Alex Casey chats to Keith Powell about his role as Toofer on Lightbox’s 30 Rock, and how one humble network sitcom changed the face of comedy over its seven joyous years.
Tina Fey’s 30 Rock is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of my favourite television shows of all time. I remember buying season one at high school, and absorbing the million-jokes-a-minute every single night for months. The trumpeting theme tune of the DVD menu still haunts my dreams, and I return to the show at least once every year. Not only was the lead character of Liz Lemon a lightning bolt cultural moment for a young woman who liked eating cheese, but the concept of the show itself is brilliant for fans of the wider television industry.
Set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-inspired sketch show, the story follows the writers, producers, stars and bosses as they flail around the frenzied world of creating weekly live television whilst each juggling bonkers personal lives. From Jenna Maroney’s elusive history with Mickey Rourke to Kenneth Parcel’s immortality, the show isn’t afraid to give every single character a rich and complicated back story.
One of these many characters is TGS writer James “Toofer” Spurlock, played by Keith Powell. As network suit Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) explained “with him you get a two-for-one; he’s a black guy and a Harvard guy.” On a recent trip to LA, I had a chat to Keith about the evolution of 30 Rock from a pilot on the rocks into a comedy giant, and how Toofer came to represent a large portion of African American society still so seldom seen on television.
Let’s go back before 30 Rock, what were you doing before Toofer came into your life?
I was a regional theatre actor doing a little bit of television, a little bit of Law & Order here and there, but nothing crazy. And then I auditioned for 30 Rock. I didn’t think I was going to get it at all, because I was just a lowly theatre actor.
What was your understanding of the show at the pilot stage? Did you have a feeling it was going to be huge?
Not at all. We didn’t even think that we were going to get picked up. Back in the day – and this is now 10 years ago – there was another show called Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip that Aaron Sorkin had created. That had the exact same premise as our show. When we shot the pilot we were all convinced that it would never see the light of day, because the Aaron Sorkin show was so much better than ours, and had so much more budget and so much more buzz. We didn’t think we were going to get picked up, and then when we got picked up we were like, well surely it’s not going to last. We were scared for our life on the show for a solid two years.
Well, you stayed around for a very long time.
What did you think of the Toofer when you first learnt about him, as a character?
Honestly, it scared me a little bit because at the time representations of smart black people were few and far between on television. I worried that we were making fun of something that was so necessary to be on television in a way that was not productive to a dialogue, to a conversation. I was really worried about it at first but, as the years went on, I think that Toofer actually influenced a lot more characters on television. I felt like we started breaking down barriers and I became very proud of what he represented.
You say that the representation of smart black men on TV wasn’t something that occurred even ten years ago, do you think we’ve seen that change?
Absolutely. Back then Shonda Rhimes wasn’t a thing, and now she writes for smart, articulate black people all the time. Things still aren’t great in the landscape of racism in television, however they are much better than they were 10 years ago. I feel like we’re taking baby steps, but at least there’s a lot more diversity on television now. Still not enough, though.
When you were making the show did you see a lot of parallels with the actual backstage and executive world of television?
We shot the pilot in the actual 30 Rock, at the Saturday Night Live studios. When we got picked up they literally just recreated what the SNL studios looked like. There were always parallels with our real lives. Tina, and the writers all liberally lifted stories from everyone’s life at the time. The show was closer to reality than people think, just slightly more heightened.
Can you share what some of those realities might have been, or is it too close to the bone?
I can share a couple. I know that Tracy Morgan’s diabetes was written into the show. There was one time when there was a photograph taken of Tracy with his female friend, and it was misidentified as his wife – Tracy Morgan’s real wife got really mad. That became an episode of 30 Rock. Also when Tracy got in trouble for making homophobic remarks at a theatre it really devastated him, and that made it into the show. That was actually an entire plotline over about three episodes.
What about the episode ‘TGS Hates Women’ episode? That always felt to me like a very pointed, personal long-form response from Tina Fey to criticisms of the women in 30 Rock.
Absolutely! You know, there are a lot rumours as to what that episode is really about. I have my speculations but it was never actually explained to me. I just showed up and said my lines. But Tina is so whip-smart and definitely answers her critics through her work. She’s amazing like that.
That actually reminds me of another thing. There’s an episode in season three where Jenna and Tracy are arguing about if it’s harder to be a white woman or a black man, so they step into each other’s shoes and Jenna wears full blackface. I feel like the climate has changed a lot around that with Twitter PC explosions and the like; do you think that episode still would have gone to air now?
