I love Tina Fey; she’s a goddess of all that is shiny and fun, but sometimes I find myself begrudging “30 Rock” and I just realized why: I wish it were more like “Parks & Recreation.”
In real life, Tina Fey is married with a gorgeous daughter, dozens of prestigious awards, a “Vanity Fair” cover, a lot of money, and a political scalp most of us would have loved to claim. On television she’s Liz Lemon—an every woman (sort of) with a gorgeous apartment and killer job, but she’s unmarried and eats emotionally so she’s obviously pathetic. It’s been the same punch line for five years: Liz has unfortunate hair, Liz doesn’t know how to flirt, Liz can’t have sex, Liz can’t adopt, Liz will never get married and have babies which is the whole goddamn point of life and you are all vultures getting in her way! (Meanwhile, Jack sleeps with a woman on birth control a couple of times and ends up with a baby and a wife.) You don’t get to mock yourself when it’s not really yourself that you’re mocking but women like you who haven’t reached your level of personal or professional success.
This came up last year when Fey returned to “SNL” to host and did a sketch called “Brownie Husband” in which she baked a man and then ate him combining her food/body image obsession with her need-to-have-a-man obsession. But it didn’t change anything.
Cut to “Parks & Recreation” in which Amy Poehler is an awesome civil servant, deeply dedicated to and good at what she does, who isn’t married and doesn’t care. She is a fulfilled and happy woman. This is natural to “Parks & Rec” because it is not only one of the funniest shows on television but one of the most positive. Now I have nothing against mean comedy. I think Sarah Silverman is hilarious and I defended Ricky Gervais’s performance at the Golden Globes, but it is certainly easier to be mean and funny than to be nice and funny, especially without being self-deprecating. That is the wonder of Amy Poehler’s show—there is no one on it to dislike and yet each character brings laughs. Jerry, the only character people are in fact mean to, is incredibly talented (great at the piano, makes awesome collages) and the gag is that no one can see that but us. Even when the writers of “Parks & Rec” are mean they’re nice. It’s amazing that Greg Daniels and the cast and crew of “Parks & Recreation” have managed to create a show in which you laugh at people without thinking they are bad or stupid or inane, but you respect and would even want to be friends with if you had the chance.
On the other hand “30 Rock”’s cast is fully of crazy people who you’d never want to talk to in real life. Lutz is a loser, Twofer’s an asshole who won’t shut up about going to Harvard, Jenna is a crazed star who hates everyone who steals her spotlight, etc. We get the same these-people-are-pathetic-idiot jokes week after week and while these jokes are funny, coupled with the self-deprecation of Tina Fey, they can get old. The reason it doesn’t has a lot to do with Jack Donaghy who seems to gain more and more screen time each season. Alec Baldwin may actually be the funniest actor alive, and the fact that he has been doing dramas for decades makes baby Jesus cry. It’s Jack’s general positivity and strength that keep the show from wallowing and often drives the plot forward.
I’m not coming down on the nice-is-better-than-mean side because I want everyone to feel good about themselves (although I do), but I genuinely think the attitude of “Parks & Rec” makes it more fun to watch, and that “30 Rock” could do with a little less self-hate and hate in general.