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“Jack Meets Dennis” (originally aired 11/30/2006)

In which the beeper king is also a rat king…

Jack Donaghy is not the enemy. He may harbor some retrograde perspectives. He might force his will on his employees, inside and outside 30 Rock. He may be a meddlesome executive who thinks he knows TV better than the people who actually make TV. But he’s an asset to Liz as much as he is a thorn in her side, and 30 Rock would improve by leaps and bounds once it began a full-court press with Liz and Jack’s adversarial alliance.

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Because these two characters, the glue of 30 Rock, are not diametrically opposed entities. They’re certainly a better match for one another than Liz and Dennis Duffy, the on-again, off-again boyfriend and full-time “last beeper salesman in New York” introduced to the audience—and to Jack—in “Jack Meets Dennis.” Liz and Jack have ambition, they each have a certain amount of drive, and they’re both in charge of maddeningly incompetent staffs. We’ve yet to see the full, Bluth Company-esque extent of the numbskullery Jack works against (and more often than not abets) at General Electric. For all its patchwork plotting, however, “Jack Meets Dennis” does an excellent job of showing off the dummies that Liz has to deal with around the clock.

As such it’s so, so important that Jack offers his services as a mentor in “Jack Meets Dennis.” That’s a bridge she’s initially reluctant to cross, because she’s not yet ready to accept such assistance from someone else. And why would she? The only stable presence in her work life is Pete; the only stable presence in her home life is The Beeper King. No woman is an island, but Liz Lemon sure tries like hell to be one in these early episodes, feeling like everyone around her is questioning her decision-making, even as she makes the reasonably questionable decision of dining at the same, consistent, comfortable sandwich place. Only when she realizes what that sandwich place represents is she willing to accept Jack’s invitation. It’s a big step, and a big deal for the way these two people work with one another.

This all occurs in what early 30 Rock is certain is the show’s most compelling gear: Before the events of the pilot, Liz was secure with the way she was living her life, and now every other character is messing with that security. This is compelling on a character level, and it’ll inform a lot about what we come to know about Liz as the series goes on—but what it’s truly good for in “Jack Meets Dennis” are a pair of spectacular analogies. The comfortable sandwich and the rat king are the clever touches that these first few episodes nail with remarkable consistency: They’re an extension of the hot dogs and “the third heat” from the pilot, little nuggets of witty scripting enlivening a show that’s still learning to tell its stories. Liz’s relationship problems aren’t making for 30 Rock’s funniest jokes or its most satisfying stories, but at this stage the show has a flair for illustrating these parts of the character, using gross sandwiches and grosser urban legends in a way unlike any other sitcom of the era.

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And while “Jack Meets Dennis” comes to an abrupt end—a blackout solves all of Liz’s short-term problems—these analogies do play expertly into the most important part of the episode. Liz is reluctant about Jack’s offer of a mentorship because it would be a disruption to a very cushy routine, just like the escalating levels of facial trauma the TGS cast undergoes in the episode. (That’s a neat little twist, too. The episode’s a bit half-baked, but “fake tattoos” —> “botched cosmetic work” —> “attacked by Elizabeth Taylor” is a great runner—and a hilarious tableau in the White House sketch that the electrical outage preempts.) The difference of opinion that makes Jack and Liz ideal sparring partners is in full effect for “Jack Meets Dennis”’ fundamental disagreement: Liz sees her routine as a security blanket; Jack describes it in terms of suffering. “Lemon, what tragedy happened in your life that you insist on punishing yourself with all of this mediocrity?” he asks her, before wandering over to the window and witnessing a more vigorous act of self-punishment in another part of Rockefeller Plaza. Following the model set by one of his mentors, real-life GE exec Jack Welch, Jack Donaghy wants to get so involved in other people’s personal lives that he’s ready to admire the “stamina” of the unseen masturbator across the way; Liz is so wrapped up in her own stuff that she can’t stop getting lettuce in her hair.

Dennis is also that piece of lettuce, a bothersome vegetable of negligible value to Liz’s health that she just can’t seem to shake. It’s not that she’s not capable of shaking him—it’s just that even thinking about the energy required to do so is exhausting. Jack Welch probably has some pointers about avoiding exhaustion, but that’s a topic best left for the next episode. Until then, 30 Rock resets in the blackout and Dennis collapses in Liz’s lap, weeping about another New York Islanders loss. It’s even harder to break free of a rat king when one of the rats is wearing hockey gloves.

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Stray observations:

  • Obviously they’re a bad fit, but there’s still a sweet sadness to Liz and Dennis’ relationship. I think it helps sell Liz’s inability to kick Dennis to the curb: Their game of “Mistress or daughter?” at the beginning of the restaurant demonstrates that they do have fun together.
  • Jenna’s cosmetic treatment included “something with shark DNA.” Don’t tell Jason Street.
  • Liz knows no one will ever confuse Tracy for Wayne Brady, face tattoo or no face tattoo: “Wayne Brady has three Emmys. You have a People’s Choice Award—that you stole from Wayne Brady!”

