Pop Culture at its Best

Greatest TV Pilots: 30 Rock’s “Pilot” is a love letter to television that launched a billion memes


30 Rock, “Pilot”
Written by Tina Fey
Directed by Adam Bernstein
Aired on October 11, 2006 on NBC

What can be written about the pilot episode of 30 Rock “Pilot” that hasn’t already been espoused across the interwebs and blogosphere? Well, nothing too enlightening (look elsewhere for comparisons to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, etc.). The show has an incredible following of professional and unprofessional nerds alike, garnering award after award and profitable syndication deals along with a countless number of show-related memes all over the internet. Trying to string together a few words on the show’s impact makes this writer go “Bleurgh.” Hopefully with that self-referential tongue-in-cheek reference, all non-30 Rock fans have scattered off to the other pilot reviews on this website. If not and you’re planning to hate, take a hint and scat over to Game of Thrones or Archer.

Originally airing in 2006, 30 Rock was a bastion of American wit in an era of battling the growing popularity of reality television and internet videos. After seven seasons, the show cemented written comedy’s place on network television, which should never have been questioned in the first place, and continues to be the definitive noughties workplace sitcom (get at me, you limey The Office bastards). The unadulterated love of Tina Fey and her cohorts for television shines through and enables 30 Rock to so masterfully lampoon its very own medium, the workplace sitcom, with some tricks of the trade they picked up at Saturday Night Live. Through utilizing age-old conventions and broad comic strokes, Fey and company make the audience both laugh at American comedy television and appreciate it all the more. As a female writer and SNL nerd, I cannot express my admiration enough for Tina Fey, suffice it to write, “I want to go to there.”

Back to “Pilot,” the name alone rings with a shoptalk sense of humor and though the episode certainly lacked the smoothness and spitfire wit of later episodes and seasons, it served well to pilot the audience into the chaotic world of gags, egos and mayhem at the offices of The Girlie Show (or TGS for short). Generally, there are three schools in regards to when 30 Rock won you over: the seventh episode “Tracy Does Conan,” sometime during season three (or to be honest, whenever you first spotted Jon Hamm as a guest star), and not yet (why are you still reading?). Many fans of the show still have yet to watch “Pilot” and it is highly recommended to do so (which should be made abundantly clear by the “Great TV Pilot” in this piece’s title). Not only will “Pilot” clarify a few in-show jokes (Jenna’s “Muffin Top” has been there from the very beginning), but the episode introduces each character and their motives so succinctly that it would be a shame for any real fan to miss, even if you’re “living every week like it’s Shark Week.”

101pilotThe show opens with Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) waiting in line for a breakfast hot dog at a street vendor. When a man tries to bypass the line, she will not stand for it and buys all of the hot dogs to give to “the good people.” Within this one scene, we know that she isn’t fussy, does not stand for douche-snozzles, and won’t hesitate to go above and beyond in order to prove a very valid point. Instinctively, we know her character through and through and we like it, even with the clunky That Girl-esque theme song that plays as she hands out extra hotdogs to passersby. We root for Liz Lemon, not because she’s sharp-tongued or wears reasonable shoes (though both help), but because she represents the hard-working, passionate albeit sometimes awkward person who may have a piece of lettuce in her hair or be dating “The Beeper King”, but won’t let these things phase her or the quality of her work, or at least not for longer than an episode arc.

Within the next few minutes and without the cringe-worthy amount of expository dialogue you’d normally find in a pilot, the audience is introduced to her workplace, the madhouse of TGS, a SNL-style live sketch show with more gags going on behind than in front of the camera. Characters include Lemon’s shoulder-to-lean-on producer Pete Hornberger (Scott Adsit), the paranoid diva and Lemon’s best friend Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), the too-attractive-for-her-own-good assistant Cerie (Katrina Bowden), the overly enthusiastic page named Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), and an unruly writer’s room which includes porn and trucker hat-enthusiast Frank (Judah Friedlander) and Harvard man Toofer (Keith Powell). Once we’re comfortable enough with this shenanigan-laced balancing act, Fey throws us a magnificent curveball in the form of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming for General Electric (a real-life NBC sponsor, how meta), as Lemon’s new boss.

Now there’s a character (hubbah, hubbah), Jack is a devilishly middle-aged sort of handsome, shark-like morgan_30rockexecutive who plans to make TGS his own, including browbeating Lemon into submission (“You have the boldness of a much younger woman.”). In “Pilot,” they are adversaries with the seeds of their forthcoming “mentor-mentee” relationship about to be planted by way of “lunatic” movie star Tracy Jordan. As a first move, Jack convinces Lemon to meet with Jordan (a man who recently ran through traffic in his tighty-whities screaming “I am a Jedi!”) about whether or not the troubled albeit popular actor will join the “TGS” cast to capture the coveted 18-49 male demographic. In spite of the two not quite hitting it off, Lemon comes to the conclusion (although she may have been under the influence of alcohol and AIDS-injected chicken nuggets) that Tracy will save her flailing show and that Jack was right all along.

“Pilot” provided the show’s premise without overselling, set the absurdist tone in an all-too-real workspace, and gave us a few early laughs that would become heartier as the characters continued to unravel and develop before our very eyes, tackling issues ranging from body issues to high-level politics. Although some of the jokes may not quite work as well as in later episodes, like Jenna’s flirting with Jack being interrupted by Kenneth’s hemorrhoid cream delivery, the episode still succeeds in what it set out to do – to entertain and/or make us laugh while setting the audience up for more to come. Even in this first episode, every pratfall and fart joke seems part of an intricately humorous anecdote from Fey’s *ahem* Lemon’s life and part of a larger commentary on the modern American workplace, particularly the role of women. For those with discerning taste, this is the pilot for you. For those without discerning taste, this is the pilot for you and maybe, just maybe, thanks to Mark Twain Prize recipient Tina Fey, you’ll develop discerning taste, at least in comedy television.

Diana Drumm
This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

1 Comment
  1. LC says

    LOVE this!

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