One of my favorite episodes of 30 Rock is “Rosemary’s Baby”—the one where Carrie Fisher plays Liz Lemon’s comedy idol. Carrie Fisher is perfect. Alec Baldwin does that role play with Tracey in one of the most uncomfortably funny scenes on television. Jack Donaghy is also given some of his best lines this episode. After he meets, Rosemary, Liz’s idol, who wants to shake up TGS with some controversial sketches, Jack says: “Fire her. And don’t ever make to talk to a woman that old again.” When—after seeing the squalor Rosemary lives in, Liz returns to ask for her old job back—he lectures her: “Never go with a hippie to a second location.”
But it’s a less quotable line that sticks out for me; when Liz quits—taking a stand with Rosemary about artistic and comedic integrity—Jack tells her: “You got into this business because you’re funny and you’re weird and you’re socially retarded. And you also got into it because it pays well, which means you are not like Rosemary; you are like me.” At the end of the episode, Liz returns, seemingly proving Jack’s point that she is more corporate executive than principled artist. It’s a point 30 Rock makes more than once. Despite the casual disrespect of the writer’s room and the narcissistic hijinks of actors Tracey and Jenna, 30 Rock is white-collar workplace sitcom, and Liz is a white-collar worker at a large corporation. She is also a woman and, indeed, the show has been criticized for portraying a familiar kind of white, corporate feminism. Much has been written on the topic—about whether the show endorses or satirizes this brand of feminism, and whether, by extension, Tina Fey is endorsing or satirizing it. Much good stuff like this piece by Sady Doyle and this piece by Sarah Seltzer and this piece by Emily Nussbaum.
What I want to focus on here, though, is the way Liz Lemon is both a white-collar professional and a creative writer, and how the show presents both these roles in often idealized ways. Lis manages to be both artistic and middle-management. Awkward outsider and corporate insider all wrapped in one female form. Thusly, she occupies a hallowed space, that of the professional writer with its attendant material security and legitimization by corporate America. In the Venn diagram that represents this, the shaded portion is a very narrow area, especially for women. Which is maybe one of the reasons I (a white, female writer who—as of yet—cannot pay the bills with writing) have pretty much been watching the show on loop since it aired ten years ago on October 11, 2006.1
Let’s start with that area of the Venn diagram where “female” and “professional” overlap. Even in this narrow, not-very-intersectional, version of white, professional feminism, Liz Lemon occupies an idealized space in the ascension of women into the corporate class: she is successful enough to be the head writer of a television show without being threatening to men in any real way (with the notable exception of Lutz, who the show characterizes as alternatively unware of or hiding his homosexuality). Indeed, the show has been criticized in its later seasons for Liz’s infantalization. Sure, she doesn’t get off scot free: Jack and the writers make fun of her; her looks, age, sex life and irrationality are common topics of discussion at work; Jack is a classic misogynist; Lutz once called her a cunt; 30 Rock has some shows that deal directly with being a female boss. And as I’ve written about here, at the structural and characterological level, the show tackles issues of sexism in incredibly smart and complicated ways. I don’t seek to undermine those here. But at the pure level of story, Liz Lemon’s role as female boss and her journey there seem rather smooth. This is remarkable and—during this election season—unbelievably comforting, escapist really, narcotizing, to see a woman in charge of something (and in charge of a primarily male writer’s staff), burdened only with some light misogyny, free from the kind of hostile and deep-seated dislike and fear of female leadership one encounters daily on the Internet.
Second. Despite a seven-season preoccupation with being a mother and the difficulty of being a mother and having the job she does, Liz adopts her babies just two episodes before the finale. The show chooses to focus on her anxieties vis-à-vis being a working mother rather than depicting her as a working mother. And that’s fine. It can depict what it wants. But I notice something similar happen in Parks and Rec, that other recent workplace comedy with a female lead. The final episode of season 6 jumps forward three years—three years when Leslie is the mother of newborn triplets and, also, apparently kicking ass as the head of a federal agency. In neither of these workplace comedies with successful mothers, do we actually see much of the woman being working mothers. This may be a symptom of the classic sitcom structure—there are family sitcoms and there are workplace sitcoms, and when there are workplace sitcoms, the workplace is the family, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for an actual family. Still, I can’t help but notice, we see Jack being a father more than Liz being a mother. And I can’t help but be a little sad—knowing how great 30 Rock is in exploiting and manipulating classic sitcom structures—that they didn’t push the boundaries here a little more.
