In this week’s issue, New York magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. We spoke with Robert Carlock, who along with Tina Fey is the showrunner of 30 Rock, about Alec Baldwin’s tenure, the importance of Kenneth, and the horrors of brunch.
Starting with compliments: That “Queen of Jordan” episode was absolutely brilliant.
That was a fun one to do. This year we’ve tried to take a couple of swings at doing different kinds of shows — the live show being an example. And that was one we had in the back of our mind. We started that story arc for Sherri Shepherd early in the season, and when Tracy Morgan had some health problems and wasn’t available to us, we thought, Let’s tell a story about Tracy not being there. We sort of smugly pride ourselves on not having a to-camera conceit or a voice-over. Fortunately, we have some characters who are crazy enough to basically do voice-over to other characters. Doing that episode was fun because we got to use some of those tools, and tell stories at a different pace and a different rhythm.
And let’s not forget: Best line? “My single ‘My Single Is Dropping’ is dropping.”
That one specifically, we were beating our heads against it, and Tina walked in from shooting downstairs and we said, “We’re trying to come up with a name for Angie’s single that’s dropping,” and off the top of her head she said, “How about ‘My Single Is Dropping’?” [Laughs.] That was that.
Or even that Joni Mitchell–esque song playing in the background of that fake club when Jenna takes Liz out one night, “Paints and Brushes.”
Oh my God, it’s so great! It’s mostly Tina taking digs at our beloved editing staff. She knew that those would be the people listening to it when they did the sound mix. So she’s mostly just ad-libbing stuff about them. There are five more verses about putting a child up for adoption in the longer version of the song. Jeff Richmond, Tina’s husband, who does all of our great music, was going to do a dance-hall remix version of that song. The problem with having these conversations is — and it’s so gratifying to have conversations where people are seeing all the nuances and details and they get everything — it means we have to keep writing these episodes as dense as we do or we’ll disappoint the people on whom we depend to watch the show. We’ll just keep stuffing twenty pounds in our ten-pound bag for you. I was talking to a friend of my wife’s who is a fact-checker at Vanity Fair, and she’s a super-smart, media-savvy person, and she’s talking about having to look stuff up, knowing that a phrase isn’t just an idle phrase. Looking things up on the Internet. That’s a lot of pressure on me. What if it is an idle phrase? Like “Belvedering,” or “peas and carrots.” We had Rob Reiner saying “peas and carrots.” And she [the fact-checker] said, “Well, it has to mean something.” And she had to go research what that means. Fortunately it does, but it’s a thing that they have background people say in the theater.
The thing that makes the show so great is that you have all of these wonderfully bizarre, well-fleshed-out characters.
It’s always our goal to have that, with a few exceptions. We don’t know too much about Dr. Spaceman, and that makes him one of the funniest people, because he’s easy to write jokes for because he isn’t quite a human being. He’s just the worst doctor ever, but I guess writes prescriptions easily. We always make it a goal to have everyone be as rounded as they can, but hopefully in a way you haven’t seen before or in a way an audience member doesn’t anticipate. Yeah, they should have a mother, but that mother should be trying to destroy her daughter, and we try to give everyone a full life in our weird idiom. We want to let people in, but we have a certain sensibility that we want to stay true to. If Liz is going to have a conversation with her mother about true love, her mom isn’t just going to say she didn’t tell her that her father wasn’t the first or only man she ever loved, a scene you’ve seen before. In our world, it’s gonna turn out that that first love was Buzz Aldrin, and she’s going to go meet him and scream at the moon with him. And hopefully you get all that value of, “Okay, Liz has this emotional journey and she’s learned something about her mother, and maybe she’s learned something about herself and her own expectations in life, but she’s also gotten to yell at the moon for being out in the day with Buzz Aldrin.” What we try to do, and I don’t think this is too interesting but always helps me as a writer, is that we try to tell emotional stories in as odd a way as we can without distancing ourselves from the emotion and we try to tell our weird stories in as grounded a way as possible.
Talk to me about Kenneth.
