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Fey turns random into laughs on ‘30 Rock’

Random jokes, droll characters and strangely relatable life dilemmas are all being fused by Tina Fey and Company into the season’s funniest new sitcom. OK, maybe that damns it with faint praise. Just say “30 Rock”  is as chockablock with laughs as anything on TV.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The supreme looniness of “30 Rock” rings clear in the lips-scrunching phrase “rural juror.”

“It came out of a discussion in the writers’ room last June,” explained Tina Fey, auteur and star of this NBC comedy. “I said, ‘You know what two words I cannot pronounce properly?”’

After a few abortive efforts by Fey’s co-writers (who, like her, made “rural juror” sound akin to “ruhhr-juhhrr”), everyone was so pleased “we wanted to hurry up and get it on the air before someone else did. As if someone else would stumble on such a random joke.”

Random jokes, droll characters and strangely relatable life dilemmas are all being fused by Fey and Company into the season’s funniest new sitcom. OK, maybe that damns it with faint praise. Just say “30 Rock” (airing Thursday at 9:30 p.m. EST) is as chockablock with laughs as anything on TV.

Fey plays Liz Lemon, creator-producer-writer of a live variety show reminiscent of “Saturday Night Live” (from which Fey, of course, hails).

Lemon’s days are filled not just with pulling the show together, but, more to the point, mediating between her two volatile performers, Tracy Jordan (fellow “SNL” alum Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski, “Ally McBeal”), while attempting to ward off Jack Donaghy, the meddling NBC exec who oversees Liz’s show (as well as other sundry pieces of parent General Electric’s empire).

Played with reptilian breeziness by Alec Baldwin (who this week snagged a Golden Globe for his achievement), Donaghy could be described as a polished version of bullying boss Lou Grant from the classic “Mary Tyler Moore Show.”

And in Liz Lemon, you might say Fey has created for herself a new-millennium Mary Richards, laboring not in a Minneapolis TV newsroom but as one tiny cog in a global corporation.

All the responsibility and no powerLike Mary, Liz is handed loads of responsibility yet limited power. Custodian of not one but two high-maintenance stars, she in effect has a pair of Ted Baxters to contend with.

Another similarity: She’s a washout in the romance department.

On Thursday’s episode, Liz has her best shot yet at love when an attractive man from MSNBC asks her out. But, however dazzled by his overtures, she has her guard up.

“What’s your game, friend?” she asks warily. “If you’re a gay guy looking for a beard, I don’t do that anymore. And if you’re trying to harvest my organs and sell them, I have an uncle who’s a cop, so don’t even try.”

Needless to say, things do go awry. At least it’s nobody’s fault.

Unlike sweet Mary Richards, the aptly named Lemon doesn’t turn the world on with her smile, which is usually out of sight. Scrambling from crisis to crisis, Liz would love to turn the world on with a smile but just doesn’t have a sec.

She didn’t even have a moment to pin down the title of Jenna’s soon-to-be-released feature film. Whenever Jenna mentioned it, it always sounded like “Ruhhr Juhhrr,” but that couldn’t be right.

“She’s been talking about it for a year,” Liz fretted. “I can’t ask her now!”

Thus did the “Rural Juror” inspiration find its way into a December episode. Then it enjoyed a reprise last week when Jenna’s film got a sneak peek by other people on her show (who were relieved to learn the title wasn’t “Roar Her, Gem Her” or “Oral Germ Whore”).

Premiering last October, “30 Rock” started out plenty funny. But it has since become steadily sharper and more sure of itself.

That certainly goes for the cast — in particular, Baldwin, who, with his performance, somehow strikes a balance between corporate shark and mensch.

“Lemon,” purrs Donaghy on entering her office to find her wolfing down a fast lunch, “what tragedy happened in your life that you insist upon punishing yourself with all this mediocrity?”

“What?” she replies. “Because I’m eating a turkey sub?”

“Your turkey sub, your clothes, the fact that a woman of your resources and position lives like some boxcar hobo. Or maybe it’s the fact that while I’m saying all this, you have a piece of lettuce stuck in your hair.”

The writing is smart and meticulously crafted.

“We try to put tiny jokes throughout that connect,” said Fey, taking a break to chat from the Queens studio where “30 Rock” is shot. “We aspire in some ways to be as dense as ‘The Simpsons.’ That’s the gold standard.”

But “30 Rock’s” knack for exposing the dizzy, often picayunish concerns of its characters as a universal human condition recalls another gold-medal comedy, “Seinfeld.”

Like “Seinfeld,” which dealt with the life of a standup comic when he wasn’t making comedy, “30 Rock” is mostly about life when its characters aren’t making television — but instead come face to face with their own riotous hang-ups.

The growing richness of “30 Rock” makes Thursday a natural home, where NBC’s “Must-See TV” tradition took hold a quarter-century ago.

Of course, after “Seinfeld,” the unfortunate arrogance reflected in that slogan caught up with the network as later comedies routinely misfired. Since then, viewers have mourned — and maybe idealized — bygone Thursday lineups boasting “Cheers,” “Frasier” and “Friends” (but also “Veronica’s Closet,” “Caroline in the City” and “The Single Guy”).

Since December, any longing for the past can be laid to rest. The night now begins at 8 p.m. with the madcap “My Name is Earl,” followed by the sublimely woebegone “The Office” and hospital high jinks on “Scrubs” (which this week features an inventive full-scale musical episode), then concluding with “30 Rock.”

A lineup to be proud of, it’s promoted by NBC with a less coercive motto than the one before: “Comedy Night Done Right.” It could even make Liz Lemon smile.