Behind The Scenes At The Final Days Of "30 Rock"
Swordplay! Solemn introspection! Intense feelings for inanimate objects! Tom Ceraulo, writer for the beloved, imminently departing comedy, reflects on his time in the trenches.
I remember the moment when I realized exactly how lucky I was to work in the 30 Rock writers' room.
It was very late at night on Nov. 5, 2008 — late enough that it was already Nov. 6. I'd been a writers' assistant at the show since July, tasked with keeping track and making sense of the rapid-fire joke pitches flying around the room. The table read for the Valentine's Day episode was happening the next day, and we were hopelessly stuck on a crucial second-act scene in which Alec Baldwin's Jack Donaghy sees the face of Jesus in a bowl of soup.
Robert Carlock, Tina Fey's co-showrunner and the room's resident indispensible genius, was out sick with pneumonia. Tina, who'd joined us after a 14-hour day of shooting, was literally slapping herself to stay awake. Writer-producer Jack Burditt (astute 30 Rock viewers may know him from his appearances as The Colonel on the show, though they probably refer to his character as "White Bum"), who'd been running things while she was on set, insisted that she go home and sleep, but she refused. There had been and would be later nights, but few that seemed as dire as far as getting a script ready. The mood was grim, and if a similar thing were happening at any other job, I might have fantasized about jumping out a window —yet I still felt thrilled to be there. It was, without question, the most awesome horrible experience I could have imagined.
I had arrived at the show as a true believer. A Saturday Night Live nerd since age 10 — I'd learned about the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players the same week as the '86–'87 cast, and an astonishing number of my childhood drawings were of SNL logos — I'd also been a fan of Tina's since 1998, when I saw her do monologues at ASSSSCAT, the Upright Citizens Brigade's heralded long-form improv show. So when I was given a DVD of the 30 Rock pilot in the summer of 2006, I watched it immediately and was totally on board. "I want to work on that show," I said — aloud, to no one — as the disc ended.
At the time, working on the show didn't seem like it was in the cards. Working in television didn't seem like it was in the cards. I was just returning to the TV world at age 30 as a production assistant after a four-year period in which I pretended I was a singer-songwriter. Starting over as a PA often made me feel like Billy Madison returning to elementary school, and I wasn't sure I had it in me to tough it out. But within a year I found myself in the script department at Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and a year after that, I was hired by Tina and Robert. Just being able to tell them how much I loved the show, I recall, meant a lot to me. I was grateful that I'd persevered.
In a lot of ways, I experienced my first season at the show as a 30 Rock fan: taking everything in, being as delighted by pitches, outlines, scripts, and table reads as I had been by watching the show at home during the first two seasons. I hung on every word in the writers' room — which, when you consider that one of my duties was to take notes, was actually quite helpful. But it got to the point that I'd take notes on the comedy bits that would organically break out, unrelated to the show. I stopped doing this after Tina looked through a list of potential story ideas and discovered one I'd typed about a medical condition in which a patient has a small penis growing in his or her mouth that gets aroused by hunger. "Our writers' assistants may be a little too thorough," she laughed, and I was mortified — but as with everything that happened that year, still pretty thrilled.
While that level of enthusiasm returned at many points over the next few years, it became impossible to sustain. My love for the show could get lost in the task at hand — the long hours, the relentless schedule, the constant emails, the missed social gatherings, the restaurant selection. (We wrote and shot primarily at Silvercup Studios in Queens, and as such, we mostly ordered from one of four terrible places every day.) I rarely lost my sense of dedication — in fact, I may have been too dedicated — but I occasionally lost sight of why I was so loyal. At certain points, I may have even wished aloud for the last day to come. And when an end date was set, I may have even breathed a sigh of relief.
As that date approached, however — you may know where this is going, but it was a surprise to me, possibly because I'm an emotional moron — every ounce of my wide-eyed enthusiasm for 30 Rock came rushing back, and then some. I made it a point to take in as much as possible over the following few weeks, since it didn't — and doesn't — seem likely that I'd be part of such a thing again.
