"The problem is, this company doesn't love me enough!" Tracey Jordan complained loudly as he shambled down the dimly-lit hall. "Last night, in order to give me an added boost with my contract negotiations, I turned on C-SPAN, to see how the professionals do it! And it blew my mind! I saw this sixty-year-old white man I never heard of before attaching an addendum to an earthquake relief bill that would ban all swirly vanilla-chocolate puddings from being served in school cafeterias, because it promotes mixed marriages! But when I demanded an entire episode in which I am featured doing nothing but eating pudding of various colors and persuasions, they denied my claim! So where is the love?!"
Trodding before his employer, hulking professional bodyguard and entourage member Grizz was pleased once more that his job parting crowds for Tracey prevented the loony entertainer from seeing the expressions that often crossed his face at listening to him speak. Three paces behind Mr. Jordan, Grizz's longtime cohort Dot-Com appreciated his relative position for exactly the same reason.
"Two minutes to shooting!" Producer Pete Hornberger's voice came over an intercom above their heads. Recognizing that they were running out of time, Grizz stepped up the pace.
"But that is not even the least of my concerns!" Tracey proceeded to chew his diamond-studded necklace. "Money is immaterial! That has always been one of my most sacred and cherished beliefs! Therefore, they should have been amenable to my request for a 500% increase in my salary! Because if money is immaterial, then five times zero equals zero, and it would cost them nothing to comply! I have a third-grade math test that proves me right on that!"
Just two more minutes, Grizz thought to himself. Two more minutes and I can take a well-deserved break from all this. Dot-Com too was imagining what life would be like once this jabbering psychopath was out of their hair. Traveling down the service tunnel beneath the show stage, the three men moved through shadowy confines briefly illuminated every now and then by flickering incandescent bulbs that highlighted a wealth of discarded stage props, empty paint cans, coiled cables and broken lighting equipment.
"So until my demands have been met, Tracey Jordan will be residing on a different plane of reality! One that will prevent him from appearing on any television network programming or news media without lapsing into uncontrollable profanity, random acts of violence, and the removal of some or all of my clothing! Let it be known! This is the end of 'The Girlie Show Starring TRACEY JORDAN!'"
At last Grizz came upon the right door. Opening it, he flicked a light-switch and stepped aside. A single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminated a tiny closet containing only a rickety wooden folding ladder in its center. Directly above the ladder was a hole in the ceiling big enough for a man to stand upright in were he to be on the top step.
Tracey entered the room and peered around its confines.
"What's this?!" he bellowed. "They told me there was a special event here that I could not afford to miss involving Vegas showgirls! Why am I not seeing this?!"
"You have to go up the ladder, man," Dot-Com informed him in a bored tone. "That's what they said."
The multi-millionaire comic glanced back and blew out his breath in consternation, unconvinced by this assertion. Above them they could clearly hear the sound of the stage grips rushing about to complete preparations and several people calling for lighting checks and silence on the set.
"Sixty seconds!" Hornberger's voice echoed around them once more.
"Gotta go, Tracey," his frontline bodyguard called. "We'll see you up on the set." They both saluted him and closed the door firmly behind them. He could hear their heavy treads moving back the way they came at a speedy pace.
Huffing in displeasure, Jordan crossed his arms and chewed his lip. Eventually, though, with nothing else to attract his attention, the entertainer's roaming eye went over to the only other thing in that room. Crossing over to it, he examined the construct and the gaping hole over his head with a measure of curiosity and trepidation.
"Thirty seconds, people! Remember, we're doing this for Tracey, so make it good!"
That caught his attention. With remarkable alacrity, the eponymous star of the show quickly scrambled up the ladder. Upon reaching the top rung, he proceeded to insert himself into the available space provided in the ceiling.
It turned out that the hole led to a cramped rectangular confinement that barely allowed him to wiggle his shoulders about in it. Through the edges of this box, however, he could see cracks of light shining through. With this and by craning his neck around, he was able to divine that a little ways above him there was a flat surface with a hole in it big enough to fit his head through. Rising to his full height, Jordan proceeded to do so.
He looked about, to find only darkness. But the familiar sounds of television-making were now all around him. Finding no explanation for what was occurring or what his part in it might be, the comic was just about to make himself known in as loud a manner as possible, when suddenly…
Then it was like a covering was removed from around his head. Blinking in the suddenly bright lights, Tracey Jordan's ears were then assaulted by the sounds of raucous screaming, cheering, hollering and applauding.
Directly before him, virtually the entire cast and crew of their television program was filling the benches on which an audience normally sat. They were roaring with excitement, swinging their arms skyward and jumping up and down. Several of them were pointing at him and clapping their hands with wild abandon.
