30 Rock is subversive — and I mean that as a good thing

I don’t know what Tina Fey’s politics are, and I don’t want to know. The NBC show 30 Rock, which she writes and in which she stars is one of the best social satires around, which includes repeated deft and funny political asides. The show skewers both parties with such a light touch that, merely watching it, it’s impossible to tell with certainty which side of the aisle it favors, and that despite the fact that Alec Baldwin is a vocal Democrat and despite the fact that the show occasionally has Fey’s character, Liz Lemon, make remarks favorable to Democratic policies. With regard to these last, it’s impossible to tell whether she is using the show as a forum to advance these policies, or if she is ridiculing the Hollywood types who unthinkingly spout the can she sometimes throws in.

To the extent she may be a Democrat, or is believed to be a Democrat, Fey is allowed to get away with things that would never be tolerated on some imaginary Rush Limbaugh network. Last night’s show was a perfect example, in that it revolved around the guilt that permeates liberals’ relationships with individual blacks.

[SPOILER ALERT: THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS GIVE AWAY PLOT AND JOKES. IF YOU WANT TO SEE FOR YOURSELF WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT, GO HERE AND VIEW EPISODE 16. AND IF YOU WANT TO SEE AN EPISODE THAT HAD BOTH ME AND MY HUSBAND IN TEARS OF LAUGHTER, VIEW EPISODE 15.]

The show’s premise was that Fey’s character went out on a date with a black man, only to discover that they were completely incompatible. When she tried to tell him during dinner that she didn’t feel they had anything in common, he insisted (loudly) that she was rejecting him because he was black. When her friend asked her later how she handled this situation, she confessed that she did it the only way she knew how: some light necking in the taxi, followed by the promise of more dates. She then wondered aloud how many more dates she’d have to go on before she could break up without being accused of being a racist. All the while, in her interactions with black people in subordinate positions (delivery man, secretary), she repeatedly patronized them, being overly friendly or making assumptions about them based on their race.

In the funniest scene of the show, Fey tells the man that she really plain old dislikes him. “Can’t we just not all get along?” “Nope,” he says. Maybe their children or grandchildren can be free to hate each other regardless of race, but they haven’t gotten to that point yet. She’s stuck with him.

[RESUME READING HERE IF YOU DIDN'T WANT TO READ THE SPOILER MATERIAL]

As I said, it’s impossible to imagine this type of humor — and it was really funny — being allowed from a source with conservative, rather than (probably) liberal credentials. Of course, part of why it works is because Tina Fey is, I think, a brilliant comic mind, both as a writer and a performer. Where she’s delicately sardonic and self-knowing, someone else could be grossly crude and offensive.

I did wonder, though, after watching the show, whether it had a larger truth that will affect a potential Obama candidacy. To the extent people are afraid of being viewed as racists, no matter their actual thoughts and motivation, will we see an increase in lying when pollsters call people to find out whether they’ll vote for him, either in the primaries or in the actual election? What do you think?

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  • rockdalian

    I just cannot watch Baldwin in anything because of his
    “joke” about stoning then Rep. Hyde and his family. This was just too over the line.

  • Marguerite

    In my spare time I’d rather be reading or cooking, so I wouldn’t make it a point to watch 30 Rock. BUT, putting aside my disdain for Alec Baldwin, I took a look, Book, and was surprised at how genuinely and refreshingly funny these riffs were – there’s SOME level of truth to humor, right? I like that they poke fun at the right and left, and the sympathy is certainly more w/the left.

  • Zhombre

    I don’t care much for Baldwin as an actor – he’s rather cold and blustery and best at playing a bully or a parody of a bully — though he wasn’t bad in the one episode of 30 Rock I saw (for the aforesaid reasons). It’s all in the casting, the script and the direction. It’s a good idea to separate an actor or actress from their personal life or their political beliefs because most of them really have tawdry lives and second rate minds.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    For some reason the opening of these shows aren’t funny to me.

    Some amusing stuff, yes. The funny jokes are to ones that portray a sort of ironic or realistic situation which I believe to be true, and then does something strange with it.

    I’d be curious to know what someone who thinks of racism one way, contrasted to Bookworm’s stance on it as delineated here, thinks of the joke. For example, is Mr. Bookworm laughing because he believes the same things true of racism as Book here?

    That’s sort of like the question of is the color blue the same to one person as it is to another. Except with this, we actually have words to describe any possible differences.

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    I agree with you, Zhombre. If you enjoy reading histories about old Hollywood (as I do, being an old movie lover), you discover that these people always led tawdry lives, quite separate from the American mainstream. It’s only in the modern era that they’re allowed to broadcast their lives. Under the studio system, everything was kept under close cover. This means that, if you want to view anything out of Hollywood, you just have to hold your nose and pretend that the people your watching do good things with a good script weren’t, just the day before, making asses of themselves.

    I’m also more lenient about watching TV, because I’m not a Nielson person, nor do I watch commercials, so my watching isn’t affecting their livelihood. I’m much more likely to refuse to see a movie with an actor whose mouth has been a bit too big, because I don’t want any percentage of my ticket price to go to that actor, nor do I want my presence in the theater counted towards the success of his film.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    Baldwin in the first minute on the npc website reminded me of the john edwards video book put up. The way his hair kept moving that is. And his attitude. Even though he was supposed to be talking about something serious like business negotiations, I can’t quite help but get the impression that his attitude was like an airhead one, talking about something of no consequence to him.

    He even had to utter the dread word… capitalism.