Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.
Ahead of its debut season, 30 Rock was preemptively considered the less prestigious of two new series set behind the scenes of a sketch comedy program clearly modeled on Saturday Night Live. Co-created by and starring Tina Fey — before the Sarah Palin impression, before the Mark Twain Prize, before Mean Girls became a perpetual entertainment machine — 30 Rock was seen as the cute little cousin to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Aaron Sorkin’s television follow-up to Emmy vacuum The West Wing. Instead, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was widely derided as a creative disaster and canceled after its first season and 30 Rock raked into prizes like a gambler on a lucky streak.
30 Rock won Outstanding Comedy Series for its first season, but the only other trophy it claimed that year was in the guest acting category, for Elaine Stritch’s inaugural turn as Jack’s ferociously intimidating mother. The second season cracked open the dam. In addition to repeat in the top comedy category, Fey and Baldwin won in their respective gender-specific acting categories and comedy legend Tim Conway was awarded for his guest spot. The Emmys also provide the first of several writing wins, bestowing the statuette on series co-creator Tina Fey for the season finale, “Cooter.”
Unlike some other recipients of Emmy’s writing award, “Cooter” isn’t some crafty reinvention of the form or even a particularly notable episode of the series it represents. “Cooter” did close out the second season, but it didn’t subsume the personality of the series in order to set up some dazzling cliffhanger. It slips the characters onto story threads like beads, generating the comedy from well-established comedic traits: the frazzled weirdo loneliness of Liz Lemon (Fey), the impatient authority of Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin), the friendly bawdiness of Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the showbiz neediness of Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), and the rube innocence of Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer). The particulars of the plot matter less than the slick firing of the comic machinery.
What’s maybe most impressive about “Cooter,” and this whole era of 30 Rock, is the sheer density of jokes. At least four separate stories, each told start to finish, coexist in the episode, and the punchlines come like a torrent from a toppled dam. 30 Rock is in a photo finish tie with Arrested Development as the live action series that comes closest to The Simpsons in terms of quantity of comedy packed into a single half hour. In that respect, “Cooter” is a perfect episode for the Television Academy to highlight. It doesn’t reinvent the form, but it does decisively show off why 30 Rock was special each and every week.
Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.