As the end of 30 Rock approaches on Thursday, I’ve been going through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief as I prepare to lose the network television show that’s dominated my time as a critic: denial, anger, handshakefulness, depression, and marathon watching. I’ve thought a great deal about what I want to say about the end of Tina Fey’s brilliant, persistent creation, the show that beat Aaron Sorkin, that helped define NBC’s comedy brand as the smart kid at the party, and that helped lever Fey from Saturday Night Life to massive stardom. But watching the first several seasons of 30 Rock again, I was struck less by the show’s gender politics, which have always been a key focus of the show and the criticism of it, or by its wicked satire of the broadcast television business, which I’ve gotten to see in action at the Television Critics Association press tour, than the very fine line it walked on race.
30 Rock‘s become more of a cartoon over time, but its initial premise was as much a racial one as it was about gender, and one with resonance both for our political environment and the arguments we’ve had about race on television in the years since 30 Rock debuted. Liz Lemon, a middle-class white woman (from Whitehaven, PA), who’d created a sketch show with her white best friend, had her world turned upside down when she was forced to add Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), who was not just a man, but an African-American man of exceedingly modest and unfamiliarly urban origins, to her program as a co-star. As Liz and Tracy got to know each other, 30 Rock pulled off an extraordinarily difficult feat. In its early years, it was often a show about the ways in which the broad preconceptions of white liberals fail them when they begin some of their first personal and professional relationships with people of color. And in Tracy and Angie Jordan, 30 Rock did something even harder: it gave characters of color the opportunity to take alternately cheerful and exasperated advantage of Liz’s awkwardness, without ever portraying them as race hustlers, and staged constant debates among African-American characters about what constituted racial progress. Liz’s issues might loom large and cause discomfort, but she was mistaking the sideshow of her feelings for the main event.
Almost from the moment we met her, one of Liz Lemon’s signature preoccupations was demonstrating that she was not, in fact, a racist. “Race is a huge issue, according to Newsweek magazine,” Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), Liz’s best friend told her in an early episode of the show they created together. “Well, it is 2007 and some of us don’t have these hangups,” Liz declared, proud of herself. But of course, Liz is rife with racial hangups, many of which she mistook for sensitivity. In the season one episode “Jack-tor,” for example, Liz became convinced that Tracy was illiterate after he flubbed a series of cue cards. When she offered to give him time off to attend reading classes, Tracy amused himself by taking advantage of her condescension. “I can’t read!” he declared histrionically as he high-tailed it out of the office. “I sign my name with an X! I once tried to make mashed potatoes with laundry detergent! I think I voted for Nader!” When she discovered that he was tweaking her, rather than examining her own preconceptions, Liz got huffy about Tracy’s reaction to her assumptions. “He took advantage of my white guilt, which is only to be used for good, like overtipping, and supporting Barack Obama,” she explained, casting herself a a victim, and long before Obama even formally began his campaign for president, setting up support for him as a proxy for racial self-congratulation by white voters.
Liz made similar mistakes early in her relationship with Tracy’s wife, Angie (Sherri Shepherd), falling back on racial tropes in the absence of knowing how to make conversation with Angie like an actual person. “Bling-bling! Ghetto fabulous!” Liz complimented her on a diamond ring Tracy brought her as part of a reconciliation. “This belonged to Brooke Astor,” Angie told her, irritated. And their relationship got worse when Angie demanded approval over Tracy’s characters on the show, rejecting a pimp character named Slickback Lamar, and refusing to be mollified by an Obama sketch. “No,” she told Liz. “We support Kucinich.” And while Angie initially wanted to sanitize TGS of racial stereotypes, she would ultimately turn a profit, and create a hit for NBC in Queen of Jordan, a broad reality show in the tradition of the Real Housewives that featured Angie and her entourage, while making a joke out of executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), whose anxiety about preserving his dignity set him up for constant humiliation. Liz may have told old-school comedy writer Rosemary Howard (Carrie Fisher) that “You can’t do race stuff on TV. It’s too sensitive,” and been taken aback when Rosemary told her of a blackface sketch pitch that “We would have done that on the Mandrell Sisters.” And as it turns out, it’s not Liz who figures out how to do racial comedy on television, but Angie, who finds a business model in exploiting racial and sexual stereotypes and preconceptions—many of them likely held by people who think of themselves as liberals.
