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30 Rock Watch: Live-TV Love Letter

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Dana Edelson/NBC

Looking back at my review of the first live 30 Rock in October 2010, I thought it was a fun experiment but not a great episode of the show. The jarring thing about the transition was not the live performance per se but the live audience—that episode had to incorporate live, unpredictable laughter into a show that’s usually shot without an audience and thus is tightly constructed without pauses for breath, much less for laughs. The parts that worked best were the “commercials,” which essentially operated like SNL skits; the actual “show” portion had its rhythms thrown off. So I had a good time, I wrote, but didn’t really want to see 30 Rock try it again.

A year and a half later, 30 Rock tried it again, and I’m pretty happy that they did.

“Live from Studio 6H” isn’t a 30 Rock for the ages either, but it was a good time, and better adapted to the specific situation of live performance. It seemed like Tina Fey and company figured out what worked best on the first outing–the cutaway “sketches”–and structured an episode that would play to that strength. They wrote, essentially, a clip show without clips, a tour through an imagined history of live television that used longer scenes than the usual rapid-fire cutaways. The skewed TV Land that Kenneth brought us—Jon Hamm as a racist Amos-and-Andy-type caricature, Alec Baldwin as quasi Dean Martin, Tina Fey as a stand-in for both Alice Kramden and Ruth Buzzi[!]—was like a collection of SNL bits, but honestly, much funnier on average.

So: funny funny, and full of well-chosen guest appearances and cameos (Amy Poehler, Fred Armisen, Paul McCartney, Donald Glover…). But above all there was a sweetness to the episode, where Kenneth’s argument for performing TGS live made the characters reflect on what the medium meant to them, which reminded us of how much live performance was a part of the actors’ background, and in turn reminded us as viewers of the emotional connections we form even to the dumbest TV. The climax of the episode—in which Liz, Jack and Tracy realized they were linked by young Tracy’s pratfall while dancing for Ray Ray’s Blatholic Church—was the show’s way of saying that the spontaneity and even stupidity of performance matters. It’s one thing that connects people, across geography, age gaps and cultural backgrounds. That, actually, is the kind of theme that a very good typical 30 Rock episode can deliver—this one just delivered it through a very atypical 30 Rock structure.

I still feel like, next time out, I’d rather see another show try the live format. (Dan Harmon, are you listening?) But I also realize that 30 Rock is going to do live episodes if it wants to, whether I ask for them or not. And that’s probably the right move.

Quick hail of bullets:

* It’s a tribute to the episode, I think, that this time the “actual” show was funnier than the “ads”—but I did still enjoy the running Chatterton’s cigarettes joke, which recalled The Simpsons’ Laramie cigarettes bits. (“Your baby’s lungs need refreshing nicotine, for science reasons!”)

* I have a half-baked, and probably unprovable, theory that 30 Rock and Mad Men have the greatest fan correlation of any pair of network and cable series: that is, in my very anecdotal experience, people who like one tend to like the other to the same degree of intensity, and it feels—again, no actual research done here—like the two Manhattan-centric shows appeal to a very similar demographic. Maybe, maybe not, but the “Zou Bisou Bisou” reference (not to mention “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”) on top of another Jon Hamm guest shot and the general nostalgia theme of the episode underlined my feelings.

* It was a clever staging move to corral most of the cast into Tracy’s dressing room, using tight shots on the scenes there so that the home audience couldn’t see who was setting up for a flashback sketch.

* I can’t pick my favorite of the various pop-historical references in the show, but Jane Krakowski as Dusty Springfield was weirdly perfect.

* LOL “coccyx.”

(Note: I’m basing my review here solely on the East Coast airing. So I’d especially love to hear what the West Coast thought.)