Tuned In

Comedy Night Done Right. This Week, Anyway.

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NBC photos: Chris Haston, Ron Tom

Who needs Seinfeldvision? America’s favorite comedic non-actor came to 30 Rock last night. Sure, it was a pleasure to see him–“How about I buy NBC and turn it into the biggest Lane Bryant in midtown?”–and if he brought a few million new viewers with him, all to the good. (Bit of trivia: he has a movie coming out this fall. No, really!) But really this excellent episode shows how 30 Rock has come into its own, because most of what was best about it had nothing to do with its big guest star.

The great thing Tina Fey has done with his show is to combine no-rules, off-the-wall humor with real character comedy. Half the episode was hilarious throwaways you just want to repeat over and over (Mystic Pizza: The Musical; the country only rich people know the name of), half was equally hilarious stuff that also served to define the charaacters, especially Liz Lemon: the flashback to serious little-girl Liz, with her teddy bear husband and his child “by a previous marriage,” the whole bit with the impulse-bought wedding dress (“I don’t need society’s permission to wear a white dress!”). As Liz says, let’s hope this is her year.

Meanwhile, Ryan is back and so is The Office, with another hourlong episode that was sharper, funnier and truer to the characters than last week’s overstuffed 60 minutes. Where last week’s episode seemed to turn up everyone’s quirks a notch or two past the point of believability, this week’s did right by just about everyone, from Michael, trying to buy back his customers and confidence with chocolate turtles, to sad-sack Toby, expressing his heartbreak over Pam in a passive-aggressive HR memo.

The Office, the way it does at its best, struck just the right balance of wackinesss and pathos. It’s funny that Ryan should be the boss (“You’re like our little man now!”) and that Michael should feel so threatened; then again–as we saw just a flicker of in Ryan’s outburst–Ryan really is the boss, and Michael really should feel threatened. The rivalry between the two of them should be interesting, and even as Michael ended up salvaging his gift basket, but not his car or dignity, from his attempt to show Ryan up, he actually did manage to outmaneuver him briefly, genuinely rattling his old intern with his ageism accusations. (“Well, new ideas are fine. But they are also illegal.”)

The Jim and Pam story, meanwhile, is playing out well, because the writers aren’t allowing it to overwhelm the rest of the show. Rather than zooming in on them, we got to see how the news of their dating affected the rest of the office. (My favorite: Phyllis, who hides an iron lady underneath those layers of blush, telling Pam not to direct sales calls based on “who you’re sleeping with.”) The expanded hour gave nearly everyone a chance to stand out: Creed dyeing his hair and announcing his fondness for Red Bull to appear young; Dwight trying to reconcile with Angela by offering a “feral barn cat” to replace the one he killed; and Andy falling in guy-love with newly powerful Ryan: “He has a killer job. He’s rich. He smells like what I think Pierce Brosnan smells like.”

All in all, 90 minutes of first-class human comedy. Because as they say, life and business are about human connections. And computers are about trying to murder you in a lake.