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«30 ROCK AND PHILOSOPHY The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series Series Editor: William Irwin X-Men and Philosophy South Park and Philosophy ...»

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The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series

Series Editor: William Irwin

X-Men and Philosophy

South Park and Philosophy

Edited by Rebecca Housel and

Edited by Robert Arp

J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Metallica and Philosophy

Terminator and Philosophy

Edited by William Irwin

Edited by Richard Brown and

Family Guy and Philosophy Kevin Decker

Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski

Heroes and Philosophy

The Daily Show and Philosophy Edited by David Kyle Johnson Edited by Jason Holt Twilight and Philosophy Lost and Philosophy Edited by Rebecca Housel and Edited by Sharon Kaye J. Jeremy Wisnewski 24 and Philosophy Final Fantasy and Philosophy Edited by Richard Davis, Jennifer Edited by Jason P. Blahuta and Hart Weed, and Ronald Weed Michel S. Beaulieu Battlestar Galactica and Iron Man and Philosophy Philosophy Edited by Mark D. White Edited by Jason T. Eberl Alice in Wonderland and The Office and Philosophy Philosophy Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski Edited by Richard Brian Davis Batman and Philosophy True Blood and Philosophy Edited by Mark D. White and Edited by George Dunn and Robert Arp Rebecca Housel House and Philosophy Mad Men and Philosophy Edited by Henry Jacoby Edited by Rod Carveth and James South Watchman and Philosophy Edited by Mark D. White 30 ROCK AND PHILOSOPHY


Edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

To pages everywhere...

Copyright © 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey Published simultaneously in Canada No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, scanning, or otherwise, except as permitted under Section 107 or 108 of the 1976 United States Copyright Act, without either the prior written permission of the Publisher, or authorization through payment of the appropriate per-copy fee to the Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, MA 01923, (978) 750-8400, fax (978) 646-8600, or on the web at www.copyright.com. Requests to the Publisher for permission should be addressed to the Permissions Department, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 111 River Street, Hoboken, NJ 07030, (201) 748–6011, fax (201) 748–6008, or online at http://www.wiley.com/go/permissions.

Limit of Liability/Disclaimer of Warranty: While the publisher and the author have used their best efforts in preparing this book, they make no representations or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the contents of this book and specifically disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for a particular purpose. No warranty may be created or extended by sales representatives or written sales materials. The advice and strategies contained herein may not be suitable for your situation. You should consult with a professional where appropriate. Neither the publisher nor the author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other commercial damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential, or other damages.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data:

30 Rock and philosophy : we want to go to there / edited by J. Jeremy Wisnewski.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-470-57558-1 (pbk.)

1. 30 Rock (Television program) I. Wisnewski, Jeremy.

PN1992.77.A216A15 2010 791.45'72—dc22

–  –  –

Television saves lives. It jumps into the lake to rescue small children, it lands aircraft in danger of crashing, it prevents natural disasters.

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But I want to thank television nonetheless. While it hasn’t ended war or famine, it has provided a constant source of entertainment, and a constant occasion to bring philosophy to bear on everyday life. And for that, I can’t help but be grateful.

I’m also grateful to all those folks who helped make this book possible. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with contributors who didn’t require all of the coddling that the cast of TGS with Tracy Jordan needs. Thanks for getting us there, everybody! I’m also grateful to Connie Santisteban and Bill Irwin—editors who make working on topics in philosophy and pop culture as fun as it should be. Justine Gray, Nicolas Michaud, and Jackie Seamon also deserve thanks for offering feedback on the manuscript, helping open Frank’s Hat Store (see Appendix 1), and collecting the wisdom of Kenneth Ellen Parcell (see Appendix 2).

Finally, I’d like to thank my wife, Dorothy Wisnewski, for the support that makes it possible for me to do everything I do.

I’d also like to thank my children, Audrey and Lucian, for being as wonderful as they are.



Platonic Fantasies and Tina Fey-losophy I enjoy fantasies. Not the kind you see in movies, or read about in books—the kind in my head. Since 30 Rock debuted, I’ve found myself fantasizing about who the writers on the show might be. Would Plato fit in among the crowd, or Aristotle?

Would Tina Fey hold her own, third-wave feminist style, against Socrates?

Aside from the small matter of being 2,400 years in the past, I can easily imagine Plato at the writers’ table, lizzing away with Tina Fey as they talk through the latest script. Plato was a notorious jokester. His dialogues include jokes about selfimportance (Tracy and Jenna, anyone?), jokes about incompetence (Tracy and Jenna again? Devon Banks? Kathy Geiss?), and jokes about sex (have you seen the show!?).1 I think he’d fit right in, at least once he learned English. I can even picture his hat: Socrates Rules.

Does it seem like a bit much? Is it surprising that television can be a source for philosophical reflection? Can “real” philosophy be done in conjunction with something popular, like 30 Rock? In asking these questions, we’d do well to remember that Plato said truth could not be written, and that he himself 2 I NTR OD U CTI ON had never written down his own philosophical teachings.2 (I’m pretty sure Tina Fey said the same thing in some interview somewhere.) In this respect, all of Plato’s dialogues can be regarded as popular writings encouraging people to come to Plato’s Academy and to engage in living philosophical dialogue.

The written dialogues are meant to begin the philosophical journey, not to end it. They are meant to inspire philosophical dialogue, not to replace it. This is exactly how I think of 30 Rock, and exactly what brings me back week after week.

