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Between a rock and a hard place

Times Staff Writer

“IF I suddenly have to hang up, I’m not being rude,” Tina Fey whispered into the telephone from her New York home. “My baby is a little sick, and I’m the only one here.”

Fey’s 18-month-old daughter Alice has a cold. Her other baby, NBC’s “30 Rock,” which she created, executive produces, writes and stars in, also has an illness of sorts. Fey’s freshman-year sitcom, which centers on the private and professional life of a head comedy writer for TV, is suffering from Nielsenitis, typically ranking in the bottom half of the weekly TV ratings.

Although the show has enjoyed wide critical acclaim, won a Golden Globe for costar Alec Baldwin and has quickly earned a reputation as one of the best comedies on television, “30 Rock” is nevertheless officially on the renewal bubble, proving again that quality and ratings don’t necessarily correlate. Sources at NBC said late Tuesday afternoon that the network is expected to announce that the show will be picked up for another season.

Certainly, that decision would be good news in the increasingly competitive world of television, where the half-life of shows continues to shrink. But as the show returns Thursday to the network’s highly publicized comedy block night, it still has a mighty task ahead -- drawing a much wider audience.

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It won’t be easy. “30 Rock” airs at 9 p.m., its third time slot since its fall debut and opposite two of the biggest shows on television, ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and CBS’ “CSI.” Finishing in 80th place with an anemic-sized audience of about 5 million has not been unusual this season.

“I honestly don’t sweat the ratings too much,” said Fey, 36, the first woman to become head writer for NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” but best known for her sharp wit in delivering “Weekend Update.” “There are so many things that relate to the show that I can control, so I can’t worry about the things beyond my control.”

Sitcoms, in general, are in decline on network television, with audiences apparently tiring of the same old formulaic contrivances.

“Comedy is in a fragile place in television,” said Kevin Reilly, NBC Entertainment president. “30 Rock” “needs time to flourish and needs to be protected. This is the history of shows like ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Cheers,’ and ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’; they’re all shows that started near the bottom and worked their way up to the top.

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“There is zero creative concern about the show, but the question is can we put it in the right spot, so it can grow. Because it does need to grow.”

Critical reception

LAST fall, “30 Rock” -- named after the studio’s address at Rockefeller Plaza -- was largely overlooked in the critics’ stampede to glorify, then later crucify, Aaron Sorkin’s latest series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” Both NBC shows were shows-within-a-show, although Sorkin’s aimed for drama, Fey’s for comedy.

Fey’s show drew mostly positive reviews, with TV Guide anointing it the season’s best new comedy. Almost every review highlighted Baldwin for his stellar turn as an intrusive corporate executive, Jack Donaghy, the network’s new vice president of East Coast television and microwave programming.

The show is built around a comic triangle, a structure that loosely imitates one of Fey’s all-time favorite comedies, HBO’s “The Larry Sanders Show.” Fey plays Liz Lemon, the romantically klutzy head writer, caught between containing a mentally unstable star portrayed by “SNL” alum Tracy Morgan and kowtowing to Baldwin’s womanizing, domineering character.

“I don’t take medication, I don’t run down the streets in my underwear, I don’t see little blue men,” joked Morgan, whose character has done all that on the show, but who in real life has been twice arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. “I don’t want people to think I’m really like that.”

Workplace politics drives much of the show’s humor, but few topics are off-limits, including sharp-edged ones about gays, race, sex, NBC’s corporate culture and mental health.

As the season progressed, “30 Rock” slowly began attracting favorable buzz, especially on the Internet. Like many of its most devoted viewers, Joe Reed, a staff writer for the Web’s “Television Without Pity” came late to the “30 Rock” party. He didn’t start watching until the fourth or fifth episode.

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“It’s in the top two or three funniest shows on television,” said Reed, who recaps “Studio 60" and “American Idol” (the website doesn’t officially track sitcoms). “It’s smart, relatable and has an improvised feel to its comedy. It’s phenomenal.”

Similarly, the Wall Street Journal, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times, to name a few, have lauded the show’s wit, humor and creative growth since its pilot episode. The show went on to garner nominations from the Writers Guild of America for outstanding comedy series and outstanding new series.

But sometimes critics got tough with Fey, not for her writing, but for her acting. Tom Shales of the Washington Post wrote: “Tina Fey is not Orson Welles -- something that must be obvious to everyone but Tina Fey.”

Usually, Fey, who first joined “SNL” in 1997 and became head writer in 1999, avoids reviews. But in her role as executive producer, she came across the Shales critique.

“I think I’ve grown since the pilot episode,” Fey said. “I’d just had my daughter, and I didn’t really feel or look like myself.

“Almost everyone is a terrible actor, except for about six people. Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Alec [Baldwin], and a few others can act. Otherwise, everyone else is just trying to present a plausible version of themselves.”

“30 Rock” also can boast one of the stronger supporting comic casts in television. Jane Krakowski supplies a potent foil to Fey, while Judah Friedlander’s acerbic, trucker-hat wearing writer and “SNL” alum Chris Parnell’s quack Dr. Leo Spaceman often infuse the show with laugh-out-loud moments. But perhaps the show’s break-out performer is Jack McBrayer, who plays the idealistic NBC page Kenneth, educated at Kentucky Mountain Bible College, who seems to regard television as sacred as religion.

The show’s reputation has attracted an enviable stable of guest stars, including Rip Torn (former star of “Larry Sanders”), Isabella Rossellini, Nathan Lane, LL Cool J, John McEnroe and Paul Reubens, who memorably played a genetically inbred Austrian prince.

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“Tina grew up on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ where the thinking was, ‘Couldn’t we get so and so for this piece?’ So, we just go out and ask them,” said Lorne Michaels, who executive produces “30 Rock” and “SNL,” and originally tapped Fey for her “SNL” head writing gig.

“As the show has begun to define itself, people just want to be part of it,” Michaels said.

The show’s humor revs at such a high level because the writers repeatedly find clever ways around the restrictions of prime-time network television.

One episode had Fey’s character conflicted over her desire to be liked and her duty to lead the writing staff. She is shown callously ignoring a colleague’s baby photo, throwing another’s cellphone and then sarcastically referring to a staff member in an argyle sweater as “Sherlock Homo.”

Later, she overhears one of her writers call her a word the audience ultimately doesn’t hear, but suffice to say can’t be printed in a family newspaper or said on network television.

The episode was titled “The C Word.”

Network constraints force them to be more creative and don’t really bother Fey.

“I’d like to drop a couple f-bombs,” she jokes. “Maybe do some bottom-half nudity.”

The show’s rating struggles have more to do with proper scheduling or simply getting lost among myriad entertainment choices. Fey just wants to focus on the show’s quality and ignore all the external noise.

“I’m glad NBC put a stake down on Thursday night,” she said.

“Yes, it’s going to be hard going against ‘Grey’s’ and ‘CSI,’ but there’s no super safe place. Hey, it’s a jungle out there.”

Interview done.

The baby is still sleeping -- and seems like she’s doing better.

martin.miller@latimes.com


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