Four blockbusters: The Office, 30 Rock, Community and Parks and Rec aired on NBC on the same Thursday nights at one point in time; this fact is incredible to reflect upon, and will likely never be repeated with the decline of network television. But how did NBC capture (or attempt to anyways) the nation’s attention with back to back to back to back sitcoms?
Part of the reason this bloc of four comedies succeeded was that each had different ideals and relied on different humor “engines.” Parks and Rec was hopelessly positive about everything, and that optimism carried the show to great success after the initial trudge that was the first season. The Office, while also created by Michael Schur, was more cringe and relied on the prowess of Steve Carell.
Interestingly, I’ve noticed from re-watching a lot of these shows during WFH is that Community and 30 Rock have a lot in common. Not only do the shows share a tendency of utilizing witty repartee and homages, but the character development and themes also followed a similar arc. Nevertheless, even with these shared tenets, it is interesting to conjecture that a crossover episode would never work.
On the surface, 30 Rock and Community shouldn’t overlap much. One is about a lovable gang of misfits in a community college, and the other focuses on the relationship between a show runner, her “staff” and her boss. But it’s not the topic of the humor which unites them, but one facet is how both channel (no pun intended) their inner Abbott and Costello. At their zenith, 30 Rock and Community have fast-paced zingers peppering every line of dialogue. This sort of pitter patter, which makes one’s own real life conversations feel dull and mundane at times, really contrasts with the mockumentary dialogue of the other two NBC offerings. Indeed, it more so reflects Arrested Development, a show which both Dan Harmon and Tina Fey has accredited to being inspirational.
On top of this repartee, both have an Dada-esque undertone throughout the shows, and I’m not even accounting for some of the fantastical elements in each show (can we talk about how Liz’s stomach is its own magical entity?). In the most mundane of scenarios, a veil of meta-ness would peep out at the perfect times. Of course, in Community, Abed was the clear vehicle for this:
It makes every 10 minutes feel like the beginning of a new scene of a TV show. Of course the illusion lasts until someone says something they never say on TV, like how much their life is like TV. There, it’s gone.
But 30 Rock, a show about people running a show, also has a large share of meta humor:
We’re on a show within a show! My real name is Tracy Morgan!
This probably stemmed from the show runners’ backgrounds. After all, both Fey and Harmon have roots in sketch comedy troupes where breaking the fourth wall is valuable technique for engaging the audience.
On top of the dialogue, music plays a surprisingly large role in the duo. The early Community seasons had many great original soundtracks made specifically for episodes and overall had fantastic music choices. The most glaring example is the Spanish library rap which was repurposed twice: once to apply for the “cool” study group (where Pierce also brings back his musical number GDB) and the other was with the loving Betty White. The latter seasons unfortunately didn’t have such intricate musical numbers, due to the lack of funding and the departure of Childish Gambino.
Conversely, 30 Rock usage of sound bites and musical numbers stayed more consistent, one is partly due to the premise of running a variety show and the other is 30 Rock’s usage of musical themes. The first point should be pretty obvious. For the second usage, 30 Rock would sometimes associate a novel musical motif with a particular character in a situation, and call upon that motif anytime the situation arises. This was particularly noticeable for Jack’s girlfriends: Phoebe and Elisa both had distinct themes when they are in potentially compromising situations. While small, this attention to creativity goes a long way.
Finally, a lot of both shows humor revolves around elaborate, fictional homages while interspersing real pop culture. Dan Harmon did a fabulous job on this aspect with the best being the paintball episodes of Community paying homage to Westerns, space Westerns (e.g. Star Wars) and spy flicks. On 30 Rock’s sides, Queen of Jordan is a clear “spinoff” of Real Housewives.
A sitcom also can’t succeed if there is no heart to the cast; while bits makes for great five minute Youtube clips, a story arc sells seasons. In a lot of ways, 30 Rock’s and Community’s male lead both share the same story line. Both lands in a place (NBC, Greendale) which they both initially thought would be a simple stepping stone towards their final goal (CEO at GM, being a lawyer again), yet no amount of hard work could overcome unfortunate circumstances (bought out by Cabletown, season 5 repilot).
Initially, Jack and Jeff view the other cast members as simple tools to achieve their goals, but gradually start to form meaningful relationships with them. The two have internal reorientation of what they consider success and expect from life. The leads soften up, and become a more complete person at the end of the shows.
One can also draw connections between other characters. Liz very much resembles Abed in how both of them came to achieve what they wanted through deep character growth. Abed noticeably becomes more empathetic and learns the human-side of film making, resulting in his final departure to Hollywood. Liz realizes what she values in life and a partner which allowed her to tank TGS. On the other side, Britta and Jenna both became increasingly weird…
In conclusion, two great shows with great dialogue that uses homages and meta humor to tell, usually, relatable stories in vastly different settings. As an exercise to the reader (e.g. this blog post has more than 1000 words now and I’m tired), consider how a crossover episode would work. Does the dynamic change is the episode happened in a different season? Which characters would not work at all?