’30 Rock’: Tina Fey Reveals How She Kept The Struggling Show Alive

Former Saturday Night Live head writer and Mean Girls screenwriter Tina Fey told Conan O’Brien on his hit podcast how she managed to keep her seven-season-long show 30 Rock on the air. The show didn’t have great ratings, a theme that resonates in a very meta way throughout the plotlines of 30 Rock, and its show within a show, TGS. However, Fey and her 30 Rock cast and crew saved the show from being canceled, and we’re all the better for it.

Tina Fey as Liz Lemon
Tina Fey as Liz Lemon | Ali Goldstein/NBC

Fey’s series set at 30 Rockefeller Center was not a ratings hit

In Tina Fey’s book Bossypants, she jokingly bragged that 30 Rock was “the 102nd most popular television show of 2006.” Clearly, the show was not a ratings darling.

There were “about five and a half million people watching,” but for TV, Fey wrote, “that counts as nothing.”

NBC’s Friends, by comparison, “had about 25 million viewers” in its prime.

“We were not a hit,” she wrote. “But we barreled ahead.” The writer’s room took on a no-holds-barred, screw-it approach to writing the episode storylines

“You know that saying ‘dance as if no one is watching’?” Fey wrote. “Well, that’s what we were doing. We were dancing with abandon, and no one was watching.”

Fey says they put the ’30 Rock’ characters through crazy hoops

Fey told Conan O’Brien on Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend that the 30 Rock writers “jumped the shark immediately.”

“We became basically a SeaWorld show about how many sharks one could jump,” she said. The writers, desperate for better ratings, opened the room up to wilder and wilder ideas.

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Mr. Donaghy, I'm not feeling so good. #30Rock

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“The story ideas came fast and furious in the beginning,” Fey wrote in Bossypants. “What if Tracy … started hallucinating a little blue dude everywhere? Sure. What if Jenna was in a movie called the Rural Juror and no one could understand her when she said the title? Fine!”

She describes season 1 episode 11 as particularly “nuts.”

“By episode 11, 30 Rock had really found its voice and it was the voice of a crazy person,” Fey joked. This was the second to last episode of their series order, so the writers bleakly referred to it as “Goodbye, America.”

“If we had any concern that the show was too weird to succeed, we certainly weren’t helping ourselves with this one,” Fey wrote. That’s the episode where Jenna tries to “Grace Kelly” herself by marrying a foreign prince with a malformed body, but he dies drinking champagne.

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Cue the flashback. #30Rock

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“We were trying to make Viagra, and we ended up with blood pressure medicine,” Fey joked.

Fey heaps credit on the show’s cast, especially Alec Baldwin

Tina Fey gives a ton of credit to Alec Baldwin, who played GE executive Jack Donaghy, for the show having any success whatsoever.

When Fey joined Conan O’Brien on his podcast, O’Brien talked about filming scenes with Baldwin in his brief cameos on 30 Rock.

“Shooting a scene with Alec Baldwin,” O’Brien said, he would walk “away from that thinking, ‘I’m not an actor.'”

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Who are they? Wrong answers only. #30Rock

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“Every day of my seven years with Alec Baldwin,” Fey replied. The 30 Rock showrunner says the series couldn’t have gone anywhere without Baldwin attached.

“Thank god we had Alec,” she said. “If we didn’t have Alec,” she said the network told her they were “not even picking up this pilot.” He also gave Fey a master class in acting just by being on the show.

“Anything I learned about real acting I learned from watching Alec Baldwin,” Fey wrote in her book Bossypants. “He can play the emotion at the core of a scene while reciting long speeches word for word and hitting all the jokes in the right rhythm.” Fey said these skills are not as common as you’d think in Hollywood.

Alec Baldwin
Alec Baldwin | Jason Merritt/Getty Images

“You would be surprised how many major, Oscar-winning movie stars cannot do this,” she wrote.

How does ‘SNL’ alum Tina Fey pack so many jokes into her TV shows?

When asked how Fey gets so many jokes in such a small span of time in both 30 Rock and her Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, she told O’Brien she’d always worked hard. She had “a good work ethic in school” and “a good work ethic at SNL.”

30 Rock was a next-level challenge, however, because Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was airing at the same time, and competing with the show. The Aaron Sorkin venture had an eerily similar plotline to 30 Rock. But his show had stars galore, unlike Fey’s NBC series,

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*Listens to Kacey Musgraves once.* #30Rock

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“No one’s paying attention to us … because everyone’s paying attention to Studio 60,” Fey told O’Brien of that time. “We can just keep putting too many jokes in a five-pound bag.”

However, Fey’s persistence and joke-packing in season 1 paid off. The entire crew had assumed the show would be axed at the close of the first season. Fey says that her “proudest moment as an adult was walking back onto the soundstage … and telling everyone they still had jobs.”

Fey wrote in her memoir, “I may never know why they chose to keep the show going”–but here she cuts herself off to murmur, “Alec Baldwin.”

Alec Baldwin and Elaine Stritch in 30 Rock
Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy and Elaine Stritch as Colleen Donaghy | Kent Eanes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

That September, 30 Rock won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy series.

“I think the show was put on earth to teach me patience and compassion,” Tina Fey wrote.