First, the bad news: tonight’s episode of 30 Rock is a rerun. The good news came earlier this week, on Tom Hanks’s Twitter feed: “RadioMan delivers msg from T.Fey. Result? I’m on 30 Rock! Thanks, RMan Hanx.” Translation: “RadioMan” is Craig Castaldo, a homeless man who frequently pops up in New York-filmed TV shows and films, and is often found outside of David Letterman’s studio. Fey posed for a picture with Castaldo last week, and he apparently somehow brokered the deal for Hanks to make a 30 Rock guest appearance.
30 Rock fans often split on the show’s frequent use of guest stars; some say they’re too reliant on them, while others insist that Fey and her writing staff often find ingenious ways for celebrities to send up their own images or bring their comedic gifts to off-the-wall characters. We lean towards the latter point-of-view (with occasional exceptions — even we weren’t nuts about Jennifer Aniston’s episode). So with an eye on the upcoming Tom Hanks cameo, we took a look back at some of our favorite 30 Rock guest appearances. In the interest of brevity, we restricted ourselves to folks who only appeared once, so you’ll not find recurring favorites like Will Arnett’s Devon Banks, Jon Hamm’s Dr. Drew Baird, or Isabella Rosellini’s Biana Donaghy (“You know I love my big beef ‘n’ cheddar!”). Check out our picks after the jump, and add your favorites in the comments.
TV nerds across the country geeked out during last week’s episode, “Plan B,” when West Wing scribe Aaron Sorkin popped up, sitting in a waiting room with our heroine, both apparently vying for a writing job on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Fey and Sorkin have a bit of a history: 30 Rock premiered the same fall as his Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, another (albeit more dramatic) series set behind the scenes at a late-night sketch comedy show. Thanks to Studio 60‘s stellar cast and Sorkin’s peerless pedigree, 30 Rock was expected to quickly wither away. Instead, the former’s mixed reviews and low ratings made it a one-season wonder. That minor rivalry pops up in their dialogue (when Sorkin rattles off his list of credits, Liz offers up Studio 60, to which Sorkin snaps, “Shut up!”), which is conducted in a hilarious Sorkin-style “walk and talk,” complete with an extra handing Sorkin an unexplained sheet of paper.
Winfrey played herself in the second episode of 30 Rock‘s third season, “Believe in the Stars.” Liz is flying home from Chicago (where she is still registered to vote, and has to fly back periodically to get out of jury duty — which she does, in one of the show’s best throwaway moments) and takes a powerful sedative given to her by Jack. But she finds herself seated next to Winfrey and immediately unleashes her darkest secrets (“I saw the show about following your fear and it inspired me to wear shorts to work. It didn’t go great!”). Winfrey proves game, sending up her yearly “favorite things” (which here include calypso music, sweater capes, and high-heeled flip-flops) and tendency to yell-sing her guests’ names. But the episode’s smartest twist comes later, when “Oprah” shows up at 30 Rock to help Liz broker peace between Tracy and Jenna.
Fey and Kay Cannon penned one of the first season’s funniest (and, without peer, strangest) episodes, “Black Tie,” which featured Reubens — better known as his alter ego, Pee-wee Herman — as Prince Gerhardt Hapsburg. The prince, a wheelchair-bound weakling with a plastic hand and numerous other maladies (the result of “centuries of inbreeding”), is having a black-tie birthday party, which Jack has brought Liz to. There, she runs into Jenna, who has an eye on Prince Gerhardt (well, on his money and power). Fey wrote the role for Reubens, who invests it with all the gonzo enthusiasm he can muster.
Martin and Fey worked together on the 2008 film Baby Mama, so his appearance on the season three episode “Gavin Volure” was less than surprising. He played the title character, an outrageously rich agoraphobe who is smitten with Liz at a dinner party. He invites her to spend the weekend at his home, confessing that he can’t be intimate with women due to his many phobias. Liz, of course, sees this as a plus — until she finds out the real reason that he can’t leave his house. Martin and Fey are terrific together; they’ve got the timing and chemistry of a screwball comedy team, resulting in a delightfully silly episode.
Mr. Franco may very well be wearing out his welcome these days, but his season four appearance in the episode “Klaus and Greta” was a truly inspired satire of his rather ridiculous persona. Playing himself, Franco engages in a business deal with Jenna to concoct a fake relationship, in order to counteract the rumors about his real relationship — with a full-sized body pillow, emblazoned with a Japanese anime character. Franco plays the pompous actor to a tee (“This movie will never be released because my performance will be deemed ‘too provocative’ for America”), and the episode’s final twist (a rare peek at Liz’s sexy side) is priceless.
One of the many pleasures of 30 Rock‘s meta-setting at the real NBC is its handling of the network’s annual week of environmental-themed programming (aka “Green Week” or “Earth Week” or “Green is Universal” or whatever they’re calling it this time). In the season two episode “Greenzo,” Schwimmer guests as Jared, an actor hired to play the title character, NBC’s new environmental mascot. Schwimmer’s work as Ross on Friends was always most interesting when he was willing to be less than likable. He’s negotiating that line here as well, turning Jared/Greenzo into something of a pompous jackass, while also spouting some fairly dead-on criticism of a huge corporation making like they’re environmentally friendly.
Shark-watchers were more than a little worried when NBC announced that 30 Rock would do a live episode in its fifth season; it’s the kind of gimmicky stunt that usually signals a show’s creative dead end. Instead, the wonderfully self-aware episode ended up being one of the show’s most inspired. Many wondered how one of the show’s signature gags —the quick cutaway/flashback to Liz having an awkward moment, telling a bad joke, failing at something — would work in a live format, since they couldn’t very well “cut away” to Fey. The solution was genius: they hired Julia Louis-Dreyfus to play “flashback Liz.” After her first appearance, Jack asks Liz, “Why are you better looking in your memory?” Her reply: “My memory has Seinfeld money.”
The season five episode “Operation Righteous Cowboy Lightning” centered on Jack’s scheme to pre-tape a celebrity disaster relief telethon, which would allow NBC to rush it onto air and grab huge ratings. The feather in his celeb cap is DeNiro, over whom he holds an embarrassing piece of information; he’s able to sit the Oscar winner down to tape a variety of potential disaster messages (“When the birds first started attacking us, we all thought it was pretty funny and made Hitchcock jokes. But we’re not laughing now, because our laughter excites the birds sexually”). The appearance was unexpected and hilarious — there’s more laughs in this one minute of 30 Rock than in all 98 of Little Fockers.
Fisher played legendary comedy writer Rosemary Howard on the second season episode “Rosemary’s Baby.” The first female writer for Laugh-In (and writer of “all the political stuff on Donnie and Marie”), she’s Liz’s girlhood idol, so Liz brings her on as a guest writer for The Girlie Show. But when her subversive pitches are vetoed by Jack, he tells Liz to fire her; Liz refuses, so she gets the boot as well — and gets a peek at Rosemary’s life, a future she finds absolutely terrifying. Fisher is brilliantly funny in the episode (anyone who saw her one-woman show Wishful Drinking knows that much), and not just with the punch lines, but in how she slowly, subtly reveals just how crazy Rosemary has become.
Okay, we cheated. The NBC Nightly News anchor has appeared on 30 Rock five times over the last three seasons, but his cameos are too funny to exclude — whether he’s receiving Tracy Jordan’s late-night booty calls, auditioning for a spot on The Girlie Show, or dropping into the CNBC newsroom (above). As you may have already gleaned from his appearances on The Daily Show, Williams is easily the most delightfully game newsman in the business.
Agree? Disagree? And who would you like to see turn up next on 30 Rock?