Tina Fey: One Hot 'Mama'

Tina Fey, Alec Baldwin, ...
Image credit: Nicole Rivelli

One look at the dry-erase board in the 30 Rock writers' room, and it's clear that this is not a sitcom that goes for the easy gag. A sampling of potential story lines for flaky Girlie Show star Jenna (Krakowski) includes ''competes for role with mentally disabled woman,'' while unhinged comedian Tracy Jordan (Morgan) ''unwittingly does N. Korean propaganda film.'' As for Liz Lemon? Try ''chooses a sandwich over a guy'' and ''accidentally adopts 12-year-old Russian kid'' (we'll see the latter play out on 30 Rock this season). Fey frequently jokes about her show's tendency toward the esoteric — as when she describes an upcoming story line featuring a joint pornography venture between Tracy and Frank (Judah Friedlander) as having an ''Amadeus conceit. Because that's what America wants — they want to be reminded of a movie from 20 years ago.''

That doesn't mean Fey isn't feeling the pressure for 30 Rock — which currently ranks 106th in total viewers — to grow its audience. Even with the cushion of a full season 3 pickup, she knows that the quiet permanence she wants — both for 30 Rock and her own career — isn't going to come easily. ''If we were on HBO and had this same rating — but it was OK because we were on HBO — I would be completely fine with that,'' she says. ''[But] I feel like with network...you've gotta sell ads, you've gotta have a higher number.'' To that end, she and her writing team are focusing on the absurdist character comedy and satire 30 Rock does best. On the four episodes left this season, perennially single Liz Lemon has a pregnancy scare, Jack (Alec Baldwin) is coerced into a position in the Bush administration, while Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) may head to Beijing to help with NBC's broadcast of the Summer Olympics. ''I think the shows with longevity have characters that you care about,'' Fey continues. ''It doesn't mean you have to care about them in a sappy way. With Seinfeld, you cared about them because you saw an honest portrayal of your own pettiness and greed. People have to connect to it.''

Female viewers already have a strong connection to Liz Lemon, arguably the most realistic single career woman to appear on TV since Mary Tyler Moore tossed her pom-pom hat to the heavens. The comparison has been made countless times since 30 Rock debuted in 2006, and it's a connection Universal hopes will help lure sophisticated young women to the multiplexes on April 25. ''Tina really is the new woman who can have it all,'' says Langley. ''[On TV], she navigates a man's world but maintains her own sense of self, she never has to compromise her ideals to get what she wants — yet she's not manipulative or coquettish. In her personal life, she's married, she has a lovely baby, she was the first woman to be the head writer at SNL — she's crossed all these barriers and milestones as a woman, so it makes her a great role model.''

NEXT PAGE: ''Let's see how [Baby Mama] does. It would be nice if it made money, so we could do it again sometime.''