The wonderful world of 30 Rock humored us over seven seasons with its devotion to holiday episodes, whether it was Kenneth destined to ruin Ludachristmas with a little thing called “religion” or the Pranksmens’ devotion to the esoteric extravagance of Merlinpeen. Perhaps no holiday shined as brightly, though, as the show’s voyage into the uncharted terrain of Leap Day: an extra day of joy that celebrates Leap Day William emerging every four years from the Mariana Trench to trade children’s tears for candy. Or, if you don’t believe the mythical origin story, an extra day for you to eat rhubarb and wear yellow and blue. Just remember! Real life is for March, and nothing that happens on February 29 counts.
The season-six episode, simply titled “Leap Day,” revolves around Jack getting Christmas Carol–ed by the spirit of the holiday (it’s Kenneth with a mustache and, uh, definitely not his naturally bald head) while Liz contemplates whether to receive $20 million from an old crush to take his virginity on Leap Night. Cheesy vignettes of a 30 Rock–universe film, Leap Dave Williams, are also dispersed around the episode, which memorably features a biologically ambiguous Jim Carrey saying things like “I definitely don’t have gills!” and “I saved Leap Day and connected with my son!” By the end, you, too, might be singing intercalary carols around Rockefeller Plaza.
Vulture recently chatted with writer Luke Del Tredici to learn more about the episode’s creation back in 2012, how the show snagged Carrey and Andie MacDowell, and why writing the fake Leap Day movie was “the greatest assignment for comedy writers.”
What exactly was the genesis for dedicating a Leap Day episode?
I should start by saying every single person in the writers’ room had fingerprints all over the episode. That year, we didn’t premiere until January because of Tina’s pregnancy, so we had missed the opportunity to do a Christmas or Thanksgiving episode, which was a shame. At that point, there had been more than 100 episodes. When you’re that deep into a show, especially a show that just devours narratives, holidays are a huge relief because they give you an easy starting place. We were lamenting not having a Christmas episode, and someone noticed on our airdates that an episode was actually going to air on February 29. We thought it could be funny to do a Leap Day episode. Honestly, it wasn’t that original an idea. I think three other shows, like Modern Family, also had Leap Day episodes that year.
So you approached it as you would a Christmas episode?
Yeah, because we really enjoyed working with holidays. Someone in the writers’ room was thinking out loud and said something like, “It’s too bad that there are no traditions associated with Leap Day.” We knew we had to make up our own traditions after that. Giving a bunch of comedy writers room to make up a whole holiday was such a delight.
The great thing about writing for 30 Rock, and specifically about writing for Tina and Robert [Carlock], is that they always followed this basic ethic: If something made us all laugh, they would find a way to make it work. Anything that made us laugh, they were excited about. The only difficult thing was, since 30 Rock had been on for so long, it had already aired during a leap year four years prior.
How did you work around that?
The only question — even by the surreal logic of 30 Rock — was like, How are we gonna explain that this is a big tradition that we didn’t see four years ago? It became the joke about Liz having been on a Michael’s crafting cruise, which was a Tracey Wigfield joke, for sure.
What were the most integral components to Leap Day world-building?
It had to feel like a substantial holiday. When you step back from any holiday, like Halloween or Christmas, and you look at them with an objective eye, everything is clearly so arbitrary and absurd. We sat around for days laughing and thinking about ideas.
From the beginning, there was always a Santa Claus–type figure, William, the mascot associated with Leap Day. But when you think about it, especially with Santa Claus, there are these weirdly sinister tones about this man who comes to your house at night. So when we were making up our fictitious holiday, we wanted to have something dark and sinister at the core of Leap Day William, and we liked the idea of him being from the Mariana Trench and that he ate children’s tears. Which, coincidentally, now seems to be the premise of the HBO show The Outsider. [Laughs.] I also noticed that there was a Kristen Stewart movie called Underwater and it’s about digging into the Mariana Trench and uncovering monsters that come to the surface to devour children. It’s basically the origin story for Leap Day William.
How did that transform into the Leap Dave Williams movie?
Ron Weiner, one of the writers, pitched the idea because we had been talking about how there had been so many strange holiday movies recently. That was the winter of New Year’s Eve. But there was never a movie for Leap Day! We ended up writing many scenes for this fictitious movie. That’s the greatest assignment for comedy writers: Instead of doing our actual work, we can spend half a day talking about the plot of a movie we have contempt for within this made-up holiday. We definitely broke out a full three-act structure for Leap Dave Williams.
Did you always imagine that it would result in a Jim Carrey and Andie MacDowell pairing?
Not really, which makes the fact that it happened all the more incredible. An amazing thing about 30 Rock was that the show was so good at writing for guest stars; they always got incredible guest stars. The writers and I were originally thinking of Ray Romano and Rene Russo. They would’ve been very funny, but because of the magic and the power of the 30 Rock machine, it ended up being Jim Carrey and Andie MacDowell. It was the only show ever where you got better guest stars than you could’ve hoped for.
The only thing that was difficult about Jim — and he was so nice and excited to do the role — was his availability was tough. He wasn’t available to film anything until about a month after we shot the episode. We only had one day with him. It was an incredibly tight turnaround, because not only did we have to shoot and edit those scenes, but he had some elaborate special effects for his gills. These episodes have to be timed out perfectly right, and at times there was doubt that everything would come together.
Did Jim act and embody Leap Dave Williams as he saw fit?
When you have someone of his caliber and of his stature, you don’t want to ask for too much. He came in with so many ideas and was eager to play around. I remember the scene where he’s running on the sidewalk and starts ripping his clothes off — that was a thing he really wanted to do. Last minute, we were like, “Well, we’re gonna have to readjust the costumes to make them tearaways. It’s gonna take longer.” And he was like, “We have to do it. Dave Williams needs to do it.” He had a bunch of even crazier ideas that we would’ve loved to have done, but we didn’t have the time.
What else do you fondly remember about the episode?
We had a B-plot where Tracy needs to spend a massive gift card at Benihana, which was a story idea that had been gestating for multiple seasons. We shot it in an actual Benihana in midtown. Tracy Morgan loves Benihana — he has a hibachi table in his own house. We had the actual chefs there as extras and to do the cooking, and Tracy knew them all. They love Tracy. When he came in to shoot those scenes, he was like the mayor of Benihana. So when we broke for lunch that day and I was walking away, Tracy was like, “No, no, no. I’m gonna have this guy make us lunch.” So, I sat at a Benihana table with Tracy Morgan and Steve Buscemi, who directed the episode. It was just me, Tracy, and Steve having lunch at Benihana. Tracy got us all of these house specials that they never make for just regular people. It’s one of my favorite memories of working in Hollywood. Such interesting, great conversation in such a weird, specific environment. I’ll never forget it.