On Monday, Vulture reported that 30 Rock creator Tina Fey wrote a letter to Hulu, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and any other platform that streams or sells the NBC series to request the removal of four episodes, at least three of which featured characters in blackface. This proactive decision comes in the midst of a racial reckoning in the United States in which people are asking for immediate, overdue, anti-racist change in systems like the police force and our entertainment. While the move was made out of respect to this societal change, Fey's shortcomings when it comes to comedy and race extend beyond four episodes of 30 Rock. In response to the move, many are highlighting her similar degrading portrayals of Asian characters in shows like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the movie Mean Girls, as well as interviews she's given about race and cancel culture that seem to contradict her decision.
The offending episodes, now pulled from streaming, made unavailable for purchase, and no longer airing as reruns on TV, include “Believe in the Stars” (season 3, episode 2), “The Live Show” (season 5, episode 4), “Christmas Attack Zone” (season 5, episode 10) and “Live from Studio 6H” (season 6, episode 19). In both "Believe in the Stars" and "Christmas Attack Zone," Krakowsi's character Jenna appears in blackface. In "The Live Show," Jon Hamm's character appears in blackface. Vulture says the reasons for the removal of “Live from Studio 6H” are still unknown.
“As we strive to do the work and do better in regards to race in America, we believe that these episodes featuring actors in race-changing makeup are best taken out of circulation,” Fey wrote in her letter, which was co-signed by co-creator Robert Carlock. “I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologise for pain they have caused. Going forward, no comedy-loving kid needs to stumble on these tropes and be stung by their ugliness. I thank NBCUniversal for honouring this request.”
By that same logic, however, Fey should also be calling for the removal of the third episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's second season, in which Tituss Burgess's character Titus Andromedon appears in full Geisha makeup. However, Fey previously refused to apologise for the racist critiques of the series in a 2015 interview with Net-A-Porter.
“We did an Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt episode and the internet was in a whirlwind, calling it ‘racist’, but my new goal is not to explain jokes," she told the outlet. "I feel like we put so much effort into writing and crafting everything, they need to speak for themselves. There’s a real culture of demanding apologies, and I’m opting out of that.”
While Fey is allowed to change her opinion in the course of five years, pulling out these instances only allows for another to be exposed. In a New Yorker profile of Donald Glover, Fey admitted that while she hired the comedian and artist as a writer on 30 Rock mostly for his talent, it was also because they could use funds from NBC’s Diversity Initiative, which “made him free.”
An optimistic view of the situation would suggest that Fey's willingness to proactively remove the racist 30 Rock episodes indicates she'd be open to correcting these other instances of harmful depictions and behaviours. The more we examine the status quo, the more we'll be presented with these hard-to-swallow moments. It can be true that a woman who makes us laugh while calling out powerful men in the industry is also responsible for upholding the racism that's pervaded it.