We wanted to do read-throughs for the final two episodes back-to-back, since they would air as an hour-long episode. The storylines weren't totally settled on until just before Thanksgiving, however, and the read was set for the Thursday after Thanksgiving. Over the holiday weekend, Robert and Jack Burditt wrote a draft of the first half hour as Tina and Tracey Wigfield wrote the second.
Once the writer or writers of an episode handed in their draft, the staff would read it and discuss it at length. Then the rewrite room would go through the script, scene by scene, tweaking it, beating jokes, and overhauling scenes as needed. We started rewriting part one of the hour-long finale on the Sunday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend. The writers' drafts were strong, but it's rough getting two 30 Rock scripts in shape under any circumstance, and doing it with the last two episodes of the series seemed daunting. Sure enough, though, the adrenaline kicked in, and by Tuesday it started to seem feasible.
On Wednesday night, Tina finished shooting and asked me to print out the existing version of Liz Lemon's final scene with Tracy, which includes a nod to the pilot episode. A short time later, she came back with handwritten changes, some really beautiful dialogue — touching, honest, and perhaps reflective of Tina and Tracy's actual relationship, yet still 30 Rock–funny. She then stayed in the room for the end of the rewrite and for the "ceremony" of checking the final scene number on the whiteboard. It was the first real instance of "this is the last time we'll do this," and though we weren't done until 1:30 a.m., I was a little sad when the night was over.
The last table read was a blur. One by one, people started breaking down, and I spent much of the read trying not to follow suit. I didn't cry, but came very close. I'm actually most surprised that John Lutz's performance didn't make me cry with laughter.
Before I left for the night, I flipped through Robert and Tina's table drafts, as I'd often do in order to be aware of things to remind Robert about during the next rewrite. (I remained in my writers' assistant chair even after I became an official member of the staff; I was a valuable asset to Robert there, and it allowed me to stay in the loop at all times, which pleased the 30 Rock historian in me.)
On the last page of Tina's script, the words "END OF SERIES" were circled, and "–30–," journalism jargon for "end of story," was written beneath them. I'd typed "END OF SERIES" into the script the night before without thinking much of it, but seeing it there alongside the show creator's handwriting was profoundly moving. I snapped a photo and put it up on Instagram.
Tina noticed it and emailed saying she was honored by the gesture. "You were meant to be trapped in that room with us," she wrote, and she was correct.
My duties in the writers' room limited the time I could spend on set, so once there were no more major rewrites to do, I made sure to spend as much time there as possible.
Legendary SNL writer Jim Downey appears in a two scenes in the first half hour of our finale, so of course I made it a point to hang out on set while he was shooting. He did not disappoint, telling Chris Farley stories, recounting sketches, doing bits, and making everyone laugh a lot.
At one point Jim and Alec Baldwin got to reminiscing about character actor Jay Robinson, who gave over-the-top performances as the lunatic emperor Caligula in '50s films The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators. They watched clips on YouTube, did impressions of the actor, and did an excellent job of convincing me that I needed to see The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators. Some days later, Jack Burditt and I were at SNL on show night and ran into Jim. His eyes lit up when he saw us, and he immediately announced that he'd written a Jay Robinson sketch. The 10-year-old SNL fanatic within me was delighted, and once more I stood in awe.
Because most of my time was spent in the writers' room, when I watch the show it's often impossible to separate what I'm seeing from my memory of it being written. I'll lament material that didn't make it past Standards and Practices, compare what made it on-screen to how it was conceived, and many times just recall the circumstances surrounding the writing of the episode being shown. The significance of these recollections ranges from "That was the day 'Sully' Sullenberger landed that plane in the Hudson" to "That was the day we ordered lunch from that horrible sub place Wigfield said was good," but the point is, even if I had been present when a scene was captured on film, my first thought is generally of its inception.
