The burning question I’m left with after last night’s live episode of 30 Rock is: just whose idea was this? I don’t mean that sarcastically, as though I were seeking the proper person to blame. Despite some obvious concessions to the limitations of the format last night’s episode was anything but a fiasco. It was a thoroughly professional performance and a genuinely exciting television event. (The live audience was certainly excited: their howls of laughter were a distraction, as they forced the actors to pause unnaturally, enforcing a scale-back of the usual frenzied pace the show delights in.) What “Live Show” wasn’t was a real episode of 30 Rock. It was a gimmick, and while it’s a credit to all involved that it worked at all, it wasn’t exactly an episode I would use to convince a neophyte of the show’s general excellence.
To me it seems more likely than not that the idea for a live episode was inorganic; that it originated not in the mind of Tina Fey or the writers’ room but in some buzz-seeking network executive. Obviously I have no evidence for this conclusion, but why else would Fey et al, who have for years done a fast-paced elaborately-structured single-camera sitcom feel the need to do a dumbed-down live-audience multi-camera show?
The proof is in the execution. The forces behind 30 Rock knew they couldn’t just do a regular episode live, so they came up with the brilliant sober-Jack strategy. The show loves doing cutaway gags and refused to give them up, enlisting Julia Louis-Dreyfus to be “flashback Liz” in the funniest bit of the night. They poked fun at live television by winking at the home-audience with gags like Tracy’s poster falling down on cue and, really, the whole Tracy plot, where he decides it would be hilarious to break character on the always-live TGS. (Really, this was a brilliantly conceived story, since any mistake Tracy Morgan might have made would have looked to be in keeping with the script.) And of course, the final bit, where the familiar filmed look descends on the show as soon as Jack takes a drink.
Precious little of this episode would have worked on a traditional 30 Rock. Matt Damon’s hilarious mid-crash phone call (imploring Liz to TiVo “Bones” in case he survives) certainly would have, as well as Rachel Dratch’s cleaning lady and Jack sniffing paint. Overall, “Live Show” was a fun and frivolous exercise that left me wanting more, like, you know, a filmed episode of 30 Rock.