Dumbstruck, the addle-pated actor craned his head about as much as he could. Apparently he was sticking out of a small rectangular plinth rising from the stage floor. There were drums booming while trumpets wailed out festive marches usually heard only on the Fourth of July. Streamers and confetti were flying through the air in a festive celebration. From the corner of his eye, he could see an extravagant set-piece behind him with moving parts depicting clouds and waves churning, along with huge sparklers sending brightly-colored embers out in all directions. There was noise and chaos and confusion.
And suddenly he realized: it was all for him.
"You love me," he whispered in amazement. "You really love me!"
On either side of him, two Vegas showgirls in great feathered costumes held out their hands in his direction, like models showcasing a new car. They wore big bright smiles, and seeing their scantily clad forms, combined with all this uproar and exuberance, an enormous grin lit up his face.
"You love me!" he gasped, glitter shining off his head. "You love ME!"
The lights and sounds, the mirth and adulation, it was swirling around him, like he was an astronaut peering out of those fishbowls their heads lived in to see the whole galaxy laid out before him.
"YOU LOVE ME!"
He saw Grizz and Dot-Com, pounding each other on the backs and howling along with everyone else. In the stands, 2-Fer and Lutz were spinning noisemakers, pointing at him and screaming with excitement. Pete Hornberger stood by the cameras with his headsets on, smiling and shaking his head happily.
"YOU REALLY LOVE ME!"
And then, Pete gave the signal.
Suspended above Tracey's head, held in horizontal positions on either side of a shop class-type contraption, there were two 19-pound sledgehammers.
At a nod from the producer, the mechanism was released, and both sledges swung silently down in mirror arcs of one another.
Potential energy, centrifugal force, angle of impact. It had all been precisely calculated by the stagehands. They had done their homework well.
"YOU REALLY LOVE…!"
Tracey Jordan's head was caught between the business ends of the construction implements and burst like a watermelon at a Gallagher performance.
The audience howled.
"OH MY GOD!!"
Donaghy paused the tape.
"What is it, Lemon?" he asked with some concern.
Seated in front of the screen in his office, Liz Lemon had her knees up to her chest and her nails embedded into the fabric of her chair. She watched the performance onscreen with a look of open-mouthed horror.
"Lemon, are you all right?"
The scrawny screenwriter opened and closed her mouth with no sound emerging for a few seconds. "Wha…" she finally managed to utter. "What… when…how… Jack, what just…?"
Turning her bulging brown eyes on the immaculately groomed studio executive, she pointed at the image frozen beside him.
Jack Donaghy turned to regard the television, then back again.
They stared at one another for what seemed like an eternity to her.
And then her boss smiled.
"Very convincing, don't you think?"
Liz swallowed down the bile burning her throat, and a weak and thready voice came out. "H-h-how…?"
"Computers, Lemon," the burly bureaucrat spoke in that soft, machine-gun staccato tone of his. "It's all done with computers. Eventually we'll be able to replace all unreliable human creativity with computer-generated perfection. But for now, it serves to prove the point I've been trying to make all along. Thanks to this little demonstration of what we can accomplish without actors nowadays, combined with a strenuous once-over of the hidden pages in his contract, Tracey's lawyers were forced to concede to our demands. 'The Girlie Show with TRACEY JORDAN' is set to go for one more season."
His employee remained tensed up in her chair like a frightened chipmunk. Despite his deeply rooted feelings regarding the infliction of fear on mammals smaller than himself, Jack couldn't help but be a little dismayed by her reaction.
"Is something wrong, Lemon?"
She shook her head, desperately tearing her eyes away to alight on Donaghy. "It… looked so real. I almost…" And she glanced down at herself. "I could swear I felt his brains splattering all over me." Liz wiped vaguely at the stains on her shirt, trying to remember if they had all been there when she walked into the room.
In response, he laughed in a brief, polished manner that served him so well when dealing with underlings and the international police. "Welcome to the 21st century, Lemon. These high-definition screens, originally envisioned by an 18th-century inventor watching a striptease through a private viewing window, allow you to feel as if you were actually in the room with the people whose programs you're watching. Every drop of sweat, every hair sticking out of their noses… it's all there for you to enjoy in glorious HD entertainment. Brought to you courtesy of your friends at NBC, and the Scheinhardt Wig Company."
His raspy, whispering voice actually served to loosen her clenched muscles. Usually that was the farthest thing from it for her. Lemon recalled a dream she had in which Donaghy had been a vampire who glided in through her window one night on his black cape wings. He had alighted by her bed, bent over her slumbering figure with fanged mouth wide, and proceeded to shake her awake and criticize her about her eating habits.
Shivering, Liz clambered unsteadily to her feet.
"So… I guess I'll just… go back to work now…"
"Excellent idea, Lemon." And he swept over to drape a companionable arm around her slightly trembling shoulder and guide the woman to the door of his office. "Now that everything's back on track, I look forward to seeing what you have planned for us this season. Knock 'em dead, Lemon." And as he began to close the door in her pale, sickly face, Jack grinned and gave her a thumbs-up. "Knock 'em dead."