Which is not to say they didn’t address the issue. There’s that great episode, “Murphy Brown Lied to Us.” As you may recall, Murphy Brown was a workplace comedy in the 1990’s with a female lead. Unlike Liz Lemon, though, Murphy’s gender and personality were frequently shown to be emasculating to her male bosses and the public at large. Unlike 30 Rock and Parks & Rec, it was also a show that devoted full seasons to Murphy being a working mother. So again, I have to ask, even in a comedy that has been criticized for showing a particularly narrow version of white, professional feminism, whither the working mother? Why not show this story? Erasing it only reinforces a narrative that it is somehow easy to be both and is, therefore, complicit in a socioeconomic system that doesn’t even provide regular maternity leave. The US is still the only highly-developed economy in the world without some kind of mandated leave for mothers of newborns.
Now, there are a lot of working mothers on TV, but these are primarily family sitcoms, not workplace sitcoms, and the job is often secondary (and very often, given less screen time than the husband’s job). The only current workplace comedy I can think of with a working mother in a leading role is Superstore, a rather classic workplace, ensemble except for the way it’s unobtrusively revolutionary for the diversity of its cast and its depiction of blue collar workers. At the end of season one, teenage mother Cheyenne (one of now two working mothers on the show) gives birth to her baby during her shift because she doesn’t have any maternity leave, and she can’t afford to stop working. A more depressing version of the working mother, but maybe a more realistic one during late capitalism. While white collar workers have far more options when it comes to taking time off after birth, paid maternity leave is still a rarity. In 2015, only 12 percent of private-sector workers had access to paid family leave.
Which is why Liz Lemon is such a comforting character to watch. She does get to have it all. Mostly. Sure the show is cancelled and her husband’s name is Criss Chros, but she basically gets what she wants. It’s just the show ends before it tells the story of how much work it’s going to be for her to actually do it all.
Not only is Liz Lemon a heartening character to the professional woman, but—to jump to the writer portion of the Venn diagram—she is also bolstering to playwrights, screenwriters, novelists, poets and journalists, because she is a writer who gets paid well to do it. The show gives enough allusions to the past for the audience to know that Liz Lemon put in her time to get where she is. Those lean Chicago days trail both Liz and Jenna. Jack Donaghy grew up terrifically poor; he’s the embodiment of the classic, American dream, descendent of white, European immigrants, pulling himself up from his bootstraps to become the CEO of a major US corporation. Tracey Jordan also grew up poor. And Kenneth, who goes from page to president of NBC. In fact, almost every one of the 30 Rock characters we know a little about struggled growing up. Or like Liz and her middle-class background, struggled as a young, starving actor and writer. Yet they all end up at 30 Rockfeller Center. This must be an exceptionally comfortable narrative for twentysomethings working now. It’s comforting to me at thirty-seven, because, though Liz’s job still exists, the avenues to make a living as a writer are fast disappearing. Or narrowing.
Almost two years ago now, Alena Smith wrote a terrific article in the Los Angeles Review of Books about the death of the American playwright, which tracks the forced-by-economic-necessity migration from playwright to screenwriter. She notes:
“The average playwright earns between $25,000 and $39,000 annually, with
approximately 62% earning under $40,000 and nearly a third making less than $25,000.’