I always think the life of the show is Liz and Jack meeting somewhere in the middle on most things: that he becomes more of a person and she gets her act together. Beyond that, the real goal of the show is the moral education of Kenneth Parcell, the eventual discovery that he is immortal and the center for a reason we can’t begin to understand. I’ve said this before to other people: When we were first doing 30 Rock and trying to get away with a tone, what we were trying to pull off was a combination of “we can do anything we want” and hopefully have you to care about the characters. The character of Kenneth was, in the early going, maybe the most important character, because he would do almost anything for these people. If Tracy wanted or needed a fighting fish to be picked up in Chinatown or if Jack needed a human mannequin or whatever; he would do it because he loved them so much and loved TV and what they represented so much, and so it allowed us. So instead of just having Liz say, “You’re crazy, I’m not going to do that,” which she would have to with her character, we had this goon who was able to justify other people’s bad decisions and understand them. And for writers and maybe for viewers, it’s a way into getting that “Oh, Tracy is not a nonhuman because this other person is happily helping realize his goals.” And those combinations, those choices that you make, and the creation of those characters is all on Tina, but I’d like to take some credit for the use of Kenneth in that way, those choices that you make, those dynamics, are the key to being able to write a show.
You worked on the Dana Carvey Show and SNL, which is how you know Tina, and Friends, and also … Joey.
I got a lot of incredible experience at Friends. I was there when it was the No. 1 show in the country. And I was a very small part of that. And then went to Joey, which has become a punch line, unfortunately. And it was, again, a really talented staff, but again we couldn’t figure out how to make it work. As a wide-ranging experience, it was sort of awful, because we worked really late into the night and really hard with a lot of really talented people, people who were at the absolute core of Friends, people who had come off of the Simpsons and SNL, some of the funniest people I know. It just didn’t work. It’s another end of that kind of spectrum of the way a creative thing can just not mash. And we knew it wasn’t working and we were up until four or five in the morning, pounding our heads against something, and we watched it become a punch line before our eyes. We wanted to do better for Matt and better for ourselves. And again, I am not sure what I learned from it except that it can go south at any second. There are no sure things in this world.
How do you try to ensure against that?
I think if it’s not on the page, even with Tina and Alec and Tracy and the amazing cast we have, if it’s not on the page, you don’t have a show. And when you’re putting a staff together, you want as many different kinds of people who speak the same comic language as possible. It’s a really hard thing to find. We have a Midwestern hick girl from Second City, we have Tina who is from suburban Philadelphia, we’ve got a couple of Boston Harvard douchebags including myself, we’ve got a wonderful Southern California burnout genius, we’ve got an African-American standup comic, we’ve got a girl from Jersey who is just hilarious. It’s not exactly the melting pot or the salad bowl, but you try for that. But the most important thing is we speak the same comic shorthand. Some of that is learned, over the course of working together, but a lot of that is coming in with the same sensibility. And in order to get it on the page, you need that group to work, and there are a lot of ways for that group to not work. You can get the most talented people in the world in a room together and they can spend the whole time just butting heads.
Speaking of talented people, when you have someone like Alec Baldwin on the cast, telling tales out of school, how do you handle that? Is it true? Will you only have one more season after this?
I can’t speak to what he’s going to do. You’ll have to ask NBC what they’re prepared to do to make them change his mind. And we’ll do whatever what we can do to make him change his mind and keep writing him that character.
Did you and Tina have a scope in mind, like you only wanted to do six seasons?
No, not at all. We’ve never really discussed it. We’re often just putting one foot in front of the other. I think we will go until we feel like we can’t make it really good anymore. That’s our main thing. Obviously Alec is a huge part of making it good. Hopefully we can make it all happen.
Do you care what fans think?
I don’t care about people who aren’t fans [laughs], which isn’t entirely true. I read a lot less criticism than Tina does. I let her filter it down to me. And by criticism I mean feedback. But a lot of it tends to be criticism. I think there is a smart group of people out there talking about the show in the cyberverse, and some of them say dumb things and a lot of people correct them and it’s kind of fun to watch. Our goal last season, season four, was to expand the emotional lives of the characters. We wanted Jack and Liz in particular, but also Tracy, also Jenna, to have kind of breakthroughs in their personal lives. And I think we kind of overdid it. I kick myself for it, because we’re so careful about trying not to overdo — the last thing we want is too much of anything. We sort of had to say that was true; we ended up having those conversations ourselves. So we do care what people think, especially if we agree with it.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned doing this job?
