Last season, I was pleasantly surprised by 30 Rock’s live episode. Before it aired, I worried that, without the benefit of some artful editing, the show wouldn’t be as zippy or clever as usual. Much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed the live show. For me, the episode crackled with a kind of manic energy that more than made up for its slower pace, stilted rhythm, and broader punchlines. It’s also refreshing to see a show as precisely scripted as 30 Rock cut loose a little. Television comedy these days tends to be exactingly constructed, not so much written as it is engineered. This is wonderful, of course, but it can also be exhausting. It can’t hurt, every once in a while, to be reminded that TV is a messy, collaborative medium, which is the reason I liked the first live episode so much—that, and it was also pretty funny.
If “Live From Studio GH” is not quite as fun, it’s probably because I know what to expect this time around. The episode is once again thin on plot. Jack announces that, for budgetary reasons, TGS will no longer be a live show. At first Liz resists, but when she learns that it’s cheaper and she’ll only have to work two weeks a year, she decides she “wants to go to there.” (Did anyone else wonder why she’d only have to work two weeks a year? Is this an annual special or a TV show? Sorry, these are the things that keep me up at night.)
Using a little chicanery, Kenneth gathers Liz, Jack, and the rest of the TGS cast and crew in Tracy’s dressing room, where he argues that live television is a tradition that ought to be upheld. The remainder of the episode cuts between Kenneth’s speechifying and “flashbacks” to the shows he’s talking about. It’s a classically meta 30 Rock move, of course—talking about live television on live television—but it’s also a nice way for 30 Rock to tip its hat to some shows of the past. As Todd pointed out in his review last season, the live episode was more than just a gimmick, it was also a celebration of TV history. This time around it’s even more explicitly so: The flashbacks include spoof versions of The Honeymooners and Laugh-In, among others. In a normal 30 Rock, spoofs like these would be used in a brief aside or two, but in “Live From Studio 6H” they fill up close to half the episode’s running time.
The episode comes dangerously close to feeling like a bunch of short sketches and celebrity cameos strung together, but I think the telethon revelation saves it in the end. We learn that, as a young member of St. Ray Ray’s Blatholic Church’s dance troupe, Tracy fell during a live local telethon performance. It just so happens that Jack was answering phones at said telethon, and that Liz prank called, pretending to be Toby Electric (son of “General”). Live television brought them all together, so how can they abandon it now? Maybe I’m still in a sentimental mood after “Murphy Brown Lied To Me,” but there’s something kinda sweet about this TGS origin story. (Of course, Tina Fey, Tracy Jordan, and several of the episode’s many guest stars also first came together on live TV, too, which adds yet another layer of self-consciousness to “Live From Studio 6H.”)
Speaking of guest stars, we all know 30 Rock loves a celebrity cameo, and this year’s live episode takes it to a whole new level. Jon Hamm is back, as we all knew he would be, starring as a white actor playing a black man in an early Amos ‘n’ Andy-esque sitcom and later, as NBC news man David Brinkley. (I’m surprised to discover that, once he scrunches his face up a little, Hamm actually kind of looks like a young Brinkley. ) But there’s also Amy Poehler as a young (and blonde?) Liz Lemon, Donald Glover as Tracy (genius), Jimmy Fallon as Jack Donaghy (not quite as genius, but still good), Fred Armisen as a telethon operator (he really loves cross-dressing, doesn’t he?), Paul McCartney as himself (obviously), and, um, Cheyenne Jackson. The line-up faintly wreaks of corporate synergy, but I suppose we can’t blame NBC for trying to promote its Thursday night line-up, can we? Plus there’s something kind of appropriately retro about all the crossover appearances. (That said, if other NBC stars like Katherine McPhee or Carson Daly had showed up, I’d probably be singing a different tune.)
There isn’t much room left in the episode for fully-formed B- and C-plots, but Jenna and Hazel both have mini storylines that tie in nicely to the overall theme of the evening. Jenna insists that Paul propose to her during TGS’s last live show, but he wants the moment to be sacred between the two of them. (Just as God and Rick Santorum intended!) She realizes he’s right, but he proposes anyway—floating down from the ceiling to the tunes of “Zou Bisou Bisou” and interrupting a skit called “Prince and Prince William’s Time-Traveling Fart Detectives.” I can’t wait for their wedding. Meanwhile, Hazel hatches a plan to do something—anything!—shocking on the air in an attempt to launch her Hollywood career. In yet another self-conscious nod to the history of live television—not to mention Rockefeller Center—she rips up a picture of Sinead O’Connor.
I’m going to end with an observation that might sound like a back-handed compliment, but isn't really meant to be one. On its surface, “Live From Studio 6H” exhibits the very tendencies—too many guest stars, too many clever pop culture allusions—that might otherwise ruin a regular installment of 30 Rock. But, somehow, in the context of a live show, these flaws are more easily overlooked. Maybe it’s because we instinctively know that, what we’re watching can’t be measured according to the usual scale, or maybe it’s because the sheer exuberance of the performers distracts us from some of the lamer jokes. In either case, the live experiment continues to be a worthy, albeit messy, one.
- A big caveat: I’m writing this week’s recap without the benefit of a DVR, a circumstance that usually is less than ideal for a show like 30 Rock, yet somehow feels just right for the live episode. Why should I get to rewind to get a quote just right when Tina, Alec, and the rest of the gang don’t get to?
- Did anyone else think that, given Jenna’s costume, Paul might come out dressed as Kate Middleton—or even Pippa? That would have been almost as great as “Zou Bisou Bisou.”
- Liz was more gussied up than usual tonight, wasn’t she?
- Favorite line of the night is this, from Hazel to Jenna: “This is New York state, bitch. Anyone can marry anything now!”
- Thought that I can’t believe just occurred to me: Why aren’t there more cast members on TGS? There are at least six writers, and only two (sometimes three) performers.