That’s a good question. That episode is really interesting, because at the time Oprah Winfrey had a cameo in it. Oprah actually requested that I be in all the scenes that Jenna featured in wearing blackface, because she didn’t want the backlash. I actually think, because it was such an important conversation and that it was handled so responsibly, that NBC would have loved to have had a Twitter war over it.
I feel like right now we are still jumping back and forth between the #allblacklives movement and feminism. And I do think that those are two equally important issues in this country, discussion around women’s rights and black rights are occurring so often that I absolutely see it as an episode that would air today.
When you were actually shooting, was there a lot of room for improvising and having a huge laugh?
Oh no. No. We always giggled – but we were laughing at what was written. I would say that the show was like 98% scripted, there was very little room for improvising. At the beginning or end of a scene we were allowed to improvise, but that was just in case they needed extra stuff to cut around. So if you do see a beginning of a scene or an end of a scene and it feels unscripted, it probably is. I’ve worked with Aaron Sorkin, and can say that working on 30 Rock was very much like being on an Aaron Sorkin set – you respected the script down to where the comma was placed.
That’s a testament to the writing really I suppose, because some of the things that come out of people’s mouths so often just seem like a divine moment of comedy intervention. Do you have a favourite 30 Rock episode?
I can’t pick a favourite, because they are all like my children. I will say that if you only want to watch one episode of 30 Rock to know exactly what it’s about, I would say that you would have to watch the ‘Apollo Apollo’ episode. That episode is insane: it’s got Muppets, it’s got laugh-puking, it’s got a weird 1-900 call video that Liz did. It’s firing on all cylinders, and it’s the weirdest, wackiest episode we’ve ever done. It completely encapsulates what 30 Rock is, it’s the definitive episode to me.
30 Rock is a very smart show; it’s often referred to as the smartest show on television, about television. Where do you think it sits with more traditional sitcoms, has the genre progressed, or regressed?
I definitely think that 30 Rock suffered in terms of audience just because it didn’t dumb itself down as much. Unfortunately, I do think that television suffers because people just want it to be on while they’re making dinner – it becomes background noise. I think the fact that you had to pay attention to 30 Rock is a specifically unique thing. 30 Rock is a cable show at heart, it demands a more specialised audience.
Do you think that sitcoms started to become more niche in the wake of 30 Rock?
I do think that 30 Rock broke the mould for the way that comedy should be presented in sitcoms. At the time everybody was comparing us to Arrested Development when we first started, but I feel like 30 Rock took the Arrested Development model of comedy and perfected it. Arrested Development heavily relied on prior understanding of jokes in order to tell new jokes. 30 Rock was able to take that model of zany comedy but make it where you could jump into the middle of it and not have to understand what happened previously. Which is a model that exists today in certain television shows; so I feel like it was revolutionary in that regard.
30 Rock seemed to have an interesting, frustrated relationship with sketch comedy as a genre. Sketch comedy seems to have made a big resurgence in mainstream popularity more recently, are you a fan?
Personally, I’m a huge fan of sketch comedy. I think the sketch elements came through mostly because of the background of all the people who wrote for 30 Rock. Again, sketch comedy wasn’t popular at the time that 30 Rock came out, but it was able to bring sketch comedy into a new millennium. I definitely think that was why we get Inside Amy Schumer, and Key and Peele, and the new Saturday Night Live style is based upon the joke writing format that 30 Rock introduced.
Was it always going to be finishing when it did? Was it kind of deciding to pull the plug, or did the show just run its course do you think?
I think that Tina felt like she’d told all of the stories that she wanted to tell in that particular format. Frankly, I think it just got really hard on her. You can’t even imagine how tirelessly she worked on that show, barely getting any sleep and always juggling the three hats of producer, writer and actress. I think she was just getting tired and she wanted to see her family.
And what have you done since? You’ve made your own webseries, is that correct?
I did Newsroom and About a Boy. I loved both of those experiences. But right now I’m working on my webseries Keith Broke His Leg. It’s something that I’m really proud of. I wrote it all, I directed them all, I’m in them all. It’s about me breaking my leg on the surface, but really it’s about my own life after 30 Rock. After the show I got married, and I kind of had to relearn all the things that I feel like I learned in my life. That process was pretty much like the act of breaking a bone and healing into a new thing. So the breaking a leg is kind of a metaphor, but in the show I literally also have a broken leg. In short, it’s a show about me discovering myself after 30 Rock.
Oh! One more diehard 30 Rock fan question: I always loved the idea of a Toofer and Frank spin-off show, because the two of you were always so good together. Am I ever going to see that?
That would be an outstanding show. I love it! I love it – let’s pitch for it.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.