Dominic Corry gives us a rundown of the top celebrities to visit 30 Rock. //
The little comedy runt that could, 30 Rock (2006-2013) was entirely overshadowed in the lead-up to its debut by that season’s other new show – also set behind the scenes of an Saturday Night Live-esque programme – Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
But while Studio 60 immediately descended into an embarrassing vortex of Sorkin-ian self-righteousness, 30 Rock quickly established itself as a whip-smart satire of post-post-modern pop culture for which ‘meta’ was merely the starting point.
Throughout its seven seasons, 30 Rock not only rolled out a roster of guest stars so huge that it is unlikely to ever be surpassed in this increasingly fractured media landscape, it also delighted in finding interesting ways to subvert the ever-evolving nature of the celebrity cameo.
The previous standard-bearer in terms of sheer numbers was NBC stablemate Will & Grace, whose final year overlapped with 30 Rock‘s first. Will & Grace loved nothing more than bringing in big names (Madonna, Cher, Britney Spears, among many others), but the cameos were generally conducted in the ‘wander in, wait for applause/vaudeville walk-on’ style that the game-changing The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) had rendered obselete a decade earlier.
Thanks to the Larry Sanders-emulating Entourage and Extras, by the time 30 Rock came along, the blatantly self-deprecating celebrity cameo was pretty much a cliché itself and could no longer be seen as any more inherently innovative than the congratulatory style employed by Will & Grace and most other mainstream comedies.
A new approach was necessary.
10) Elaine Stritch
TV comedies love going the celebrity route when it comes to casting the parents of their main characters, but 30 Rock did it with more panache than most. As the viciously overbearing mother to Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, gravel-voiced 80-something Broadway legend Elaine Stritch proved the perfect foil for the uber-alpha-male. The show found her appropriate complement by later casting Alan Alda as the right-wing Donaghy’s liberal biological father. See also: Catherine O’Hara as Kenneth’s mother; Bryan Cranston as his step-father; Patty LuPone as Frank’s mother.
9) Matt Damon
Whether it was down to the show’s zippy writing, show creator/star Tina Fey’s enduring SNL goodwill, or simply its New York-area shooting location, 30 Rock managed to cast more A-list actors in recurring roles than pretty much any other show in the history of the medium – many of which invariably took the high-concept form of an elongated cameo.
Damon’s commercial airline pilot Carol Burnett was one of several weirdly-monickered love interests for Liz Lemon (see also: Michael Sheen’s Wesley Snipes; James Marsden’s Chris Chros), lent all the more weight by being named after one of Fey’s heroes. The show mined plenty of humour from Damon’s amusing take on the All-American Cheeseball in four episodes spread through seasons four and five.
8) Steve Martin
As further testament to Tina Fey’s ability to recruit the comedy legends she collaborated with during her tenure as Head Writer on Saturday Night Live, Fey managed to convince fifteen-time SNL guest host Steve Martin to appear as an agoraphobic former CEO who turns out to be on home detention for an early season three episode. If you don’t count the time he voiced a character on The Simpsons, this is Martin’s only ever TV appearance that wasn’t on a variety, awards or talk show.
7) Harry Anderson
Attempting to cheer up the TV-loving Kenneth (Jack McBrayer), Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), the star of TGS (30 Rock‘s show-within-a-show), corrals three member of the cast of ’80s sitcom Night Court (the one with the awesome bass in the opening theme song), most notably magician-turned-actor Harry Anderson.
Naturally, Kenneth wants the Night Court actors to stage the wedding that was jilted when the sitcom was cancelled in 1992. The result is a novel spin on the old ‘washed-up actors willing to do anything for a job’ idea typified by Carl Weathers’ appearances in Arrested Development. N.B. Jennifer Aniston also cameos in this episode and is frankly outshone by Markie Post.
6) James Franco
The idea of James Franco appearing in a self-mocking cameo as “himself“ would most likely induce widespread eye-rolling in the current media environment, but in the halcyon days of 2010, it was a genuine novelty. One season four episode had the former Freak in a sham relationship with Jane Krakowski’s Jenna to counter Troy McClure-esque rumours that he’s in love with Kimiko, his Japanese Love Pillow. It remains one of the series’ funniest episodes, and Franco deserves some of the credit.
5) Susan Sarandon
In a role remarkably similar to one she would later undertake in the 2012 Adam Sandler film That’s My Boy, the ageless Sarandon played Lynn Onkman, the unlikely girlfriend of slovenly TGS writer Frank (Judah Friedlander). Only thing is, Lynn has just been released from jail for having sex with Frank when he was her 14-year-old student. Somehow, Sarandon sells it.
4) Amy Poehler
Both of 30 Rock‘s industrious live episodes (from season five and six) are overflowing with impressive guest-stars, but there’s something particularly endearing about Fey’s real-life bestie appearing as the young Liz Lemon during a flashback in the first one. If 30 Rock has an earnest core (and we’re not sure it does), it is concerned with female friendship, so this surprise appearance felt especially heart-warming.
3) Paul Reubens
Although the actor better known to the world as Pee-wee Herman undertook a sojourn into TV comedy in the late ’90s (on Murphy Brown), an appearance as anything but the manic manchild still counts as a rare treat. In the 12th episode of the first season, Reubens turns up as a European prince confined to a wheelchair and beseiged by ailments due to “centuries of inbreeding“. It’s a completely over-the-top performance that completely works, and demonstrated early on just how weird 30 Rock was willing to go.
2) Jon Hamm
In a ambitious and impressively well-sustained gambit that outdid Arrested Development’s Charlize Theron con, Mad Men star Jon Hamm appeared across several season three episodes as Dr. Drew Pearce, Liz’s handsome pediatrictian neighbour. It’s only after several episodes that Pearce is revealed to be living in a bubble of his own handsomeness, unintentionally causing everyone he encounters to coddle and favour him. Without such treatment, he is rendered a completely helpless idiot. Albeit an extremely handsome one.
1) Kellan Lutz
The ultimate in-joke in a show constructed entirely of winks and nods, Johnny ‘J.D.’ Lutz (only ever referred to simply as “Lutz”) was the constantly put-upon, ever-derided, relentlessly-savaged-by-his-peers TGS writer played by then-actual Saturday Night Live writer John Lutz – who we like to imagine suffered similar ribbing to the fictional Lutz in the SNL writers room.
When the fictional Lutz claimed during season 6 to be related to Kellan Lutz, dull beefcake co-star of the Twilight series, he was predictably ridiculed – which made it all the more satisfying (and funny!) when the model-turned-actor turned up as himself in the fourth episode of season seven to confirm Lutz’s wild claim.