To my surprise, somehow 30 Rock has gone its entire 5 years without a full Mockingbird treatment (Tina Fey mentions excluded). This is surprising mostly because in addition to being some of the best comedy on television, the show is incredibly thoughtful about human nature and relationships.
To begin with, the first thesis of 30 Rock is that everyone is crazy. For anyone who has seen the show, this is the root of the its brilliance. The viewer is given a God’s-eye-view to see people as they actually are without any filter. Jack (the CEO) is obsessed with his own greatness and need to keep up appearances. He is the ruthless right-wing businessman who has sold his soul for the company’s bottom line and his high standing in the company. Liz is the supposedly high-functioning one running the show, but she is always distracted by her inept personal life. Tracy Jordan, an actor, is ignorant of everything and childishly impulsive. He never shows up to rehearsals on time, rarely remembers his lines, and seems to only care about his street-cred. Jenna Maroney, another actor, is self-absorbed with her own greatness while insecure that she will lose her supposed fame. If the spotlight isn’t on her, she’s trying to steal it from someone else. Kenneth (the Page) is always torn in between his modern life in New York and his antiquated, back-woods childhood. While this makes for hilarious comedy, it’s also indicative of the shows view of people in general. Everyone is caught within a web of competing demands, complicated by personal histories and utter ineptitude. As Liz once said in a visit to find wholesome, normal America in Kenneth’s hometown, “All God’s children are terrible”.
This leads to the core conflict of the entire series. How will this insane cast of characters survive? How will TGS happen every week? While the show has wavered somewhat away from this as of late, the second main thesis of the show has been this: if you just let crazy people be crazy, then real creative genius happens. As Jack told Liz at the end of 4.4 (Audition Day):
All actors are crazy and the more talented they are, the more crazy they are… Your job is to manage the crazy and bring out the talent.
Manage here doesn’t mean “reform”, but often takes the form of simply letting it be and handling the consequences. This is a non-preemptive, passively reactive approach to difficult people. It assumes that people will be people and there is no way to change that. This grace-filled approach to life goes to great lengths to acquiesce to the demands of crazy people.
For example, in order to pamper Jenna’s unbalanced ego, Liz always posts on Jenna’s fan site and calls in to her radio shows. When Tracy wants a vasectomy, Jack refers him to Dr. Spaceman. When Kenneth throws a party no one is going to attend, Liz and Tracy try to get people there by spread rumors about how great it is going to be. It’s best to not be the one to destroy someone’s delusions so that when the breakdown occurs, you can be the one to help pick up the pieces. True friends suffer each other’s craziness.
Conversely, all attempts to control, rehabilitate, or manipulate the craziness always end in disaster. When Jack tries to get Tracy to sign a post-nuptial agreement out of a fear for Tracy’s financial security, Tracy backs out at the last-minute. When Liz reprimands Tracy in front of the staff for his continual lateness, Tracy acts out in a new and more harmful way. When Liz tries to make her boyfriend (John Ham) reject the privilege he enjoys from his good looks, they break up. When Jenna tries to teach Tracy how to be an actor, he quits. No matter how well-conceived the plan, it always back fires and makes matters worse. Theologically speaking, this demonstrates that the law increases the trespass.
In this world of hands-off management and care-free naivety one would expect everything to end in disaster. Such irresponsibility could only mean the cancellation of TGS. We live in an adult’s world and surely childish misconduct cannot be tolerated, right? Deadlines have to be met!
But 30 Rock resounded contends that the efforts to attain some semblance of order are misguided and ultimately hostile to genuine growth. Instead, the proper environment for human flourishing is the absence of control and structure and a willful overlooking of people’s craziness. What often appears as insanity is the prerequisite to a new beginning. In this way, unbridled creativity only comes through freedom – freedom that in practice looks a whole lot like chaos (see Mark Galli’s 2011 MB Conference talk here).
Don’t let the hilariously unrealistic comedy fool you. Underneath it all lies a true-to-life fable of the benefits of chaos and destructive power of control.