Stories Within Stories: An Unconventional Look at 30 Rock and Sandman

Posted September 5, 2017 by Jason Adams in Comic Books

Over the last few months, I’ve worked my way through the Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and some of its spinoffs, as well as through the seven season run of 30 Rock. I am now going to spend a non-negligible amount of time and words comparing these two seemingly disparate long-form pieces of art. I know the premise of this piece is weird, since a quick googling shows that these two series have possibly never been mentioned in the same sentence before, and it’s not immediately apparent that a serious modern Greek tragedy and a show with multiple references to a Fart Doctor can be compared. The more I draw links between the two after having experienced them near-simultaneously though, the more apt I think the comparison is, and the more similar their contributions to their respective fields appear to be. So bare with my potentially crazy ramblings for now, and obviously be warned that spoilers for Sandman and 30 Rock follow.

Taking a step back, in the most general of senses, Sandman is a story about stories and the art of storytelling. It’s a very meta tale focusing on Morpheus, who acts as a creator as the King of Dreams, and is often a stand-in for Gaiman himself to get across his ideas about being a storyteller/artist/creator. It’s clear that 30 Rock follows a similar premise. What Sandman is to the vague idea of stories, 30 Rock is to television. It’s a television show about television shows, with Liz Lemon (head writer for the fictional sketch-show-within-a-show TGS) acting as the analog for creator Tina Fey’s experiences in creating television. In this most superficial of ways, these series are connected (being a story about storytelling, and a show about shows), but both works go further than this.

Sandman isn’t just about storytelling, it’s a celebration of it. Gaiman uses the series to pay homage to many different forms and structures of storytelling across the 75 issue run, and tries to make use of the different forms of stories across the history of storytelling. He brings in tropes and repurposes existing characters from ancient mythology, when stories were often something passed on orally; he does the same with classic literature, having Shakespearean characters and plot points (as well as Shakespeare himself) as important parts of the Sandman story; and he does same again with comics (with existing DC characters like Lyta Hall, Destiny, and Lucien playing large roles), a medium which is probably one of the more relatively modern forms of storytelling.

Gaiman uses Sandman as a vehicle to express his appreciation of the different types of storytelling from different eras, and 30 Rock is used in much the same way to communicate a love of television. The series is first and foremost full of explicit references to shows from across the last century, other creators of television, and the relationships and operations of TV networks themselves. The series also has multiple episodes that act as parodies/pastiches (or somewhere in between) of different genres of TV, like the live episodes celebrating Fey’s love of live TV  from her time working on Saturday Night Live, or the Queen of Jordan reality TV satirical episodes. 30 Rock also makes use of many TV tropes, but often, in contrast with Sandman, to subvert audience expectations for comedic purposes. Despite all the lampoonery, it’s not hard to tell that at least part of all of the homage comes from a place of love for the medium.

Now, in a more specific sense, the two series follow very similar character arcs with Morpheus and Jack Donaghy, the president of NBC within the world of 30 Rock (again, a comparison I haven’t seen made before, but another that MUST BE MADE). Both are the masters of their secluded bastions of creation: The Dreaming and NBC, respectively. Morpheus and Jack have complete control within their domains, but their isolation takes its toll on them, and both grow weary of their positions of power. Gaiman himself succinctly describes the story of Sandman as “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision”, which is appropriate. Morpheus is not happy in his position, but is presented with limited options to address this (one doesn’t just quit being the “Lord of Dreams”).

Toward the end of his story, he goes so far as arguably engaging in self-sabotage by mercifully ending his son’s life, knowing that this would likely bring the wrath of the Furies upon him. This is not unlike Jack Donaghy’s attempt to sink NBC by greenlighting horrible shows as a plan to leave the company after seasons of unrest from being in charge of the network. Eventually, in the series finale, his unhappiness drives him to contemplate suicide (again, arguably Morpheus’ plan as well given his knowledge of the rules he is bound by and the consequences for killing his son). Though Jack gets a happy ending where Morpheus gets a predictably tragic one, both end up escaping their roles, and pass their mantles down, with both being succeeded by what appear to be wide-eyed boys. On a more surface level, Morpheus and Jack also both try to project a dark, brooding, authoritative image but are prone to extreme emotional bursts and moodiness, both often fail to be good parents because of their invasive professional lives, and major plotlines between them centre around trouble caused by their dysfunctional families.

As diametrically opposed as a dark saga about gods and a goofy cartoony sitcom are at first glance, a lot can be gained from putting them up against each other and taking a deeper look. If there’s something we should have learned over the course of the dozens and dozens of issues of Sandman, it’s that stories can come in a lot of very different forms, but there are still a lot of common threads that run between them.

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Jason Adams