May sweeps are a time for networks to pull out their big promotional stunts such as extra special guest stars, but 30 Rock is one program that is so popular with name actors and their agents that they don't have to wait for May (although the series is getting into the game -- Matt Damon is scheduled to appear on the season finale).
In its first three seasons, the show received an incredible 13 Emmy nominations for its guest stars. Leaving aside those such as Will Arnett, Rip Torn, and Elaine Stritch who are more recurring characters on the show than guest stars, here's a countdown of the best guests ever on 30 Rock:
1. Oprah Winfrey: Nothing proved the new clout of 30 Rock as its third season began more than landing Oprah for a major guest spot. The woman doesn't cameo for just anybody. On a plane trip back from Chicago, Liz Lemon finds herself seated next to the queen of television, who agrees to visit NBC to resolve a burning racial dispute. Things don't quite work out the way Liz planned them, but Oprah played it straight with skill.
2. Jon Hamm: He can do comedy? Why, yes he can. Looking years younger than he does as Don Draper, Hamm played Dr. Drew Baird, a complete himbo and unlikely love interest for Liz. His work here and on Saturday Night Live convinces me that Hamm has a great sitcom in his future, in the same way no one would have seen Alec Baldwin as an Emmy-winning comic actor when he was younger.
3. Jennifer Aniston: Aniston didn't really need to prove herself as a terrific comedian by the time she appeared on the series in Season Three, but her guest shot was a reminder of what she used to bring to Thursday nights before she became such a tabloid staple. She plays Liz's wildest friend, who makes the mistake of hooking up with Jack.
4. Edie Falco: Jack Donaghy's search for love has been one of the running themes on 30 Rock, and Baldwin has been teamed up with a series of high profile stars. Falco was the first, coming on the show in her first major gig following the conclusion of The Sopranos. She played a liberal congresswoman involved in a forbidden relationship with the conservative Jack. The role gave Falco the opportunity to be something other than Carmela, something she really needed.
5. Alan Alda: Alda and Baldwin both transitioned from decent leading men into even better careers as character actors, so who better to play the biological father of Jack Donaghy? The search for a kidney for Alda's Milton Greene was the key plot point of the Season Three finale, which also featured cameos from over a dozen well-known musicians. Alda's awesome comic timing fit right in with the rest of the cast.
6. Jerry Seinfeld: One of the first really big names to come on the show, Seinfeld appeared in the second season premiere as himself. When he finds out that Jack has had the bright idea of digitally inserting images of him into all existing NBC shows, Seinfeld confronts him wondering how NBC could have ever slipped so far. A nice return to Thursday night for him, and a sly commentary on the real NBC, which even in 2007 was in pretty sorry shape.
7. Al Gore: Yes, the former vice president does have a sense of humor when it comes to his image as a tedious wonk who cares more about plankton than people. In two separate cameos, Gore has played himself as an environmental drudge who is forever running off to save the whales. In his last appearance, he was shown to be working undercover as a janitor at NBC, surreptitiously installing energy-saving light bulbs.
8. James Franco: Franco doesn't really have a strong public image, which may be why his guest shot this past winter was so weirdly effective. He plays himself being set up in a just-for-the-tabloids fling with Jenna, something he has agreed to in order to quiet the chatter that he is actually in a relationship with a Japanese "body pillow" named Kimiko. Franco is completely committed to this version of himself as a lunatic.
9. Carrie Fisher: The long since grown-up Princess Leia doesn't act that much anymore, but she made a big impression in her 2007 appearance on 30 Rock, playing a legendary comedy writer who Liz Lemon had always idolized. Liz finds that some heroes are best not looked at too closely, as Fisher's character has clearly seen better days from a mental health standpoint. Fisher's episode is on the short list of the best 30 Rocks ever.
10. David Schwimmer: Schwimmer was always at his funniest on Friends when Ross was shown to be cluelessly arrogant. When NBC made the corporate decision to work environmental themes into all of its programming during one week in the fall of 2007, the always irreverent 30 Rock called upon Schwimmer to play "Greenzo," a complete jerk of a superhero that the fictional NBC hired as a shill for bad environmental policies in the guise of being green.