Robert Carlock, 30 Rock’s co-show-runner alongside Tina Fey, is walking The A.V. Club through a handful of episodes from the show’s six seasons. Part one is here; this section includes highlights from seasons two and three.
“SeinfeldVision” (S2/E1, Oct. 4, 2007)
Jack launches a program called SeinfeldVision, which repurposes old Seinfeld clips. Seinfeld himself comes down to the office to talk to Jack. Liz is still distraught about her break-up with Floyd, and Kenneth becomes Tracy’s “office wife” when there’s trouble at the Jordan household.
The A.V. Club: A cameo from Jerry Seinfeld is a hell of a way to start a season. Were you still worried about weekly ratings?
Robert Carlock: We continue to feel like we live week to week, and certainly at that period of time, there had been a lot of turnover at the network, and “Who’s our buddy, who’s not?” is always unclear. The numbers, as you say, had been all over the place within what sadly today is the range of what numbers are.
AVC: Did you win the Emmy before you were picked up for a second season, or had you already been picked up?
RC: We would have won the Emmy that fall, after we’d started the second season. I don’t think we were picked up for a full season that second year. I can’t remember too precisely.
AVC: Well, season two was also the Writers Guild strike.
RC: I think we got our back nine, and we ended up getting our back five. I don’t remember. But yeah, the Seinfeld thing was great.
AVC: Did his people approach you?
RC: He and NBC. His people and NBC were talking at a very high level about promoting Bee Movie, and they were encouraging us to use him. We were really eager to do anything we could to continue our life writing the show, in part, at that point, because we’d really fallen in love with writing it. I will never have another opportunity to write for those people again. Writing a half-hour for Alec Baldwin is insane. And to work with Tina. A lot of the things this show has done, like product integration and guest stars, is partly to give NBC the fewest number of excuses possible to get rid of us. If they’re saying, “We’ll promote you. Have Seinfeld on,” and we all love Seinfeld, we’ll sit down and try to find a way to do it on our terms—much like product integration, where every time we’ve done it, we’ve had the luxury of being able to call it out or mock it or integrate it. This past live show had a couple of P.I. things in it, because that was so much about television that you’re able to do it. We were happy to have Jerry come on the show, and he shot 10 pages in a very long day. We usually shoot six or seven pages, so it was a real burden.
AVC: He could only do one day?
RC: He could only do one day, schedule-wise. So we took full advantage of it. We took full advantage of his good nature.
AVC: Is there a point where a celebrity is too big to play a character on your show, where they can only play a version of themselves? People like Seinfeld and Al Gore?
RC: I think it’s less that question and more what serves the story. We would have been happy to have Jerry come on and have him play a character, and I can remember being in the writers’ room talking about what we were going to do for him, and the idea that we liked best was SeinfeldVision. In terms of what we were talking about—in terms of our Harmon-esque embryo—the questions we ask, if your starting place is that Jerry Seinfeld is going to be on the show, is, “How do you use that to tell a story between our characters?” The idea of Jack having this devious plan to have Jerry Seinfeld on every show on NBC to regain past glory starts to get you there. Surely there were other ideas where he was playing a character, but fortunately, he was okay with playing himself, because the idea we liked best required him to play himself.
When we were doing our “Greenzo” episode, that was the first time that Mr. Gore was on. The story didn’t require him, but we thought, “Wouldn’t that be cool?” And we’ve seen him be funny on things despite whatever people might think his persona might be, and it really only made sense for him to come on as himself.
With Kelsey Grammer, the story was about celebrities taking advantage of their celebrity status, the first time with Carvel. He was in town doing a play and turns out, just has the best sense of humor ever, because I couldn’t believe he came back to do that. He’s just so delightful. But the point is that it had to be, because Jenna was going to be pulling someone else into her scheme who also had a Carvel card—that person had to be playing him or herself. So it’s not a question, as you posed, of, “Oh, that person’s too big a star,” it’s a question of we sometimes get into that territory of being a show where some of our characters are famous in our fictional world, so there are interactions with real famous people, and the story asks for that. That’s the way that it tends to run.
“Greenzo” (S2/E5, Nov. 8, 2007)
Jack hires the mascot Greenzo (David Schwimmer) to promote NBC’s green initiative, but the actor starts thinking he is Greenzo. Pete is living at Liz’s apartment while separated from his wife, and Liz suspects he’s having an affair.
AVC: Pete seems to have evolved a lot as a character, too. At the beginning, he was just this person Liz bitched to.
RC: If season one was about solidifying the Jack/Liz relationship and giving it new facets, season two was very much about trying to fully explore other characters and dynamics. It was sort of fun, even though it was a truncated season, to poke out in all different directions. To say, “Which dynamics, what groupings haven’t we done before?” Even into season three, there were things we hadn’t done. Toward the beginning of season three, we did a Jack/Kenneth storyline.
