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30 Rock Fodder

30 Rock: Product Integration Takes Show to a New Level

A show named "30 Rock" by a writer who used to work at 30 Rock (and still works for the folks there), about a (fictional) show made at NBC's (real) 30 Rock ought to be able to bring the self-referential funny (even if it's not filmed at 30 Rock). And it does.

The Quick Recap

Tracy's heading away from the stage as he's paged to the stage. Liz calls him on it, and tells him he needs to attend rehearsal. He complains, "We just did a show last week." A show every Friday’s a bit much for Tracy. He lists his plans for the next couple of weeks, which include an orgy. Liz also suggests that he read the actual lines on the cue cards, but he protests that improvisation"s more his style: "Jazz that you laugh at."

Jenna catches up to Pete and asks whether she can do her song "Muffin Top," a "dance-pop-techno hybrid" that's evidently a hit in Israel. Pete is suitably impressed. He says she can do it. She protests that it's also big in Belgium. He reminds her that he said yes. "Why not?" she demands. Pete walks away before she realizes and mumbles, "I mean, thank you."

Jack Donaghy's signing something, and the screen reads thusly:

Jack Donaghy
Vice President
East Coast Television and
Microwave Oven Programming

As Jack says favorable things about GE, the shot widens to show that he's on a TV in the show, and Liz, Pete, and Jack himself are among the viewers gathered around a conference room table watching the informational video "about a wonderful new synergy" called product integration.

As Jack on the TV on my TV says, "How does it work? Simple." the shot shows the TV's brand label clearly.

Jack: All you have to do as the writing staff of an NBC show is incorporate positive mentions, or Pos-Mens, of GE products into your program.

His example is "one of GE's direct-current drilling motors for an offshore or land-based project." He uses the term "upward revenue stream dynamics."

The video ends, lights come up, and Jonathan claps. Jack opens the floor to questions, and Liz has one.

Liz: I'm sorry, you're saying you want us to use the show to sell stuff?
Jack: Look, I know how this sounds.
Liz: No, come on, Jack. We're not doing that. We're not compromising the integrity of the show to sell--
Pete: Wow. This is diet Snapple?
Liz: I know, it tastes just like regular Snapple, doesn't it?

And the continue around the table with plugs of Snapple, until Jack gets them back on topic. Liz protests the product integration idea still, and Jack mockingly calls them artists.

Jack: Get real, kids. You write skits mocking our presidents to fill time between car commercials.
Liz: That's not fair. Josh gets a lot of fan mail for Gaybraham Lincoln.

Josh shows us why people love that particular imitation-plus.

Liz: Did you guys know that Holland is the only country with a national dog?

She shows the others (and the camera) the writing under her Snapple cap, and appears to just now discover that "there’s little facts under there."

After the Snapple commercial (and a couple others, including a Gap commercial that I swear could've been one of those spoof Saturday Night Live commercials, it was so cheeseworthy), rehearsal's breaking up for lunch. Jenna asks Liz whether she's talked to Tracy about reading what's on the cue cards. She answers that she tried. Jenna suggests, in a whisper, that Tracy can’t read.

Jenna: Have you ever seen him read anything?
Liz: Of course. Like when we shoot promos...

They show a clip from the pilot, in which Tracy says something somewhere in the vicinity of what he was instructed to say, and Liz puzzles over this for a moment. She asks Tracy to read a cue card on the spot, and he declines, saying, "I gotta bounce." He exits through a clearly marked emergency exit door, setting off the alarm.

Toofer and Frank discuss Jenna's fragile nerves since Tracy joined the show, and how sad it is that no one's pushed her over the edge. They whisper, a suitable trap for her to ask about. They confide a rumor that 'Jack's probably going to have to fire an actor."

Pete's complaining about a product integration sketch.

Pete: It just seems weird. This show's not a commercial.

A guy in a Snapple suit asks the way to human resources.

Liz: This is gonna sound crazy, but, um, Tracy can read, right?
Pete: What, are you serious? The guy's done dozens of movies.
Liz: Yeah, but it's not like his movies seem like he's reading a script.

Cut to a clip of a movie in which Tracy appears to have not read a script. There's a burning car. (I think I saw this movie, starring the governor of California.) Pete and Liz continue their discussion in the elevator, coming to the conclusion that it's possible that Tracy can't read.

