“The C Word” (originally aired 2/15/2007)

In which Lutz calls Liz the worst name ever…

Liz Lemon doesn’t detail why she loves cursing in “The C Word,” but I could hazard some guesses. Curse words just sound funny. Curse words are also taboos—oftentimes doubly so, because they describe taboo acts, objects, or concepts. And there’s a lot of comic power to be found in the taboo: It can illicit laughter from shock value; it also prompts laughs because sometimes we don’t know how to react to things we don’t typically hear in polite conversation. But that can be a cheap, empty kind of humor, as demonstrated by plenty of TV comedies that freely use the word euphemistically referred to in “The C Word.”

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There’s inherent funniness in cursing, but that doesn’t mean comedies that can curse are inherently funnier than those that can’t. Just think of something like premium-cable punching bag Arliss, a wretched program that often substituted colorful language in place of legitimate jokes. Arliss’ slack work in obscenity felt especially egregious in light of the HBO comedies that aired around it: The strangled yelp of Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk could make “Dammit” the funniest exclamation in the English language; Sex And The City’s frank approach to its subject matter (in no particular order: sex, the city, sex in the city, sex and the city) required the loose broadcast standards only pay-cable could afford. And then there was “The C Word”’s special guest, Rip Torn, The Larry Sanders Show’s resident Jack Donaghy figure and master of ass-related threats. When your characters can say anything, they ought to be saying something—about who they are as people, about how the world really is—at the same time.

Unable to put those kinds of obscenities in Torn’s mouth, 30 Rock takes inspiration from its limitations. In “The C Word”’s main story, Lutz can’t very well call Liz the c-word, so creative workarounds are found: Conveniently timed, conveniently rhyming interjections from Greta, or record titles from the Todd Rundgren catalog. There’s a good deal of “rhymes with runt” humor in “The C Word,” the diminishing returns of which betray the relative unimportance of Lutz’s gaffe. It’s just an entry point to a larger story about Liz’s relationship with her staffers; far funnier are the artful double entendres that make consummately conservative Jack Donaghy sound like he’s looking forward to some hot GE-on-GE-on-GE-on-GE action on a Connecticut golf course. There seems to be just a little more care taken in leading Alec Baldwin into moments of phrasing like “Next weekend, Tracy and I are going to double team Don Geiss with our big ideas.”

But the real dirty word in this episode begins with the letter “b”: Boss. Only one character is hit by “The C Word”’s titular slur; in addition to Liz, both Jack and Geiss (Torn, imbued with all of Artie’s authority and none of his spleen) demonstrate behavior that sheds being in charge in a negative light. Liz’s reaction to the Lutz situation is reluctance to be seen as either a b-word or a c-word, as she plays the “friendly boss” card to the detriment of her show—which, according to Pete, actually turned out a decent sketch this week—and her sanity. She’s not in the right when she’s tossing cell phones and insulting wardrobes, but dumping a bucket of Super Balls on the writers’ room table isn’t going to help her show, either.

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This is Liz driving herself crazy by denying the fact that she’s naturally good at herding cats. (Cats, after all, are “very good at sensing debilitating loneliness in a person.”) She lets the writers walk all over her, an exploitation of her newfound niceness that leaves her with only one reliable friend: TV. You might not think that Designing Women had as much of an influence on 30 Rock as Saturday Night Live, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Seinfeld, but that probably means you haven’t seen “The C Word.” Until the writers learn to respect Liz, they had better learn to stay out of her way, because TGS is her house as much as Sugarbaker Designs was Julia Sugarbaker’s.

Jack and Tracy’s storyline is all about a lack of respect as well. What Jack does at the country club is the other extreme of Liz’s “boss first, friend second” approach, inviting Tracy to Geiss’ fundraiser as an associate, then treating him like an employee. But Tracy’s not getting paid to be in Connecticut, so he meets one extreme with another: “I’m supposed to just be a funny black man who says funny things,” he realizes, in a terrifically poignant line reading from Tracy Morgan. Recognizing the subtext of Jack’s invitation, Tracy acts like the stereotype Jack apparently thinks he is, giving the boss a little comeuppance by putting on a nonstop minstrel act. “The C Word” is a terrific episode for Morgan, who gets to lash out at misperceptions that somehow managed to survive into the 21st century, all the while delivering the types of emotional punches (the “funny black man” line, his speech about the diabetic daughter it turns out he doesn’t have) that deepen Tracy Jordan and prevent the character from lapsing into the realm of stereotype.

