I was recently going back through 30 Rock on Netflix, and I noticed something. It’s pretty accepted now that 30 Rock started out with a slow first season (as most shows do) and didn’t really figure it out until a little later down the road. The main reasons for this are fairly obvious if you re-watch the first season — the show is generally flatter and not as quick-witted as the mile-a-minute comedy stronghold it became. This is partially explained by the fact that all TV shows start out flat, because the actors haven’t developed much chemistry and the writers don’t fully understand the characters yet. As a show progresses, every actor’s strengths and weaknesses become clear and the question is really if a show can find its footing before its cancelled, since most tend to get better with time. I contend that 30 Rock, however, much like the fictional show it revolves around, was transformed by Tracy Morgan. That is, the show really fulfilled its potential once the other actors started mirroring Tracy Morgan’s energy.
The show really fulfilled its potential once the other actors started mirroring Tracy Morgan’s energy.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is Tina Fey’s brainchild, and it would be nothing without her incredible writing, acting and sense of humor. However, funny as she is, her acting depends on a subtle delivery, wit and self-deprecating quality that not all actors can pull off. Even if the rest of the cast could match Tina Fey’s nuance, the (usually unfavorable) comparisons to the Office that all recent shows have had to deal with would be even worse. The cast needed an actor that they could follow, and that’s where Tracy Morgan comes in.
From the beginning, Tracy Jordan shook up TGS with his self-centered act, and Tracy Morgan delivered ever-more ridiculous lines with the straightest of faces. To avoid being overshadowed in every scene, the other actors had to turn it all up just a bit. Gradually, all the characters started being tastefully over-the-top, and this drew out the true story of 30 Rock: a never-ending clash of ego-driven personalities. Think It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia for the Frasier crowd. Once the actors lost their fears of coming off too ridiculously, this allowed the outrageous storylines and conversations to flourish. This level of absurdity also allowed the show to make all sorts of politically and socially charged statements without ever sounding preachy, a key factor in the show’s success.
Think about it — the absurd smash cuts, the elaborate side plots, none of it would have worked if the lead-in acting wasn’t so out there. In fact, most of the best moments from the early episodes somehow involve Tracy Jordan. Thanks to Tracy Morgan’s energy, which all the actors soon equipped, no line, costume, or character would seem so ridiculous that it would be out of place. In fact, by the later seasons, everyone had such high energy that the show was ripe for a joke every 5 seconds, a pace that has become its legacy. When you watch the final episodes and then go back to the first season, it becomes clear that this is because of Tracy Morgan.
In fact, there’s even an episode in Season 2 where Jenna gets sick of Tracy having all the attention, so she decides to start acting like him. While this is only an episode plotline within the show, the fact is that Jane Krakowski started acting with the selfish abandon that Tracy Morgan gives Tracy Jordan throughout the show. This ends up with Jenna and Tracy playing 2 sides of the same egotistical celebrity coin for the rest of the show. Their over-the-top selfishness allow for Liz Lemon, Jack Donaghy and the writers (basically everyone besides Kenneth, Grizz and Dotcom) to say just about anything without sounding too contrived. I mean, why do you think Hannibal Buress was able to write for this show?
Anyways, I’m not trying to take anything away from the brilliant Tina Fey, as all the fantastic parts of 30 Rock would not have happened without her. I just wanted to take the time to celebrate Tracy Morgan, and make you realize that 30 Rock really reached its peak because Tracy Morgan’s energy set the tone for everyone else. As his recovery continues, we can only hope Tracy Morgan is given more opportunities to shine and bring other great shows up with him.