Jennifer Armstrong
September 07, 2007 AT 12:00 PM EDT

8:30-9:00PM· NBC· Returns October 4

Tina Fey is currently playing the least sexy game of tonsil hockey in human history. First of all, she’s alone. Secondly, she’s jabbing her tongue into the deep recesses of her own mouth — resulting in some awfully awkward facial expressions. ”I’m not sure how I’m gonna…” she mumbles. ”I’m not sure how I’m gonna get it to…” There’s a painful clacking noise, then a grimace before she finishes: ”…fall out.” Finally, the object in question — a fake tooth — tumbles out of her mouth onto the desk in front of her, proving the gag is possible. But once the cameras are rolling, the spit take of sorts doesn’t look promising. Over and over, she delivers the setup line like a trouper— ”At least I have my life together,” she snarks as her 30 Rock alter ego, harried sketch-comedy producer Liz Lemon, argues with slacker staffer Frank (Judah Friedlander). But the incisor will not heed her tongue’s forceful thrusts. One time it kinda works after some jiggling. Finally, she gives in, sticks her fingers in her mouth, and pulls the thing out.

Her costar is wowed by that particular take: ”It looks cool when you just go in and dig for it,” Friedlander says.

The stubborn tooth, of course, is a metaphor for Fey’s NBC comedy: No matter how hard it’s prodded?critical acclaim that translated into 10 Emmy nominations, headline-grabbing scandals involving costars Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan — it refuses to budge from the bottom of the ratings charts. (No joke: 137th place.) Fey is trying to keep the situation in perspective. ”We survived, and the fact that anyone saw it still seems miraculous,” she says. ”For me, it’s always like, Let’s see how long they’ll let us do these.”

But as Rock enters its second season, Fey and company are determined to keep it going as long as they can, no matter what it takes. ”I’m going door to door with DVDs,” Fey jokes. ”And I want Tracy Morgan to kiss every American woman who’s over 25 on the mouth. Then they would at least know they were in litigation with someone who’s on a television show.” Now, she’s totally kidding. We think.

Yes, the woman is desperate, and for good reason: Her years-in-the-making show, inspired by her own experiences as Saturday Night Live‘s first female head writer, should not, by many measures, have lasted beyond its first year. With the good news that it had snagged a spot on last season’s schedule came the bad — NBC had also picked up spotlight-hogging Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a golden-pedigreed drama from The West Wing‘s Aaron Sorkin that offered its own fictional peek at an SNL doppelgänger. Then the network asked Fey to replace her friend and SNL castmate Rachel Dratch — who costarred in the original pilot as Jenna, the star of 30 Rock‘s fictional series, The Girlie Show — with Ally McBeal’s Jane Krakowski. Worse still, once 30 Rock finally aired, it couldn’t get a ratings foothold; it ended the season with just 5.4 million viewers — in a valuable Thursday-night time slot no less — against competitors like Ugly Betty (11 million) and Survivor (15 million).

As if that weren’t enough, two of the ensemble’s biggest stars found themselves tending to personal PR nightmares: Morgan was arrested in November for drunk driving (he pleaded guilty and performed five days of community service); and Baldwin called his 11-year-old daughter a ”little pig” in a voice-mail that was leaked in April during an ongoing vicious custody battle. (Though the dustup happened after the show wrapped, Baldwin announced he had asked to be released from his NBC contract during an act of contrition on The View, but later said he’d honor it.) Baldwin declined to be interviewed for this story, but Morgan — as well as other cast members — felt that neither scandal affected the work, for one simple reason. ”I think it wasn’t too much of a distraction,” says Morgan, who plays volatile star Tracy Jordan, ”because it’s just such a funny show.”

