It was never supposed to get this far. When “30 Rock” debuted on NBC in 2006, Tina Fey’s “comedy show about a comedy show” was overshadowed by the publicity around “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” a similar but dramatic look behind the scenes of “Saturday Night Live.”
Fey began as an admittedly nerdy “SNL” alum in competition with Aaron Sorkin, a titan in the world of television writing fresh off a successful seven-year run with “The West Wing,” which only came after he wrote the mega-hit movie “A Few Good Men” starring Tom Cruise at the height of his fame.
“I saw the problem coming from a mile away,” said then-NBC president Kevin Reilly in a 2006 interview with the New Yorker. “Tina is more madcap, and Aaron is exploring issues and character dynamics and has a real romance at the center.”
Fey’s whomp-whomp response came in a fashion audiences would later expect from main character Liz Lemon: “It’s just bad luck for me that in my first attempt at prime time I’m going up against the most powerful writer in television.”
The competition even affected the show’s ability to attract big name talent. During a recent Rolling Stone interview, Alec Baldwin admitted he’d only signed on to play “30 Rock” head honcho Jack Donaghy after executive producer (and real-life Donaghy) Lorne Michaels “very cleverly” forgot to say “Studio 60” would be premiering at the same time on the same network.
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"Kevin Reilly called me and [Lorne Michaels] and said, 'I just want you to know from me before you hear it elsewhere that we're buying this other show because we can't not, it's going to be such a big hit, and it's Aaaron Sorkin, and we had to fight for it in a bidding war,'" Fey said later. "It was kind of thrilling to be the underdog and to have this imaginary nemesis."
Despite their core differences, the two shows used many of the same methods. “30 Rock” writers crammed so many jokes into the dialogue that the actors have confessed to religiously studying their lines in order to deliver them fast enough to avoid the cutting room floor. Sorkin’s long been praised for his quick verbal gymnastics as well as for using the “walk and talk” method on “The West Wing” as a replacement for any visually pleasing action on the show, a method later adapted by Fey.
But while the premiere of “Studio 60” was met with scorn and disappointment – comedian Louis CK said he couldn’t help hating the show because of Sorkin’s arrogance – “30 Rock” quietly built a loyal fan base of millions. The drama tanked and was canceled by NBC after just 22 episodes, now sitting firmly in the rearview mirror as TV audiences prepare to say goodbye to their beloved “30 Rock” after seven seasons.
Sorkin would later appear on “30 Rock,” winking at his former competition with Fey by telling Liz Lemon, “I’m Aaron Sorkin, ‘The West Wing,’ ‘A Few Good Men,’ ‘The Social Network’…”