I Like to Watch

It's official: "30 Rock" is the funniest new show on television. Plus: Tyra Banks' condescending clown routine reaches new heights of absurdity.

Published December 10, 2006 1:30PM (EST)

As Neil Young once so memorably sang, a man needs a maid. A woman, on the other hand, needs a combination of a maid, a nanny, a masseuse, a therapist and a certified public accountant, one who also cooks, teaches yoga and knows how to get dog hair off fuzzy sweaters. Aforementioned woman wouldn't mind if her maid/nanny/CPA/etc. also possessed basic secretarial skills and was particularly good at, say, writing witty thank-you notes or even longish letters to close relatives. It also wouldn't hurt if she were a gardener, a dog sitter and a notary public who dabbled in copyright law, or maybe a wet nurse with a background in prostitution and a license to drive heavy vehicles.

We live in a service economy, after all, where the ultimate goal is to pay other people to do every single mundane activity that might be asked of us, so that we can spend our time doing more important things, like eating crème-filled crullers and flipping idly through Christmas catalogs for gifts we might want our maid/assistant/aromatherapist to purchase for our family. (Actually, since she's the one who writes them letters and fields their phone calls, she should probably choose their gifts, too.)

Ah, the American dream! To fulfill exactly none of our God-given roles, escaping instead into the alternative reality of televised entertainments, ultra-violent video games and the Internets. Just imagine it! Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could while away every single waking minute on My Yahoo and Google News, while someone far more qualified than you scrubbed your bathtub and walked your dogs and paid your bills and breast-fed your baby and massaged your husband's feet? Oh, how I long to lie around like Jabba the Hutt, big and soft and purposeless, content to do nothing but glower over my service staff, chuckling heartily at the outrageousness of their modest requests ("Jabba no botha!") and shoving live frogs down my gullet!

Money talks, boshuda walks

Ah, but if wishes were horses, then beggars would ride! Or rather, beggars would pay someone else to ride, and to brush down their horses and feed them and clean out their stalls and so on. But wishes aren't horses, so beggars are surrounded by dirty dishes and scummy bathtubs and crying babies. Beggars daydream about lives that are glamorous and special while they microwave chicken pot pies and pull dog hairs off their sweaters and navigate lives that are one "Calgon, take me away!" moment after another. Beggars can't be choosers ... because they're losers.

For further proof, just ask Liz Lemon, Tina Fey's character on "30 Rock" (9:30 p.m. Thursdays on NBC), who's constantly being told by those around her just how lame every aspect of her life is. Take the night that Liz is working late, and her boss Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) comes in and finds her eating a wilty little sandwich at her desk:

Jack: Lemon, what tragedy happened in your life that you insist upon punishing yourself with all this mediocrity?

Liz: What, because I'm eating a turkey sub?

Jack: Your turkey sub, your clothes, the fact that a woman of your resources and position lives like some boxcar hobo, or maybe it's the fact that while I'm saying all this, you have a piece of lettuce stuck in your hair.

Unlike the suave heroes of Aaron Sorkin's "Studio 60," the other show this season set behind the scenes of a "Saturday Night Live"-type sketch comedy show, Liz is a TV writer who's not only something of a schlumpy loser, but she's recently resumed dating her lame ex-boyfriend, Dennis, a guy who sells beepers and is allergic to all fish that isn't fried. When Jenna (Jane Krakowski), one of the stars of Liz's show, finds out Liz has started seeing Dennis again, she's floored, but Liz has a perfectly convincing explanation:

Jenna: So when did this happen?

Liz: Well, last week was my birthday, and everyone forgot except Dennis. And he called and we went out, and it wasn't too weird!

Jenna: And how is the sex?

Liz: Fast, and only on Saturdays. It's perfect!

Liz is not just the antidote to the smug, self-important, melodramatic boy-men of "Studio 60, " she's also the antidote to every adorable, perky, good-natured heroine on TV. That's right, I mean you, Calista Flockhart and Anne Heche and Sarah Paulson, you with your deeply feminine values and your giggling fits and your cute little button noses. Liz not only isn't adorable and sweet, she's irritable and sort of weird and she always settles for less. Whether she's dancing like a sad honky to Chamillionaire in the writer's room or making the racist assumption that another actor on the show, Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), can't read, Liz makes mistakes that are far more pathetic than sympathetic. Liz is the human embodiment of a bad hair day, and so naturally I love her like a sister.

