The Paradox of Parody: Metafiction and Absurdity in 30 Rock

As 30 Rock cruises through its sixth season, it faces the problems that long-running shows so often face. A show that was lauded and celebrated six years ago for being fresh and innovative and different wants to hang onto all the things that make it popular — without becoming stale by being fresh and innovative in all the same ways it was six years ago.

Pictured: Weirdness.

What were some of the things that stood out about 30 Rock in its famous first season? Well, it’s never been afraid to be really weird. This is a show that casually ended an episode with a tribute to Amadeus, which is not a pop culture reference everyone is guaranteed to get, and built another episode to end in a ridiculous musical theater rendition of “Midnight Train to Georgia” conspicuously NOT featuring Gladys Knight (despite hiring her to guest star in the episode).

At the same time, what strikes us about 30 Rock is its realism. It’s filmed where it’s set, in New York — as opposed to shows like Friends or How I Met Your Mother, filmed on sets made to look like New York, but really out in California. The three leads — Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, and especially Tracy Morgan — have striking real life similarities to the characters they play, and Fey and Morgan have similar roles on 30 Rock to those of their characters on TGS. And that’s not even to mention the TGS writers, many of whom are actual comedy writers.

So everything in 30 Rock invites the question of its own reality. And when controversial real life news hits the show, like Tracy Morgan making homophobic remarks in his stand-up act, a version of those events can play out on the show. Meredith Blake at The Onion AV Club has a pretty good synopsis of this phenomenon embedded in this recap. Last week, when Jack Donaghy discussed running for mayor, the show toyed with prevalent rumors that Baldwin is considering that very thing.

But these two aspects of 30 Rock, its inherent weirdness and its uncanny parallelism to reality, seem to be fundamentally at odds. Being close to reality and being far away from it are exact opposite things, but 30 Rock, led by Fey’s offbeat sense of humor, has always seemed to embrace them as one.

So how is 30 Rock trying to stay strong in its sixth year? Well, it’s not messing with this working formula. From the ridiculous Kelsey Grammer subplot of “Idiots Are People Two & Three” to the completely ill-timed Dark Knight parody of “The Tuxedo Begins,” the season has been heavy on weird. But nothing holds a candle to “Leap Day Williams.”

Kenneth takes Jack to Leap Day Past.
Set on Leap Day, the extra day added to February every four years, the episode draws a sharp contrast between the world we live in and the parallel world of 30 Rock as Liz discovers that everyone else she knows celebrates Leap Day as a holiday, complete with a mythological character called Leap Day Williams, a yellow and blue color scheme, and a quatri-annual holiday movie called “Leap Dave Williams” starring Jim Carrey (Also starring Andie MacDowell of Groundhog Day fame).

Liz here serves as the surrogate for the baffled audience as the rest of the show sets to work using its invented holiday to spoof the genre of the holiday episode in as many ways as possible — from Jack re-enacting the time-traveling hijinks from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to Tracy losing his faith in the true meaning of Leap Day. Had they done a real parody of a Christmas episode, there might have been a blurry line between mocking a cliche and participating in it. But the context of Leap Day allows us to perceive our culture’s own observation of our holidays the way an alien would. It makes the familiar strange.
Carrey’s vignettes as Leap Dave Williams, seen on TV screens throughout the episode, provide a tiny, heavy-handed microcosm of the same process, in case anyone failed to pick up on it from the rest of the episode.

“It’s Leap Day! Real life is for March”
This is a new extreme for 30 Rock, plunging us as it does into such a bizarre version of reality, but it’s not new territory. It’s the show doing the two seemingly contradictory things it does best — being incredibly weird and far from reality, and painting our reality with an incredibly realistic brush. 30 Rock works best when it’s absurd, but the absurdity is funniest when it’s rooted in reality. So while we laugh at the sheer absurdity of Leap Day Williams, we also recognize the weirdness of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. And, as we watch Tracy feeding the homeless in a display of Leap Day cheer, we recognize that for all their weirdness, our holidays often do bring out the best in us.

30 Rock‘s profound humor comes from blending its perfect simulacrum of reality with its offbeat flights of fancy, but the two are never as separate as they seem. Even at its weirdest, the show is poignantly real. It’s a formula that’s not obvious, perhaps downright counterintuitive, but one that’s proved surprisingly resilient for six years – and may hold up for more yet.

About The Author

Jonah Comstock is a freelance blogger and journalist, with a Masters of Science in journalism from Columbia University. Philosophy is his second love, though, and it was as a Philosophy-English double major that he got his Bachelor's from the College of Wooster. He's fascinated by Kierkegaard, time travel, and anything that relates to free will and predestination. He owns all of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine on DVD and is currently developing an embarrassing love of romantic comedies, good and bad.