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Breathing that type of life into that character also means making him capable of making mistakes, and the people of 30 Rock are nothing if not hilarious mistake makers. And so Tracy learns that getting back into movies means pleasing some of the people some of the time, while Liz comes to understand that she can’t please all of the people all of the time. (Jack, in other morals that can be simplified into parallel phrasing, gets notice that he can’t be the boss of everyone every minute of the day.) The workplace depicted on this show is in an industry of collaboration and compromise, a corner of the “grown-up world” that’s nonetheless powered by imagination and fart jokes and cupcakes. Like curse words, the philosophies pursued by Liz, Tracy, and Jack in “The C-Word” have their place, but too much of them would prevent 30 Rock from getting its job done.

Stray observations:

  • This week on TGS With Tracy Jordan: “Now when Dennis Hastert farts, should that be live or prerecorded?”
  • Great moments in the 30 Rock score: In the montage detailing the greatest hits of domineering boss Liz Lemon, the saxophone interpolates a jazzy “Auld Lang Syne” upon the scene’s shift to New Year’s Eve.
  • Liz’s strongest argument against the c-word is that there’s no male equivalent, nothing a man could be called that would be as insulting. Here’s a suggestion: Lutz.
  • Sounds like Manimal isn’t in the TV-theory curriculum at Kentucky Mountain Bible College: “Oh, Kenneth: If you’re worried about disgracing the National Broadcasting Company, you’re too late.”
  • One of Tracy’s less volatile truth bombs: “Pleasure to have met you.” “Damn straight—I’m delightful.”
  • I neglected to mention the romantic runner between Kenneth and Grace (Charlyne Yi), another cautionary workplace tale from “The C Word.” It’s an okay gag, I guess—what with Kenneth doing all the talking in order to avoid what only a chaste rube like himself would consider unspeakable—but it doesn’t get good until the duo starts talking in malappropriated Jerry Maguire dialogue: “When you said ‘Hello,’ you had me.”

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Nerds!

  • A mythological figure in Jack’s eyes, Don Geiss arrives to give 30 Rock a Jack Welch figure whose artificial Welch flavor means he can actually appear onscreen and interact with his mentee. Donaghy wants to be Geiss, but there’s more humanity in him than there is in the big GE boss: For instance, Jack may be an unrepentant playboy, but Geiss has a second family in Canada and “an even more secret attic family.”
  • Jack appears proud of his Geiss portrait, but unless there’s cocktail sword in the CEO’s hand, the artist is breaking his own rules. From “My Whole Life Is Thunder”: “The horse is one of only three appropriate subjects for a painting, along with ships with sails, and men holding up swords while staring off into the distance.”

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“Hard Ball” (originally aired 2/22/2007)

In which whatever Josh brings to the show, he’s still replaceable…

The “co-workers versus friends” conflict carries over from “The C Word” to “Hard Ball,” though it’s a little harder to buy into one of the instances here because… it involves Josh. Liz going to the mat for Jenna after the latter is misquoted in Maxim makes sense—a few episodes past the midpoint of season one, the bond between the duo (and the conflicts that arise from it) has been displayed multiple times. Liz and Jenna are best friends who paid their dues together and have an established history and rapport. Before Jack, before Tracy, Liz and Jenna were TGS. Josh, on the other hand, needs to have his importance to the show reiterated throughout “Hard Ball,” and his storyline winds up being more about the team of Liz and Jack than the team of Liz and Josh.

