What Makes Alec Baldwin Funny on TV?

Illustration of Alec Baldwin, Robert Carlock and the “30 Rock” writers by Josh Gosfield

Alec Baldwin tells us how being funny on one of TV’s most celebrated shows, “30 Rock”—heading into Season 7—owes as much to humility as talent.

When we asked—okay begged—Alec Baldwin to talk to us about how to be funny on TV for our book, he hesitated, telling us, “You know, I’m not funny… it’s them.”

Them is “30 Rock”’s co-head writer and show runner Robert Carlock and the dozen or so geniuses, oddballs and misfits that make up their storied writer’s room. Including, of course, show creator and other co-head writer, Tina Fey. Baldwin wouldn’t hear of discussing how to be funny without one of them.

So in the midst of their harried writing/shooting schedule last spring, we got a twofer, Baldwin fresh from the set and Carlock, looking as if he hadn’t slept in days, for a discussion for our book on just how complicated—serendipitous, precise, demanding and rewarding—TV comedy, really good TV comedy, is.

Given Baldwin’s bombastic image as corporate overlord Jack Donaghy, his sometime mercurial off-screen persona, and the famous egocentric personae of mega-watt stars in general, what surprised us most was Baldwin’s humility. For those in power—and even for the rest of us mortals— it’s not always easy to be humble enough to admit that we depend on other people. But Baldwin, who fell over himself complimenting the show’s writing staff, described his relationship to the writers as,

“A singer/songwriter thing. I’m just getting up there saying the lines they write and giving them everything I got.”

Baldwin’s version of “giving them everything I got” is emphatically not to rework the writers’ words. Instead, envisioning himself as the singer to their lyricist, Baldwin defines his art, as finding all the rhythms of the script “to get the juice out of it”:

“I might choose a word to pop for emphasis. And then decide where to take a pause and why. Bada-boom bada-boom bada-boom. Stop. Emphasis. Feeling.”

Carlock, too, acknowledges their critical interdependence, adding,

“When you’ve got people like Alec Baldwin doing the acting, you can only blame yourself when it doesn’t work.”

Baldwin and Carlock’s ability to park their egos allows them to recognize it isn’t all about them, that others’ work is indispensable. This quality of humility reminded us of the findings of Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, and others who have examined the role humility plays in leadership. It was a quality that we found talking to many of the other superachievers we interviewed for our book. And whether in a high-pressure environment, a factional workplace or even just dealing with a difficult co-worker, we can all apply this quality of humility to our own vocational lives. Without it, we may consider contributions of others to be superfluous or even detrimental to our goals. The workplace becomes an incubator of infighting and inefficiency. After all how much of a success would “30 Rock” and Jack Donaghy be—with millions of viewers and piles of awards—if Baldwin had refused to give the writers’ lines “everything he got,” believing instead he could throw away the script and improve the show by improvising his own lines?

30 Rock Fact: “30 Rock” that was called “The funniest comedy of the past decade” by Newsweek, has garnered 90 Emmy nominations, resulting in 14 wins.

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