When I think of philosophy and 30 Rock, I like to imagine Plato as a television writer. Plato used a popular medium of his time, the dialogue, to get people to philosophize. And I bet he would have opted for television if he lived in this century. Yes, Plato criticized imitation. Television is of course imitation— and 30 Rock especially so—it’s a show that imitates a show. Of course, Plato’s criticism of imitation occurs in a speech given by Socrates. The speech recounts a fictional dialogue.3 Plato was certainly aware that a speech about a dialogue was only an imitation of a dialogue, much as Tina Fey is aware that TGS isn’t a real show. One can’t help but imagine Plato smiling about what he’d done. If he were a television writer, we’d expect no less: he would surely criticize the crap that’s on television in whatever show he was writing.

And yes, I like to think of Tina Fey and the writers of 30 Rock as a collective modern-day Plato (I said I enjoyed fantasy!).

They put in just enough shenanigans (to use a little Irish slang) to keep viewers entranced. What does it mean to be black or white? What does it mean to live the good life? Should moral rules always be followed? Can Frank really be gay for just one guy? What is the nature of friendship? How can we know anything at all about the world? These questions arise on the set of TGS—and they persist.

Kenneth says he loves two things: everybody and television.

While I can’t honestly say I love everyone, I concur wholeheartedly with Kenneth on television. It is a glorious invention,


and a remarkable source of wonder. Where else can we view worlds that do not exist, full of quirky characters, doing endlessly amusing things? Where else can we find Tracy Jordon calling Colorado a “white myth,” Jack Donaghy admitting that he has a cookie jar collection, and Liz Lemon flashing a breast?

And when we get to a television show about a television show, well, that’s nearly too good to be true.

Aristotle claimed that philosophy begins in wonder, so it’s no surprise that philosophy can arise from watching television— especially when the show is about television, and full of some of the silliest stuff imaginable. Wonder is one of the benefits of watching 30 Rock, and philosophy can’t help but be there too, bubbling up and spilling over everything.


1. Many of Plato’s early dialogues poke fun at both incompetence and self-importance.

“Euthyphro,” for example, is about a fellow who thinks he knows what morality is, and even claims to be able to see the future. Of course, the future he sees involves Socrates being acquitted at his trial—which obviously is not what happens (Socrates is sentenced to death). The name “Euthyphro” itself can be roughly translated as “straight-thinker”— an obvious snicker at this arrogant SOB. In The Republic, as elsewhere, Plato makes his fair share of sex jokes—not the least of which is about women training in the nude, riding “studs” just like men (and yes, all the sexual connotations are there in the Greek, too).

2. See “Phaedrus” and Plato’s Seventh Letter. For a wonderful defense of this view of Plato’s writings, see James Arieti’s Interpreting Plato: The Dialogues as Drama (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1991).

3. The text is The Republic. It begins with Socrates recalling a conversation. We have no idea who he’s talking to—he just jumps right in. This makes the book already an imitation of dialogue, since Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) is the only speaker in the whole of The Republic (when he reports what others say, after all, it’s still him doing the talking).

A second layer of imitation is present in the very fact that the reported dialogue is written, rather than spoken. In this sense, The Republic is twice removed from actual dialogue:

it is a written, and hence doesn’t have the give-and-take of dialogue, and it’s presented in a speech by Socrates (so there’s only one person talking). Plato knew what he was doing—namely, messing with his readers!


–  –  –

Kenneth makes my heart skip. It isn’t his dashing good looks or his wonderful sense of style. It isn’t just the endearing fact that his middle name is Ellen. Honestly, it’s the simplicity of his moral vision. He just sees the world in a way that I can’t even imagine. It’s an enchanted world, where right and wrong are as plain as the pee and laughter combination we call lizzing.

I have the same question Jack Donaghy has.

Jack: Kenneth, I wonder what it’s like seeing the world through your eyes?

Kenneth: I don’t know, Mr. Donaghy. Well, I think I see the world pretty much the same as everyone else.

Jack: Really? [music starts, Jack continues, singing] ’Cause I think you’re very special, Kenneth [ Jack is now seen through Kenneth’s eyes, as a puppet.], to be able to get so much joy from simple things, simple things....

8 P. S U E D O H N I M M

Jack [talking again, and human]: But most of us grow up and lose our sense of wonder. [“Apollo, Apollo”] Kenneth sees things uniquely. He is literal-minded. When Jack says, “Now look at me,” after talking about some of the things he went through as a child, Kenneth simply says, “I already did” (“Apollo, Apollo”). Kenneth is thrilled with a key-chain he got on his last birthday, joyous because “every time you move his head, his head moves! Look!” The disenchanted world is complicated. The decisions we have to make can make us unsure of ourselves. We face challenges of all kinds. We’re befuddled by moral dilemmas in which we have to make difficult choices. Do we let Jenna fall as she plays Peter Pan in order to get back at her for sleeping with Dennis? Do we let Frank go to law school given his family history? Do we call the ambulance right away when we hit Mom with the car? Kenneth doesn’t seem to be bothered by such dilemmas. He sees the world with absolute clarity.

There’s only right and wrong.

Kenneth’s Moral Universe Jack sees the world in terms of dollar signs. Tracy sees the world egocentrically—everyone is just another Tracy Jordan, having no interests other than Tracy’s.

Kenneth lives in a different world. His moral universe involves following a moral code no matter how difficult it is.

It’s a world where lying is wrong, where one must never steal, and where doing good for others is paramount. Kenneth’s good deeds are all over 30 Rock. Whether he’s accompanying Liz Lemon to recover her phone from an unscrupulous cabby, or swearing his undying love for television, Kenneth seems to emit moral virtue like it’s going out of style (and maybe it is).

When Tracy disappears to save himself from the wrath of the Black Crusaders, Kenneth knows his whereabouts, but refuses to break his vow to Tracy (“Hiatus”). Liz and Jack yell at him,


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