Emmys 2007: Why ’30 Rock’ and ‘The Office’ are the Future of Comedy

If I wasn’t knee deep in Emmy coverage, I would likely be commenting on the poll results released today which reveal that people think television is getting worse. And, to an extent, I believe that I am commenting on them within today’s post. Because while the disillusionment of the masses is a definite concern for major networks, I think that people really need to stop and realize that there are gems they might be missing.

And while the evangelical Christians and the rural Midwestern viewers who are most likely to view television as a fading medium might not necessarily be convinced, I would argue that 30 Rock and The Office represent a new age of comedy that people should be taking notice of. Between the Comedy Actor and Comedy Series categories, these two shows represent a heated showdown, and a broad step forward for the half-hour comedy against hour-long fair like Desperate Housewives or nominated Ugly Betty. And both of them are deserving of walking away with either award…although I believe that one deserves it more than the other.

That series is 30 Rock, Tina Fey’s critical darling that earned that reputation through a brand of sharp-witted comedy, her own starring performance, and of course the fantastic Alec Baldwin taking center stage. However, The Office shares many of these characteristics: it has sharp-witted comedy, it has compelling recurring characters with great performances, and it has the fantastic Steve Carell stealing the show every week.

The reason I give the edge to 30 Rock is for a fairly simple reason: while the Office grew stagnant and complacent over the course of the season, 30 Rock showed a level of growth and self-realization that make it the more deserving candidate. After a stunning second season, featuring a comic depth and emotional drama on a very realistic level, The Office struggled to maintain that balance for its third stanza, if you will. It wasn’t that it ever became a bad series, but it seemed like it couldn’t decide its own identity.

There were moments where the show settled into a groove: the opening episodes featuring the Stanford offices, the initial growing pains of an expanded work force, and the set of guest-directed episodes in February (By Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams) felt natural. And, by all accounts, the season ended on a strong note. As a whole, however, the comedy’s spontaneous nature dissipated: everything felt forced, especially Michael and Oscar’s kiss in “Gay Witch Hunt.”

YouTube – “Gay Witch Hunt”

It’s not that the series stopped being funny, even such awkward moments had elements of humour. Rather, if I had to describe it, it is as if what was a type of broad yet subtle humour: laughs remained subversive and unique, but they expanded too far within that niche. What was once hilariously awkward became just plain awkward, and that transition did not serve the series well.

If The Office was evolving in the wrong direction, 30 Rock was doing the exact opposite. The pilot is a bit of a disaster, featuring almost none of the comic hallmarks that would lead the show into its finale. Alec Baldwin is still funny, Tina Fey is still charming, Tracy Morgan is still crazy, but there isn’t any of the same spark in terms of their interactions.

Maclean’s Jaime Weinman, writing about 30 Rock, argues that it (like other single-camera comedies) features too many characters who are morons, who is a punchline from the very beginning. I think this is a fair assessment of the pilot, and perhaps some of the series’ early episodes. However, the season saw the development of one-note characters (Like Kenneth the Page) into people with emotions, dreams, and opinions. There was certainly still a sense of naivety, but can we expect a series of perfectly aware characters to remain entirely funny?

The answer is no, and this is exactly why 30 Rock followed a different path than The Office. Much as that British import spent its first season of six episodes developing itself comically and separating from Ricky Gervais’ series, 30 Rock spent its opening episodes developing a dynamic between its characters. And it took awhile: Baldwin’s Jack developed quite quickly, but Jane Krakowski’s Jenna (A change from the show’s original pilot) never quite found a role. But then there was “Hard Ball.”

YouTube – “Hard Ball”

I would argue it is perhaps the best episode of comedy of the past season, at the very least in the half-hour category. The episode features Jenna as a moron, perhaps proving Weinman’s argument, but her application within the episode felt entirely natural. It’s not that Weinman is wrong about morons: Josh and Tracy are certainly portrayed as idiots within the episode structure. However, as long as said morons are placed in the proper situations (In this case, as foils for Kenneth, Jack and Liz), I think that it creates fantastic comedy.

Throughout its first season, 30 Rock finally found its niche of sorts: it is not as grounded as The Office, veering into silliness and moronic elements more often, but I believe it has developed an environment in which it can do so. It’s emmy chances are helped by its liberal leanings and industry credibility, but its pattern of growth is also admirable. The Office, meanwhile, won an Emmy last year for similar growth, but didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be this season.

As for Baldwin and Carell, I think that is more interesting: Carell lost last year for an episode too moronic, and has this year submitted a fantastic episode featuring Michael’s sensitive side (The Joss Whedon-directed “Business School”). As a result, he is a formidable competitor with Baldwin, who is riding mostly buzz with an episode that doesn’t really do his character justice (The show’s season finale, “Hiatus”).

And, of course, it might all be for naught in both cases: just watch Ugly Betty and Tony Shahloub sweep through and ruin everything. Regardless of the results on Emmy night, these two shows are the future of comedy, morons or no morons, disillusioned viewers or no disillusioned viewers.

Outstanding Comedy Series

30 Rock

Entourage

The Office

Two and a Half Men

Ugly Betty

Outstanding Leading Actor in a Comedy Series

Alec Baldwin (30 Rock)

Steve Carell (The Office)

Ricky Gervais (Extras)

Tony Shahloub (Monk)

Charlie Sheen (Two and a Half Men)

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Filed under 30 Rock, Award Shows, Emmy Awards, NBC, Television, The Office

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