It’s been 10 years since Tina Fey first shuffled onto our TV screens as 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, an irritable sketch comedy writer who reserves most of her affection for sandwiches and, eventually, her conservative corporate overlord, Jack Donaghy (an inimitable Alec Baldwin).
30 Rock began on October 11, 2006, as Fey and Robert Carlock’s straightforward comedy about what it’s like to work on a show that was essentially Saturday Night Live if it just gave up completely. By the end of its seven seasons, though, 30 Rock became one of the sharpest and weirdest shows on TV.
The backstage scenes of Liz’s show were dominated by spotlight addict Jenna Maroney (the iconic Jane Krakowski), demanding star Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan at his goofy best), and their devoted page Kenneth (the ever earnest Jack McBrayer) — and they got more and more surreal with every passing episode. Characters spit acidic jokes at each other so quickly that soon enough, watching an episode just once through was never enough to catch them all.
That “bizarre and esoteric” reputation isn’t exactly what Fey intended, though. As she revealed in her memoir Bossypants, her “embarrassing secret” about 30 Rock is that they “weren’t trying to make a low-rated critical darling that snarled in the face of conventionality.” Instead, she wrote, “We were trying to make a hit show … we were trying to make Home Improvement, and we did it wrong.”
But even if the show was dogged throughout its run by the low ratings that come with being a strange critical hit, thank God 30 Rock failed at its original mission. There are easily a dozen shows like Home Improvement airing at any given time, but there has only ever been one 30 Rock.
And so in honor of 30 Rock’s 10th anniversary, here are five episodes that exemplify its glorious weirdness.
(Note: there are so many weirdo 30 Rock episodes to pick from, so yes, I’m aware I missed your fave.)
1) “Black Tie” (Season one, episode 12)
There are far better episodes of 30 Rock than “Black Tie,” but there may not be a stranger one, thanks to the storyline involving Jenna trying to seduce inbred Austrian heir “Gerhardt Hapsburg” (né “Gerhardt Messerschmidt Rammstein Von Hap”). Played by Paul Reubens, Gerhardt’s storyline was nothing but bizarreness for its own sake, and it cemented 30 Rock’s off-kilter reputation.
Fey herself calls this episode the death knell for 30 Rock’s attempt at normalcy, writing in Bossypants that with “Black Tie,” 30 Rock “had found its voice, and it was the voice of a crazy person.”
2) “Rosemary's Baby” (Season two, episode four)
Every one of the plots in “Rosemary’s Baby” is the platonic ideal of a 30 Rock plot. In one corner, you have Liz rallying behind her idol — a veteran TV writer played to unhinged perfection by Carrie Fisher — only to have it blow up in her face. In another, there’s Jack trying to keep Tracy from doing whatever he wants through the dubious use of family therapy role-play, while Jenna gets lost in the underground world of the NBC page system.
This was one of the first episodes to preview exactly how bonkers things would get on 30 Rock, not to mention the total commitment of its actors.
3) “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001” (Season four, episode seven)
Honestly, picking just one exemplary 30 Rock from its third and fourth seasons is a gut-wrenching choice, since those seasons represents 30 Rock at its best. But the one episode I never skip when it comes up on my Netflix queue — which at this point is mostly reserved for 30 Rock, anyway — is “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001,” which details the meltdown of Liz and Jack’s potential advice talk show in spectacular fashion.
(To give you a brief idea, it all ends with Liz locking herself in a dressing room while hysterically sobbing out of her leaking mouth.)
4) “Queen of Jordan” (Season five, episode 17)
A total diversion from 30 Rock’s usual format, “Queen of Jordan” followed Tracy’s wife, Angie (a hilarious Sherri Shepherd), as she shot an episode of her Bravo reality show. Writer Tracey Wigfield clearly knows her Real Housewives tropes inside and out, as seen in everything from Angie’s inane but undeniably snappy catchphrases (“ham!”) to the chyrons accompanying everyone’s behind-the-scenes interviews (Liz’s: “Lisa Lampanelli?”), to everyone swapping turns throwing wine in each other’s faces.
(As a bonus, this is also the first episode to heavily feature Tituss Burgess’s scene-stealing D’fwan, which led directly to Fey writing him a part on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.)
5) “My Whole Life is Thunder” (Season seven, episode eight)
The 30 Rock finale is one of the better series finales out there, but the best episode of the seventh and final season is “My Whole Life is Thunder.” It not only let Jenna be her purest (read: most narcissistic) self as she tried to stage a surprise wedding, but allowed Jack to send off his mother Colleen, as played throughout 30 Rock by a fantastically brittle Elaine Stritch.
This hilarious and even poignant episode is a forceful reminder of just how unusual a show we got for an improbably long time.
All seven seasons of 30 Rock are currently available to stream on Netflix.
Correction: “Dealbreakers Talk Show #0001” did not mark the first appearance of Elizabeth Banks as Jack’s brilliant journalist girlfriend, Avery Jessup.
(Note: this is not a correction on my previous assertion that Avery was Jack’s best partner, since that’s just an irrefutable fact.)