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Sunday, 7 of March of 2021

30 Rock – “Live Show” (Nick)

“My memory has Seinfeld money.”

While I think Noel’s summation to the 30 Rock live episode is pretty accurate, I think it’s worth looking at the show in a different lens. To me, the jokes worked (on par with the rest of the season so far at least — which may or may not be good) but I also feel the jokes they planned for this episode would have only worked for live (like this opportunity is something the writers have been waiting for).

Noel mentioned the tremendously underwhelming live episode of E.R., attempting a vérité style for a show predicated on drama. Why the episode failed is that nothing particularly “live” happened: the whole show went as planned and the only thing to come out of it was the accomplishment of getting everything off without a hitch despite the pressure of one take. Drama is the incorrect format for live television (soap operas did it out of necessity with their grueling schedules). Comedy is the only sane lens to view live television. And the modern example of this, and the one closest to 30 Rock in attempt, is The Drew Carey Show.

The Drew Carey Show employed many of the people used in Whose Line is It Anyway? for probably the same reasons 30 Rock takes from SNL: the executive producers have a rapport with the talent and being on network makes the negotiations much easier. What made the Drew Carey Show Live fun was use of the live as a gimmick. The actors that often were used on the episode(s) (because they did several) were familiar with the Whose Line is it Anyway? game show format and expectations for improvisation. The show wasn’t afraid of “breaking” or the collapse of a scene because they worked in the thread of surprise (and Drew Carey is the Jimmy Fallon of non-sketch comedy). Elements of Whose Line like prop jokes and alternate lines were embedded in the script. Also, and maybe most importantly, the episode is extemporaneous from the normal seasonal arc, obviously positioned in that season with the issues that goes along with it, but with no affect on future events. Instead, it was rife with self-reference, smashing the fourth wall, and time for the actors to improvise.

SNL is nothing like Whose Line is it Anyway? in that regard, since, generally, except for the host monologue and musical performances, the show tries to ignore the fact that it is filming something. So references to the live gimmick were more subtle. The entire episode, shot on SNL’s HD cameras, is supposed to be in the gaze of a undrunk Jack (as the show opens with his insistence that everything looks different and then, as he finally takes a drink, everything returns to normal). Jack refers to the style difference, with the lighting change and multi-camera format, as like being in a Mexican soap opera. Tina Fey’s artillery against comedy programming being shot on HD (which she once referred to herself in high definition looking like “two draculas raped a Frankenstein”) is used here as Jack refers to the style change (the lighting and multi-camera format) comes out with the use of Julia Louis-Dreyfus (a woman who is nine years Tina Fey’s senior and, as Noel calls her, the female Benjamin Button) and the insistence that why her stand-in looks better than her is “Seinfeld money.” Scenes here are just elaborate SNL sketches, written so that actors have time to move from one scene to the next so the show can continue. While Drew Carey Show Live used the “Stall for Time Players” to allow for costume changes and set transitions, 30 Rock’s pedigree with live television gives them the wherewithal to handle a show like this deftly.

What simultaneously intrigued and disappointed me were the opportunities for actors to improvise that weren’t taken. What made Drew Carey Show Live work is that, even in their unapologetic audience-addressing kind of way, they had fun with live television. 30 Rock live seemed to miss the boat on that one. As much as we harangue SNL and it’s content on this blog and on Twitter sometimes, the show from a production standpoint is a tight ship and, unfortunately, there was just as little room for play here. Even the scenes where Tracy Jordan was supposed to be “breaking,” it was the same on the East and West Coast editions. “Spontaneous” jokes like Liz not being able to come up with the word “brains” and the picture in Tracy’s dressing room falling were too planned. As much as it is commendable for a live episode to go off without a hitch, people don’t watch live episodes for smooth sailing.

A major thread for this episode was Tracy’s insistence that audiences love it when actors break and Liz’s refutation of it, saying that, yes, they do love it but it’s cheap. This is, of course, an SNL mantra, one that this episode lives by (even when Tracy Morgan fumbles his lines early or Alec Baldwin gets his tongue tied in the utility closet scene on the West Coast version, no one breaks or improvises). What is disappointing is that there is no middle ground here. I thought the jokes were funny and loved how the show was planned but it didn’t look like the show was allowed to have any fun with the format outside of some very planned meta-jokes. Yes, audiences love to see actors break, but this episode should have been about taking advantage of the live format, especially since we would get to have two versions of the show available to all viewers. With so many actors that are great on their feet, it’s a missed opportunity.

In case you’ve never seen an episode of Drew Carey Show Live, there’s one up on YouTube: Pt 1 | Pt 2 | Pt 3

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