Keith Powell on the 30 Rock Writers Room, Tina Fey's Rise to Fame and the Science of Cheers
Keith Powell may play the stuffy, Harvard-educated writer James "Toofer" Spurlock on 30 Rock, but he's (wait for it!) downright approachable in real life. The Tisch graduate grew up a theater/film/TV nerd in Philadelphia and hasn't lost his ebullience for the hard work of doing funny right. We caught up with Powell to discuss Tina Fey, long shoots on 30 Rock, and what we can expect from the TGS with Tracy Jordan writers room in the weeks to come.
30 Rock always feels like the most well-oiled comedy machine on TV, like it might take 30 minutes to make an episode. Is shooting as swift and efficient as you all make it seem?
That's a good question because we actually shoot for long hours. It's lot of juggling of schedules and hard work, but I will say, I'm usually the one at, like, the 14-hour mark still going, "Let's keep going, guys!" For me it doesn't feel like work. It feels like just a fun experience. The director and maybe Tina might feel differently, having to juggle so much at once, but for me it always feels kind of fun.
What kinds of scenes take that long to shoot?
I do know that last season for some reason, the writers room scenes -- and it's just because there are so many people there and there's so much coverage. But any time the entire cast is in a room together, it takes a long time to shoot. Any time there's like a big birthday scene -- I know a couple seasons ago there was a gigantic party scene for Jane Krakowski that took so long to shoot because there were so many of us. I know Grizz's wedding took all day to shoot because there were so many little elements to it.
Every journalist under the sun asks this sort of thing, but really, how much ad-libbing do you get to do on 30 Rock?
Haha! Not a lot, actually. Most of it's pretty scripted. I know that sometimes when we're beginning or ending a scene, they might keep the camera rolling a little longer just to see if there's something spontaneous that comes out. But I'd say the show is about 98% completely scripted. There's not a lot of ad-libbing. It's very interesting because the writers write it to sound like we're ad-libbing, but that's more of a testament to how good they are.
I think Scott Adsit is one of the best actors on our show, frankly. I think he is one of those guys who can effortlessly do kind of anything. I saw him do a play -- a dramatic play -- and he was just fascinating to watch. As a performer and as a nice human being, he is kind of the type of person I aspire to be. I don't know if you've seen him do improv, but his improv skills are just so [laughs] impressive! He's kind of my hero in that way.
Everyone on the show is so funny. There must a slightly competitive vibe there.
It's not, actually. We all come from slightly different backgrounds, so we all are kind of impressed with the ways we each approach the characters and work. I wouldn't say there's a competition. It's kind of great to watch these people work because all of us have different styles and approaches.
I was thrilled to see the writers room return in a big way last episode, with you and Judah Friedlander tricking Pete using Jack's voice.
That was a good storyline, wasn't it? We were cracking up at the read-through. That was one of the times where none of the scenes had been rewritten between the read-through and shooting it because it was so on.
Is there pressure sometimes to live up to a great read-through?
Oh, no. Honestly, I think what happens at the read-through is so specific to what's happening there at that table, and you just want to make sure you kind of get the words out and perform it the way it was meant to be. When you shoot the scene, you need to make it a more "lived-in" performance. It's just too different beasts. You just kind of go, "I trust that whatever we did at the read-through is going to sell. Now we just have to make sure it sounds like it's coming from my mouth, honestly and naturally." It's just two different things.
The writers room scenes often feel real. Do you know from experience what that kind of environment is like?
Yeah, man! When we started 30 Rock five years ago, I had asked if I could sit in on the writers room. I like doing a lot of research to prepare for roles. I sat in on the writers room, and it's actually a lot like what we film. I kind of started watching firsthand what they were doing. I also feel like there's always these creative environments we're always in. I'm a writer myself, and when you're around a bunch of other people. there's always a point where you just get delirious. You're just trying to keep your creativity going. You're making fun of people, you make crazy inanimate objects have sex with each other, and you just get delirious. You want to play jokes on people and do anything to keep creativity going. That's why it's such a fun and ripe thing to write about -- there's always crazy people in that writers room.
For some reason I picture the real 30 Rock writers room as a bunch of primed, crunch-time group programmed for excellence.
I mean, it is. They work their asses off over there. I guess I mean it's similar in that its a lot of different people and styles of comedy, and when they're creating, they're trying to make each other laugh. It's exactly like the way it's portrayed on television. They spend a lot longer hours than we do on set, and when we go on hiatus, they keep working through it. There are times, I know, where I've gotten a script at 4 or 5 in the morning. So I won't say there's not a crunch time. But you've got to keep it light enough to make it through those long hours.
