An Ode to 30 Rock‘s Incredible Leap Day Episode

Comedy Features 30 Rock
An Ode to 30 Rock‘s Incredible Leap Day Episode

TV writers love making up holidays: Seinfeld had Festivus, the winterly airing of grievance based on show writer Dan O’Keefe’s actual family tradition. Parks and Recreation had both Treat Yo’ Self Day, made for careless spending on luxurious items, and Galentine’s Day, celebrated on February 13 to mark the power of female friendship (and if my Instagram feed is anything to go off of, the latter one is pretty popular). Some TV writers capitalize on existing traditions, blending them together to create something new and beautiful—think The O.C.’s Christmukkah. 30 Rock’s excellent Leap Day tribute (Season 6, Episode 9) falls closest to the final example, taking the extra day in February and crafting it into its own strange hybrid of Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween—plus it’s one of the sitcom’s best episodes. 

In case you haven’t seen “Leap Day” in the last four years or so, here’s a refresher: Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) discovers that there’s a whole host of Leap Day traditions she’s never encountered before, including wearing blue and yellow, eating rhubarb, and, most importantly, taking chances (because “real life is for March”). This last one rolls around just in time for her to be Indecent Propsal’ed by her nerdy former college classmate, now billionaire, Thad (Steve Little of Eastbound & Down fame). Meanwhile, Jack (Alec Baldwin) is so keen to make as much money as possible in 24 hours that he misses out on spending Leap Day with his daughter Liddy—until revelations from the Ghosts of Leap Day Past, Present, and Future right his course. And finally, Tracy (Tracy Morgan) finds a Benihana gift card for $50,000 that he needs to spend before it expires in March (fun fact: real-life Tracy adores Benihana). 

The best part of “Leap Day” is how the writers’ attention to detail brings this fictional celebration to life. All the little traditions, many drawing on customs from existing holidays—like pinching people who forget to wear blue and yellow, ​​à la St. Patrick’s Day—give texture to the episode. That commitment to the holiday bit is lacking from the other “Leap Day” episode that came out in 2012—the Modern Family one. Modern Family’s take on the occasion is a bit more subdued, mining Cam’s (Eric Stonestreet) February 29 birthday for humor, as well as goofy patriarch Phil’s (Ty Burrell) desire to try something new in order to properly carpe the extra diem. It’s funny, but it also feels like just another episode of TV; 30 Rock truly creates something. There’s just not the same sense of whimsy in Modern Family’s Leap Day as in 30 Rock’s version, which bursts with carolers decked out in gold and azure, candy and cigarettes tossed at crying children, and the more-than-slightly-menacing be-gilled Leap Day William (the marine version of Santa Claus). 

Funnily enough, the 30 Rock episode actually has a very practical origin. The sitcom didn’t have a Thanksgiving or Christmas episode in its sixth season because of a delayed January start due to Fey’s pregnancy, as the episode’s writer Luke Del Tredici told Vulture back in 2020. Since “holidays are a huge relief because they give you an easy starting place” for episode concepts and 2012 was a leap year, Del Tredici and co. knew what to do.  

The Steve Buscemi-directed episode (yes, you read that right) features incredible cameos and background jokes that reward multiple watches. One of the episode’s best elements is a 30 Rock staple: a fake movie. Loyal 30 Rock fans will be all too familiar with Jenna Moroney’s surprisingly good Southern legal drama The Rural Juror, or her off-brand Janis Joplin biopic, Jackie Jormp-Jomp. In this case, the writers dreamed up Leap Dave Williams, a Santa Clause-esque movie about an uptight lawyer turning into Leap Day William. Jim Carrey as the lead and Andie McDowell as his wife are inspired casting, since both featured prominently in holiday films (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Groundhog Day, respectively) and Carrey totally leans into the goofiness of the concept. For a bonus cameo, we get Hannibal Buress later on in the episode as a homeless man (a role he reprised a good few times in the show) trying to steer Tracy in the right direction. And in typical 30 Rock fashion, every scene of “Leap Day” is crammed with jokes, some of them—like Thad walking his cat around the 30 Rock plaza or the goofy poster for Leap Dave Williams 2: Leap Baby—can easily be missed the first time around. 

I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out Jack McBrayer as Kenneth, whose performance is the glue that holds the episode together and sells us on Leap Day. Naive and good-hearted, Kenneth loves Christmas and just about any old holiday (except the ones his church tells him are evil), so it makes sense that he embraces Leap Day to the fullest, dressing up in an uncanny Leap Day William costume (a bit which gives us the incredible line, “Of course, take off my bald cap, not put on my wig.” ). And that starry-eyed enthusiasm is why he (or his dream self) wakes Jack up to the importance of spending Leap Day with his family. This isn’t the only emotional moment the episode grants us. Tracy feeds scores of unhoused people using his Benihana gift card. Liz ends up not sleeping with Thad (due to competition, not unwillingness), and her dreamboat boyfriend Criss (James Marsden) relieves her guilt as he admits he probably would also have slept with a billionaire for that amount of cash. This is a show that’s generally quite cynical, and so its skewed holiday happy ending feels fitting. 

One thing’s for sure—this is an episode worth watching more than once every four years.

Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.

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