Best of all, though, instead of painting life in Hollywood as sexy or exciting, "30 Rock" makes TV executives and TV writers look like a pack of miserable little humans with crummy existences. Take the scene where Liz tells writer Pete (Scott Adsit) that she's worried assistant Cerie's (Katie Bowden) revealing clothing is keeping the writers from focusing on their work.

Liz: That's it, I've got to talk to her about her clothes, she can't dress like that.

Pete: What?! Yes she can! People like the way she dresses!

Liz: No, come on. It's distracting, it's inappropriate.

Pete: You're inappropriate, you jerk with your big stupid face!

Liz walks away.

Pete: No, Liz ... Listen, listen. Look at me. Look at how bald I am, look at my life. Please, just give me this one thing!

And when Jack tries to urge Liz and her writing staff to indulge in the wonders of product placement ("Product integration: Setting a new standard in upward revenue stream dynamics ... for all of us!"), the conversation might as well be directly aimed at the self-aggrandizing of Aaron Sorkin and Co.:

Liz: We are not your shills!

Jack: Oh, oh, I'm sorry. That's right, they're artists, like James Joyce or Strindberg. Get real, kids! You write skits mocking our presidents to fill time between car commercials!

Of course, the writers of "30 Rock" are happy to mock Sorkin to fill time between car commercials. In one scene, Liz and Pete walk around the studio, talking, when finally he asks, "Did we just go in a circle?" "Yeah, I was following you," she says. "I was following you," he replies, and then, as they part ways: "OK, good walk-and-talk!" -- a clear parody of the witty exchanges while striding down endless hallways Sorkin made famous on "The West Wing" and now "Studio 60."

While Liz Lemon and her band of sorry entertainers are worth the price of admission alone, the best thing about "30 Rock" is Alec Baldwin, hands down. Baldwin infuses every single bit of dialogue, even the throwaway lines ("Sorry I'm late, I was at a luncheon for Ann Coulter's 60th birthday") with a delightful flavor of solemn self-seriousness. Like an unholy mix of Donald Trump, Ricky Gervais in the original "Office" and the boss in Dilbert cartoons, Baldwin perfectly captures in Jack the essence of the humorless, out-of-touch corporate executive. He employs odd cadences that are at once natural and incredibly funny, and has a way of making even the most deadpan delivery hilarious. Baldwin tackles the playfulness of the hopelessly square, uppercrust man with a focus and spirit that remind me of Harry Shearer.

"Are you familiar with Six Sigma?" Jack asks the writers in a half-whisper, his question landing somewhere between a casual aside and a conspiratorial confession. "Six Sigma is the elite G.E. training course. To master just its basic concepts one must brave a five-day conference at a Sheraton."

Apparently someone at NBC attended a five-day conference in TV programming at a Sheraton, because the network has recently moved "30 Rock" to Thursday nights and renewed it for a full season despite lackluster ratings. You know what that means: Stay where you are after "My Name Is Earl" and "Scrubs," because "30 Rock" is on right after those two shows, and damn it, it deserves to be a hit!

In fact, get your secretary/personal trainer/chef to go on iTunes right now and purchase the episodes "Jack-Tor" and "Jack the Writer" so you can see why "30 Rock" is the funniest new show on TV.

Tyra no botha!

OK, fine. It's not nearly as funny as anything with Tyra Banks in it. Even longtime fans of "America's Next Top Model" have been stunned by Tyra's hysterical antics this season. Yes, it once seemed that Tyra couldn't possibly be more egocentric and obnoxious than she'd been so many times before, both on "ANTM" and on her unbearably cheesy talk show, but leave it to Miss T to outdo herself.

If narcissistic tics were horses, then Tyra's would ride roughshod over a nation of stunned viewers. This season on "America's Next Top Model," every time the camera was trained on Tyra, she seemed to take up the entire screen with her big, bossy, buxom buffoonery. What other TV personality could dish out self-serious life lessons, ramble on about her brilliant career, then clown around in the most affected, unnatural way, only to pull herself together for a moment of scoldy condescension toward her "girls"?