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Nerds!

  • Jack Donaghy’s obsession with Jack Welch gives the character a father figure—until he gets an actual father figure in the form of Rip Torn’s Don Geiss. Welch would go on to play himself in 30 Rock’s parody of the NBC-Comcast merger; more importantly, he’d inspire a terrific runner in “Tracy Does Conan.”
  • There is a White Haven in Pennsylvania (Tina Fey’s home state), it definitely sounds “not as nice” as “Whiteville,” and Liz and Jack wind up traveling there in season three’s “Reunion.”

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“Tracy Does Conan” (originally aired 12/7/2006)

In which the third heat is found

Before we start talking about what’s on our mind grapes regarding “Tracy Does Conan,” let’s first acknowledge one of the secret stars of 30 Rock: Composer Jeff Richmond. A former music director for The Second City and the man behind such Saturday Night Live classics as the “Mom Jeans” jingle, Richmond would know how 30 Rock should sound even if he wasn’t married to Tina Fey. From full production numbers to Liz belting a refrain from Annie, this show has music in its DNA, and it’d lack a certain, fundamental zip without Richmond’s contributions.

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Just as the jazz stylings of Vince Guaraldi shaped the TV voice of Peanuts, the mini rhapsodies in blue that Richmond composed made 30 Rock. And you can hear it in the moment at which 30 Rock becomes 30 Rock: At 8 minutes and 56 seconds of “Tracy Does Conan,” as an ominous tympani roll leads into the Russian-flavored that pulls Liz, Grizz, and Dot Com out of Liz’s office, past the elevator banks, and into the “I’m buggin’ out” act break. It’s a hell of a way to throw to commercial; it’s an even better introduction to this show’s true self.

This is a prime example of “Tracy Does Conan” as a unique comic contraption, a roller coaster ride of intricate loop-the-loops (the introductions of 30 Rock staples The Rural Juror and Dr. Leo Spaceman) and long climbs of humorous tension (Tracy’s never-ending Late Night dance). I’ve always wanted to coin a term for this type of episode; the best I’ve come up with is “an episode on wheels,” though that implies a carelessness and indifference that episodes like “Tracy Does Conan” or The Good Wife’s “Hitting The Fan” are too smart and too ably constructed to possess. But they do seem built for speed and motion in ways other episodes aren’t, barreling ever forward even as their protagonists encounter obstacle after obstacle, blue dude after blue dude.

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There are many things “Tracy Does Conan” does better than “Jack Meets Dennis,” one of which is the way the former shows the events of a bad day wearing on Liz. In the first of this week’s episodes, Liz is backed into a corner and saved at the last minute when a deus ex machina knocks out all of the electricity in New York City. But outside of a few stray complaints and her acceptance of Jack’s mentorship, “Jack Meets Dennis” does little to show the toll that Liz pays for all that stress.

“Tracy Does Conan,” meanwhile, is an exhilarating piece of comic filmmaking that’s all about exhaustion. And we’re right there with Liz, winging around corners of the actual GE Building, heading up to Jack’s office then down to TGS (and then up to Jack’s office all over again). It’s called 30 Rock for a reason, and “Tracy Does Conan” really sells the fact that the show’s workplace is an Art Deco skyscraper. An outline of all the foot traffic in this episode would look like one of those Family Circus dotted-line panels.

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And because speed is the third heat of 30 Rock, it’s important that all of the walking and talking done in “Tracy Does Conan” possesses genuine momentum. This is one of the greatest ironies of the imagined 30 Rock-Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip War Of 2006: In forming the grammar of their show, the producers of 30 Rock drew so much from the previous television work of Aaron Sorkin. (The only irony greater would be that 30 Rock lasted seven seasons while Studio 60 petered out after one.) In particular, Sorkin’s oft-parodied zeal for mobile patter—a habit he’d eventually spoof in a 30 Rock cameo—is all over these first seven episodes. But elsewhere, it feels forced: Compare Liz and Jenna’s walk to work in the “Jack Meets Dennis” cold open to “Tracy Does Conan”’s sequences of Liz and Pete discussing The Rural Juror or Jenna telling Liz she’s quitting due to the Late Night snub. Those aren’t instances of a TV show pushing a conversation down a hallway because it was visually engaging when Sports Night or The West Wing did it; this is 30 Rock utilizing the hustle-and-bustle at its core to ratchet up one crazy day in Liz Lemon’s life, just as it does with Jeff Richmond’s “Tracy Does Conan” score.

