At the start of NBC’s madcap new “30 Rock,” things are going great for Liz Lemon.
Liz (played by “30 Rock” creator and star Tina Fey) is head writer of an NBC sketch-comedy series called “The Girlie Show” that, in its first weeks, has scored good reviews and robust ratings. A bit tightly wound yet grounded in reality, she’s clearly in charge.
Then a top-level corporate exec decides to get involved. Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) is cool, calm and somewhat unhinged. He explains that his success in developing the GE Trivection oven (”cooks with three kinds of heat”) has qualified him for his latest assignment: fixing NBC shows, even those that aren’t broken.
His remedy for “The Girlie Show” is saddling Liz with the no-way-girly Tracy Jordan, an off-the-wall comic (played by Tracy Morgan) who Jack is sure will furnish “that third kind of heat.”
High among Liz’s many objections: Tracy Jordan is out of his gourd, a condition he insists isn’t caused by drugs, despite what the media may say. “I’m not on crack!” Tracy declares. “I’m straight-up mentally ill!”
Thus is Liz thrust into a geometric nightmare: a triangle with this pair of lunatics, “torn between the two of them,” as Fey says with a chuckle.
“30 Rock” premieres at 8 p.m. EDT Wednesday, which, by chance, is 31 years to the day after the birth of the institution that inspired it: “Saturday Night Live” (of which Fey and Morgan are both alums, and Baldwin a recurrent guest host).
“It’s a workplace comedy,” Fey says of her new show, “but it’s more about these three characters. We’re going to take them outside of the workplace, and deal with the relationships, more than with the workings of show business.”
At the same time, Fey is waggishly particular about certain aspects of her former workplace: the show’s title, of course, is the famed address of NBC’s Manhattan headquarters, from where “SNL” as well as the fictitious “Girlie Show” originate (”30 Rock” is shot at a studio in Queens).
And in the premiere, she has Donaghy (who introduces himself as the new Vice President of East Coast Television and Microwave Oven Programming) present a sales pitch to Liz for “his” breakthrough, the Trivection oven — a real-life GE appliance. Much of his spiel, which sounds preposterous thanks to Baldwin’s droll delivery, is taken word-for-word from the real-life GE Web site.
No, this wasn’t a strategic marketing ploy, Fey says.
“I was trolling GE’s Web Site when I was writing,” she recalls, “trying to figure out where this guy’s area of expertise was. I found that oven in there, and I liked it. There was no GE product integration — it was all done without their knowledge. Though now, maybe somebody’s taking credit for it.”
She plans to do more in the future: “Maybe include a jet engine Jack’s working on.”
“I like the idea of having the big parent company,” she says brightly of NBC owner General Electric Co., even while allowing that GE’s sense of humor may not be unlimited. “I’m curious to see if at any point we’re gonna get a call from our friends at the big parent company.”
In conversation, Fey is engaging, clever and nice, though — for a comedienne — she seems unexpectedly low-key and reflective.
“If you were to sit next to me at your cousin’s wedding, you would not particularly suss out what I do for a living,” she acknowledges. “You might assume that I worked for Macy’s. At a managerial level.” She laughs, almost in spite of herself, at this off-the-cuff self-assessment.
The fact is, Fey, now 36, came from an improv-comedy background to join the “SNL” fold in 1997 but, for her last six seasons, combined her star turn as bespectacled “Weekend Update” anchor with the off-camera job of head writer. Fey’s first love is writing, she says. Performing? “An enjoyable sideline.”
Fey began developing a prime-time comedy in 2002, with its initial setting a cable news network. NBC passed. Then, taking the network’s advice that she should adapt the world she was already immersed in, she began her lengthy process of figuring out how.
A deal was in place to film the “30 Rock” pilot she had written when, last January, Fey got a call from real-life NBC boss Kevin Reilly to tell her another “SNL”-based series, the Aaron Sorkin-created drama “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” had won a place on the fall lineup.
“Both shows can coexist,” she was told. And certainly, no one who samples each show now (”Studio 60” premiered last month to disappointing ratings) will ever get them mixed up.
“I want my show to really be a comedy,” Fey says emphatically. Which means not even a dramedy. “We get a lot of them these days, those half-hour comedies where it becomes a question of, Will they or won’t they sleep together? There should be no question: No one on this show is gonna sleep with anybody else.”
Not even Jack with Tracy?
“Maybe in Year Six,” says Fey after a reflective pause. “And it will be VERY silly.”