As 30 Rock wraps up its phenomenal 7 season run, I’ve been doing what most of us have been doing: crying with my clothes on in the shower. Oh, and remembering all my favorite lines from the show’s characters.
Here’s something to ponder while you reminisce: three of the show’s main characters–Tracy, Jenna, and Liz all seem to perfectly line up with Freud’s facets of the psyche–the id, ego, and superego.
Take Tracy for example. He’s the perfect encapsulation of the Id, what Freud described as “a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle.” In less fancy-pants terms, Tracy says and does whatever the heck he wants, and he refuses to censor himself. All of his actions–such as his love of strip clubs or his bizarre outbursts–all stem from him wanting to immediately satisfy any urge he might currently be having. Take one of my favorite exchanges between him and Jenna for example. After finally cracking a problem the duo was facing, Jenna enters his dressing room and says “Tracy, I’ve got it!” To which Tracy replies: “Give it back! It’s mine!” Of course, this is one of hundreds of quick jokes that 30 Rock packs into every episode, but what makes those jokes so hilarious is that they are true to the characters. Tracy has become so rich and famous that he is used to his every urge being satisfied immediately, so of course he is going to want whatever “it” he mistakenly thinks Jenna is talking about. Now that joke is completely unfunny now that I’ve tried to explain it. Sorry. But my point still stands. Tracy is all about satisfying his carnal desires.
Or what about Jenna? The “ego” seems to describe her to a T. The ego is all about balancing one’s desires (Id) with one’s morals and ideals (the Superego) in order to create the personality that is on display to others in our everyday actions. Freud kept changing around his definition throughout his lifetime, but ego has come to represent our sense of self. Freud observed a common phenomenon where the ego began put up defense mechanisms when a person’s desires did not match society’s standards. Don’t worry I’m getting to my point here. Take a look at a list of some of these defense mechanisms and tell me who you think they describe: Denial, displacement, intellectualisation, fantasy, compensation, projection, rationalization, reaction formation, regression, repression, and sublimation. (JENNA it’s Jenna, dummy).
Basically put, Jenna’s storylines within the show are almost exclusively related to when reality contradicts her extremely unrealistic sense of self. Take the scene in season 4’s “Black Light Attack” where Jenna is auditioning for Gossip Girl. She is humiliated when she realizes she has to play the role of a college girl’s mother who is dying of old age. She tries to compensate by acting youthful and wearing a shirt that says “barely legal.” Her ego is overcompensating to try and block out reality from messing up her skewed sense of self. Which is why that is funny. Ha, betcha didn’t know all these funny jokes you like have some solid psychology underneath them did ya?? Well they do! This is me compensating.
Which leaves the superego.This one’s pretty easy to sum up. The superego is our conscience. It’s the part of us that tries to do good things. It’s the part of us that strives for success. Liz Lemon’s personality lines up perfectly with these traits. But you might be thinking “but Liz Lemon is a hilarious character! What’s so funny about someone trying to succeed and do the right thing?” Well by itself, nothing. BUT, the humor in the show comes from when Liz’s environment prevents her from doing these things. She has good intentions, but the people around her and society in general often prevent her from following through with these intentions. Most of the time, the main source of her frustration is Jenna and Tracy. And the same thing is true inside your brain! The things preventing you, the reader, from doing what you think is right all day forever is either your carnal desires (Id/Tracy) taking over, or you’re afraid of how people/society will judge you (Ego/Jenna). There are probably other reasons, but you get my point. The episode “The Problem Solvers” illustrates this dynamic perfectly. Liz negotiating the contract for her “Dealbreakers” talk show. She is confident and collected at first. But when Jenna and Tracy approach her and give her advice on show business, suddenly her confidence is shaken, she is a mess, and things goes horribly. And I’m sure there are countless other examples of Tracy and Jenna using their Id and Ego powers to screw things up for Liz.
The other source of tension for Liz also comes from frustrations in society like Liz’s nemesis: a plastic bag, or from her boss, Jack. Both of which play similar roles. Jack–in relation to Liz–represents the cynicism of society. He frequently mocks Liz’s attempts at doing the right thing and attempts to push his viewpoint onto Liz’s more idealized attitude. All the other issues and people that cause Liz Lemon’s frustrations in the show represent the countless frustrating things in everyday life that prevent people from doing what their moral compass thinks is right.
This is what the inside of your brain looks like.
So what does this psychoanalytical approach to the show really teach us? First, it teaches us that comedy writing is all about strong characterization. Although 30 Rock always crammed so many perfect jokes into its 20 minute runtime, all of these jokes stemmed from the show’s strong grasp on its characters and their personalities. Going off of that, this reading of the show also shows how much humor can be taken from exaggeration of real life things. Sure there’s no one out there that is actually a walking Id like Tracy Jordan, but I’m sure we’ve all had moments where we’ve acted like him. 30 Rock’s writers have extrapolated on those moments where we let our Id take over for a second and we just do whatever the hell we want, and they created a character out of it. And same goes for Liz and Jenna. It’s the formula for comedy that goes back probably to when humans first realized that acting outrageous was funny: odd things about life we take for granted are made more extreme to highlight their ridiculousness. It’s like when cereal boxes have giant pictures of cereal and the box says “enlarged to show texture.” It’s like that. But with jokes about how plane food is weird.
If we want to get really psychoanalytical here, these characters also might reveal a lot about the person that created them: Tina Fey. The Id, the Ego, and the Superego are constantly having a battle in your brain, and whatever bloody pulp is left over after that battle is your personality.
You could argue that the “brain” in this scenario is the show of 30 Rock as a whole, but I think the real brain of interest here is Tina Fey’s. I think the characters of Liz, Tracy, and Jenna actually represent the facets of Tina Fey’s mind. Liz represents the career-minded side of Fey. She wants to have a balance between family, friends and work, but at the same time she wants to be successful. Which I’m sure is a thing Fey struggles with, as we all do. Whereas Tracy is the comedy side of Tina Fey that wants to just be goofy and say ridiculous shit to get a laugh. Jenna represents the performer side of Fey. The person that is constantly in the public eye. The one that wants to be liked and accepted by the public. And then maybe throw in a dash of Jack’s cynicism also. Maybe juust a pinch of Meatcat in there too.
Meatcat clearly represents Carl Jung’s Shadow archetype, which refers to our repressed animal urges.
[Insert radical guitar solo here]
Much like a Captain Planet or maybe to a lesser extent a Power Rangers Megazord, the principal characters of the show all combine to create the real, complex person of Tina Fey. Much like the Id, the Ego, and the Superego create our mind, or how a hot dog, jack cheese, and pizza create a delicious Cheesy Blaster.
To be perfectly honest, the main reason I’m writing this right now is to put off watching the finale of 30 Rock. I don’t want it to be over! I’ll miss you 30 Rock, but I am glad to see you go out on top as being one of the most consistently funny shows out there. Congratulations. I guess I’ll watch that episode now. Thanks for reading.
Goodbye you beautiful bastards.