For a show that is long recognized for it’s stabs at pop culture and willingness to push the boundaries of comedy, 30 Rock has been prevalent in media studies since its inception in 2006. The show’s ability to allude to real actors in the show, PR debacles, and real world issues is unparalleled to any other satirical sitcom on air today. 30 Rock’s ballsy no-bullshit method makes the show stand out amongst other similar sitcoms (i.e. Arrested Development, The Office, Seinfeld) and their use of referential humor proves their expertise in the world of comedy. Referential humor (also known as meta-humor) is described as characters in a television show, “acknowledging that they live in a fictional universe and are TV characters” (persephonemagazine.com). This meta-humor deceives the viewer’s expectations of fiction and can change the way they’re interpreting the show.
Self-referential humor breaks the fourth wall that separates the real world from a fiction one. Many shows are afraid to break the fourth wall and often use tactics such as visual trickery, continual storylines and believable characters to remain consistent and fictitious. But when it’s done right, the breaking of the fourth wall can be mind-blowingly fun way to force audiences into recognizing that they are watching a fictional story in a made up world.
Another tactic that’s similar to meta-humor is transrealism- when shows use real people and/or events in a fictional manner. For example in the Larry Sanders Show, Sanders plays a himself, “interviewing real-life celebrities, who often play weirdly over-the-top versions of themselves” (io9.com). In 30 Rock, characters are not only known for making fun of each other in the show, but for making fun of their real persona’s (i.e. the actors playing these characters). This self-parody uses the idea of fiction to help make fun of fiction itself. Tracy Morgan plays an exaggerated version of himself named Tracy Jordan, and uses problems from his real life to enhance his character. He often pokes fun at his poor health, his colorful personality, and real stunts he has pulled in the past. This “television inception” has been used in shows starting as early as the 1950s and it is often multidimensional in the sense that characters recognize the fact they’re playing a version of themselves for comedic effect.
Meta-humor is used to describe any of these self-actualized ideas and 30 Rock uses almost all of these tactics in each of their episodes. The show often pokes fun at the fact that it’s a show about a show based on a real life show that is produced by the producer of the original show along with being written by the writer of the original show. Phew! Exhausting isn’t it? Meta humor is very complex with multiple layers playing off each other for the sake of comedy. As Rolling Stone puts it, “You’re on the set of an actual TV show that’s dominated by an elaborate set of a fictional TV show’s set, surrounded by actors who can be hard to distinguish from the people playing them.” (Rollingstone.com). This television inception is funny on many different levels- one being that real celebrities are making fun of themselves, that the show is making fun of the idea of TV being a form of entertainment, and that society is dumb enough to continue to watch a show that makes fun of society (with themselves included).
Aside from playing with the idea of television inception, the characters in 30 Rock sometimes reference an aspect of the show that they technically shouldn’t know about. For example, in Season 7 when Liz Lemon finally marries Kriss (and yes, that is spelled correctly), the episode opens with her singing a song to the other writers in the tune of the theme song of 30 Rock, (which was composed by her real life husband, might I add). The line read, “Married, Liz Lemon got married, and made up this song,” which allowed the show to move from scene into the opening theme song without skipping a beat. Along with poking fun at the fact that they are actors on a television show about themselves, Fey also uses product placement to break the fourth wall- breaking her character in the middle of a scene while speaking directly to advertisers. In one episode, Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donaghy goes off on a tangent about Verizon Wireless phones being oh so popular and Fey’s character Liz responds by saying that Verizon’s service is unbeatable and how she wants to get one for herself. After she finishes her line she looks at the camera and says, “Can we get our money now?” [https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=d36wUmJGzvA]. Tina’s character is acknowledging that she is on a show and by directly asking for money she is acknowledging that 30 Rock is in need of money to keep it on air.
30 Rock is constantly referencing pop culture and real life celebrities, often using them to play various versions of themselves. In the first episode of season two, Jerry Seinfeld is featured on the show, playing a version himself who is defending his role from the NBC show Seinfeld. By making fun of his old character, 30 Rock is making fun of his show, his role in television and NBC as a general broadcaster. 30 Rock also regularly used fake TV shows to make fun of real TV shows that are popular today. For example, TGS is meant to reflect SNL, America’s Kidz Got Singing is making fun of almost every contest singing show (and especially Simon Cowell), Gold Case is reflecting Deal or No Deal and Queen of Jordan was created to poke fun at any Housewives of Whatever that airs on Bravo. 30 Rock also featured two live episodes which based a lot of its humor on the idea of “breaking”. “Breaking” is when actors break their role on a show by laughing, screwing up dialogue, or messing up the set. In one live episode, Morgan’s character talked about how he wants to “break” in the next episode of TGS and then goes ahead and “breaks” his role on 30 Rock by laughing uncontrollably in front of a live audience.
The series finale however, really took meta-humor to a whole new level when the last episode of 30 Rock was also the last episode of TGS. As both TGS and 30 Rock was coming to an end, the camera focused on Tracy Jordan who screams, “Thank you America. That’s our show. Not a lot of people watched it but the joke’s on you, because we got paid anyway.” After the episode ended, they give a “one year later” summary of each of the characters. Grizz is shown staring in his own sitcom produced by Liz and Dotcom, Jack is shown staring in a different sitcom similar to 30 Rock and the episode concludes with Kenneth Parcell speaking with Miss Lemon (Liz’s great granddaughter) where she is pitching a show based on the stories from 30 Rock. Talk about meta-humor within meta-humor within meta-humor!
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