In terms of running a show? The most important thing: My job, my and Tina’s job, is to oversee every aspect of the show. I will never begin to know what the accountants do or what the camera guys do, as much as I try to learn just out of respect for what they do and to try to make my job as manager more efficient. The most important thing is to let those people do their jobs while making it clear what the parameters are. Lorne often says, and I think he’d be okay with my quoting this, that the job of a producer is to discourage creativity. It sounds a little counterintuitive and it’s a sort of a harsh way of saying something that I think is true, which is that you or you and your partner have to be in control of what you want the end result to be and you just want really good people to get what you want that end result to be. I remember once at SNL — when you start at SNL, you are kind of responsible for producing your pieces and you have no idea what that means. You’ve just come out of college, or off of standup, or being an improviser or whatever, and people there have been doing sets and costumes and everything there for over twenty years and you sit there and overexplain something to these people, and they are a hundred steps ahead of you and you want this to be real and you want this to be right. And they’re very good at shutting you down from trying to explain to them their job. But that’s the key to running a show, making it clear what the parameters are and then having really good people work within those parameters and being okay with not having control over this thing that you’re supposed to have total control over. And that can be tough, but fortunately we have good people.
So would you describe yourself as a perfectionist or a collaborator?
I grind my teeth at night wondering what I’ve forgotten about during the day. And that’s where you have to count on that net of people to do it. Tina will come in in the morning and having realized overnight some logic problem about something we shot the other day, I think we’re both, as Tracy Jordan once said, “If man’s reach cannot exceed his grasp, then what’s a heaven for?” quoting Browning. But I think we both — it makes us crazy when it’s not perfect and there’s no way for it to be perfect. So we’re just crazy most of the time. Tina and I drive ourselves to distraction and drink — I don’t know what she’s going to do now that she’s pregnant. Good thing the season’s over for the time being — with all those pieces you know are falling through the cracks and that you’ve forgotten. The notes you forgot to give to props, the edit you could have done differently but now it’s locked. We drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago and it’s very slowly killing us.
What is your best show pitch that didn’t make it onto the air?
For 30 Rock? The great thing about the show is that the stuff that I believe in and advocate for I usually get to do because Tina is hilarious and for some reason trusts me and sometimes gets really, really tired and I can just do things that she wasn’t aware were sometimes going to be on TV. “That’s still in?” is something I hear on occasion. This is just a small thing, but I hate brunch. I don’t believe that brunch is a thing that anyone actually enjoys on any level. I don’t think the food is food that people like. I don’t think that people want to see people socially on Sunday morning or afternoon. I don’t think any of it is worth waiting in line for. I’m on an anti-brunch campaign because I think it’s a form of mass hysteria that people want to go to brunch and think that it’s a good thing. And I was constantly trying to get anti-brunch jokes into the show, and no one cared, no one shared my point of view. And I’d get them into table reads, and there would be no laugh because everyone likes brunch because we’re being fed soma by the government, there’s this Brave New World madness. But I did manage, in the guise of Abby Grossman, the hipster comic [on “TGS Hates Women”], one of her clips, if you noticed, was her saying, “Has anyone ever had a good time at brunch?” That’s as close as I’ve gotten to fulfilling my anti-brunch jeremiad. But someday there will be a whole story about brunch and eventually America will wake up.
And plus, it just leaves you in a food coma all day.
Yeah. Go to church, people! I live on the Upper West Side and I see people standing out in the cold, waiting for food you can cook yourself. Listen to me, I’m still talking about brunch! This is hilarious. Of the few things I can cook, I can cook all of those things just as well as I’m going to get them after waiting for an hour. Why leave the house? Do the Sunday crossword puzzle.
You can’t hear anyone you’re talking to anyway, and the coffee usually sucks. The coffee at your house is better.
[Laughs.] The coffee at my house … I don’t even drink coffee, believe it or not. The tea is better. My children aren’t annoying anyone; I’m not hating someone else’s children. Stay in for brunch, New York! The thing is, Tina has one of the best antennae — they’re excellent. If there’s a good idea in there, she can see a diamond in a pile of crap, and she can also see something that seems crazy and she can get the sense of it and the good of it, so when I go to pitch something to Tina, it’s pretty rare that there’s something where I’m like, Oh, that’s great, that shouldn’t have been thrown out. But please help me get the word out about brunch. They’re feeding us food that’s been lying around for days.
Other Showrunner Interviews:
Community’s Dan Harmon
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
How I Met Your Mother’s Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur