the Jenna Maroney of 30 Rock, played by Jane Krakowski, is the epitome of narcissistic actress wrapped up in the defense mechanisms that protect and produce her core of insecurity, driving her towards some of the show’s most ridiculous actions and best comedic moments. It is no secret that Jenna is the reason I’ve watch all of 30 Rock – I think it’s brilliantly performed and the fact that Jenna is written as a very real artificial character, constantly walking the line between shallow and depth, that tickles my fancy. In Season 7, she proudly declares "My whole life is thunder!" and nothing could be more spot on in describing the depth but lack of content of Jenna Maroney. (Thunder has no presence, but does indicate the distance of an object to the lighting event). This aural signifier foreshadows Jenna’s final song, “Rural Juror,” and Jenna's character as sound and fury, signifying nothing yet everything all at once.
For those who don’t know the show, in the first season Jenna stars in “The Rural Juror” – an indie film with a comincally unpronounceable name (go ahead, say it out loud). Jenna’s excitement over being a film overshadows any concern over its quality – and the rest of the cast cannot even understand the title of the film to be able to comment on it. The fictional film is a running gag that comes up throughout the rest of 30 Rock, oftentimes when you least expect it. It reemerges one last time during the last episode, “Last Lunch.” This time, we finally get to hear the theme song from the film. The song is the emotional farewell of the both TGS and 30 Rock, bookending Liz and Jack’s arc-conclusion as Jack goes off to find himself, only to return less than a minute later with an idea for clear washing machines. It also happens to cross market Jenna's previous film career, certainly an aspect to Jenna's decision.
Playing off of the initial gag, the lyrics to “Rural Juror” are an exercise in mumbling melody. It sounds as though Jane is stumbling through the lyrics, though in reality she is doing a delicate job in enunciating every syllable without overdoing it.
The Irma Luhrman-Merman murder
Thusfar, I’ve just described everything for you – mainly because I don’t expect everyone to have seen every TV show. (In fact, that’s pretty impossible.) This moment in the show, however, serves such a structurally important moment (the writers knew it was the last episode, and it’s about a last episode) that it’s hard to ignore its final turn into music (and Jenna admitting her next career move will be going back to Broadway) and what it might have to say about the role of music in the show and in how people relate(d) to 30 Rock. A turn towards a musical performance isn’t uncommon for 30 Rock – the series is about performance because it’s literally a backstage television series – so many performances have been a part of storyline.
What’s curious is the emotional connection that the song has generated among fans. On a surface level, the song is a conclusion of a running gag with mumbles for lyrics. Jenna’s character arc is that she’s never arc-ed, she’s remained as wrapped in her self as ever (demonstrated in her marriage where her husband takes her first and last name). Her career choices have remained the same – she starts off Season 1 starring in the film and ends Season 7 by doing the musical version of the film. So it’s one more comedy jab to conclude the series’ metanarrative about the status of actors and entertainment. Yay!
The song itself borrows pretty heavily on emotional cues and easily explained that way. A solo piano introduction and a strong, supportive string section evokes images of the expressive and the epic by alluding to a more classical aesthetic (compared to Jenna’s other hit – “Muffin Top” – which begins with this aesthetic and then turns into a dance beat). The song even ramps up the emotion with a modulation as we come back from Jack & Liz’s scene – along with a repetitive chorus giving Jenna/Jane more opportunity to emote.
The song’s lyrics start of undecipherable, but as the chorus begins we have the first phrase that isn’t part of the same phonetic semblance as ‘rural juror’ – “I will never forget you, rural juror.” If my phonetics is up to par, which it’s not, I’d be able to say exactly what changes – but with “I” the lyrics suddenly embrace an open vowel sound. Previous opportunities for a more nasal sound are overlooked to keep the flow of the music as well as, probably, the joke that nothing is understandable. “turgid error” is a good example – the “-id” and “er-“ of these words could easily have, with a different accent, a more nasal and pronounced sound, but because of the rhythm of delivery, these vowels are hidden and deemphasized. Jane’s singing of “error” seems to emphasize “-ror” to an almost rounded “ahh” sound. So, lyrically, the song switches gears to a more pronounced vowel and the longest note value thusfar: “I----- will never forget you, rural juror.” The sentiment cannot help but be interpreted as Jenna/Jane/writers of 30 Rock expressing their sadness over the show’s end.
The ending really gets me. The song’s ‘joke’ is that the lyrics cannot be understood well, yet are perfectly sensible English lyrics – the chorus suddenly becomes clear and latches onto the many layers of narrative and diegesis occurring between the show-within-a-show and 30 Rock itself – and the song ends with “These were the best days of my ... flerm.” As if to undermine the whole premise of the joke, the last word – which we might expect to be “life” – chooses to embrace a proper rhyme rather than be an actual word. The song (perhaps a nod to how awful the writers of “Rural Juror” were) fails to end with any sort of meaningful message. It’s as if the joke itself was crushed under its own weight.
