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The problem with '30 Rock'


It's an old story: British TV show comes to America and all of its characters are played by much hotter actors. But American television's terror of putting normal-looking people on screen is most troubling in "30 Rock." The biggest failing of that show is that they didn't have the nerve to cast an actually frumpy actress in Liz Lemon's role. About half the jokes focus on Lemon's looks, and they're all undercut when the camera focuses on the slim, beautiful Tina Fey. It's not quite as offensive as casting a tan white guy in Tracy Morgan's role but still having lots of black jokes, but it’s similarly jarring.

Photo credit: By Matt Sayles/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  January 19, 2010; 4:46 PM ET
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In fairness, Tina Fey's character is based upon... well, Tina Fey. Also, I feel like we're using the terms "thin" and "beautiful" a little loosely here. Cerie (Katrina Bowden) is the thin and beautiful character on the show. Liz Lemon is, as Jack (Alec Baldwin) put it so well on one of the episodes with Jon Hamm (drawing the contrast between Liz and Cerie), "moderately attractive."

Posted by: RyanD1 | January 19, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I recall Rachel Dratch was set to play the Jane Krakowski role in the never-aired pilot. She had a few cameos in the first few episodes.


"I want Mary Ann from Gillian's Island ugly, not Cornelius from Planet of the Apes ugly. -- TV ugly, not ugly, ugly."

Posted by: misterhand | January 19, 2010 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Umm, Tina Fey CREATED 30 Rock. (
The jokes about her looks may very well be written BY Tina Fey

Why are you making her seem like some victim of the cruel, patriarchal media demagogue that is NBC?

Perhaps she didn't cast an actual frumpy actress in the role of Liz Lemon because she enjoys being the star of the massively successful show that she spearheaded.

The next time you wanna comment on sexism in pop culture, do your homework and pick a better example. Or maybe you should just stick with health care reform. At least you know what you're talking about in that area.

Posted by: areyoucrappingme | January 19, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, as RyanD1 points out, the Liz Lemon character is based on Tina Fey herself.

Tina Fey used to weigh a little more back before she appeared onscreen in SNL (for which she had to lose weight before being allowed to appear as an actress, not just serve as a writer), though this does reinforce your point: we're seeing the "post-ready-for-TV" Tina Fey playing the "backroom writer" Tina Fey.

Posted by: constans | January 19, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I disagree. The ugly jokes are light and fun when the actress is not in fact ugly. The character is still convincing as having a hapless love life despite her looks. If the actress were actually frumpy, the effect would be a lot more sad and vicious, seriously undercutting the comedy.

Posted by: jbrians | January 19, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

It's also jaring when you claim Tina Fey isn't frumpy and then you post a picture of her in that horrible frumpy dress with the Mary Poppins umprella. Nothing makes me believe she's Liz Lemmon than that dress.

Posted by: ideallydc | January 19, 2010 5:17 PM | Report abuse

At least the rest of the writing staff on the show consists of reasonably funny looking people. (

Posted by: usergoogol | January 19, 2010 5:24 PM | Report abuse

And by the rest of the writing staff I pretty much mean Frank Rossitano. I do not actually watch the show that often and my post went through too early. (Also I thought Scott Adsit's character was a writer and not a producer, although a UK show would have made him a bit uglier.)

Posted by: usergoogol | January 19, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Ezra about the general problem. It's especially odd to see good-looks bias appear in comedy, because plenty of hit shows over the years have shown it's unneccesary: think of the drinkers at Cheers, everyone on Seinfeld who's not one of Jerry's girlfriends, Roseanne, Maude, Golden Girls, Archie & Edith Bunker, and the father on just about every family sitcom.

Posted by: tomveiltomveil | January 19, 2010 5:42 PM | Report abuse

As everyone else jumped on, yeah, it's Tina Fey's show, where she's playing an exaggerated Tina Fey but it was actually her concern in pre-production that she didn't have the chops to carry a lead. It took some cajoling from friends to even make her audition for the character that she based on herself for her own show! I'm not convinced anyone could play her half as well as herself, and anyway I think that 30 Rock is still one of the most feminist shows on Television.

It is a problem but I don't think it's so bad on 30 Rock.

Posted by: HerooftheBeach | January 19, 2010 5:58 PM | Report abuse

I think Liz Lemon is a good example of of the pretty/ugly dichotomy in our culture. Many good-looking women are categorized as "ugly" or at least "not babes" because they don't play the game correctly.

