30 Rock did something rare and dangerous last night, drawing from its Saturday Night Live roots, the Emmy Award winning show broadcast two live performances, one for the east coast and one for the west. Performing in front of an audience, the producers, writers and director came up with hilarious and smart ways to maintain 30 Rock’s signature single camera, whip around style and included some very welcome surprise cameos that added to the show’s greatness.
The episode, entitled “Live Show,” opened with Liz Lemon (the great Tina Fey) and Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy meeting in his office. Jack comments on how everything seems so clear to him, how he can see every line and pore on the face of Liz. The joke was an obvious reference to the fact that the series was being recorded on video rather than its normal film format. However, in the context of the show, Jack was talking about the fact that he’d given up alcohol while his girlfriend, Avery, is pregnant with their child and the world seemed different, like a Mexican soap opera
Liz thinks is a bad idea and has a flashback about the time she gave up refined sugars; flashbacks are a trademark of the show. The camera whips around, but there was no way Fey could have changed sets and clothes in time for this brief scene (and then back again). The solution? Bring in another actress to play Liz in flashbacks. Who better than Julia Louis-Dreyfus? The audience erupted in applause and people at home must have took notice from the coaches. Brilliant. When they cut back to Jack and Liz, he remarked, “Why are you better looking in your memory.” Liz responds, “My memory has Seinfeld money.”
Anyone questioning whether this sharply written series could retain its style and tone in a live performance should have had their concerns abated in those opening minutes.
The plot of last night’s show revolved around Liz’s birthday and that fact that everyone had forgotten her big “4-0.” As the cast and crew rush to get ready for that night’s “TGS with Tracy Jordan” to go on the air, Liz’s spirits begin to sink as she realizes that her big day will go unnoticed. She must also deal with Tracy (the unpredictable Tracy Morgan) and his desire to “break character” in the middle of a TGS sketch. Turns out Tracey had been watching the non-porn version of The Carol Burnett Show and laughed hardest when one of the actors on that seminal TV show started to giggle or crack up in the middle of a sketch, i.e. breaking character. Tracy’s desire to break character on TGS leads to his purposely ruining sketches in the most unfunny of ways.
The irony of this plot point is that Morgan often broke character when he was on Saturday Night Live, often making the sketches he was in so much funnier.
Meanwhile, Jack goes through withdrawal, leading him to seek out household products and sticking his nose in Jenna’s (Jane Krakowski) mouth after learning she had some wine beforehand. That Krakowski could maintain a straight face while Baldwin literally shove his shnoz deep into her mouth- twice- shows what a pro she is.
In addition to Louis-Dreyfus, guest stars included the always wonderful Matt Damon reprising his role as Liz’s airline pilot boyfriend, Carol (he forgot her birthday, too), Jon Hamm hilariously coming back as Dr. Drew Baird, who has just received a monstrous hand transplant, and the welcome sight of Rachel Dratch as the cleaning lady. Dratch appeared regularly during the show’s first season but disappeared after that year.
The live episode seemed to go off without any hitches. The in house band playing the musical interludes between scenes was a nice touch, too. Overall, this “experiment” was everything you hope for not only in live TV, but from 30 Rock as well. It was unpredictable, the threat of something going wrong seemed to heighten the performances, but most of all it was funny and entertaining.