Arts

'30 Rock', Tina Fey: How far is too far?

Tina Fey, writer and star of '30 Rock' responds to criticism in wake of racial tensions by removing blackface episodes. 

Tina Fey, writer and star of '30 Rock' responds to criticism in wake of racial tensions by removing blackface episodes. 

Image By: Courtesy of NBC

I spent about four months in isolation — with almost everyone I knew having gone home. Wanting to preserve my sanity and not depend too heavily on texts to feel “normal,” I had to find something to engage in. So I binged on TV shows, rewatching previously watched favorites, but also doing some exploration based on recommendations and my own instinct. One show I did land upon during this time by myself was “30 Rock,” Tina Fey’s brainchild, which flies in the face of the misogynistic idea that women cannot be funny — something that the show amusingly pokes fun at.

Set in a fictional TV show run by NBC and based on Fey’s time at Saturday Night Live, the show is an expert display of clever comedy, with the characters serving as great caricatures of the different kinds of people we see in our daily lives. The show’s two main protagonists serve to represent two opposites, with Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) being the rich, appealing male conservative seemingly in control at all times and Liz Lemon (played by Tina Fey herself) being the progressive female workaholic who seems to live a life of disarray everyday. Tracy Jordan (played by Tracy Morgan) and Jenna Maroney (played by Jane Krakowski) are well crafted characters that satirize celebrities’ ineptitude in matters off screen and their constant childlike need for attention and adulation, among other things. Kenneth Parcell (played by Jack McBrayer) is a page for NBC, an innocent, enthusiastic breakout character whose mannerisms — plus the running gag about his immortality — stood out considerably as a source of great humor.

Even the fringe characters are well thought out. A Harvard graduate full of himself (Toofer), a lustful grown man living with his mom (Frank) and a timid character who is always picked on by the rest (Lutz) are just some of the other characters that add to the great humor of the show. 

The show is undeniably humorous but what makes it great is that it uses humor to tackle several serious issues head on. The opposing characters of Liz and Jack create room for confronting the political divide in America, while issues such as Islamophobia, climate change and negative stereotypes are addressed as well, often highlighting flawed approaches to such issues across the political spectrum. The show does well not to overtly pick sides and show both sides to be fallible.

Despite being a show fundamentally dependent on chaos and conflict, "30 Rock" manages to nail character growth, with Liz and Jack’s blooming friendship being one of the best platonic relationships I’ve seen on screen and Tracy and Jenna’s characters both attaining some sense of maturity, being able to share the spotlight and pooling their craziness rather than battling each other.

Pardon this fairly rushed and somewhat incomplete summary, but it is clear to me that "30 Rock" is great and worthy of the awards it has won. It is clear that to me Tina Fey is incredibly talented. But in the wake of recent protests over systemic racism and police brutality, the show has made headlines once again, as missteps made by Tina Fey and co are brought under the microscope. "30 Rock" featured characters in blackface in four episodes throughout a seven season run. While that may not numerically seem like much, considering the dark history of blackface use, any use is too much use.

As I read further about her newish venture “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” I found that it too is an undeniably funny show containing instances of racially insensitive humor. Considering Fey broke through as a trailblazer for females in a male dominated industry, she can undoubtedly be cited as an inspiration for many aspiring comics and young girls alike. Occupying such a position in the industry brings with it a sense of responsibility. Fey has obviously done a great job using satire to highlight several pressing issues but considering her unique position as a breakout female star and her influence, it is important not to ignore the mistakes made.

Recent events resulted in Fey announcing that "30 Rock" would no longer be showing the episodes featuring blackface in syndicated reruns or on streaming platforms but the act of removing the episodes seemed rather superficial to some, who believe it was a decision made in response to social pressure rather than a conscientious move.

Conscientious or not, this leads me onto what really prompted me to write this piece — how far is too far? Clearly, Tina Fey’s humor relies on taking unapologetic risks to drive home the points being made and for the most part, it works really well. I love “30 Rock” and I enjoy her sketches on SNL. She is naturally funny. But, using blackface or making racially insensitive jokes really doesn’t seem to be worth the risk. There simply isn’t enough to gain. Rather, there is everything to lose and a legacy to tarnish. 

My first response to the use of blackface in the show was me cringing and wondering how it wasn’t as big a deal when the episodes originally aired. After all, the show did end in 2013, a time not far removed from the acknowledgment of the offensive connotations of blackface. The choice of using blackface didn’t particularly elevate the episodes in any way in my opinion, but left me squirming. Thankfully, future new viewers of the show will not have to share the anguish or be fooled into thinking that blackface is good comedy, especially because it came from an accomplished comic like Fey.

Great humor requires great wit and sometimes even taking risks. It is important to remember that fact with crystal clarity. Tina Fey has demonstrated that excellently in her body of work, really pushing the envelope effectively. However, there is a metaphorical line that mustn’t be crossed. My hope is that today’s movement will not stifle minds like Fey but make them more aware of when their satire delights the masses and when it is outright offensive and destructive. The removal of episodes may or may not have been conscientious but I think it’s more important that there is more conscientious consideration and utilization of influence and power to tackle serious issues rather than employing damaging stereotypes and portrayals of POCs in future works.

After all, it is humor and satire that helps us make sense of the chaotic world we live in. We need comedy to be cathartic and challenging the issues we face head on, not stoking the flames that can engulf us.

Anupras Mohapatra is an Opinion Editor and a contributing writer to the Arts section of the Daily Cardinal, read his work here

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