30 Rock's Jack McBrayer (Kenneth Parcell) and executive producer Robert Carlock might just be two of the most charming people in television. We caught up with the pair during a recent conference call about the NBC comedy's fifth season, which premieres tonight; here's what they had to say about the show's upcoming live episode, future guest stars, and the mysterious past of Kenneth Parcell.
On upcoming Season 5 storylines:
Jack McBrayer: Well, Kenneth is dealing with—at the end of last season he got fired—and so I do get to explore life after TGS with Tracy Jordan. And also it’s fun to see how some of the other employees, the NBC employees, are dealing with my departure. Other than that I think Alec is dealing with his girlfriend being pregnant.
Robert Carlock: Liz is in this ongoing relationship with this guy Carol, you know Matt Damon’s going to be coming back and Jack’s dealing with jumping into a relationship himself. And Tracy’s got some life changes and stuff. We’re picking up all of those threads and the fun is seeing how it all kind of reverberates among our usual players. And also getting to see McBrayer wearing something other than the page costume.
Jack McBrayer: It’s jarring. It will frighten you.
Robert Carlock: You don’t recognize him. He’s beautiful.
On what else to expect this season:
Jack McBrayer: Well I think we do continue in the tradition of bringing in some wonderful and very talented guest stars, so we’re all excited about that. You know the actors, we always just get a kick out of having any scene to do with any of our guests coming on board. Otherwise the storylines continue to be absolutely absurd and crazy and that’s super fun while also tying up some strings that we left from the finale of last season.
Robert Carlock: And you know we were picking up [with] the kind of changes at NBC and the Kabletown fun we were having last year, and I think we’re going to continue with that. Queen Latifah’s coming on to play a congresswoman who’s kind of got a bull’s-eye on that deal and trying to scuttle it. And she and Jack butt heads and that’s really fun. One of the fun things of doing the show is that we get to take stuff from the news a little bit and from our own lives. And hopefully not cut too close to the bone. But you know we’ll—our headline is "more of the same."
On preparing for the live episode, which will air on October 14:
Robert Carlock: It’s a new thing for us, and it changes the way we write the show because we’re used to being able to do a lot of things really quickly, cutting away in a lot of scenes, using a lot of flashbacks. And trying to keep the tone and the pace of the show the same ... within the limitations of of doing a live show is really different and really fun in a lot of ways. [We're trying to make it so] we can still do flashbacks, where maybe other actors play our actors in flashbacks, just because we want to do all of it live and we can’t have people, you know, teleport across to another set. ... The challenge is to try to make it feel like a 30 Rock while only, say, having access to three sets when usually we’re out on location and that kind of thing. But mostly I’m preparing by trying to get a lot of sleep and doing push-ups.
Jack McBrayer: From an acting standpoint I know one thing that I’m really worried about is the number of mistakes that we make on a usual shoot. [For the live show] we don’t necessarily have that luxury, so cross your fingers, friend.
On whether they're aware that in the Philippines, "EGOT" means "black person":
Robert Carlock: There was a—you know after we started doing it there was a piece in New York Magazine about that and we of course had zero idea. So we have learned that since, but Philip Michael Thomas invented it in the 80s so we’re going to stick with it. We just read an episode today where Tracy starts to get taken seriously as an actor and doesn’t know quite what to make of that as we go forward. But he’ll continue to pursue his dream.
On how much McBrayer relates Kenneth Parcell:
Jack McBrayer: Well to some extent. I tend to be a people pleaser and I always try to be good at my job but I would love to think I’m not nearly as annoying as Kenneth. But I don’t know, maybe my coworkers could say otherwise.
Robert Carlock: He refuses to take the costume off.
On whether Rose Nylund was the inspiration for Kenneth:
Jack McBrayer: I think that’s a pretty great one. Between that and a little bit of Barney Fife from Andy Griffith, I think you’ve got some of that in there. But no, I think that Rose Nylund, that kind of hits the nail on the head. It’s out of the writer’s heads and so I just show up and put on the suit and smile real big, I hope I’m cutting close to what they’re aiming for.
Robert Carlock: One of the great things about Kenneth, especially early, is that he was kind of the glue—a lot of the times he remains it. But especially early in the life of the series, in order to be able to allow someone like Tracy to do the crazy things that he does, you needed someone who believed in him no matter what he did. And it was a really crucial character for us from a writing standpoint in terms of setting the tone of the show. So we’re very grateful to McBrayer for that.
Jack McBrayer: Thank you sir.
On Kenneth’s mysterious past:
Jack McBrayer: Honestly I wish I knew more. I do love every now and then when I get these random crazy flashbacks. I’m like what the hell, where—who is this person, where did he come from? But it’s always a nice little treat every time you open a script and see something in there.
Robert Carlock: It’s our lost mystery. I think it’s mythology, as long as we can stay on the air we’ll continue to [refer to it]. I have an idea in my mind of what it is but we will continue to play it out. I mean we’ve done jokes that hint that he was at Normandy Beach, we’ve had him in a flashback from the '50s.
Jack McBrayer: I think maybe there’s just a carbon monoxide leak at NBC. I am a group hallucination.
Robert Carlock: I think the very end of the series is like the end of The Shining, you push in on a picture of the pages from 1932 and there among the other pages is Kenneth.
Jack McBrayer: And Jack Nicholson.
On whether Kenneth is the smartest guy we know, the dumbest guy we know, a dumb guy who thinks he's smart, or a smart guy who thinks he's dumb:
Jack McBrayer: I swear to God if I knew the answer—I mean, I’d love to think that he has some idea of what he’s doing. There’s an episode in Season 1, I believe, where he had the opportunity to pitch a game show to NBC. And you know he was low balling them but then he threw a curve ball in there too, so I’d love to think that he has a few tricks up his sleeve. But sometimes at the end of the day I’m like, oh, poor Kenneth.
Robert Carlock: I do think the whole series is the education of—the moral education of Kenneth Parcell.
Jack McBrayer: Breaking of spirit.
Carlock: I think he also raises people to his level. Everyone improves a little bit and he gets a little bit worse, that’s the story.
On Emmy disappointment:
Robert Carlock: You do the work and of course, it’s a long year. There are great shows out there and you know a lot of people don’t get nominated and we’re very happy to be there. And it just means— as one of our writers said immediately after, we just have to work harder. Which I think might be impossible.
Jack McBrayer: For real.
Robert Carlock: But we’ll do our best and I think you know the year so far is looking great. But it’s fun just to go to Los Angeles and see McBrayer at the pool.
Jack McBrayer: Like a lizard on a rock
30 Rock returns tonight at 8:30pm on NBC.