AVC: They’ve certainly done a lot of scenes together this past season.
RC: Exactly. Anything that we felt worked became something that you could just go to, and the story with Pete was part of that. Again, one of the great things Tina did in the pilot was to populate the world with different kinds of people, different points of view, different opinions. One of my favorite scenes we did was when Jenna and Tracy are in this fight about who has it harder, African-American men or women, in our society, which is based on the Clinton/Obama argument that people were having. And there was a scene that pulled everyone into it: Jack and Liz ran into the two of them [Jenna and Tracy], they were dressed as their inverses. It was outrageous. We were hoping that the larger debate excused it, and hopefully it did, but from a larger show standpoint, what was interesting was that everyone was there.
Pete is one of the few married people, he’s a little older than some of the other folks. It was fun to start to push on him a little bit in season two. I honestly don’t even remember what the storyline was. Right, he was having an affair, but the affair was with his wife, and he’s living with Liz, and the Pop Tarts.
AVC: Until this episode, I don’t remember him being a force. He was always there and he was always funny, but the stories weren’t about him.
RC: Right. There’s that very deep bench. We’re very spoiled in having characters like that, and actors like that who are designated hitters.
AVC: One of the satisfying things about the show is to see someone like Lutz, who has been in the background the whole time, suddenly step up in much later seasons.
RC: It may be an overpopulated world at this point. Devon Banks, Dr. Spaceman, Kathy Geiss, Jeffrey Weinerslav. It’s got Kaylie Hooper and all these mildly recurring characters. Tina used to ruefully refer to the show as live-action The Simpsons when we were first starting, because production-wise and character-wise, it was a very ambitious and full and populated universe. We would write a little cut-away joke that would cost a lot of time and money to do. On The Simpsons, you could just draw the damn thing; we had to load up trucks and go to a park. [Laughs.] But we would insist on doing it. And she would insist on doing it as well.
“MILF Island” (S2/E11, April 10, 2008)
Jack questions the entire staff about a quote in The New York Post, calling them all to his office during the much-anticipated season finale of the reality show MILF Island.
AVC: This was your first episode back from the strike. How did the strike affect this season?
RC: I can’t even remember if we had a full season. Maybe we did. Maybe it became five because of the strike. I remember there being a negotiation over how many we were going to do.
AVC: There wasn’t any fear of, “We’re not coming back after this”?
RC: Not so much. That didn’t feel like it was on the table when everyone was in the same boat. I think we felt like we had a lot of momentum that got stopped by the strike. It felt like we were in a good groove, creatively. That said, it’s a really brutal, tough show to do, just in terms of hours, and by the time we hit episode 10 that year, we were pretty tapped out. [Chuckles.] So it wasn’t anything any of us wanted to have happen.
AVC: Were you involved with the episode the cast performed at the Upright Citizens Brigade during the strike?
RC: Yes, I played, memorably and to great acclaim, the role of James Carville in the live show. I wore a T-shirt that said “James Carville,” so that it was clear that I was James Carville. Despite the pain surrounding the necessity for that show, that was fun to do.
“MILF Island” always feels less connected to the strike for me. That was one of our attempts at a bottle episode. The ambitions of our show always ruin it. It ended up being a very complicated, very expensive show. It was supposed to be a way we could get everyone in the same room and shoot quickly and make up some time. We knew we needed to see [the actual MILF Island show], which was the spine of everything, but we didn’t anticipate how complicated that would be. We were trying to save money with that one, which didn’t happen. I just remember trucking in all the sand. And also, it’s one of those episodes that’s very much about TV. It’s about reality TV, which we’ve continued to use as a touchstone with the Queen Of Jordan episodes. My main memory of that is less coming back, and more “This is harder than it should be.”
The headline to me [for season two], that you’ve already identified, was shuffling the deck. If the first year was about Jack and Liz, then the second year was about everybody else. Obviously continuing Jack and Liz, broadening and deepening, then exploring all of those other relationships the best we could.
“Gavin Volure” (S3/E4, Nov. 20, 2008)
Liz meets eccentric billionaire Gavin Volure (Steve Martin), and the two begin an odd courtship. Tracy believes his sons are plotting to murder him, so he uses a sex dummy as a decoy.
AVC: This was a contentious episode for some reason.
RC: I really liked that episode. It’s an extreme example of the A and C stories combining, which I always like, and that stuff with Tracy’s sex dummy just really amuses me. I’m using it as a decoy later. Tracy was so good playing his own lifeless, glassy-eyed, high-end sex doll; it was a real breakthrough for him as a performer. I get that that’s a divisive episode in the larger conversation about 30 Rock episodes, but it’s one I ended up liking a lot. It has epic swings in it. We had a guest cast come in, Steve Martin, which I don’t think people should be complaining about. You take your free Steve Martin entertainment as you can get it. What we asked him to do was big, and either you’re on board, or you’re not.
