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Comedic License?

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Philadelphia Business Today, 4/26/2010 Video: Philadelphia Business Today, 4/26/2010

The irreverent writers at NBC's 30 Rock are poking wicked fun these days at oh-so-serious Comcast Corp.

"Hopefully," said the show's executive producer, Robert Carlock, "Mr. Roberts has a sense of humor."

That would be chief executive officer Brian L. Roberts, of course.

So far, Comcast seems to be taking the 30 Rock gags in stride - even those references to how the fictional cable giant from Philadelphia, "Kabletown," earns 91 percent of its profit from pay-per-view porn.

Comcast shouldn't take that personally, said Carlock, a writer alumnus of Saturday Night Live, Friends, and Joey, a Friends spin-off.

"We've had a running thing in the show that all industry, to some extent, is driven by pornography."

30 Rock's freewheeling humor may be more than Comcast bargained for when it reached a deal late last year to acquire a controlling interest in NBC Universal Inc., the one entertainment company with a hit TV show that skewers its corporate parent, which at the moment is General Electric Co.

Comcast would like to be NBC Universal's next parent. That means stepping out onto the national stage as owner of the Peacock Network, as well as a movie studio, news networks, and cable TV channels.

"Will Comcast allow the mayhem to continue?" asked Steven Grasse, chief executive of Quaker City Mercantile Inc., a Philadelphia branding and advertising company. "I think they will be terrified to tamper with it because people are looking for them to tamp down so they can say, 'See, this was a mistake to let them buy NBC.' "

Roberts doesn't strike him as "someone with a great sense of humor," Grasse said, adding that he thought that was related to Philadelphia, where "people don't like to laugh at themselves."

His suggestion: "Let it go. Let the writers have a field day." The humor could lighten Comcast's image.

The parallels between what's happening on 30 Rock and what's happening in the real world are hard to miss.

In early December, Comcast and GE announced the proposed $30 billion deal in which Comcast would acquire a controlling interest in NBC Universal. Approvals still are needed from the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission, which recently asked for more reports on the benefits of the transaction.

Part of 30 Rock's recent story line details the decision by fictional parent General Electric-Sheinhardt Wig Co. to sell NBC to Kabletown. Network executive Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, finds the Kabletown deal distressing because he has been climbing the corporate ladder at GE.

In an episode that aired last month, Donaghy, seeking to get his career back on track, proposed a new product to impress Kabletown's senior vice presidents.

"Gentlemen," he says, "there is a giant segment of consumers who are not buying our most profitable segment - porn for women. What if women had a pay-per-view channel featuring handsome men patiently listening to them?"

Intrigued by the idea, Kabletown executives ask where the new content would come from, because Kabletown doesn't make anything.

"From us. We make it. I am done consuming, and I am ready to make," Donaghy replies excitedly.

This is 30 Rock's fourth season, and it has been renewed for a fifth, NBC officials say. Tina Fey, who hails from Upper Darby, stars and is listed in the credits as the show's creator.

Mostly, the characters refer to the network's new owner as "Kabletown, with a K." Carlock said that was because, as the writers cast about for a fictional name for Comcast, it emerged that there was a real company with a similar name. NBC's legal department wanted to emphasize the difference, and after a while, everyone just liked the sound of it.

"In terms of having a point, we try not to have one," Carlock, 37, said of the show.

The half-hour comedy is shot at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, where The Sopranos was made, according to NBC Universal spokeswoman Kristy Chan. 30 Rock, naturally, stands for 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where NBCU chief executive Jeffrey Zucker has his office.

Along with lampooning corporate culture, 30 Rock is trying to exploit the differences between Philadelphia and other cities, too, Carlock said.

"Kabletown is a great company even if it is from . . . Philadelphia," Donaghy says disdainfully. Fey's character, Liz Lemon, cheers for the Eagles and other Philadelphia icons.

But sometimes, Philly jokes just don't work.

"We had the Mummers in there at one point," Carlock said, "but nobody knew what we were talking about."

For the record, Comcast senior vice president D'Arcy Rudnay said, "We think 30 Rock is really funny. Tina Fey is great, and our hometown favorite."

Coming next season, Carlock expects: a fictionalized Brian Roberts.


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

 

Bob Fernandez Inquirer Staff Writer
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