A plain woman can be classified as good-looking if she dyes her hair blonde and wears mildly provocative clothes. A good-looking woman who fails to style herself for the part is generally considered plain.

Liz Lemon is plain because she's neurotic and doesn't play the game correctly, which is funny!

Posted by: cnic | January 19, 2010 6:10 PM | Report abuse

The thing about Liz Lemon is that she is written by, and based off of Tina Fey. While to most of 30 Rock's viewers, the ugly/fat/awkward jokes fall flat, because we see the "slim, beautiful Tina Fey" as you say, I think those jokes are written in many ways around the way that Tina see's herself. Although it seems rather ridiculous now, Tina has spoken about her lack of confidence and social awkwardness into her mid-twenties, so it's not surprising that attitude has spilled over into her show in the form of self deprecating humor.

It's also likely that the writing staff writes the frumpy jokes in an ironic sense, since we all know the opposite is true.

Posted by: Smusi | January 19, 2010 7:20 PM | Report abuse

Who's "they"? Tina Fey created the show and had a pretty big say in who got cast for what. If she wants to play the character that's called ugly all the time, more power to her, saves someone else from the possibility of Tracy Gold syndrome.

I think you're missing the point, though- those jokes are funny because Tina Fey IS attractive. It's like how Lucille always called Portia DeRossi "Fat" on Arrested Development.

Posted by: colby1983 | January 19, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I think in this case it's more about Liz Lemon's self-esteem (and possibly Tina Fey's) than about the shortcomings of American TV. I find the jokes funny because even though Tina Fey is attractive, Tina Fey as Liz Lemon makes them work as an expression of the character. (Recall that in the most recent episode Liz was fooling around with the extremely attractive Cheyenne Jackson.) When the other characters make the same jokes, they are mirroring Liz's view of herself.

Posted by: randrewm | January 19, 2010 8:17 PM | Report abuse

In that photo she looks like Mary Poppins in a slip.

Posted by: eRobin1 | January 19, 2010 9:44 PM | Report abuse

I'll pile on and repeat that 30 Rock is Tina's creation about herself.

But ... randrewm is exactly right. It's more about Tina's self-esteem ... because Tina is smokin' hot. But I guess I go for that type.

Posted by: dpurp | January 19, 2010 10:45 PM | Report abuse

You don't know much about girls, do you?

Once you're branded as a dork, no amount of late-blooming boobs, brow-shaping, or make-up will erase that from your psyche.

You will go to your 20-year high school reunion in a fabulous outfit and laugh too hard and drink too much...and I've already said too much.

Posted by: hamletta | January 20, 2010 2:25 AM | Report abuse

Smusi said: "I think those jokes are written in many ways around the way that Tina see's herself."

That's nearly it, but Tina Fey is beside the point. It's how Liz Lemon **sees herself**.

But it's not entirely beside the point that the actor is (at least) better looking than the self-perception that the character projects. This is some sophisticated comedy here because the Liz -vs- Tina PLUS perception -vs- reality allows for a gentle mocking of the beauty obsession.

Don't you sit there going "is she being ironic or is this a post-modern wink and a nod to us, the audience"??

If you don't do that Ezra (and your writing suggests you don't) then you are missing some ingenious subtleties in an otherwise smart, funny, but (regrettably) written-more-like-it's-a-series-of-improv-scenes show.

Posted by: peackles | January 20, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

" If the actress were actually frumpy, the effect would be a lot more sad and vicious, seriously undercutting the comedy."

That backs up Ezra's point, in my opinion. Much of the best British comedy is all about the sad and vicious. See Nighty Night, for instance, or Black Books (arguably an Irish comedy, but the sensibility is much the same).

Posted by: GingerYellow | January 20, 2010 8:56 AM | Report abuse

I'm going to guess that Ezra knows that Liz Lemon is based on Tina Fey, but that it is impossible for him to believe that anyone would consider Tina Fey to be frumpy, so that aspect of the character is an unconvincing fiction.

IMHO, we are supposed to believe that Liz Lemon looks exactly like Tina Fey, is no less lovely than she is, and the fact that both she and her coworkers nevertheless believe her to be frumpy is a reflection of the television industry's warped view of reality.

It's of a piece with, say, Jenna Maroney's fear of being seen as old and ugly in spite of the fact that she is exactly as old and ugly as Jane Krakowski, which is to say, she's 42 and beautiful.

Posted by: dcamsam | January 20, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

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