Still feeling a little queasy at what she had just witnessed, Liz made her way down the halls of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The way she felt, it would be a long time before she could eat any lasagna, spaghetti, Stromboli… basically anything Italian and loaded with tomato sauce.
At length, Lemon's steps took her to the floor reserved for the program that was her pride and joy. Upon exiting the elevator, she was somewhat relieved to have the first thing she see be Dot-Com and Grizz standing at attention beside a pair of waving legs sticking out of a trashcan. Those ridiculously expensive and untied cross-training shoes rummaging around in there could only belong to one person.
Liz crossed over to join them, nodding in greeting to the pair of imposing colossi, who returned the same. She then tugged firmly on one of the shoelaces.
"Tracey, would you come out of there for a minute? I need to talk to you."
He proceeded to do so. "What is it? I am very busy with something mind-boggling!"
"I just wanted to say…"
And she stopped.
"Who…?" Liz blinked in consternation. "Who the hell are you?"
The man who stood before her glanced around uncertainly. "What do you mean?"
She drew back apace. "You… you're not Tracey Jordan!"
It was true. There was somewhat of a resemblance, but you didn't have to be standing up close to see that this was not the oddball entertainer she had been butting heads with for the past three years.
"Whatever are you implying?" The stranger looked between his two bodyguards, who only shrugged their hulking shoulders.
"Yeah, what's the deal, Liz?" Dot-Com asked casually.
She looked in absolute astonishment between him and the Tracey look-alike. "This isn't Tracey! Who is this guy?!"
"I resent any such allegations on my not being who I say I am!" the imposter crowed in a pitch-perfect duplication of Jordan's voice. "I'll have you know that I am the one and only Tracey Jordan, beloved by all and father of two legal offspring, born and raised in the ghettoes of Lapland, Northern Fennoscandia! Do you understand me, Liz Persimmon?"
Before she could respond, one of Grizz's massive hands lashed out and clocked the man in the back of the head.
"The lady's name is LEMON, fool," he growled like the animal he was named after. "You got that?"
"Yes, yes, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry." Nursing his head, the character seemed to shrink in on himself, losing the ludicrous bravado that had previously animated him. "I'll get it right, I'm sorry, please don't fire me, please." With that he suddenly jumped forward and grasped hold of Liz's hands. "Really, I can do this, please don't send me back out there. I'm a Poly-Sci major, do you know how hard it is to find a job with that degree? Acting is the only thing that pays my bills! Please, please let me keep this job, I promise I'll do everything right, okay?!"
She pulled away in disgust from the craven, whimpering display of unemployment terror. While staring at this incomprehensible sight, Dot-Com moved in to take the quivering figure by the arm.
"Come on, Mr. Jordan. Everything's all right, no one's going to fire you. You're doing a great job." So saying, he escorted the man off towards Tracey's dressing room. Horrified, Liz watched all this, then turned her uncomprehending features up to Grizz. The big man winked at her, laying a finger aside of his nose, before moving off to join his two companions.
She remained rooted to that spot. People passed by without noticing anything out of the ordinary, chatting casually about recent activities. It was just a quiet, normal day on the set.
Then Liz turned her head to see Jack Donaghy discussing something with two other men in suits by the stairs.
As if sensing her presence, the soft-spoken conciliator broke away from his conversation and turned to regard her.
With an easy smile, he once more flashed her the thumbs-up.
Liz turned and bolted down the hall.
Running blind, she collided into Jenna Maroney, her collaborator and longtime comrade on the show.
"Liz!" the high-strung actress proclaimed.
"Jenna!" her distraught friend gasped. "Jenna, it's Tracey, they…!"
"I know!" Maroney interrupted her. "I just heard, and I was coming to talk with you. Tracey made a demand for a 500% increase in his salary! That's 10,000 times more than what I'm making, Liz! We have to do something about it! This is a big problem, I'll have you know!"
"Jenna, there's not going to be a problem with Tracey, he's…!"
"I won't hear of it, Liz!" She crossed her arms and assumed a stricken expression. "I've listened to you defend that man long enough. It's time for me to be heard around here! If he can bring this show to a halt over salary considerations, then so can I!"
Lemon stared open-mouthed at this display of self-obsessed hearing-impaired childishness.
"That's right! As of this moment, Jenna Maroney is on an artistic hunger strike! I am denying America the full, rich smorgasbord of my talent that they have come to need and love! Until I have been shown an appropriate demonstration of appreciation for my talents, this show will be staged under protest! And if you and your friend Donaghy don't like it, you can take it up with my lawyer! What do you think of that, Liz Lemon?"
"Liz?" Jenna peered into her face. "Are you all right? You look a little lost there."
The comedy producer blinked.
And a tender smile came over her lips.
"I think I'm in the mood for lasagna again," she purred sweetly.