Moore with less spunk and more acid. Each week, she was schooled and seduced, pressured to do product placement, contribute to NBC’s green week, write a reality-TV pilot—and she’d inevitably protest, then cleverly make her case, before giving in. In the show’s best episode, Carrie Fisher showed up as Liz’s seventies comedy-writer heroine. Thrilled by her role model’s lefty bravado, Liz quits, then reconsiders when she contemplates a life in “Little Chechnya,” collaborating on projects that will never get made.

In the final scene, she tiptoes back to NBC, telling Jack she’ll fix a smutty comedy sketch G.E. objected to—and she asks him for guidance: “I want to do that thing rich people do where they turn money into more money. Can you teach me how to do that?” “With my eyes closed,” says Jack. It’s a love scene.

The episode was a prickly, effective defense of the satirical possibilities of the mainstream, scoring points with its own witty structure. During a writing-staff meeting, Fisher’s Rosemary scoffs that you can’t create edgy racial humor if you give in to censors—but her argument is rebutted in the next scene, when Baldwin performs a solo tour de force of ethnic stereotypes. This was mid–season two, when the show’s theme was the necessity of corporate compromise. But by the third season, Liz had given in so many times that any resistance was token, like a woman gesturing at her purse after the 30th lobster dinner. 30 Rock was winning Emmys, Fey was a magazine cover girl, and her series began ruminating guiltily about star privilege. Liz dates a wealthy man, then one so beautiful he gets preferential treatment everywhere he goes; she agonizes about her elite health insurance and briefly becomes a lady of leisure.

With next Thursday’s premiere, the show dives right back into NBC’s financial wreck, with winks at 30 Rock’s indie status. “We’ll trick those race-car-loving wide loads into watching your lefty homoerotic propaganda hour yet!” Jack says. A few of the early plots are limp, including a Three’s Company–like misunderstanding about Liz and Pete. Harder hitting is a parody of the writers’ strike, a scenario that explodes when Kenneth discovers Jack’s paycheck—so big it folds out, despite Jack’s demands for company-wide cuts. Led by Kenneth, the pages picket NBC. Kenneth is incorruptible, he even sees through all of Jack’s lies. But the plot resolves with a cynical twist, a reflection of the union’s willingness to settle for token gestures. It also suggests an unsettling shift in the series itself: With Liz co-opted, Jack’s antagonist is now Kenneth, the lowest man on the NBC totem pole, someone so pure, so easily gulled, he’s no threat at all.

Still, I have to admit the last line of the show literally made me gasp. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it was the kind of fuck-you to NBC and its flagship properties that would seem incredibly subversive if it weren’t for the fact that it’s airing on NBC. And by the second episode, the series has found its juicy rhythms again, with rat-a-tat riffs on government bailouts and the return of Will Arnett as Jack’s corporate enemy, who has been busy infiltrating the Obama administration through playdates with Malia.

30 Rock has made me laugh harder in the last few years than practically any other show. But I do wonder how it’ll fare in reruns: Will it last 40 years, like Monty Python, or is it more like SCTV, an influential series that now feels musty, its targets having faded long ago? I’ve been reading John Ortved’s unauthorized oral history of The Simpsons, a pleasurably nasty account of collaboration and backstabbing. Ortved captures the excitement of the series’ radical beginnings, back when Bart Simpson was considered a dangerous role model and the first President Bush complained that families should be “a lot more like the Waltons and a lot less like the Simpsons.” (The writers wedged Bart’s comeback into the intro: “Hey, we’re like the Waltons! We’re praying for the end of the Depression, too.”)

But as Ortved points out, with time, the show stopped being subversive or even challenging—not merely because it’s nearly impossible to keep writing cutting-edge comedy past a few seasons, but because the culture itself had embraced the show’s rhetoric. “Do the Bartman” was a radio sensation, and the series became a patriotic favorite and, finally, the tired flagship brand of the network it once mocked.

For all of the technological changes afoot in television, no one’s got a time machine. Monty Python launched when TV was so disposable the BBC nearly threw out the show’s reels. To discuss the skits, you had to act them out—you never knew if you’d see them again. In contrast, 30 Rock’s audience will recap, rewind, analyze it into atoms. TV is something we archive, believing it will last. But even this cycle may be temporary: Who knows what shape TV will take as it moves online? Even if 30 Rock isn’t funny for the ages, it might be something just as interesting: a time capsule of the crisis that turned TV into something new.

See Also
John Cleese Slams Ex-Wife, Terry Gilliam, Republicans, His Hotel …

Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer’s Cut)
October 18–23 at 9 p.m.

30 Rock
October 15 at 9:30 p.m.

The Meta Follies