Then came 30 Rock, an extraordinarily ambitious show that featured a character named “Toofer” on account of being black and a Harvard alum, an entire episode centered around Jenna Maroney’s horrifically misguided adventure in blackface, and the immortal Angie Jordan one-liner, “Did you just try to control my body with your white hand?” Like Kimmy Schmidt, 30 Rock flirted with the tightrope-thin line between depicting stereotypes and subverting them; the show’s only black lead may have been a childlike buffoon, but he was still shrewd enough to sarcastically thank Liz Lemon for solving apartheid with her collegiate hunger strike. Others can write entire essays about 30 Rock’s identity politics (and have), but the point here is that the show, and Fey’s comedy in general, defy easy categorization as simply racist or anti-racist. Fey regularly demonstrates awareness about whiteness and its perks, but to do so she gives herself license, as every satirist must, to play with some very subjective fire.
What’s frustrating to both Fey’s defenders and her critics is that her work passes the most basic test of jokes involving any kind of power imbalance. The intended object of ridicule is the newscaster who relegates “Hispanic Woman Also Found” to a subhead, or the passersby who treat a fake werewolf better than a real black man, or the girl who laughs at a friend named “Dong,” only to find out that her name also means penis — to use a handful of examples from Kimmy Schmidt. But this measure of jokes is the bare minimum for a reason; whether those jokes succeed at their objective is ultimately in the eye of the binge-watcher, reducing most debates about Kimmy Schmidt specifically or Fey’s approach in general to an unproductive shouting match faster than you can block someone on Twitter.
There are times when Fey undeniably misses the mark, as with this Bossypants quote that’s probably being used a negative example of intersectional feminism in a gender studies seminar as I type. They’re far outnumbered, however, by gags whose ultimate success relies on whether Fey’s bought enough goodwill with signs of self-awareness — “But he’s really good at math!”; “I don’t make the rules, Kimmy” — to convince the viewer that even non-meta stereotypes, like the lone Latina captive’s pre-cult life as a maid, are written with a greater goal in mind.
This approach to race also differs from other comedies with white creators and notably non-white casts. The most obvious contrast is with Parks and Recreation, a sitcom that went cheerily optimistic where 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt went wickedly pessimistic. At times, Parks seemed to exist in a post-racist utopia; its jokes about whiteness were often made in the abstract and not at its heroes’ expense. The exceptions, like Leslie tactlessly asking Tom Haverford where he’s really from, occurred early on, before the show developed into its defiantly sweet self. Fey’s comic universe, on the other hand, doubles down on real-world problems — which is arguably why people of color in 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt often hold menial jobs, like janitor Subhas or housekeeper Vera.
Tina Fey is a comedian who consistently jokes about race and racism, meaning she’s consistently asserting her right to make those jokes, even when they casually reinforce stereotypes. It’s an approach that’s simultaneously an improvement over the countless lily-white shows that pretend that people of color, and their problems, simply don’t exist; it’s also an approach fraught with its own set of issues. 30 Rock and Kimmy Schmidt’s satire shouldn’t be accepted at face value because Fey made the effort, nor can they be dismissed as the work of yet another white creator blind to her own privilege. They’re messy, complicated, and inevitably provocative — all the hallmarks of a lasting comic legacy, if not a clear-cut one.