You've said before that you think 30 Rock is one of the best shows of all time. Sounds like you must be pretty TV-savvy. What are your other favorites?
I do. I've said 30 Rock is one of the best shows of all time, but I want you to make sure you know that I would think that even if I wasn't on it. I think one of the best sitcoms ever created is Cheers. The writing is so straightforward and solid every episode. The early years of Frasier, its spinoff, were kind of amazing. I'm a big, big fan of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which I think 30 Rock is kind of emulating in a way. At least it started out that way. Arrested Development was a brilliant, brilliant show. And you're going to be surprised that I'm going to say this, but I was watching it the other day -- and in its early seasons, Married... With Children was a really amazing show! It was really good!
People on TV are always so quick to bring up Cheers as a favorite. Why is that?
Honestly, I think for people who look at things from a technical standpoint, Cheers technically was kind of a flawless show -- like All in the Family, just from a technical standpoint. You started watching Cheers because you fell in love with the characters, and it was always fun and funny, but the way they executed jokes on Cheers was an enviable structure -- the way they made it funny without making it seem over the top or weird or crazy. All in the Family did it in the same way, but All in the Family had political controversy to use to make it funnier. Cheers didn't do that. It wasn't part of its DNA. I think why people admire Cheers in the industry because of its craftsmanship, you know what I mean?
Tina Fey was a star before 30 Rock, but since the show first aired, she's obviously become something of a superstar. How is being around her different now than the show first started?
For me? She's a lot busier, but that's it. Her rise to fame, I think, was a very gradual upward trajectory. She was able to keep her sense of self throughout the whole thing. But she's just as approachable as she was the first day -- and of course she was a big star when I first met her. I'm not trying to say, "When I knew Tina Fey, waaay back when..." She's just as down to earth and sweet-natured and always deferential. I always feel like I can talk to her and she'll listen. If you just knew Tina and didn't know what was going on around her, you would not see any difference in her. It was really funny, when she was doing the Sarah Palin thing, she was also doing the Oprah episode of 30 Rock. She was supposed to film with Oprah in the morning since Oprah could only film on Saturday, and then she was supposed to do Saturday Night Live the very first time she did Sarah Palin that night. I saw Tina that Friday before, and Tina was sitting in her dressing room trying to study Sarah Palin to kind of get it right. I remember that she turned to me and said, "What are you going to do this weekend, Keith?" [Laughs.] This woman with all these pressures happening around her, and she's interested in my weekend. She's one of those people -- and I've met a lot of people where my bubble has been burst -- but she's actually someone that people can look up to. Even if they know her, they still look up to her.
Alec Baldwin strikes me as methodical and deliberate. What kind of air does he bring to set?
You know what's really fascinating to watch and what I learned about Alec when I first started working on 30 Rock? This really became an education for me early on. The man is incredibly adept at understanding how his performance should be and will be edited together. He gives you everything that you need for the moment so that when you cut it together, it looks flawless. It's such a skill that I've yet to master myself. It's so impressive to me to watch. His head is completely in how it's going to cut together -- "What do I have to make this work as a craftsman?" Just completely impressive.
You don't act like Toofer in real life at all. In fact, you're downright humble. Do you make a point of remaining that way?
That's very nice of you. I was born in a pretty rough part of Philadelphia, and I come from a very poor family. I was born in West Philadelphia and moved to California, just like the Fresh Prince. I've been a gigantic theater-acting-film-television nerd since I can remember, so I guess I would like to think I'm relaxed about it because I don't feel like it's all I know or that I've done. I'm from a family that preached humility. So when I go to set, I tried to just put my head down and do the work. A lot of people who meet me kind of get surprised that I'm so different from Toofer because I'm so relaxed of a human being. I would like to think I'm just a really good actor! I'd like to hope I'm not as uptight as Toofer in real life.
Finally, can you give us a preview of an upcoming storyline?
Well, I can't really give you too much, but we're doing some really fun writers room things that I'm going to start shooting tomorrow. They won't air until after the new year, but I've got to tell you it's one of the most fun storylines that we've done -- and it's centered around Lutz. That's about as much as I can give you though. I'm sorry. We were cracking up at the table.
John Lutz is so funny because he's more like Toofer in real life. John calls everybody "sir." He talks in a very arched -- not arched, that's not right -- but in a very formal way. He's very deferential and formal with people, so it's great to see him play such a slovenly character on the show. I mean, every time he addresses me, he calls me "sir." It's kind of cool, man!