That question of what black characters on the show, and in society at large, find demeaning or empowering is the subject of near-constant debate in 30 Rock‘s first season. When Tracy joins the show, he finds himself in immediate tension with staff writer Toofer (Keith Powell), a Harvard-educated black writer who views with Tracy with horror. “Have you seen any of his movies?” Toofer asks in dismay. “The guy’s sensibility is just cretinous.” In one of the show’s many reversals of expectations, when the two are introduced for the first time, Tracy corrects Toofer’s grammar, telling him “Superman does good. You’re doing well. You need to study your grammar, son.” Toofer needles Tracy about his willingness to go along with some of Liz’s sketch ideas, telling him: “Drag is a way for Caucasians to emasculate you and make you seem non-threatening. We never would have stooped so low on Black Frasier.” Their disagreements escalate until Toofer files a harassment complaint against Tracy for calling him “my nigga”: when Liz tries to explain to Toofer that it’s a term of endearment, Toofer tries the word out with disastrous results. “It just sounds hateful coming from you!” Liz declares, recognizing that racial performance can be deeply inflected by class.
Toofer and Tracy eventually reconcile—it turns out that Toofer, who is proud of his racial bonafides, has a merciless black Confederate soldier for an ancestor, while Tracy turns out to be descended from Thomas Jefferson. But shortly thereafter, Tracy is targeted by the Black Crusaders, a group of influential African-American celebrities, including Bill Cosby, Oprah, and Lester Holt, who task themselves with helping the black community avoid humiliation, and who have decided that Tracy is too embarrassing to be allowed to continue acting. His decision to return from exile and take triumphantly and ridiculously to the TGS stage in defiance of their edict is part of the climax of 30 Rock‘s first season.
That insistence that black people be allowed to be seen as individuals without reflecting back on African-Americans as a whole is a major theme of 30 Rock. In the first season, Liz finds herself dating Steven Black (Wayne Brady), Tracy’s business manager, and the most boring man on the planet. Steven traps Liz into continuing to see him by insisting that the only reason she could possibly be breaking up with him is because she doesn’t want to be dating a black man. But when she tries to prove her racial bona fides, he refuses to give her any credit. “How racist is this? I’m going to the Source Awards tomorrow night,” she insists. “Well let me get on the black phone and call the NAACP, so they can send you your medal right now,” Steven tells him. His playing the race card on Liz, and Liz’s insistence that he validate her as anti-racist have them trapped in a cycle of insufferable misery.
And there’s no better illustration of 30 Rock‘s insistence on playing with racial preconceptions and forcing viewers to come to know its black characters as individuals than Grizz (Grizz Chapman) and Dot Com (Kevin Brown), Tracy’s giant entourage members, who are also sensitive, thoughtful, and in Dot Com’s case, highly intellectual men. Despite their size, and their ability to rescue Tracy from nasty crowds, they’re nervous enough to want to be thought of as cool by Josh, a dorky actor on the show, sweet enough to go to musicals and speed dating with Kenneth the Page (himself an illustration of whiteness as racially specific and fascinating for it, rather than whiteness as neutral and unremarkable), and more highly educated than Liz and potentially even more talented than Tracy himself: “Yes, Tracy, I was Trigorin in The Seagull on the Wesleyan ArtSpace main stage,” Dot Com tells his boss wearily.
“Dot Com, this need you have to be the smartest guy in the room is… off-putting,” Jack tells Dot Com at one point. “I guess that’s why I’m still single,” Dot Com says, sadly. And that willingness to let black characters be not just smart, but weird, precise, and even deeply undignified, is part of what makes 30 Rock such a solitary phenomenon. It’s one of the only places where Dot Com could be seen, and loved, exactly as he is.