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“Hard Ball” is a fairly funny episode of 30 Rock, with a tremendous kicker and some great material for the show’s best character pairings. It’s also a litmus test of an episode, something of an experiment in what’s working and what isn’t at this point in the series’ life. In the affirmative: Liz and Jack, “Shut it down,” Tracy and Kenneth, Jenna and media scandals, Grizz and Dot Com. What’s clearly being worked out of the show’s system: The Rachel Dratch cameos (her “Hard Ball” character is initially cordoned off from the TGS crew by a TV screen) and poor Josh Girard, the unfortunate orphan of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

A vestigial limb from a time when it seemed like 30 Rock would focus more acutely on the production of TGS, 30 Rock is evolving past the character while he’s still starring in his own storylines. In that previous conception of the show, it makes sense for TGS to have more than one cast member—otherwise, who else is appearing opposite Jenna and Tracy in all of the sketches? But after so many episodes in which putting on a show has been shoved down the 30 Rock priority list, “Hard Ball”’s focus on Josh just comes across as strange. (It’s stranger looking back on the episode five years after the events of “Season 4” and “Audition Day.”) “Hard Ball” requires some heavy lifting on Tina Fey’s part; so much of Liz’s dialogue here is hollow exposition about her relationship with Josh. They’re buddies, she discovered him, she can’t believe he would betray her like this—material that would stick the landing if Josh was ever portrayed as a figure of Jenna-like importance in Liz’s life.

But Josh isn’t given the internal life of Jenna or Frank or Toofer—or even Grizz and Dot Com. For proof of the latter, see the legitimate stakes that “Hard Ball” creates when Tracy disbands his entourage. The scenario presents just as many gifts to the show as the negotiation storyline: The montage of games Tracy was allowed to win, the Bodyguard-riffing conclusion, all of the interactions between pampered-and-naive Tracy and self-sufficient-yet-naive Kenneth. In an episode highlighting the show’s top comedy duo (Fey and Alec Baldwin), Tracy Morgan’s and Jack McBrayer’s characters encounter a world neither is prepared to handle, the delusions of one (“Can’t palm the ball!”) colliding with the fundamental honesty of the other (“Also, that Oscar you have is made of chocolate.”) They both need Grizz and Dot Com more than TGS ever needed Josh.

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But even with its “Really? That’s the guy you’re fighting for?” vibes, “Hard Ball” gives Liz a pair of superb workplace arcs, both of which land on outrageous (and outrageously funny) punchlines. Jenna’s PR woes are exacerbated by pyrotechnic pinwheels that look an awful lot like swastikas when they’re not spinning; when Liz discovers that Josh is leveraging her compassion into an offer from The Daily Show, she forces him to do The Worm—then demands that his agent “be a crab.” From a production standpoint, “Hard Ball” is a proud demonstration of 30 Rock-as-a-sitcom-Swiss-Army-knife: The show could do sight gags with a darkly comic panache, and it brought a similar skill set to implied sight gags like the kicker of the “worm versus crab” sequence. (“Okay, now the crab is getting aroused, shut it down.”) And with the 30 Rock touch, the great mundanity of contract negotiations form the funniest scenes of “Hard Ball.” Part of this is the visual humor of Jack’s “negotiation set” furniture; another is the jazzy little tap dance that takes over the soundtrack whenever Alec Baldwin starts hashing out terms with another character. The energy of the music makes “the essence of capitalism” feel just as exciting as Jack says it is.

Jack begins “Hard Ball” by telling Liz that “you don’t need anyone,” but the episode succeeds thanks to 30 Rock’s essential components. The negotiation scenes are essentially the show having a debate with itself: On one side, the necessary pairing of Jack and Liz; on the other, expendable Josh. It’s a cruel, Donaghy-esque lens to view “Hard Ball” through, but such shrewdness and self-examination helped keep the show alive beyond these first 21 episodes.

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Stray observations:

  • Dispatches from a time when Entourage captured the popular imagination: The whole notion of Tracy having an entourage; Josh’s agent, who is clearly styled after Ari Gold and comes with his own painfully contrived vocabulary. (“We are not smiles times.”) Not coincidentally, “Hard Ball” aired as part of the same television season as The Office’s “The Coup,” in which Michael Scott nurses his own Entourage infatuation.
  • While taking shots at Arliss in the “C Word” review, I totally forgot that “Hard Ball” makes its own joke at “The Art of the Sports Super Agent”’s expense: “Let’s have our policies determined by former CableACE Award nominees.” “First, I was great in that Arliss!”
  • Flummoxed by Dot Com’s complicated remote-control setup, Tracy awaits the dawn of Siri: “Television on! Pornography!”

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Next time: “The Source Awards” (brought to you in part by Donaghy Estate Sparkling Wine) and “The Fighting Irish” (not brought to you in any part by the University of Notre Dame).