Had Tina Fey known six months ago that she’d be arguably the fall’s hottest pop-culture phenomenon, she’d probably have been overjoyed.
Had she known it would be for guest appearances back at her former “Saturday Night Live” stomping grounds, and not for her beloved and brilliant “30 Rock,” she’d surely have been less so.
And now, the question is how to use her sudden rise to her advantage in a way that reaches beyond late-night on Saturdays.
It qualifies as bitterly ironic that two excellent seasons and two Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series may not do as much for “30 Rock” as Fey’s uncanny resemblance to Sarah Palin. It would be unfair, of course, to chalk up the success of the “SNL” bits to the physical resemblance that was widely noted the instant Palin showed up on television, but it hasn’t hurt.
As “30 Rock” returns on NBC Oct. 30 for its third season, the biggest question it faces is whether, and how, Fey’s recent SNL successes can be turned to her show’s advantage.
The Fey/Palin phenomenon, of course, is much bigger than “SNL” on television. The video clips have been spread far and wide online, undoubtedly doing good things not only for Fey and “SNL,” but for NBC, NBC.com, Hulu, and everything else they touched.
NBC’s jealous guarding of “SNL” clips, which are one of the highest-profile items to be reliably purged from YouTube, has looked a little more understandable in the wake of all this, since the network’s reasonably effective stranglehold on the Palin material has to have brought its sites a boatload of new eyeballs.
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'30 Rock' deserves the attentionTo understand how frustrating this has to be for everyone involved, it’s important to start with just how good “30 Rock” is.
Aside from those two Outstanding Comedy Series Emmys — not to mention a total of 27 nominations in two years – the show has managed to attract a remarkable parade of guest stars, including Will Arnett, Matthew Broderick, Elaine Stritch, Paul Reubens, Carrie Fisher, David Schwimmer, Edie Falco, Tim Conway, and many others, with Oprah Winfrey and Jennifer Aniston set for this season.
The strength of “30 Rock” as pure comedy is one it shares, interestingly, with “The Simpsons” — lots of plain good jokes, which come so quickly that if you don’t laugh at one, you’ll laugh at the next one before you have time to be bored.
But the show’s story appeal lies in the relationship between Fey’s Liz Lemon and her boss, Jack Donaghy, played unforgettably by Emmy-winner Alec Baldwin. Liz consciously considers Jack a fount of stupid ideas and unending insults, but she often finds herself under his wing anyway, taking his advice on everything from her terrible dating life to consolidating power at work. That the show has never attracted a large audience — drawing in the neighborhood of five or six million viewers — is ironically consistent with one of its themes: the difficulty of mixing art and commerce, as Liz does on the sketch-comedy show she produces.
Fey has been admirably opportunistic on behalf of “30 Rock” since before the Palin phenomenon: during one of her Emmy acceptance speeches in September, she thanked the usual suspects, but then mentioned that the show could be seen on “NBC.com, Hulu.com, iTunes, Verizon phones, and United Airlines” — a naked appeal for people to please, please actually watch the show, now that it’s been named television’s best comedy twice in a row.
Her efforts have continued in the Fey-as-Palin era. Most heart-tuggingly, at the close of the Oct. 23 final edition of the “SNL” prime-time “Weekend Update” specials that have occupied the “30 Rock” timeslot for the last three weeks, Fey and Will Ferrell were thanked for appearing in the opening sketch. They both strolled out on stage to mock-seriously shake hands as the credits began to roll. And then Fey turned to the camera, operating unmiked, mouthed, “’30 Rock,’ right here, next week, right here.”
“Weekend Update” anchor Seth Meyers felt her pain and repeated her words out loud, but Fey kept it up in pantomime with a wry smile over the credits. It was the very picture of a woman wildly in love with what she does and probably aware that if NBC were doing better and had more options for replacing it, her show — her wonderful, funny, critically acclaimed show — might already be gone.
The idea that newly minted Fey-as-Palin fans might be converted to Fey-as-Liz-Lemon fans is an obvious one. But how does NBC pull it off? They can run ads during “SNL,” of course, which is a more potent strategy than one might think. The appearance by the real Sarah Palin pulled in a remarkable 17 million viewers, the show’s highest numbers in 14 years. That made the late-night comedy show the week’s third-highest-rated program, behind only top performers “CSI” and “Dancing With The Stars.”
But interestingly, not only will those numbers not necessarily translate into “30 Rock” viewers; they didn’t even translate to the very next “Weekend Update” special. That was the one with Fey’s plaintive, silent appeal to viewers, and it drew only about 8.5 million viewers. And that was in prime time.
The most obvious way to capitalize, beyond coy attempts at cross-promotion or raising awareness, would be to simply plunk down Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on “30 Rock” itself. A good old-fashioned stunt. For most shows, it would actually be such a stunt that it would be utterly unworkable, but for “30 Rock,” it might not be.
As was recently dissected in New York Magazine, “30 Rock” has gotten away with real product placement by seeming to make fun of product placement. Horribly obvious declarations of love for Snapple, for instance, are inserted into a scene in which the characters all discuss the fact that they would never stoop to product placement on the show-within-a-show.
That’s the joke; you manage to both mock the thing and be the thing at the same time. A blatant ratings stunt might be successfully carried off in the same way.
It isn’t hard to imagine a scene in which Liz’s fictional sketch show could be visited by Palin, who will —by then — either be the vice-president elect or a failed candidate. Liz runs around the building, narrowly avoiding run-ins with her alter ego, all the while indignantly telling Jack she’d never use a politician as a ratings stunt. Mock the thing and be the thing, right?
Over the first few weeks of the season (which surely would never have been delayed to late October in the first place if anyone had anticipated Fey’s “SNL” resurgence), it will become clear whether the continued ascendancy of Tina Fey will benefit her current show, or only her former show.
Linda Holmes is a writer in Washington, D.C.