NPR Critic Linda Holmes has written two interesting pieces in the last few days. One, on Tuesday, addressed 30 Rock, as Holmes used a first-season episode to offer a heartfelt goodbye to a show she loves. The next day, she gave us “Coastal Snobbery, ‘The Masses,’ And Respecting The Lowest Common Denominator,” where she argues that when cultural critics speak of “the masses”, “the lowest common denominator”, or “Middle America”, they are trying to “separate the writer and her sensibility — which are presumed to be congruent with the reader and her sensibility — from invisible and undefined others, for whom bad cultural content is produced and by whom it is unquestioningly gobbled up.” Holmes describes the use of these terms as code: “For substantive comment on the quality or meaning of anything, all three substitute code — code for a pernicious, poisonous underlying assumption that popularity, non-U.S.-coastal geography, and easy translation from person to person are all good indicators that an opinion is not to be trusted or that an audience is unsophisticated.”
She notes that the so-called masses of Middle America are far too diverse to be gathered into the same pot. Holmes also attempts to save the “lowest common denominator” from its current derogatory meaning, stating:
We come together where there's enough commonality to let people talk to each other about the same thing. … The lowest common denominator on a huge scale, in fact, is probably something like The Avengers or the Oscars or the Super Bowl, none of which is embraced for its scandalous or scatological qualities, but all of which are popular simply because lots of people think it's fun to watch them. And as silly as those things are, their commonality is actually their most redeeming quality — that it's the lowest common denominator across surprisingly diverse populations is the best thing about the Super Bowl, not the worst. It's certainly the best thing about the Oscars.
30 Rock has never presented itself as a show for that hypothetical lowest common denominator, a fact which is reflected in its ratings, which have never set the world on fire. Some are now talking about 30 Rock as one of television’s all-time great comedies, but the difference between that show and other classics (I Love Lucy, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, The Cosby Show) is that those series were popular. Poke any 30 Rock fan, and they are quite capable of shouting out “by the hammer of Thor!” … poke any American, and they’ll know who Homer Simpson is.
I am not suggesting that only popular shows can be considered great. But the greatness of 30 Rock is not the same as the greatness of The Cosby Show. And I’m pretty sure that suits Tina Fey just fine. Her show is full of quick sound bites, obscure pop culture references, and plenty of meta-humor. The roots of 30 Rock lie, not in I Love Lucy, but in the early work of Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker (Police Squad, Airplane!, Top Secret, and Naked Gun). And like those movies, 30 Rock is loaded with quotable moments that are here-and-gone in mere seconds. 30 Rock dares you to keep up with its humor, as if being more obvious would make the show too popular with “the masses”.
I am not blameless here. I’m trying, as I often do, to understand why so many comedies leave me blank, while the occasional one breaks through. I’ve never seen Modern Family, or How I Met Your Mother, or 2 Broke Girls … I’m not even sure that last one is a sitcom. Yet I stuck with 30 Rock for seven seasons, and I doubt the only reason is that it’s a “better show”. It’s all about taste preferences.
I wrote yesterday about how modern film comedies can stick all of the good stuff into a three-minute trailer designed to get you into the theater to watch three minutes of good stuff and ninety minutes of filler. 30 Rock can play that game … read any episode review and note how quickly even the best critics’ work devolves into a list of great quotes. But it’s hard to make a three-minute excerpt, partly because some of the humor comes from setups that can be years in the making, and partly because it is rare for a funny moment in 30 Rock to last long enough for a three-minute clip. You’d have to string together fifteen short clips that won’t seem funny to anyone except those who are already in on the joke.
Ultimately, there is something self-satisfying in being a 30 Rock fan that might connect with Holmes’ ideas about snobbery. If that is true, it’s nothing to be proud of. But what am I to do? I’ve been laughing at 30 Rock for seven years.
It’s difficult to pick a clip … I mentioned one problem above, plus a lot of them are on Hulu, which forces advertising on the viewer before you can watch a short clip. But here’s one, perhaps my favorite scene in the entire run: