Alec Baldwin has hosted “Saturday Night Live” 13 times, so there was little doubt that he knew his way around a comedy skit. But credit “30 Rock” exec producer Tina Fey for sensing that the Oscar-nominated actor could elevate a first-year sitcom to critical acclaim.
“I knew from ‘SNL’ that he had a real specificity for this, and could play the emotionality of the moment and have a precision for the jokes,” she says.
Fey and her staff write Baldwin’s best material, of course, but it’s the sincerity in his delivery that turn those words into a comic gold mine. For example, Baldwin’s corporate lackey, Jack Donaghy, explains wearing a tuxedo in the office this way “It’s after 6 p.m. What am I? A farmer?”
Donaghy can most often be found engaged in inane conversation with “Girlie Show” producer Liz Lemon (Fey) or devoted network page Kenneth (Jack McBrayer). The banter is similar to Steve Carell and his staff of “The Office,” where seemingly inconsequential minutiae are turned into episode-long laughs.
Fey sees the connection.
“That’s my appointment TV,” she explains. “We’re both workplace comedies and hit the same topics.”
Like Baldwin, McBrayer — who Fey had a bit of a history with back when she was coming up in Chicago — was another savvy casting move.
He’d appeared in “Talladega Nights,” but had little TV experience prior to “30 Rock.”
“I was bracing for criticism from the network when he auditioned, but (then NBC entertainment president) Kevin Reilly liked him right away,” Fey says.
When “30 Rock” premiered last fall, many critics and viewers lumped it in with NBC’s other show-within-a-show pilot, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”
But as the season wore on and “Studio 60’s” buzz ebbed, “30 Rock” picked up critical steam. While ratings were still down, NBC brass acted on the good buzz and renewed the laffer for a second season.
“I do know that as the season went on, we as performers and the writers and the producers kind of enjoyed discovering which characters played well with each other and that kind of thing,” McBrayer says.
Funniest episode: “Black Tie,” when guest star Paul Reubens appears as a horribly inbred Austrian prince, and Kenneth tries to keep Pete away from Tracy’s marriage-breaking temptations.
Funniest character: Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, the GE exec who has risen to the top of the corporate ranks but longs to be an integral part of Tina Fey’s “Girlie Show.”
Funniest line: Tracey to Kenneth: “So, here’s some advice I wish I woulda got when I was your age: Live every week like it’s Shark Week.”