The last scene Alec Baldwin filmed as Jack Donaghy will likely prove to be an exception to this. It was shot by the water in lower Manhattan after sundown on Friday, Dec. 14. Much of the writing staff planned to head to set for the second half of what was sure to be a long night. The horrifying school shooting in Newtown took place that morning, however, and once I started seeing the unbearably upsetting reports, I decided to head downtown immediately and take solace in friends, 30 Rock, and anything but the news.
Being there was undoubtedly a tonic for the soul. It was a peaceful and beautiful location, as calm a night as you could hope for. Most the writing staff turned up, and we all had dinner together at P.J. Clarke's with Tina, Alec, and director Beth McCarthy-Miller.
As he had been throughout his final week, Alec was upbeat. He seemed, for the good of his performance, not to want to focus on the approaching milestone: "I'll see you at the wrap party," he said to more than one person that week, as if to say, "Let's not get emotional, we haven't reached the end yet." This strategy certainly worked for him, but it was hard to forget why we all gathered on location that night, especially with Lorne Michaels gracing the set as our 3 a.m. wrap approached.
While it was unfortunate that Alec wasn't able to be at Silvercup on the very last day of production the following week, the scheduling provided us with one more grand occasion to spend together, bidding farewell to Jack Donaghy. I'm fairly certain that decades from now, I'll see the completed scene and think of being there. Then of course I'll catch myself getting lost in the memory and instantly get pissed that I have to rewind my iZorp to the start of the scene.
A sword lived in our writers' room for over a year. I believe it was part of a George R. R. Martin costume that was given to co-executive producer Matt Hubbard. When it was new, Robert would strap the sword behind his back in its scabbard and pretend he was an incompetent Conan the Barbarian, incapable of reaching the weapon to unsheathe it but determined to try just the same: "Hang on, I've got it... Just a sec... I'll get it... Hang on..." It was delightfully dumb.
A portion of the staff was gathering in the writers' room in the morning of the last day of filming. Prior to sitting at the table, Robert picked up the sword for the first time in a long while. I thought he might go into the Conan bit, but instead he lightly jabbed at the giant exercise ball we kept (yet rarely used for exercise) for as long as I'd been at the show. It immediately started to deflate as semi-sad laughter filled the room.
Throughout the final season, producer Eric Gurian had been conducting interviews with cast and crew for a series of web shorts looking back on 30 Rock's run. I kept giving him a hard time, claiming I had more important things to do than be interviewed; I thought of it as being like Neil Young refusing to be filmed at Woodstock, but it was probably more like Bill Belichick being a dick at a press conference. It may also have been an indication I was on some level trying to put the end of the show out of my mind.
Luckily, Gurian conducted some more interviews in the last two weeks of production, when I was mentally ready to nut up and do one. He asked about jokes I loved that hadn't made it to air, my favorite episodes, and memorable moments. The fact that I failed to bring up "Kidney Now" (the episode in which Jack Donaghy enlists the help of a small army of amazing recording artists, all of whom came to Silvercup to shoot, in order to find his father a kidney donor) is criminal.
And while I did note our two live episodes, which allowed me to realize a dream of working on live TV in SNL's studio, a number of mind-blowing moments from those didn't come to mind: sitting with Robert and Tina as they wrote Leo Spaceman material for Season 5's live broadcast; marveling at Lorne Michaels' calm as he gave notes on dress rehearsal a half hour before we were to air on prime time; and watching the East Coast broadcast of this past April's live episode so close to Paul McCartney that it would be more accurate to say that I was watching Paul McCartney watch the East Coast broadcast of April's live episode. But the experience of working on the show was as packed with highlights as the episodes were packed with jokes, so I was bound to overlook things.
But his final question — "What will you miss the most about working at 30 Rock?" — only had one answer. "The people."
Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer were all interviewed by Eric on that last day. Tracy was heartbreakingly funny, singing "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday" from the Cooley High soundtrack (as he would do on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on Jan. 10), referring to Robert Carlock as "Coca-Cola" (according to Robert it began in their SNL days as the much more gettable "RC Cola"), and being overcome with emotion when asked about Tina. Jane provided a flood of memories; every time she'd mention an episode or scene, she'd think of another that topped it, then another. McBrayer, who'd wrapped the day before, spoke fondly of his Chicago bond with Tina and recalled meeting Elaine Stritch for the first time — and having her treat him like a page.
Around 7:30 that night, the writing staff joined a large gathering of cast and crew in Liz Lemon's apartment to watch Tina's last shot. It was a quick pop of Liz walking on her treadmill, and it took no time at all. When it was over, Tina stood on Liz's living room steps.
"A lot of times in interviews people will say to me, 'How are you different than Liz Lemon?'" she said to the gathered crew. "I can't believe I didn't think of this answer until tonight, but the way that I'm different from Liz Lemon is the TGS crew are a bunch of jerks who don't help her ... They don't care. And in real life, nothing could be farther from the truth."
As the applause died down, I glanced on a shelf and noticed a prop DVD case for the fake film Camp of Approval. I instantly remembered our former colleague Donald Glover pitching that title in season three (it appears in "Gavin Volure," the episode that costarred Steve Martin). I laughed aloud and emailed Donald, who wrote back recalling how proud he'd been of the pitch.
I recall the rest of the evening in flashes: an inconsolable Tracy Morgan at craft services, talking about how much he'd miss the coffee machine; getting choked up upon seeing The Girlie Show sign leaning against the wall on the Stage 2 floor; Tracy singing and dancing to Michael Jackson on Stage 1 with most cast and crew on hand; and at the end of the night, drinking bourbon with the staff in the writers' office while listening to a mix of songs Jeff Richmond (30 Rock executive producer as well as Tina's husband) had composed for the show.
Throughout the final season, I kept referring to the day upon which I would destroy the projector in the writers' room. I sat next to that machine for several years — typing into the script as it was projected on the wall, making adjustments when the image was blurry or distorted, and having to block it while checking my email so the room couldn't see my inbox — so I felt that a catharsis was in order. The staff agreed, and there were debates on how the destruction would come to pass. I initially wanted to heave it off the roof, old-school Letterman-style. Then I became enamored with the idea of hitting it with a sledgehammer. Doing one and then the other was discussed. And no matter what, we were going to film it and it was going to be satisfying.
But on the day, I couldn't do it. I didn't have the heart. As with everything else surrounding the show, I'd come around on the projector. After all, it survived 30 Rock, just as I had, and whatever it represented to me when I was fantasizing about its destruction now I could only associate with the total experience of working on the show. So I pardoned it.
As we were getting ready to leave Silvercup for good, Jack Burditt suggested to me that, as the person who spent the most time with it and spared its life, I was responsible for the projector. I hesitated, then shrugged, disconnected it, and put it in a giant Hefty bag along with everything that remained in my office. I'm planning on using it to screen episodes on my wall, but it also may come in handy if money gets tight and I resort to staging raves in my apartment.
I'm generally quick to beat myself up, but looking back on my 30 Rock experience now, I wish that I'd been more consistently cognizant of the finite nature of the experience. It's too easy to take things for granted, especially when the production calendar is so punishing. But I'm grateful to have gotten a chance to have realized that before it ended, and to have said a proper good-bye to a show that I wanted to be a part of from the start.
"I hope you're so proud of the work that we did," Tina told the crew during her emotional speech in Liz's apartment. "'Cause a lot of shows work long hours, but we worked hard during those long hours, and what we made was really good. And it's gonna stand the test of time. And you will all be home now to watch it [in syndication] on Fox."
The hour-long 30 Rock finale airs Thursday, Jan. 31, at 8 p.m. on NBC. Tom (@tceraulo on Twitter and Instagram) urges viewers to make sure they catch the very end of the show. Since tags often get cut off by DVRs, extend your recording — or maybe even go home and watch the show like a 20th century American!