Tuned In

30 Rock Watch: The Live of the Party

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A rehearsal for 30 Rock's "Live Show." / NBC

Spoilers for 30 Rock’s live episode coming up. I am typing this post LIVE, with no edits or backspacing to correct typos! You can’t prove that I didn’t!

30 Rock may be about a lot of things—work, politics, gender and race, snack foods—but at its most enjoyable it’s a TV show having fun with the idea of being a TV show. So “Live Show” may not have been 30 Rock’s greatest episode as an episode; shot normally on film (with the meta-live jokes removed) it would have been a story with familiar Liz and Jack character beats and a fairly weak Jenna-is-ticked-at-Tracy subplot.

But taken on its own as a 30-minute special, it was a good time: a rough, adventurous ride that gave off a sense of joy at getting to play on a stage for a half hour.

The actual performance was a bit choppy at first (I watched the East Coast version, being, well, on the East Coast), but both script and performances picked up by the first commercial break—as should be unsurprising, given the cast full of people with plenty of live-performance experience.

And I have to wonder if part of that wasn’t a function of getting acclimated to seeing and hearing 30 Rock with live studio laughter, since the show is usually written tightly and without breaks for reactions. (I suspect that some of the show’s drier lines, like Dot Com’s “It was Angels in America, Trey!” would have played funnier in a regular filmed 30 Rock.) It was jarring to see the show open on what looked like an SNL set (it was, in fact, on SNL’s stage, another bit of meta), a fact the first line acknowledged, and to hear the show’s normal whipcrack rhythms pause for applause.

A lot of the best jokes in “Live Show,” then, were not funny just for the gags themselves but for how we knew they were pulling off the gags in the context of live performance. Having Liz look like Julia Louis-Dreyfus in her flashbacks, for instance, was funny because Liz idealized herself in her memory, and because she was actually played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but most of all because it was a brilliant solution to: so how is 30 Rock going to do all those flashbacks and cutaways on a live stage? The live format allowed the writers to work in Brett Favre and Chilean miners references. And the cut to the usual camera filter at the end—rendering the sheen of recorded TV as the sweet, sweet haze of alcohol—was a funny and sweet note to end on.

That’s another way of saying that the episode was at its best when it was not like a normal 30 Rock, because a typical 30 Rock—which is closer to The Simpsons than a three-camera-shot-before-an-audience-show—doesn’t really translate live. (Dr. Spaceman’s ED CD commercial was a hoot, but really it was an SNL sketch.) That said, it was impressive what did translate from the usual show: I could have seen Carol’s distraught call from the plane (“The in-flight meal was a fritatta!”) as a taped cutaway easily.

Other shows besides 30 Rock have translated badly to live TV—ER, for instance, lost the show’s usual thread and fell flatter because it’s live episode was meant to carry dramatic weight, rather than just be a good time. I had a very good time watching 30 Rock live—and I suspect I probably wouldn’t find it held up so well on a second watch.

And that’s fine; when it comes down to it, this was a tribute for TV lovers by TV lovers to the medium’s ability to play and produce delights that are ephemeral. The live 30 Rock was a reminder of what a thrill live TV other than American Idol can be. And maybe we should see more of it in the future. But from a show other than 30 Rock next time.

Your thoughts? And in particular, what did the West Coast Tuned Inlanders think?