Yes, the moral of "America's Next Top Model" is, "Everything that you can do, Tyra can do better." Each time the models are asked to complete a task, Tyra has to bust into the scene and show them how it's supposed to be done, usually with all of the subtlety of a drunk Jane Russell impersonator at a tranny show. The classic Tyra moment this season came when Tyra leapt to her feet, mid-judging session, because she couldn't help demonstrating just how good she is at "modeling through" a Spanish style of dancing. Notice I didn't say that Tyra was good at actually dancing -- the point is to look really good while you look like you're dancing.

Mid-faux-dance, though, one of Tyra's high heels fell off! What did Tyra do? She modeled through it, of course. We at home could see that Tyra was modeling through it, but she still had to turn to the girls afterwards and say, "You see what I just did?" Then she explained, with all of the self-seriousness of Jack Donaghy filling us in on elite G.E. training courses, that instead of calling attention to her lost shoe, she had sallied forth and continued to look sort of like she was dancing in what might look like a Spanish style, if someone took a photograph of it at some point.

Or how about when this season's winner, CariDee, was posing in a freezing-cold pool, and after several minutes her teeth started to chatter and she started to feel downright horrible? Naturally, Caridee was afraid of admitting that she felt like crap, since confessing to having any problem at all during a shoot is, without fail, interpreted as a sign of weakness and used as an excuse to eliminate a model. Appearing near death, Caridee finally told Tyra and Co. that she needed a break, and Tyra promptly berated her for not telling anyone sooner that she was feeling bad. Then, during judging, Tyra once again scolded Caridee for not mentioning that she felt crappy, but also told her that the judges wondered, now, if she could really hack modeling since she so clearly couldn't tolerate hypothermia.

Sadly, the more Tyra trots out her crazy, patronizing Medusa act, both on her tedious talk show and on "ANTM," the more all of Tyra's little minions chuckle along and the more hideous and demonic Tyra becomes in turn. Yes, there is a price to pay for having a small army of professional minions doing your bidding: You become a larger-than-life ego beast, a drooling Rancor, a frumious Bandersnatch of self-centered hatefulness!

Of course, you're a frumious Bandersnatch that gets its carpets steamed and its nails done with clocklike precision, one who sucks down fresh carrot juice and triple-shot vanilla lattes before its feet even hit the floor, one who gets to watch the first season of "Freaks and Geeks" on DVD while professionals make sure its children are clean and well-fed and constantly entertained. Yes, as much as you might like to shun the frumious Bandersnatch of this high capitalist service economy, let's face it: It's worth it!

Or, in the immortal words of one Jabba the Hutt: "Jabba no botha!" which of course means, "I can't be bothered to do such a thing, I have old of episodes 'Battlestar' to watch!"

Pop Quiz!

Wondering what you've learned today? Take this quiz and find out!

1. The main point of this column is:

a) The American dream is to do nothing but consume extravagantly while paying other people to accomplish stuff for us.
b) If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride straight to hell, where Bryan Adams would be performing around the clock in the "Sartre Lounge."
c) Anything worth knowing can be taught in five days in a Sheraton conference room.

2. What do you have in common with Jabba the Hutt?

a) I share his thinly veiled sense of disdain for his service workers.
b) I, too, am very large and soft and have an enormous, mucus-covered mouth.
c) Like Jabba, I enjoy laughing heartily at the foibles of the sad little mortals around me.
d) I, too, have a trap door that leads to a dungeon underneath my bedroom.

3. What does Tyra Banks have in common with Jabba the Hutt?

a) She shares his thinly veiled sense of disdain for his service workers.
b) She, too, is very large and soft and has an enormous, mucus-covered mouth.
c) Like Jabba, Tyra enjoys laughing heartily at the foibles of the sad little mortals around her.
d Tyra also has a trap door that leads to a dungeon underneath her TV studio.

4. Which of the following would you most like to have?

a) A certified public accountant/masseuse/therapist who walks dogs and washes windows.
b) A wet nurse with a background in prostitution and a license to drive heavy vehicles.
c) A young, sassy Princess Leia in a metal bikini on a short leash.
d) A big snack bowl filled with live frogs.
e) A TV studio with a dungeon underneath it.

5. If, as Neil Young asserts, a man needs a maid, what does a woman need?

a) A man with a maid.
b) A male maid.
c) A merman.
d) Ethel Merman.
e) I hope Neil Young will remember, high-maintenance woman don't want him around anyhow.

Answer Key

1. a, 2. a, 3. d, 4. c, 5. e

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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30 Rock I Like To Watch Tyra Banks