And that’s one other important service this episode performs for 30 Rock: By strapping Liz to a lit rocket that’s zooming through the corridors of 30 Rockefeller Center, “Tracy Does Conan” re-centers the show on its main character. We’ve seen how Liz deals with Jack, we’ve gotten a good feel for the ensemble surrounding these two characters, but 30 Rock hasn’t trained its lens this tightly on Liz Lemon since the show’s pilot. After Jack hogged the titular storylines of episodes four and five—essential spotlight moments that remove his villainous edge and portray him as a well-meaning interloper—he plays a reduced role in “Tracy Does Conan.” Here, he’s just another of the dozen or so things distracting Liz from the fact that she hasn’t eaten all day. Making sure Tracy doesn’t stab Conan O’Brien is the driving force of the episode, but it’s Liz’s quest and Liz’s episode, a day in the life of the one person 30 Rock’s known from the start. And 30 Rock knows that Liz isn’t going to remember to dump Dennis if she can’t be bothered to slow down long enough to eat a sandwich.

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In some ways, that makes “Tracy Does Conan” a re-pilot for the series, one that’s a truer representation of the next 131 half-hours, what with its brisk pace, in-jokes (the show’s already making good on Liz and Conan O’Brien’s romantic history), the playful Jack-Liz antagonism, the Rural Juror cutaway, Richmond’s inventive scoring, complete lack of onscreen TGS action, and inimitable dialogue. (Some choice selections that we’ve ignore thus far: “I could talk about how the moon is a spy satellite put there by Oprah and Minister Farrakhan—and not the Minister Farrakhan you’re thinking of,” “You gonna tell me my feet stink? You don’t even have feet!”, and the immortal “Why are you wearing a tux?” “It’s after 6, what am I? A farmer?”) And by pulling The Little Blue Dude into frame, the series gives in to its heightened sense of reality, a live-action-cartoon vibe that could cause trouble in later seasons, but hit the airwaves of 2006 like a refreshing blast of jabbering blue air.

It’d be one thing if “Tracy Does Conan” was the first top-to-bottom funny episode of 30 Rock, but that title goes to “Jack-Tor.” “Tracy Does Conan” is more than good gags written and performed: It’s a shining beacon of the show working to its full potential, a model of what TV comedy can be when writing, performance, direction, music, and other essential ingredients of motion pictures are in sync and properly deployed. It’s an early peak for the show, but not the only peak. With ”Tracy Does Conan,” 30 Rock showed it could climb to the ceiling; knowing it could do so would give the show confidence to reach even daffier heights in the future. Go ahead, Tracy: You’ve earned the right to dance for this long.

Stray observations:

  • All those words about “Tracy Does Conan,” and yet I managed to leave out Pete’s wig. (Technically, it’s Josh’s Stone Phillips wig, but come on—once it’s on Pete’s head, that hair belongs to Pete.) In order to save y’all from a treatise on a goofy prop, I’ll say this: It’s good for a quick laugh, but the real importance of the wig is the way it parts the red seas for Kenneth. It’s such a smart way of tying a seemingly inconsequential suggestion from Jack into the lynchpin of the episode. Making it all the more satisfying: Scott Adsit seriously commits to the “leader of men” angle of Wig Pete. (Also: The wig escalates Tracy’s freakout via “No! Past Pete is here to kill Future Pete!”) I take back everything I wrote above: Maybe the real story of “Tracy Does Conan” is the story of Wig Pete.
  • Aubrey Plaza isn’t an NBC page (anymore), but she played one on TV for “Tracy Does Conan” (and her time in the program may have overlapped with this cameo, seeing as she was apparently a page while Katie Couric was still on NBC).
  • Speaking of work with NBC leading to further work on NBC: Here’s a montage of the many many hillbilly characters Jack McBrayer played on Late Night With Conan O’Brien prior to 30 Rock.
  • As Dr. Leo Spaceman, Chris Parnell is one of TV’s all-time great one-liner deliverers, and he gets in two killers in his very first appearance: “But what can you do? Medicine’s not a science” and “I should not have taken those blue things.”
  • Conan O’Brien’s great throughout this episode, but I’ve always liked his last line—delivered after Kenneth’s one-sided Late Night interview—the best. “You’re a weird guy, Kenneth.”

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  • The Rural Juror is more than a great tongue twister: Future episodes build it up into one of the show’s best callbacks, and its release forms the basis of season one’s “The Rural Juror.” The joke carries all the way to the series finale, the main portion of which concludes with a performance of The Rural Juror’s appropriately unintelligible theme. It’s one last musical masterstroke from the show: A hilarious song that never fails to make me feel a little bit weepy.
  • “Tracy Does Conan” is far from the last time we’ll hear from Dr. Leo Spaceman, the Dr. Nick Riviera of the 30 Rock universe. After becoming an established part of the supporting cast, his status as a walking ethical gray area would spill into the real world, when Dr Pepper dropped an ad starring Parnell as Spaceman at the end of a fourth-season episode. Considering the show’s winking approach to product integration and the fact that no one involved behind the scenes at 30 Rock had anything to do with the ad’s creation, it turned into a bit of a controversy.

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Next time: Say goodbye to Dennis (not really) in “The Break-Up” and meet Colleen Donaghy (sort of) in “The Baby Show.”