Critics, as it turned out, agree. As the season wore on, they caught on that something truly special was happening?namely, a distinctive mix of sophisticated parody and utter lunacy, grounded by Fey’s levelheaded, modern-day Mary Tyler Moore. Magazines (including EW) put it on year-end best lists. Baldwin won Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards for his role as General Electric honcho Jack Donaghy. NBC, heady from the buzz, even granted an early pickup for the 2007 — 08 season. Then, over the summer, came the topper: Emmy noms all around, from theme music to lead actor and actress to Best Comedy. Though the self-effacing Fey refuses to be anything but cautiously optimistic: ”I have friends who worked at Arrested Development, and I know that [Emmy attention] doesn’t always help,” she sighs. ”I’ve also found a way to just translate that into even more pressure this year.”

Then she should definitely plug her ears to the lofty comparisons flowing freely from network executives’ mouths these days. ”Whether you look at The Office today or Seinfeld 15 years ago, the people who watch these shows are influencers and can get other people to watch them over time,” says new NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman, who stepped in himself to secure Jerry Seinfeld for a guest spot on this season’s premiere. ”I think we all agree that the raw materials are there.”

Chief among those is 30 Rock‘s ensemble: There’s Baldwin’s stoic slickness; Fey’s harried realism; Morgan’s manic energy; and Krakowski’s hilarious self-effacing portrayal of middling stardom. And if anyone can upstage all of the above, it’s breakout Jack McBrayer as deliriously naive Kenneth the Page. ”It was a real pleasure to introduce him to America,” says Fey, who plucked him from her own improv-comedy alma mater, Chicago’s Second City.

And still Fey and her slew of skilled players manage to leave plenty of hilarity to arguably TV’s most pedigreed guest stars, among them Emily Mortimer, Isabella Rossellini, Rip Torn, Wayne Brady, LL Cool J, Nathan Lane, Sean Hayes, and Elaine Stritch. ”The hardest acting I did last season was just trying to keep my cool,” McBrayer says, ”just trying to maintain composure around those people.”

Still, it couldn’t have been easy to get through some of the advanced-level absurdity that has peppered scripts. Fey and the writers took their lampoonery far beyond the gentle NBC-mocking of the pilot, putting Jack in a brief affair with Condoleezza Rice and poking fun at a wheelchair-bound, inbred Austrian aristocrat, played by Paul Reubens (exhibit A of the show’s increasing you-had-to-be-there quality). ”Tina nicknamed that episode ‘Goodbye, America’ because she thought it would never get on TV like that,” Krakowski recalls. ”I’m not sure how we’ve gotten away with some of this stuff without getting sued.”

Thankfully, this season promises to rival the last one in irreverence and randomness. Seinfeld arrives in the first episode (as himself) to settle a beef with Jack, and several previous standout guests are already slated to return (Will Arnett as Jack’s closeted rival exec, Dean Winters as Liz’s beeper-salesman ex, and Chris Parnell as Dr. Spaceman?pronounced spuh-CHEH-men, naturally). Liz will struggle with being single again after her breakup with Floyd (Jason Sudeikis). Tracy will try to win back his wife (”in a Kobe Bryant kind of way,” Fey says) after he’s caught by paparazzi with a transsexual prostitute. Jenna will battle weight issues (complete with fat suit for Krakowski) after spending her summer scarfing four slices a day on stage in Mystic Pizza: The Musical. And Kenneth may get a new love interest and appear in clothing other than his page uniform. But more than anything, expect the scripts and the cast to go for broke. ”I feel like either we’ll become a real TV show this year,” Fey says, ”or we’ll ride off into the sunset.”

True enough: With creative momentum, Emmy attention, and the network’s enthusiastic support behind it, now is definitely make-or-break time for 30 Rock. ”People want everything instant, but not everything can be instant,” Morgan philosophizes. ”It takes nine months to make a baby.” Can’t argue with that logic. Luckily, though, McBrayer has a solution in mind that doesn’t involve impregnation: ”I’m totally prepared to have a public scandal to get the name 30 Rock out there again,” he says. ”We talked about it, and I’m up next. I’m thinking something with the public transit system.” And even if that doesn’t boost ratings, it sounds like an episode waiting to happen.

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