In addition to the meager 15 percent that comes directly from their plays, writers earn 35
percent of their incomes through ‘playwriting-related activities,’ which usually means
either teaching or, in many cases, screenwriting. The rest, just over half of professional
playwrights’ earnings, is pieced together from sources unrelated to playwriting at all. And
remember, these are the champions, the winners — the people who are, by some
There is no doubt a similar trend in the book industry. In 2014, Zeljka Marosevic mourned the disappearing midlist for Melville House books: “A ‘mid-list’ author can be described as any author who does well but not spectacularly for a publisher: someone who might be consistently well-reviewed, will even be shortlisted for major prizes, but will not, or has not yet taken off to become a household name. In other words, ‘mid-list’ describes very many good and talented authors.” According to Jennifer Rankin of The Guardian, the publishing model used to work something like this: the top-selling 20 percent of books funded the remaining 80 percent—those quiet and experimental works of unknown writers, some of whom would become the next bestsellers, thereby funding a new wave of 80 percenters and so on and so on. Now, according to literary agent Jonny Geller, the numbers are more like the top percent funds the remaining 96. According to a 2015 Author’s Guild survey, over half of the respondents earned less than $11,670—the federal poverty line—from writing-related activities. Despite the high-profile six-figure advances we tend to hear about, the average advance for a first-time novelist is between 1,000 and 10,000 dollars. Keep in mind that (a) a novel can take years to write; and (b) if your first novel doesn’t sell well, you might not get the chance to publish a second one. As agent Christy Fletcher states, “It’s like credit. It’s better to have no credit than bad credit.” Agents and publishers alike have noted these worrying trends—authors such as Hilary Mandel, Cormac McCarthy and John Irving all had disappointing sales in their early books. In today’s publishing world, we may never have gotten Blood Meridian. Or to cross industries, it’d be like if Seinfeld or Cheers or—say 30 Rock—were cancelled in their first season.
So, maybe it’s no surprise that—like Smith points out of playwrights—many of the fiction writers I know have at least toyed with the idea of writing for the screen. For some, that means they actually now write for television or have pilots in the drawer; for others that means, when they get drunk, they sit around spitting out screenplay ideas without ever writing a single slug line. Some examples of novelists who have turned to TV and cinema: Before writing for Game of Thrones, David Benihoff wrote a novel and a collection of stories. (His first book sold for $7,500; after it was made into a movie by Spike Lee, the paperback rights sold for half-a-million). Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman wrote a pilot for HBO, which was not picked up. Benjamin Percy just signed on to write a Bond series. And probably, you’d be surprised at the amount of fiction writers who unobtrusively punch up dialogue or work on film adaptions of classic novels.
Of course, novelists turning to Hollywood out of economic necessity is nothing new. Faulkner—whose first four books sold an average of 2,000 copies—eventually moved to Hollywood, where he wrote seventeen screenplays. For example, the screenplay for Howard Hawke’s The Big Sleep, mercilessly reviewed by the Times in 1946 before becoming known as a classic film. A favorite writer story of mine has a telegram being sent to Raymond Chandler during filming, asking him who killed the chauffeur, because they were unable to figure out from the book and, thusly, were not certain how to resolve it in the movie. Chandler’s response: “damned if I know”.
Both F. Scott Fitzgerald and Aldous Huxley turned to Hollywood out of economic necessity when—after having written, respectively, two classic works of literature that can be found on any bookstore shelf in America—they found themselves broke at the end of their lives. Another one of my favorite writer stories (as told by Glen David Gold in his excellent essay, “Despair,” in The Santa Monica Review) has Huxley hired by a new studio to adapt Don Quixote into an animated film starring Mr. Magoo, a character whose ‘comedy’ is wrested primarily from his nearsightedness; most of his story lines revolve around him bumping or crashing into things. When Huxley shows up—also nearly blind like Mr. Magoo—the producers, who were unaware of his visual impairment, are too embarrassed to admit they have hired a nearly blind man to write a movie making fun of a nearly blind man. Their resolution: to let Huxley toil away on slightly-different version of the project involving a character named Mr. McGoogle and his tiny dog, Poo Poo. This film is never made.
These are great stories, and I really enjoy telling them, but maybe I’d rather have another Absalom! Absalom!
I love this exchange between literary agents Anna Stein and Jim Rutman:
Stein: But novels are beginning to feel that way too. I mean really—it’s like the novel is
the new short story.
Rutman: The short story is the new poem.
Stein: Yeah, the short story is the new poem. Novels are the new short story…. It’s hard
It’s hard out there. It’s hard out there for almost everyone. That’s what it really boils down to. Andrew Franklin, founder of the independent publisher Profile, says this explicitly: “The large bestselling authors are taking a bigger and bigger share of the market. Just as in every branch of late, post-industrial capitalism, the rich are getting richer.”
