My Mind Grapes

"Leo Spaceman is a fine doctor, and a pretty good dentist."

I realized that I wanted to write TV sitcoms on April 24th, 2008, at around 8:50 PM. I was sitting alone in my single dorm room at the University of Oregon, hunched over a tiny portable television that had been haphazardly plugged into my room’s ancient cable outlet, watching the 13th episode of 30 Rock’s second season.

The episode was called ‘Succession’, and it represented the culmination of the season-long battle between Jack Donaghy and his super-gay archrival Devon Banks (played by Will Arnett) for the position of CEO of General Electric. Meanwhile, Tracy Jordan sets out to create the world’s first pornographic video game, which porn-expert in residence Frank Rossitono maintains is impossible because of the uncanny valley effect, which makes computer animated characters far too creepy to masturbate to. 

After the second commercial break, everything is screwed up. Tracy makes great progress with creation of his porn video game, and Frank, realizing that Tracy will be successful at something he’d always thought couldn't be done, grows enraged that he hasn’t been similarly rewarded for his lifelong commitment to porn in a somewhat pervier take on Amadeus. Don Geiss, the CEO of General Electric, privately informs Jack that he will name him as his successor, but falls into a diabetic coma before he can formally tell the shareholders.

When Liz informs Jack that Geiss might be dead, Jack says the magic words, “We have to call Dr. Spaceman!”

As Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ thunders in the background, we’re treated to a montage of Liz and Jack trying to discreetly hide Geiss’s body, Frank angrily destroying his porn collection, and quack physician Dr. Spaceman running through the halls of NBC headquarters in slow motion while wearing a cape, in a direct reference to Amadeus. 

I had never seen anything that beautifully constructed before – on the strength of great characters built over the course of two seasons, Tina Fey and her cronies had taken two stories about success and failure on two wildly different scales, built them to a climax, and mashed them up in a reference to a 20 year old movie about 18th century Viennese composers. Lying on the floor of my dorm, cackling and wheezing, I knew that this was what I had to do with my life.

Until then I’d enjoyed TV shows – syndicated Seinfeld reruns, The Office, and Scrubs before it began its agonizingly long march into mediocrity – but had never really considered it to be a career path I wanted to follow. I guess I thought that 22 minutes just wasn’t enough time to tell a story – sure, you could spin a quick yarn about the Fat Husband being horny and lazy and his long suffering Inexplicably Hot Wife having to save the day amid precocious comments from their Precocious Children, but I didn’t think the format could be used to create anything as memorable or impactful as a movie.

But 30 Rock, with its multiple season story arcs and its rapid fire jokes that build on top of other jokes and smash cut into yet more jokes, changed my perception. 30 Rock taught me that you could make something really sophisticated and hilarious on television so long as you didn’t mind low ratings and the constant threat of cancelation.

Dressing up as Kenneth the Page for Halloween was particularly frustrating, because it made it abundantly clear to me just how few people actually watched 30 Rock. Even at my office, with its full complement of young, tattooed, glasses-wearing hipsters, almost nobody knew who I was. This got more and more frustrating to me as the day wore on, because Kenneth had been a part of my life for seven years at that point, and I took it as almost a personal insult that people hadn’t even heard of him.
“Who are you supposed to be?” Yet another coworker asked me as we waited in line at the lunch truck.

“I’m Kenneth! From 30 Rock!

“Oh, right. I think I saw a couple episodes of that show. It was okay, but not as good as The Big Bang Theory.”

As all the blood vessels in my face burst, one of the human resources employees chimed in.

“What time is 30 Rock on?”

“Thursdays at 8:00.”

“Oh!” She said. “No wonder I’ve never seen it – that’s when Vampire Diaries is on.”

I had to go inside and sit alone in my office for a while.

I realize now that people not watching 30 Rock was frustrating to me in the same way that me not believing in God was frustrating to a particlar cadre of Christian students at my high school. 30 Rock enriched my life in countless ways and was always there for me – on Netflix or in syndication – whenever times were rough. I’ve heard that Christianity offers a similar experience, but with fewer double entendres and in the difficult 9:00 AM Sunday timeslot.

So naturally, 30 Rock’s series finale last Thursday was a big moment for me. I’ve known Jack, Liz, Kenneth, Tracy, and Jenna for longer than I’ve known some of my closest friends, and now they’ve all gone away at once. Closure is particularly difficult because of Alec Baldwin, who I associate so closely with his role on 30 Rock that when I saw the trailer for Rock of Ages my first reaction was, “Wow, sure is cool that Jack Donaghy took time off from Kabletown to be in this movie!” Every Capital One commercial from now on is going to be an emotional trainwreck for me.

As painful as it is to see 30 Rock go, the series finale was yet another reminder of why I want to work in television: I want to create characters who viewers can connect with and learn to love over the years as they grow older together. Then, I want to end my show in hopes that at least one fan writes an overly sentimental blog post about his bizarre attachment to flickering lights in a box.

Truman Capps doesn't know how he can emotionally handle 30 Rock and The Office going off the air in the same year.