Last week's live episode of 30 Rock dared us to laugh at things that aren't supposed to be funny. Not anymore. Not in 2012.
The episode's structure is perfect for dusting off old prejudice. After Jack and Liz decide that TGS won't be live anymore, a horrified Kenneth locks the entire staff in a dressing room and forces them to reminisce about NBC's history with live TV. As he talks, we see clips of "classic" old shows, which are really just parodies performed by 30 Rock-ers. Each parody also analyzes what we used to say out loud and what we may still think today.
In The Love Birds, a Honeymooners send-up starring Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey, we're asked to remember that sixty years ago, people guffawed when Ralph Kramden threatened to punch his wife in the face. This time, though, the threats are gleefully grotesque. When Fey's character sasses her husband, he says, "You're a real cut-up! In fact, one of these days, I'm gonna cut you up into pieces and feed you to the neighbor's dogs!"
As modern audiences, we can laugh at that baroque specificity, not the idea of domestic violence. But then the skit adds another layer. Suddenly, the actors played by Fey and Baldwin — the actors who are supposedly playing characters on The Love Birds — have heart attacks on camera. They just die right there. It's still ludicrous, but unlike the earlier threats, it's something we actually see. What does it mean when we laugh at the violence in front of us, not just the violence that's described?
Representation gets even dicier in Alfie 'n' Abner, a knock on Amos 'n' Andy that features Tracy Morgan as an actor named Theodore Freeman, who plays Alfie. And Alfie's brother Abner? He's played by Jon Hamm's character. Hamm sidesteps literal blackface (in black and white footage, it's hard to tell, but his face is more dirty than altered in color). But in every other way the character exemplifies the worst of what blackface performances are understood to be.
The racism is exaggerated, just like the domestic abuse in The Love Birds, but can we laugh?
Cleverly, the show lets Theodore Freeman feel our outrage for us, and the joke of the segment becomes his refusal to participate in racist shenanigans. He starts by politely asking Hamm's character to stop. But when the white guy keeps going, Freeman breaks a chair over his back.
It's satisfying to see the victim of prejudice take action, but still ... what does it mean if we applaud when another person gets assaulted?
Then again, what if the downtrodden don't get justice at all? That's the question behind a parody of the Huntley-Brinkley Report. The newsmen are played by Baldwin and Hamm (or Baldwin and Brian Williams, if you watch the West Coast version). When they cut to correspondent Jamie Garrett, they're confused to discover a woman in front of the camera.
Only the woman is Jamie Garrett (Fey). The fellas just can't believe a lady could have her job. "Honey, you have a dynamite shape," says Huntley, "but you're gonna have to shut up and let a man tell us what's happening. Now, is your father or a policeman nearby?"
That's a pretty brilliant distillation of sexism, and we can laugh because we see Jamie Garrett getting frustrated. If we side with her,then we're chucking at misogyny, not with it.
But Jamie Garrett doesn't get revenge like Theodore Freeman does. When she protests, she gets cut off, and in the present day, Kenneth recalls, "That woman who stole [the] microphone went on to become ... a wife."
What does it mean to laugh with Jamie Garrett if she never breaks free? Is it the same as laughing at Theodore Freeman's rage or the cast of The Love Birds' heart attacks?
I don't know, but I admire 30 Rock for making me wonder. The live show cracked me up, and now, even better, it's sticking in my brain like a burr.