Seven years ago, I wandered the halls of Wall Intermediate School, a seventh-grader with nothing to look forward to but five more years in my quiet corner of New Jersey. The seventh grade is a certain circle of hell. If you enjoyed it, then congratulations, you’re clinically insane — enjoy your electroshock therapy. The constant sex-ed classes gave me cottonmouth. Changing during gym triggered panic attacks. The fact that I was already shaving made me an easy target for middle school tough guys. But life went on. It was that simple. You learned to be proud that at 13, you could already grow a pretty mean mustache. As depressing as that time in my life was, I figured things would eventually look up for me. Had it not been for a TV show, though, I might not have realized that fact.
In 2006, Tina Fey introduced me to “30 Rock.” She didn’t personally come to Wall, N.J., to do it. Wall isn’t really a destination spot in and of itself. (It was home to a KKK vacation retreat center for a little while, though. How’s that for a “golden era”?) So no, Tina Fey didn’t make the trek. But the laughter, the weird, the warmth just made it feel like she had dropped the show on my lap. The show was me. The show was anything I wanted it to be. It was a character study in how to be confident when I was anything but:
Liz Lemon: “Why are you wearing a tux?”
Jack Donaghy: “Lemon, it’s after 6. What am I, a farmer?”
It was a lesson in learning to be okay with being on your own:
Liz Lemon: “I believe that all anyone wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich.”
It taught people to embrace what made them unique:
Kenneth Parcell’s mother, referring to her son’s birth: “He’s always been a special boy. I remember the day he was born. He looked up at me and he said, ‘Mama, I am not a person. My body is just a flesh vessel for an immortal being whose name, if you heard it, would make you lose your mind.’”
It even instructed me in defending myself through humor:
Kelsey: “Hey Liz, how’s the telescope?”
Liz: “I don’t know Kelsey. How’s your mom’s pill addiction?”
And the show had just the right amount of absurd:
Colleen Donaghy: “I’ll be circling the globe in my coffin rocket!”
Like many Yalies, I got through my adolescence (if I’m even done with it) through fiction. “30 Rock” became my favorite fiction to occupy. It was an escape while watching it, thanks to a richness of quality jokes that made it an equal of “Arrested Development,” and a starting point for my emerging personality.
The show did more than just hold my hand while I grew up. It enriched the American comedic landscape with an outré brand of humor based on intricately recurring jokes and complicated characters. Tina Fey’s role as Liz Lemon leveled the playing field for women in televised comedy. It’s hard to think of shows like “New Girl,” “Girls” and “Parks and Recreation” being so successful without “30 Rock” shattering the rotting conception of comedy as a boys’ club.
The final episode of “30 Rock” co-opted the show’s signature off-brand humor for the purpose of confronting reality. The Liz Lemon of night cheese and “Dealbreakers” became a mother. The Jack Donaghy of graveled voices and economic imperialism admitted to fragility. The twisted world created by Tina Fey and her writers collapsed in on itself, dragging with it absurd characters toward a common reality. In a way it was off-putting; in another, it was comforting.
“30 Rock” kept me smiling during middle school, when there seems to be an institutionalization of misery. It kept me smiling in high school while I was plotting my escape from dear old Wall, N.J. It’s kept me smiling at Yale as I carve out a new life for myself. I’m going to miss “30 Rock” dearly. I’ll keep missing it until I’m circling the globe in a coffin rocket of my own.