Surrounded by the cast and crew of TGS at the end of its final taping, Tracy Jordan looked into the camera and expansively said: "Thank you, America. That's our show. Not a lot of people watched it, but the joke's on you, because we got paid anyway."
And so, 30 Rock's show-within-a-show ended with a joke-within-a-joke.
Even the highly promoted series finale of 30 Rock drew fewer than five million viewers. And that joke was on us, too.
Because part of the appeal of Tina Fey's surreal sitcom was its disregard for the audience. It was typically perverse of 30 Rock to build its final episode around Lutz, its most marginal and nebbishy character. For its entire run, this was a show that almost dared you not to watch.
The impacted scripts offered up gags with dizzying speed, some of them screamingly funny, some in poor taste, some incomprehensibly obscure.
For an example of that last category, how about this exchange from the finale? Jenna: "Cut the BS." Tracy: "But I promised Barbra Streisand I'd never slice her again." Huh?
The miracle is that this defiant prankster lasted for seven cultish seasons. And for that we owe NBC a huge debt of gratitude. Especially since 30 Rock made a point of mercilessly mocking the network at least once in every episode.
The finale was no exception. Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), recently ascended to head of NBC's corporate owner Kabletown, took a homeless man sleeping on the sidewalk and installed him as Savannah Guthrie's new Today cohost. Because that's how hard it would be to replace Matt Lauer.
Kabletown, of course, was an ever-so-thinly disguised rendering of NBC's actual parent company, Comcast. You can bet the cable executives really got a kick out of it when Jack announced: "Gentlemen, today I moved Kabletown's Customer Service to a part of India that has no phones. We're now providing the same level of service to our subscribers at zero the cost."
But 30 Rock didn't just bite the hand that fed it; it took a chunk out of everything in spitting distance.
How about when Liz Lemon (Fey) went into the office of NBC's newly installed president, the unhinged hayseed Kenneth (Jack McBrayer). "Can I get you anything?" he asked. "Chickpeas? Moonshine? Turtle meat?"
You never knew what would be on the menu at 30 Rock. Its humor was volatile, by turns arch, acidic, and absurdist. It combined trenchant satire with sheer lunacy, right up until the last flash-forward minute.
There was Kenneth, still running the network 50 years from now and freakishly unchanged. He played with a snow globe (a sly dig at the finale of NBC's St. Elsewhere?) as he was being pitched a sitcom by Liz's great-great-granddaughter. Outside his window, little rocketships whizzed through the Manhattan sky, à la The Jetsons.
How did such a thoroughly disposable show manage to last so long? Everything on 30 Rock was throwaway humor. It was hermetically self-referential, almost smugly so, a vehicle seemingly designed with the primary intention of amusing its writers. Its fans were stowaways, deliriously happy stowaways.
Spin the bottle. On Tuesday night, two sitcoms on different networks used the same gag in the same hour.
On Fox's New Girl, Jess and Nick go in the bedroom while everyone else in the loft chants: "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!" Minutes later on ABC's Happy Endings, Max and Brad are at a bridal expo pretending to be a gay couple while all around them the crowd chants: "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!"
What a bizarre coincidence. Unless, of course, Gene Simmons was directing both episodes.
Contact David Hiltbrand
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