Speaking purely from a PR standpoint, 30 Rock didn’t have to acknowledge the controversy over Tracy Morgan’s homophobic stand-up routine this past spring. It happened over six months ago. Morgan apologized. And Tina Fey issued a statement chastising him, therefore retaining her credibility as a supporter of gay rights. Crisis averted. But 30 Rock has never been reluctant to examine its own issues on national television, and so last night’s episode was a parody of the events of last June. As a public act of collective soul-searching, it felt a little half-assed, but it did work as comedy. After last season’s feminism episode, it seems clear that the writers are more interested in telling a funny story than in answering intractable questions about the politics of humor. It would be heroic if they could do both, but since they have to choose, telling a funny story is probably the way to go.
Of course, this particular story isn’t over yet. Yesterday’s show was a cliff-hanger in the form of a flashback structured around a cameo by Kelsey Grammer. (Obvs.) In chronological time, it starts with a sweet scene revealing that Liz’s new boyfriend Criss is basically the anti–Dennis Duffy. He’s so thoughtful that he buys Liz a still-packaged version of Terry, the gender-neutral doll that she had when she was a kid.
Liz seems ready to sink into domestic bliss, but Ann Curry destroys her idyll by reporting that Tracy Jordan has come under fire for homophobic remarks. Outside NBC, Liz finds gay protesters chanting “Over it!” She apologizes to them, then asks if she’s pulling off her hat. (Nope.) Clearly, this is going to be a problem.
So what did Tracy actually say? Well, here’s where 30 Rock pulls its punches. Tracy’s TV homophobia sounds like this: “Being gay is stupid. If you want to look at a penis, take off your pants.” That’s a lot gentler than the violent things real-life Tracy Morgan has been accused of saying, but it has to be, since there’s absolutely no context in which it would be acceptable to show Tracy Jordan threatening to stab his hypothetical gay son on a network sitcom.
Still, toning down the rhetoric comes with an unfortunate side effect of trivializing the original controversy. There’s also the question of who’s listening. “Why did you have to offend the gay community?” demands Liz. “It is the most organized of all communities. They make the Japanese look like the Greeks.” In a big wink to all of us audience members, she quickly amends that that’s not offensive because nobody heard her say it.
Tracy explains that he apologized to Glad, but he means the trash-bag company, not GLAAD. Coerced into writing a proper mea culpa for him, Liz gets passive aggressive. In real life, Tina Fey issued a statement in which she said the homophobic commentary “doesn’t line up with the Tracy Morgan I know, who is not a hateful man and is generally much too sleepy and self-centered to ever hurt another person.” On the show, Liz puts out a statement bluntly calling Tracy an idiot. Tracy, offended on behalf of idiots everywhere, responds by organizing a protest.
Among the 30 Rock cast and crew members hurt by the controversy is Mr. Subass the janitor, who won’t change the lightbulb in Jenna’s dressing room because he believes sexuality is a continuum and he is but a voyager on a vast ocean of pleasure. Now that Jenna is a B-List celebrity, she needs pink fluorescents in her dressing room. Otherwise, a paparazzo might photograph her in lighting that makes her look like Kenneth in a wig. She proposes breaking into the locked supply room, ribbing Kenneth when he seems daunted: “Guess somebody’s never been locked in a dog crate and thrown overboard for displeasing the Sheik.”
But Kenneth accidentally breaks the lightbulbs, causing him to panic about mercury poisoning. Jenna tells him what she told Phil Spector: Essentially, let’s get some trash bags, it’s gonna be okay. Neither of them realize Pete is going to stumble in after they leave. He’s freaked out by what the homophobia controversy means for TGS’s advertisers; after all, Snuggles the fabric softener bear is dating the Charmin Cub. And he wants to cope by taking some sleeping pills and napping in the supply room until things blow over.
You’d think Jack would be concerned about the homophobia controversy, but nope. He’s too busy trying to figure out if Liz has a boyfriend by claiming he wants to become friends with benefits. (Naturally, the only way she would reject that offer is if she’s seeing someone.) Liz knows Jack’s going to disapprove but finally admits she’s dating a guy named Criss who wants to start an organic gourmet hot dog truck.
Once the specter of Jack’s disapproval has been raised, though, she can’t let go of it. Poor Criss wants to know if Lando Calrissian is a space Armenian, but all Liz can imagine is Jack criticizing him. The funny thing is that Imaginary Jack’s basic critique — Criss is a liberal dweeb — is exactly what Jack would say about Lemon. In fact, Criss seems like he might be perfect for Liz. Who else would get so enthusiastic about the biological gender of the Phillie Phanatic? (Liz: “If you watch the games, that thing definitely has a menstrual cycle.”)
It turns out that there’s nothing better than signage at an idiot protest: “This marker smell good.” “I haz protest!” “Non’t Bnsult Cdiots.” Tracy also managed to get celebrity spokesperson Denise Richards, who proudly announces, “That’s right. I’m an idiot. Surprised? Well, I am. For all intensive purposes.” Liz thinks this is all ridiculous, but now Jack is concerned. Of the four populations who watch TGS — black nerds, JetBlue passengers who fall asleep with the TV on, pets whose owners have died, and idiots — the idiots make up something like 85 percent of the demographic. If Liz doesn’t win them over, she’s doomed.
Also doomed, possibly: Pete, whom Jenna and Kenneth find passed out in the supply closet. Kenneth wants to save him, but Jenna pictures the blog headlines: “Maroney found in closet with unconscious married man and inbred virgin. Again!” She won’t let the role of spokeswoman for the vaginal mesh industry fall out of her grasp, so she calls in Kelsey Grammer for a miracle cure.
Meanwhile, Criss video-chats Liz to tell her that he finally found an investor for his hot-dog cart. (Video chat — Skype, Facetime, whatever — is such a boon for television, since it can show both sides of a phone conversation. It’s basically made for TV writers and grandparents.) Criss holds up a check, which reveals three things: The investor is Jack. He used Liz’s bathroom. And Criss’s last name is Chros, as in Kris Kross. What this all means will have to be revealed next time, but it seems like it could be a good thing. Maybe Jack recognizes that Criss is kind of great for Liz? Or is that just wishful thinking?