Liz: But, you know, it's not surprising. Look at the educational system in this country. We spend all this money in Iraq, but meanwhile our inner-city graduation rates are lower than they are in the Sudan.
Pete: That doesn't sound right.
Liz: Maybe it was Sweden. And maybe it was teen pregnancy. I gotta read more.

(At this point, the show's got me; if they don’t totally bomb from here on in, it's the best episode yet, and I'm a full-fledged fan. But wait, it gets better.) They enter Jack's office, where Jack is watching a stock report with the words "FAIR VALUE" on the screen and what looks like a CNBC logo. (I feel like I’m missing an inside joke here, but you can just add it to all the ones I don't know I miss.)

Liz: So, we wrote a product integration sketch.
Jack: Good.
Liz: But we wanted to run it by you first, because it's about how GE is making us do this, and we were kind of hoping that the GE executive in the sketch could be played by you.
Jack: Oh, I get it. The whole self-referential thing: Letterman hates the suits, Stern yells at his boss, Nixon’s "sock it to me" on "Laugh-In." Yeah, hippie humor.
Liz: That's what I’m going for.
Jack: Well, as you know, I’ve been studying comedy, and learning what's funny.

(Oh, Alec, I get it. The whole self-referential thing.) He says he's been watching "Friends." Liz asks if he'll do it.

Alec: I don't know, Lemon, I'm not an actor. This is your world.
Liz: Oh, come on. You can do this.

And they top it with this:

Jack: This is live television. I’ve never done anything like that before.

Liz and Pete look like they’re about to bust out laughing. (Which is meant to, and does, bring to mind that Tina Fey must’ve been about to bust out laughing when Alec Baldwin, dozen-time host of SNL, said that line.) Jack agrees to do it. Everybody’s happy.

Liz puts replacement pages in mailboxes and discovers that Tracy hasn't bothered to pick up a huge stack of papers. Jenna complains that Jack's in a sketch when a "real actor" is going to be fired, but Liz denies budget problems. Jenna goes into the weakest point of the evening, saying her sexuality will come through for her.

Tracy's in his aquarium-filled room. Liz looks at a crossword puzzle filled with smiley faces instead of letters, and asks him directly, "Tray, can you read?"

Liz refers to "Hoop Dreams" and says that they'll give him whatever he needs, if he can't read.

Tracy: So I could, like, leave work early if I need a tutor?
Liz: Absolutely. We'll work around his schedule
Tracy (yelling gleefully): I can't read, Liz Lemon! [the chipper after-school-special piano music starts] My shameful secret is out. Now you know why I'm always running into the ladies' bathroom.

He walks down the hall announcing that he can't read, and all the things that are wrong in his life because of his disability.

Tracy: I think I voted for Nader. Nader!

He gets on the elevator, and the doors close. Someone else pushes the button, the doors open, and Tracy's reading a newspaper, saying "Damn, George Will just gets more and more conservative."

Jonathan brings a videotape to Liz's office, obviously in distress. He says Jack can't be on live TV, and rolls tape: "GE promo, take one." It shows a brilliant acting job by a brilliant actor (Alec Baldwin) portraying a bumbling acting job by an incredibly bad actor (Jack Donaghy).

Jack: What's the first line?
Offscreen female voice, identified by closed captioning as "Claire": Product integration.
Jack: I just need the first word.
Claire: Product.
Jack: What's the second word?
Claire: Integration.

(Which is much, much funnier if you saw the commercial for "30 Rock" that used this last bit, with "30" and "Rock" in place of "Product" and "Integration." Which happens to be the first thing I got on my tape, because I taped this show and watched it later, and started earlier than necessary. Yet still watched several commercials. NBC should think about the actual level of laziness of people before believing that nobody sees commercials in recorded material.)

Jack: I'm here to talk to you television about the monetizing of today broadcasts. ... Was any of that usable?

This continues, because Tina Fey and the other producers of "30 Rock" have obviously realized that Alec Baldwin is freaking hilarious and should be given much screen time doing absurdly humorous things like cussing at pigeons and asking, "The pen doesn't really write, does that matter?" Alec also gets the pratfall this week. Liz, Pete, and Jonathan watch the end of the tape, in which the crew for the commercial agrees with Jack that "it didn’t feel like five days."

Liz: And ... we'll be right back.

And they are, more or less, right back. Jack arrives for rehearsal, and tells Liz he's nervous but must meet new challenges. He goes off to a conference with his "division head."

Liz (making it up): Oh, yeah? Are you guys gonna correlate overseas earnings report dynamics?
Jack (dead serious): Yes.

Jenna appears, and Liz tells her that Jack's talking to his boss, and not to bother him.

Jack: Don't worry, I'll have it on your desk first thing in the morning.
Ron: I am tired of your promises. I want this thing fixed.
Jack: I'm on it sir.

Jenna approaches Ron and asks if he's Jacks boss. He replies, "That's what they tell me." Jenna goes into a painful-to-watch seduction.

Jack's not doing well in rehearsal. Liz watches, and calls for a break.

Liz: I know you want to do this, but I don't think it's working out.
Jack: I agree. It's the writing. It's not natural.
Liz: Wha--really, you think the problem is the writing?
Jack: Yeah, it's clunky.
Liz: Wow. Well, I was really trying to help you out of this, but you know what? You're the boss.
Jack: I think I can do it.
Liz: No, you should definitely do it. It'll be hilarious.
Jack: Oh, that'd be a refreshing change of pace for the show, wouldn’t it?

Pete and Liz discuss the Tracy-illiteracy problem. Pete calls Liz racist. They bring a poster to Tracy that says he has "The Smallest Penis in Show Business" and ask if they can hang them all over the city. He says yes, and that he'll be leaving early.

Liz is awakened by a desperate Jack. She shows up, looking almost as disheveled as he does.

Liz: That's quite a commitment to such terrible writing.
Jack: Lemon, I don't know how to do this.
Liz: I know.

We get a wonderful monologue from Jack that includes, "I once drove a rental car into the Hudson just to practice escaping," and ends with an Alec-aware beautiful moment:

Jack: All this creative crap. Acting. I've never been able to do it. Never.

They show him as a child choking, then swearing, in a school play, dressed as an ear of corn.

Jack complains that the room is spinning, and he's "freaking out." He lies down on the floor.

Liz: OK, here's your pep talk. You're not an actor. You're Jack Donaghy, all right? So quit whining and nut up. You're right, if you can't do this, you are a failure. Josh can do this, and earlier today he ate a club sandwich with the toothpicks still in it. Jenna can do this, and she was once engaged to David Blaine. Any dumb-dumb can act, Jack, so be a man and get it done.
Jack: If you were any other woman on Earth, I would be turned on right now.

She leaves. He calls after her that his crackup will remain their secret, calling “Lemon? Lemon?”

Jenna tells Liz she's confident in her job security because she "hooked up" with Jack’s boss. Liz shares the information that the guy's an extra in the product integration sketch, playing Jack's boss, and there's a nice Penn-and-Teller-esque explanation of how the two men, one talking on a hands-free cell phone earpiece, the other on a pay phone, appeared to be gesturing toward each other as one yelled at the other.

Jenna says she's going to get back at Frank and Toofer.

A handwritten sign that reads "HOT LESBIAN AUDITIONS" attracts Tracy into a room where Liz and Pete are waiting. He asks, "Where the hot lesbians at, Lemon?" He admits that he's "literate" (despite evidence to the contrary) and then accuses her of "the subtle racism of lowered expectations," referring to "Bing Crosby." She corrects the reference to Bill Cosby, and he says that's racist.

Tracy: But this job is hard. I just want to be able to do what I want to do. You know I once shot a whole movie without ever getting out of my car?
Pete: Yeah, I paid to see that. That was supposed to be a Western.
Liz: You're not a bigshot movie star anymore, Tray. You’re the star of TGS, and you will read the lines as written, starting tonight. Because this show is important. I set a very high standard for myself, and I expect the same of the professionals who work with me.
Josh (entering in Abe Lincoln costume): When Gaybraham Lincoln gets hit in the crotch, can I go cross-eyed?

He demonstrates for her, to her approval. Jenna approaches Pete and discusses Standards and Practices’ problem with her moaning in "Muffin Top" in a method reminiscent of "When Harry Met Sally." Liz gives Jack new pages, and lists the changes for him. He complains that the pages are blank. She turns them over, calling over her shoulder as she leaves, "And don't look into the camera." Alec glances at the camera for a moment before they cut to Jenna telling Toofer that she fantasizes about sneaking up to the roof with him for some lovemaking.

Toofer: OK, let me guess. You figured out Frank and I lied to you, so to get even you're trying to get me naked on the roof and leave me there. Nice try.

She goes to find Frank.

Jack delivers the line "No, you're all fired" and then glances at the audience when they laugh. Jack rewinds the bit and listens to the line again, as he's watching the DVD in his office. Liz enters.

Liz: Hey, good job the other night.
Jack: Oh, you mean on the show. Thanks.

They insult and tease each other a bit more as Liz leaves. Frank knocks on the French doors of Jack's office, wearing (apparently) only a hat, and holding a plant in front of himself.

We're treated to "Muffin Top" (which is every bit as bad as you expect and more) as part of the supersizing after the last commercial break.

The Brief Review

The fifth episode of "30 Rock" proves that this show could be in it for the long run, comedy-wise. The fact that it plays to its greatest strengths -- Alec Baldwin, witty self-deprecating remarks, and occasional ridiculous SNL-ish moments -- means that the show is firmly grounded and able to be a unique, shining exception to recent sitcom history.

In the neighborhood of its new home on Thursday evening, "30 Rock" finds better company (it moves to 9:30 p.m. next Thursday, after an even better companion piece, "Scrubs"). However, the supersize gimmick (which is basically yet another way to get more commercials into each show) and the moving around of shows every week didn't pay off for NBC in ratings for this show.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about product integration as a concept, and this show reflected my feelings and pointed out the humor inherent in the whole thing very, very well. From Jack's suggestion in the corporate video that TV writers integrate oil drilling equipment, which highlights the level of absurdity that we can certainly expect to see in the near future in product integration (if it's not already out there), to what I hope are subtle references to that other NBC show about a comedy show (a brief list of items this reviewer read as such references: Strindberg, Liz's statement that "this show is important," and the speech about the state of this country's educational system that mentions money spent in Iraq), to the easy-and-obvious actual product integration humor involving Snapple, the show didn't shy away from any angle. it fearlessly admits that all free TV is, from the corporate point of view, expensive banter "to fill time between car commercials." Because, let's not fool ourselves, if they didn't make money on these things, they wouldn't be doing them. There is no free TV.

The best part of the show, again and always, is Alec Baldwin's dry, deadpan, hilarious delivery of the lines. In this episode, this was emphasized even more as Alec got to thoroughly make fun of himself and his profession. I'll bet the cast had some fun on the set shooting this episode. I'll bet they have fun in general, despite the lines from Tracy (Jordan) about it being such hard work.

In all, still highly recommended.

Points in Favor

1. Alec Baldwin. 'Nuff said.

2. "The whole self-referential thing." Hippie humor. The show is called "30 Rock" after NBC's headquarters, and uses the name of the network and its real corporate parent and its real other products regularly. It has to do this well, and I'm very happy to see Tina Fey living up to it.

Liz: No, you should definitely do it. It'll be hilarious.
Jack: Oh, that'd be a refreshing change of pace for the show, wouldn't it?

This exchange alone, with Liz's sarcasm and some sense of Tina's underlying sincerity, works well.

3. The Jack/Liz dynamic and its growth. Strong last week, and hilarious this week. In particular, Jack (Alec) saying to Liz (Tina) that acting's not his thing, but hers, was brilliant. (That might belong in the previous point, but these reviews are hard. I just want to do what I want to do, you know?)

4. Including a VHS tape in the show, after Variety earlier this week announced the death of VHS with a cute obituary.

5. It's official: Jon Stewart, during Tina Fey's appearance on "The Daily Show" on Monday night, called "30 Rock" funny. Thus cementing the show's comedic credentials.

6. Liz: You're looking out a fake window right now, by the way.

Points Against

1. Jenna. The weak storyline in which neurotic Jenna accidentally woos an extra could have played into the "using sex to sell" theme, but didn't. I'm also concerned about the caricature nature of the blonde star of "The Girlie Show."

2. I'll admit I'm a little concerned about the future use of product integration, which NBC is pushing in this and other shows. Using it as the central comedic storyline is one thing; embedding fourteen brand names in each half-hour, so the advertisers reach those iTunes eyes, is less appealing.

Two Words

Self-referential hilarity.

Posted by on November 17, 2006 6:55 PM
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