Which makes Liz and her writer’s staff very heartening to watch. Despite the fact that getting a job as a television writer is a pretty difficult thing to do, Liz Lemon is not portrayed as a particularly good writer. Over and over again, 30 Rock signals to its audience that TGS is a mediocre show, its writers—including its head writer—mediocre writers. Or maybe they are good writers and creating content for NBC flattens them. Regardless, not only does Liz Lemon ‘make it,’ she makes it with a lot of flaws. She’s not particularly savvy, or good at promoting herself; she doesn’t possess excellent people skills, which make her good at networking or convincing boards of large corporations to continue producing her show. She doesn’t know someone who knows someone. Maybe at some point in Chicago, she had lean days, but she has arrived. She no longer has to hold down a day job while writing free content; or run around LA making indie web series with her friends, hoping someone notices her through all the noise. In addition to being a good writer, she doesn’t also have to be a good teacher, or editor, or dog walker or nanny. She doesn’t have to give readings at bookstores that make people fall in love with her; she doesn’t have to successfully market herself on social media to build up a platform so that she can guarantee an audience or readership before anyone pays her to do anything at all. She doesn’t have to be pretty (though she is) or white (though she is) or to have gone to a good school (she didn’t, but Tina Fey did) or to have come from a solid middle class background (though she did). No, Liz Lemon’s success is achieved through her being exactly who she is (and, it should be noted, a few affirmative action programs). Finally—despite at least two story lines that involve layoffs and budget cuts—and an episode about whether Jack will be forced to accept a government bailout amidst a country-wide economic crisis —nobody ever gets fired. Mediocre or not, everyone keeps their job.
Until the very end when TGS is cancelled. Again, the show can depict what it wants, but—like working motherhood—30 Rock mostly declines to tell the story about the economic insecurity of writers. Indeed, one of the only writers we do see struggling is Liz’s old comedy idol, Rosemary Howard, who lives in a neighborhood called Little Chechnya where the F train rattles by her window. The thing is—and this is the great thing about 30 Rock—even Rosemary Howard ends up alright. In a moment that perfectly encapsulates 30 Rock’s commitment to detail and institutional memory, in the season-five episode “TGS Hates Women,” a cutaway to the website JoanofSnark.com flashes to an advertisement for Rosemary Howard’s one woman play, “I’m Only Laughing Because It’s Funny.” Now appearing on Broadway.
So brief if you blinked, you missed it. But if you didn’t blink, you’d see in the carefully-built world of 30 Rock, everybody gets by okay. And that’s a nice story. Especially now in this toxic election cycle with the fear and dissatisfaction and hate it has laid bare. And the time of the dawning Uber economy, an economy of disruption and ever increasing class stratification, where industries as diverse as teaching to manufacturing to cab driving are becoming bankrupt of the protections they once offered; of vaguely lost people becoming increasingly aware that opportunities are disappearing—if they ever had access to them in the first place; of a political system that diverts all this economic anxiety onto the Other; of mass incarceration and police violence; of young people aging out of adolescence to feel the growing pains of a country brashly unsure of who it is or who should be allowed to speak for it and how they should be allowed to speak.
It is hard out there—for women, for writers, for people who are not women or writers, for pretty much everyone. I’d rather be at 30 Rock.
1 One of the reasons I watch it on loop—the primary being it’s what one might call “a real writer’s show.” 30 Rock’s crafted comedy respects its audience and rewards rewatching. During its tenure, it was also one of the verifiably funniest shows on television with 7.44 jokes per minute, higher than most US sitcoms. When, on my fourth or fifth time through, I see that famous picture of Obama swimming on the wall behind Devon Bank’s desk, or accidentally leave the subtitles on Netflix after watching a foreign film to see that when Liz follows Floyd to the airport, the flight announcements piped in are saying “Flight 31 to Montreal is now blurghing” or notice Kenneth dancing in the “Do the Microwave” music video—I feel a surge of admiration for the writers, an appreciation for their commitment to detail, their dexterity with the running gag, their ability to mine and exploit classic sitcom structures. Like reading Pale Fire or understanding an allusion in Ulysses—there’s a sense that I am being rewarded for my attention and my ability to watch the show on a structural level. My mind yearns to connect—not with the characters—but with the writers and all they are trying to accomplish.
Suzanna Crofton is a writer, television watcher and prolific reader of novels and the Internet. She lives in Los Angeles.