’30 Rock’ and the Rise of the Celebrity Showrunner

Since Dan Harmon’s dismissal as the showrunner of Community, the endearingly experimental sitcom he created for NBC, there’s been a vibrant discussion about that particular role in the television ecosystem. Are showrunners primarily creative visionaries? Replaceable management functionaries? Is the job a fundamentally ungainly hybrid? Have critics and fans focused too closely on showrunners at the expense of credit for other people behind the camera and in front of it? One thing that crossed my mind though, is that while the rise of the celebrity showrunner is due in part to the emergence of figures like David Chase, David Milch, David Simon and Matthew Weiner on cable, credit also goes to a show that both put a showrunner at its center, and warned us that they could be mercurial, unlikable, ineffective sellouts — and heroes none the less: 30 Rock.

When Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Tina Fey’s 30 Rock premiered in the fall of 2006, the assumption is that Sorkin’s drama would crush Fey’s plucky sitcom. Sorkin’s vision of troubled geniuses with noble ambitions is in line with fans’ perception of Dan Harmon, or of Chase, or Milch, or Simon, or Weiner — and of course, with Sorkin’s sense of himself. They may be cranky, they may have serious problems relating to other people and managing themselves, but they are fundamentally heroes. Even though those basic ideas took hold, Sorkin’s show didn’t: Studio 60 died after a single season, while 30 Rock is headed grandly into its seventh and final year. Over time, debates about the show have come to center around Liz Lemon as feminist totem, exploring her sexuality, her work-life balance, her role as a forebear of the Lady Loser Comedy trend, and both the conversation and the show have moved away from the show’s initial subject: the ridiculousness and impossibility of having a single person try to wrangle a writers’ room, actors, and network executives.

In its pilot, 30 Rock acknowledged that there was something quixotic both about trying to get the public to care about people who make television, and once they were over that hurdle, expecting them to find genius or high-mindedness behind the scenes. We first hear Liz Lemon’s name when Kenneth Purcell, an NBC page, tries to convince a group touring 30 Rockefeller Plaza that he’s got a genuine treat in store for them. “Here’s someone you never get a chance to meet,” he tells them. “The head writer of The Girlie Show, Liz Lemon.” He applauds in a void — the only response from the tour group is a belch from a young boy. Liz later complains that Kenneth has embarrassed her by singling her out, and when she meets Tracy Jordan for lunch, she’s surprised when he recognizes her. Kenneth’s enthusiasm, his sense that she is someone special, is meant to be a joke. And the rest of that first episode lays out the tension between artistic intention and profit. Tracy initially tells Liz that he only wants to do the show if he can do “raw, HBO-style” comedy, but after a day of drinking, chicken and waffles, and a visit to the strip club, he tells Liz “You know why I should do this TV show, Lemon? To get you rich.” He makes his first appearance on the show whipping his shirt around his head and declaring, in a product integration reference, “I am the third heat.” Liz is enraged that Jack Donaghy would interfere with her show, telling Tracy “Jenna and I worked for years to get this show. I moved from Chicago for this…You know what? I quit. He can suck it.” The price of her staying turns out to be two job guarantees and a cappuccino machine, hardly the “eight things a day” Harmon said he had to threaten to quit over to make his version of Community. “I don’t actually want to work in television,” Cerie, the show’s sexy assistant tells Liz in the first season when the older woman tries to counsel her about how to be taken seriously in television. “I’ll just marry rich and design handbags.” In the second season, Liz happily accepts a Followship Award as soon as she finds out the insulting accolade comes with $10,000. Liz doesn’t have much to sell out, and what she does comes relatively cheap.

The question 30 Rock has always posed but never quite answered is whether Liz could have gone to the wall and created a more sophisticated, feminist program, and if she had, whether it would have been successful or worth it. Liz disdains Jack’s reality show creation MILF Island, but it’s a massive hit. When she meets Rosemary Howard, a television writer who was the force behind some of Liz’s favorite political sketches as a child, Liz has a momentary flare of creative inspiration. But she abandons her ambitions as soon as she sees Rosemary’s squalid apartment and grasps the full depths of the other woman’s decrepitude. The joke works on three levels. Certainly, NBC isn’t going to air Rosemary’s pitch for a sketch where “we open on a New Orleans abortion clinic. A beautiful mulatto — .” And the setup isn’t actually very good. But Liz’s sense of what counts as daring is attenuated: even if she was willing to fight for something, it wouldn’t be as far out of bounds as she’d like to think it is. When Jack nixes her dog penis sketch, she cheerfully asks him “what about cat penises?”


But even if Liz is creatively moribund, she’s a decent boss and a fairly generous coworker. Her first act is to save Pete and Jenna’s jobs. She works to save Josh, even when she has to cut him back down to size after he tries to take advantage of her. As much as she’s not a match for corporate life, Liz defends Jack at corporate retreats, helps him write jokes for appearances, and bucks him up even as he condescends to her. Her management of Jenna and Tracy may be wearing, but she’s improved their personal lives and helped them navigate into new opportunities. And Liz will go as far as gassing a 30 Rock audience to earn a renewal, a display of dedication I imagine some showrunners would match if they could.

There’s no question that there’s a difference between TGS With Tracy Jordan and Community, much less between TGS and The Wire. There are creators with more to sell out than Liz Lemon, and higher prices to do it. But especially in its early years, 30 Rock was a reminder of how insanely difficult and important the part of the job is that actually gets a show written, past corporate approval, and on to the air. Even if Liz Lemon was a sellout, she was keeping this thing afloat, and keeping a lot of people in work in the process, and there’s value in that. I can see why it’s easier to reach Kenneth the Page levels of enthusiasm about Dan Harmon than about Michael Patrick King, pandering cheerfully away with 2 Broke Girls. But maybe he’s right to be full of wonder that this stuff gets made at all. And if, like Kenneth, we just love TV so much, the kinds of showrunners who keep people in decent jobs and do their best to be good managers can be as worthy of veneration as difficult creative geniuses.