Normally, this might be disappointing. A great running gag gets mishandled and all of a sudden the artificiality of the gag becomes center-stage, leaving the joke impotent of the magic that running gags need to inspire laughter repetitively over time. But here, I think the last word just shines a beacon of light over the series. A television show with a lot of quirky moments, it also embraced a very eclectic lexicon of bleargs, jags, narfs, and others. Ending with flerm has been prepared by the other weird sounds the characters have uttered. But in all those past instances, they were emotional expressions said in disgust or exasperation. Here is a nonsense word as a song lyric - perhaps a conflation of expression taking over the linguistic in some kind of utopian moment of pre-linguistic authentic communication. (Whoa, I've been reading too much about the evolution of language today).
My first response to this ending was that Jenna, after getting through the song, messes up the last line and reveals the imperfection in her performance (the paradox of her character is that she’s insecure yet thinks she’s the best performer, yet is actually routinely cast as less-than in roles). By ending on a mistake, the show pokes fun at itself through Jenna Maroney – perhaps reminding themselves that now that they’re all big-shot Emmy winners, they are still fallible human beings.
But, my more fanciful philosophical side sees this as a perfect moment where 30 Rock inverts on itself. The ‘rural juror’ joke is a great running gag and is pretty shallow in terms of depth of meaning. "It’s hard to understand! Get it?!" Yet, the show was filled with running gags. I might even say that the show fits the classic sitcom format and structure pretty nicely and moreso that most contemporary sitcoms – heck, there are even fart jokes! On the other hand, the show participates in the aesthetics of ‘meta-‘ of being about a fictional show (which, in turn, is somewhat based on Saturday Night Live and Tina Fey’s own experience as head writer, re: Sun Tea). Watching the show with any sort of knowledge of television tropes, NBC, or Fey’s life would open up a secondary reading that instantly adds a confusing depth between layers of fiction and reality.
So, what if ‘flerm’ anchors the series in its own depth of shallowness? As onomatopoetic utterance, ‘flerm’ fits and continues the ‘rural juror’ joke and literally replaces ‘life.’ Yet, when I watch it, I hear/recognize the expectation for the line “These were the best days of my life.” and, although I know it’s not fitting for the rhyme scheme, I still have the experience of the implied line along with the pleasing musicality of a finished rhyme scheme. In essence, the song gets to have its joke and be sentimental at the same time without, at all, having to compromise its joke-ness. It doesn’t have to ‘break’ character in order to be emotional. Instead, I bear the burden of multiple meanings and interpretation.
Granted, this is probably not how most people – or anyone else, probably – has heard this song. But, it’s how I hear it and sometimes that’s good enough for me. But I also think it might help others understand why a song like this has a structural importance in concluding the series beyond a simple recurrence of a running gag. Otherwise, people would just laugh one more time and turn it off. Instead, the song was nominated for an Emmy and if you search tumblr or youtube, many people admit to crying upon multiple listenings to the song. Yes, it’s the final song. Yes, it participates in common ‘emotional song’ musical tropes. Yes, it’s funny as well. In this case, though, the funny-teary dichotomy is not a comic-tragic spectrum – instead, it’s comic-sentimental at the same time, a feat I haven’t seen very much. And possibly an important thing to notice about the nature of comedy – that it can be combined with the sentimental and still maintain its integrity as comedy. This becomes increasingly important as our entertainment and media become more layered and complex in terms of diegetic realities and genre expectations. If we start to become the conduits of a more complicated affective game, we risk a new form of manipulation or a form of pleasure that can open up new pathways towards fields of experience. Oftentimes, I'd say, this comes in the form of injecting a musical moment or performance into a non-musical narrative, granting a plurality of expressive modes that can handle both complimentary and opposing sentiments.
In conclusion, I think that Jenna's character is one of the most interesting I've found in television - probably because she's a cardboard cutout of the stereotypical actress without any sort of ideologically enforced 'redemptive moment.' Her actions fly by as much as her passions. And her love affair with Paul is both non sequitur, comedy genius, tokenism, as well as romantic, revolutionary, and seems exciting to examine from both Foucault (bodies and pleasures!) and Lacan (le petit object a as your own impersonator? = true love). All I know is that I'd really love to see "Rural Juror: The Musical."
Thanks for reading this – these are notes and thoughts I have that I want to write down for future inspiration as well as to get comments from other people. These are often written in one sitting, so the editing may be rough, but I’m always interested in hearing about ideas and comments about my experiences/interpretations. This is all part of my long term obsession/fascination with how music enters our seemingly non-musical discourse and, in turn, reflects back a meaning of music that perhaps musicians don’t always see and that culture, itself, doesn’t have the words to express.