St. Olaf Magazine | Fall 2023

‘There’s never been a better time to tell a story that’s unique’

Mike Roe ’03 on the steps of the St. Olaf Theater Building while visiting campus for his 20th class reunion in June. Photo by Marcel Hones ’22

“In screenwriting, they always say ‘Write what you know,'” says Mike Roe ’03, who has spent decades covering arts and entertainment in Hollywood. “But what’s really behind that is ‘Write what you’re fascinated by.’ Know your work, know it really well, and just follow that fascination.”

Roe has followed his fascination all the way to writing the definitive book on a show that fascinated the country: 30 Rock. Fifteen years after the show premiered, Roe published The 30 Rock Book: Inside the Iconic Show, from Blerg to EGOT. Through more than 50 original interviews with cast, crew, and critics, Roe tells the story of how 30 Rock broke boundaries and became a cult classic.

“It’s a miracle when a TV show works. Mike Roe gives us a terrific behind-the-scenes look at one of the greatest television comedies ever,” Bradley Whitford, an actor known for his own roles in powerful shows like The West Wing and The Handmaid’s Tale, said in his praise for The 30 Rock Book.

Roe is no newcomer to the Los Angeles arts and entertainment scene. He’s written sketches, monologues, columns, and news articles, and he’s been a journalist, an author, and a screenwriter. He recently shifted from covering arts and entertainment at a National Public Radio affiliate to become a lead editor at TheWrap, a Hollywood trade journal covering the entertainment industry and the media. In all of his pursuits, including those that won him an L.A. Press Club Award, Roe is driven by telling stories that he — and only he — can tell.

“Now is a really great time to be creative and tell unique stories. A lot of folks in journalism and other industries are worried about artificial intelligence journalism being written by robots. I think that is making the importance of unique perspectives and creative, unique stories even more important,” Roe says. “There’s never been a better time to tell a story that’s unique and that only you can tell.”

Roe shares how his time on this Hill helped shape his journey and how he’s melded his passion for writing with his interests to tell fascinating (and inimitable) stories.

What stands out to you from your time at St. Olaf?
I was a history major, but it was almost by default — I love history, but changed my major several times. I got involved in a lot of student activities. I think I was involved in too many of them — I counted up once, and I had like 19 meetings a week outside of classes, which is too many.

But I was very involved and it was a good chance to figure out what really meant something to me. The organization that I always think about and I still use in my daily life was Care Student Ministry. We would answer prayer requests people put in. It really taught me how much we all just want somebody to listen to us.

I think that’s really served me as a journalist, just to listen to people and not try to interject too much of myself when I’m connecting with them.

What did you do after graduation?
My original plan was to be a pastor. I had applied to some seminaries, and a pastor who wrote my recommendation forgot to send it in on time. The seminary I most wanted to go to told me that they couldn’t consider me for the next school year. 

That led to a lot of reconsideration and the proverbial path not taken. The thing that really changed me was this student film I volunteered on back when I was living in Seattle. It taught me how great it was to work really hard at something you care about, and how meaningful that can be. It got me out of being depressed and sad about my life not going perfectly. I found a job within a few months after that and moved to Los Angeles.

What made you want to write the definitive book about 30 Rock?
I love the show. I did a lot of comedy writing in LA when I first moved out here. I was involved with the local improv scene. I always thought 30 Rock was genius. Tina Fey is a writing genius.

Now is specifically the time for this book. There are a number of things that do not hold up; our society has changed. The show uses blackface on multiple occasions. It’s a show that has a number of problematic elements.

I spoke with 30 Rock’s stars, guest stars, writers, directors, crew, and more. I could hear the struggle that a lot of them felt when I asked about areas where the show fell short.

What in those interviews stuck out to you?
The prop master, Kevin Ladson — a Black man — shared with me his complex feelings around the way the show used blackface. He thought some of it worked in the context of making a greater social point, but he also shared the moment that sent him going back to his office to cry and wondering how it could have made it to being filmed. But he felt that he didn’t have anyone to talk to, because the people in power weren’t people of color, and they were the ones making the choice to write and feature moments like that.

That was true with a lot of folks I talked with — the show was so well made and the writing was great, but it was pushing boundaries. With some of those jokes, we probably should have known better at the time that the comedy was hurtful, but a lot of people didn’t feel comfortable sharing that at the time.

Those interviews showed me how complicated making creative work can be. It’s also part of why it’s important to keep making new art — work that speaks to where we’re at today. So much is available to us on streaming services, on YouTube, etc., but we’re always going to need work that speaks to our current moment and that evolves with us.

What about your time at St. Olaf helped prepare you to write this book?
I think the thing that I really took away from St. Olaf was developing my character, and that really did help with this book. I’m not trying to take anyone down with this book, but I’m trying to offer a real guide to the show. It’s a guide, it’s cultural criticism, and it’s a sort of exploration. I brought my own perspective to it and that wouldn’t have happened without St. Olaf.

What else are you working on these days?
I’m working at TheWrap, which covers the entertainment industry. I love having conversations with smart people about their work. It’s one of the things I really loved doing at NPR. I love telling stories. I love sharing information with people. Reaching people now is harder than ever, but it’s also a fun challenge. Especially right now, with all the strikes in Hollywood and their aftermath, it’s a fascinating time to be covering all of that.

As you look to the future, what are you hoping to do next? 
I hope that my work in journalism continues to make a positive impact. I want to help make Hollywood a better place to work by covering the issues that are going on, spreading more ideas about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. 

I’m Hawaiian and Puerto Rican on my mom’s side, and I saw the struggles she went through in her life. That had a big impact on me. As part of both my general ethics and a matter of faith, I think it’s all of our responsibility to help make things better for each other.

As a journalist, I’ve always wanted to spread information and help people see the truth by putting the facts in front of them. Part of my work as a journalist is doing stories where I help surface facts that people don’t want surfaced. I always think about the journalistic aphorism that we’re supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Doing journalism that speaks truth to power is vital.

Ultimately, I just want to have a positive influence on the world and on the people I’m close to. And I would love to continue to have more peace and confidence in my own life.

Do you have any advice for Oles who are inspired by your story?
You shouldn’t be afraid to try something new. I started college as a music major, thought I was going to be a pastor, wound up in journalism, and might make more of a pivot to screenwriting in the future — so who knows?