I often talk about wanting our silly, smaller stories to be as real as possible—this is how we approach things in the room as best as we can—and our larger, hopefully more emotionally grounded stories to get as [weird] as they can before they break. So those crazy runners, we at least want to get a foot in reality at all times, which I think is true with that Tracy story. And then that story about Liz, which was the idea that the super-rich guy would want her as a trophy is, in our perverse way, an elevation. Like in “The Head And The Hair” when the super-handsome guy was interested in her, but he turns out to be her cousin. Part of what Jack was trying to teach her back in the pilot is that she’s better than she thought she was. Similarly, that’s what Steve Martin’s interest in her—there’s the comic idea that she would love the life of a shut-in, house-arrest prisoner, just because of the sheer sloth and TV viewing. But beyond that, the emotional core of it is, “Oh, he wants me,” and then, of course, we have to twist it again and have him try to escape from prison, and then twist again and he shows up in disguise. And maybe it twists one too many times, but when you have Steve Martin, I guess it can only be our fault if it doesn’t work for everybody. That is an episode that certainly was turning and turning, and I like that, but I understand if it divides some of the viewership.
AVC: Is there an episode from any season that leaps to mind as the ideal of what you’re talking about? As in, the grounded story gets sufficiently weird, the weird story gets sufficiently grounded, and they all meet in the end?
“Apollo, Apollo” (S3/E16, March 26, 2009)
Tracy wants to travel to space, and Jack enlists Pete to help him fake the trip. Liz is visited by Dennis, who is getting over his sex addiction, but learns that Dennis and Jenna hooked up in the past. Jack is approaching his 50th birthday, and tries to reclaim his childlike happiness in spite of his overbearing mother Colleen.
RC: The one that jumps to mind, probably because I wrote it, is “Apollo, Apollo.” Tracy wants to go to space. Liz is stuck having to fake a trip to space for him. It’s pretty silly. She needs to give him a reason that he’s blindfolded all the time: because of space sickness. But his core reason for wanting to do it is this sweet childhood thing that actually intersects with Jack’s very-gettable, very emotional journey that he’s having about his childhood that also happens to be about the space program. Meanwhile, the Liz/Jenna/Dennis triangle keeps turning around on itself, and ultimately, that story ends up solving Jack’s story. All three stories inform each other, and I think all three of them subscribe to what I’m talking about, which is: Jenna slept with Liz’s ex in a very inappropriate way. Liz’s response to that is going to be very in character. She’s fine with it. It’s only Dennis. It doesn’t matter. Our friendship is more important. But also in character, her subconscious response is spiteful and vengeful, and she almost lets Jenna fall to her death during a wire stunt on the show. Jack is having a very emotional, sort of existential crisis, which manifests itself in Jack Donaghy fashion, in literally trying to hunt down his childhood joy, and his success in doing that—because he’s Jack Donaghy, dammit—is a failure, and that ties into Tracy. Tracy has all of his Right Stuff fun. I’m sure I could come up with others if I really went through, but all of the pieces came together, and the weight of every story felt right.
“The Funcooker” (S3/E14, March 12, 2009)
Liz leaves for jury duty, putting Kenneth in charge of the show. Jenna is so exhausted from working on a movie at night and the show during the day that she starts taking military-grade caffeine pills. Jack attempts to come up with a name for a microwave that won’t offend anyone in any language.
AVC: This episode speaks to what you said about season two and part of season three: letting the other characters step up. In this case, Liz is literally not around.
RC: Which is something we generally try and avoid doing: removing one of your main characters. And it’s not like she was off with Jack, but we did it for that very reason. What would happen if Liz was not available? If Liz was not around? The point of that was, as we often do, work backward. So let’s give Jack one of his little problems that he needs Liz for, which hopefully highlights that on some small level, he does need Liz, because it tends to run the other way. She tends to run to him for advice, he’s the Grand Poobah. Similarly, what kind of vacuum does that create with the people in the writers’ room? So it’s always in keeping what I was saying in season two to keep turning it over in your hand and saying, “What happens if Jack and Liz get trapped at a reunion together? What happens if they’re on a road trip together?”…Gosh, I don’t even remember the other stories in that.
AVC: Jack is trying to market the microwaves and he comes up with a name—
RC: Which is what Tracy calls his ass, and then on the show and the “bitenuker”—that’s right. Which, as far as we could tell, would mean “cock-fucker” if you combined French and Dutch. So we had to go back and loop that line, have Alec re-record it because he’d pronounced it “bitenuker,” and bite is the French vulgarism for the male organ, and nuker, as far as we can tell, does mean “fucker” in Dutch. He had pronounced it correctly in those languages, so we had to have him go back and slightly mispronounce it so he wasn’t actually saying that, because of our many fans in Holland. Our many Franco-Dutch fans.
Tomorrow: part three includes thoughts on the themes and processes of the first four seasons, plus the evolution of Liz’s quest for love.