One of the things that’s best about 30 Rock is that it has a healthy respect for the history of TV comedy. Clearly, for a show predominantly written by a sketch comedy writer and based in the world of live sketch comedy, there was going to be an element of that, but the show has long been interested in the ways that TV comedy has grown and changed since it first started being broadcast. Take, for instance, the fact that the show often uses plotlines that most other sitcoms couldn’t get away with because they’re so cliché, then makes them seem fresh again by overloading them with jokes. I’m thinking of Liz going to her high school reunion, Liz’s boss trying to get involved in her side of things (the show’s fourth episode, “Jack the Writer”!), or everybody needing to come together to raise money for the health ailment of a guest character. I’m sure if I spent a few more minutes looking at the list of episodes, I could find a few more. (It gets even more apparent when you drop down to the subplot level, where the show has actually gone to the “someone gets their hand stuck in a vending machine” well.)
But this isn’t something I hold against 30 Rock. I love that it resurrects these old devices and ties them in to what it’s doing, which is a very modern and sophisticated form of TV comedy. 30 Rock, at its best, is like a vaudeville show, where Tina Fey and her collaborators will do just about anything to entertain you and make you laugh. They’ll toss in some relatively sophisticated jokes for the people who watch this show and want to hear satirical humor or political gags. They’ll toss in really broad stuff to show that they both have a healthy respect for tradition and know they can make you laugh via slapstick or something similar. And they’ll do the most random and absurdist stuff, all the better to make you laugh by weirding you out.
So “Live Show” is more than just a gimmick episode for a show that may feel the need to shake things up from time to time (because of its age, not because of its quality, which remains mostly consistent). It’s a chance to celebrate a piece of TV history. Most TV was live for years and years, and many sitcoms have done their own versions of the live episode over the years (hell, even ER did one in the ‘90s). Fox’s Roc was live for a full season, before going back to being taped. And, of course, the show that star and creator Fey got her start on, Saturday Night Live, is live every week (at least for the East Coast). Yet even as I really enjoyed “Live Show,” I’m amazed at how much it felt like 30 Rock was in a battle with the multi-camera sitcom format and was largely losing. It was still a funny episode. There were still a lot of great gags. But the essential 30 Rock-ness of 30 Rock was largely set aside to entertain the live studio audience (which, as always, functioned as a proxy for us).
Look at the plot. It’s the oldest sitcom plot in the book: Everybody’s forgotten Liz Lemon’s birthday, and now she’s upset and cranky. But when Jack finds out from Liz that everyone forgot her birthday, he decides to make it right via an improbable and over-the-top gesture. The gesture mostly succeeds, though Liz realizes that it was meant for someone else, and the episode ends with a moment of togetherness. Aside from runners – short sets of jokes that don’t necessarily constitute a subplot but allow for the appearance of a subplot – for Jenna, Tracy, and Jack, the A-plot was pretty much it. And look at how little story there is to it! 30 Rock is not the most complexly plotted show in the world, but it tends to have a more complicated plot than that. The storylines are just an excuse to toss out a myriad of jokes, of course, but they do take a few more twists and turns than the Liz’s birthday storyline, at least on average.
Another thing that’s different: Simply by having a live studio audience present, the rhythm of the writing automatically adapts to the setup punchline rhythm. Where the show usually adopts the manic pacing of a live-action cartoon, confident in the belief that if you don’t laugh at one joke, another will be along in the very next second, it slows way down for this episode, the better to leave room for the studio audience to cheer for its favorite characters or for cameos from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matt Damon, and Jon Hamm. This is perhaps why the story is so basic; there’s no room for anything else. A multi-camera sitcom relies extremely heavily on the connection between the actors and the audience, and that means taking time for the audience to acknowledge how much they love hanging out with Fey, Alec Baldwin, and Jane Krakowski (whose theatre background made her a surprisingly strong performer within the format).
To a degree, “Live Show” felt like the series doing battle with Family Matters. Because it was live, the show was unable to modulate the audience’s applause and laughter (like a filmed multi-camera sitcom would get to do), and that meant that the actors – who don’t have a lot of training in this – often sat there, frozen, while listening to the audience roar. Add that to the stereotypical plot, and you have a recipe for disaster, or at least a rather bizarre gimmick that just didn’t pay off. I’ve already seen plenty of people saying that this episode didn’t contain much of what they love about 30 Rock, and I’m hard pressed to disagree. This wasn’t an episode of 30 Rock. This was like an episode of the multi-camera sitcom Tina Fey makes after 30 Rock goes off the air and she wants to make a big enough hit to be able to pay for her daughter’s college education 50 times over.
And yet, I loved the shit out of this. Maybe it’s because I love TV history almost as much as the 30 Rock writers. Maybe it’s because I’m a multi-camera sitcom apologist. Maybe it’s just because the whole experiment was so refreshing and exciting for the actors that you could practically feel their energy and nerves pulsing off the screen. Sure, doing something like cutting to Jack suddenly wearing an absurd sweater was out of a ridiculous old sitcom, but I liked the way that the show maintained some essential element of its 30 Rock identity, even as it was dabbling in the silliness that sinks so many other shows. That go-for-broke, vaudeville sensibility is on full display here, from Jane Krakowski and Cheyenne Jackson singing the theme song for two different coasts, to Jon Hamm’s gleefully silly fake ad about hand transplants. I don’t want 30 Rock to suddenly become a live show every week – it would kill too much of what I still love about the show – but as an experiment, as a weird hybrid of 30 Rock, an old sitcom, and Saturday Night Live, I thought it was a lot of fun.
- Nathan's out making the world safe for democracy. He'll be back next week.
- The biggest differences between the East and West Coast broadcasts are pointed out above, with the theme song and the Hamm bits changing, though there were a few massaged jokes here and there. The one error came in the West Coast show, when Tracy Morgan forgot the line about Dot Com’s play and stepped on the punchline, which didn’t get a laugh (where it did on the East Coast show). Still, I’d rank the West Coast broadcast as better. It was tighter all around, and Jackson’s version of the theme song and Hamm’s female hand bit were stronger. (The Aladdin gag was better than the Slumdog gag, too, while we’re at it.)
- This almost felt like a series finale, what with all of the callbacks to the show's history (like Rachel Dratch) and the sense of the workplace as a kooky family being reinforced everywhere.
- Favorite gag throughout: Julia Louis-Dreyfus as cutaway gag Liz Lemon. I was tremendously impressed by the show finding a way to still do cutaways while staying live.
- Most obviously uncomfortable in the live setting: Judah Friedlander.
- Most obviously comfortable in the live setting: Krakowski and Baldwin.
- I'm not kidding about that Tina Fey multi-camera sitcom thing. She could write the best multi-camera sitcom in years in her sleep, and her sensibility is VERY well-tuned to that sensibility.
- Hey, what happened to Katrina Bowden? Has she been IN an episode this season?
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