Tonight’s 30 Rock Is Laugh Tracked In Front of a Live Studio Audience


I just watched the live 30 Rock episode; this isn’t shocking news, but it started out very awkward and got better as it went on. I won’t give away much about it for those who haven’t seen it yet. I will be interested to see if the West Coast version — for which the cast is going to perform a completely separate show instead of just broadcasting a tape of the first performance, the way SNL does — has a more confident tone to it, now that they’ve already done it once and have a better idea of what works.

There actually have been a few sitcoms that did live episodes, such as Roc (someone joked that this show should have been titled “30 Roc”), a Fox show that went to a live broadcast format for most of its second season. But there haven’t been many (if any) single-camera sitcoms that did a live episode in front of an audience. That makes tonight’s 30 Rock kind of a test case for how shows are different when they use an audience than when they don’t.

Of course watching a live show is different from watching a taped sitcom with multiple takes. It gives you an appreciation for how hard a job Saturday Night Live has: no, they’re not funny a lot of the time, but that’s because until they get it in front of an audience, they don’t know if it’s funny or not. It’s as if the first preview of a play is being broadcast to the world.

It’s also a reminder that some things can work in one format that don’t always work in another: they tried to carry over the hand-held camera from the regular show into this special live broadcast, but the shaky camera — which we’ve just barely come to accept in film — looks very weird when used live in the studio.

I thought of the performers, it was Jane Krakowski who came off best in the live broadcast. She often seems a bit lost in the regular show, but because she’s a theatre performer — not a sketch performer — she was able to channel the audience energy without losing a sense of character. It’s always good to remember that this is a case where network demands were right: the show has always been better for the fact that NBC replaced Rachel Dratch with Krakowski, even if she hasn’t been one of the best characters on the show.

Alec Baldwin, similarly, uses his theatre training to good effect. The improv guys don’t always seem as comfortable with this format, because there’s not much time to improv, and they actually need to act. Improv comics are often better on single-camera film than they are in a TV show with an audience, because they can do much more actual improv on film (with multiple takes) than they can on something like SNL. It’s why the connection between live-audience TV and live performance isn’t always as clear-cut as we sometimes think. In a theatre performance, you can try something and if it doesn’t work, you don’t do it again at the next performance. That’s similar to a film where you do multiple takes and try different things in each one. But in a live TV episode like tonight’s, what you do is going to be seen by millions of people, and it’s going to be on a DVD and online. So that discourages improvisation and rewards people who are good at replicating their performances (actors, rather than improvisers).

Also, a search on Twitter revealed that, as expected, many people complained that 30 Rock suddenly had a “laugh track” tonight. Another reminder that complaints about “laugh tracks”, always phrased as an example of the speaker’s sophistication (I’m so smart I don’t need people telling me when to laugh), are anything but.

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Tonight’s 30 Rock Is Laugh Tracked In Front of a Live Studio Audience

  1. Looking forward to watching this on my PVR. I wonder, though, how this compares to the two live episodes Will and Grace tried in their final season. As I recall, W&G filmed both episodes in only one or two sets, allowing them to use their normal camera work. Also, that show always ran with a laugh track, so I'm guessing it provided a more natural fit for having an episode or two before a live audience.

    • Yes, Will And Grace always had an audience, which made the live transition easier because it only changed the look of the show, rather than the sound of it.

  2. Speaking of laugh tracks: NPH recently revealed in a recent interview that they moved on from showing HIMYM to a studio audience after taping to a laugh track to get more consistent results (and cut time). So, it's now officially a laugh track show.

  3. The East Coast / West Coast rule applies to live dramas as well – the version of the Smits / Alda debate that's included on the West Wing DVD set was the West Coast version, both because Alda slipped up a couple of times on the East Coast version and broke kayfabe and because it was generally better-performed the second time around.

  4. Jaime, do you know of any sites that list the kind of information you often write about — tape vs. film, single camera vs. multi-camera, audience vs. non-audience?

  5. I thought Rachel Dratch (befoer she was pregnant) was always on as an actor but played a different bit character each episode while Jane Krakowski (no Krasinski she) was always Jenna Maroney.

    • Dratch was Jenna in the original unaired pilot. After she was replaced, Fey tried to keep her on the show by giving her a rotating series of guest characters to play, but it didn't last.

      • Thanks Jaime.

  6. Tiny nitpick: SNL actually does a two-hour dress rehearsal before a live audience at 8:00pm, then they rewrite/delete sketches during the break before they do the live show at 11:30, so they actually do the equivalent of two separate shows. Once in a while they'll replace a broadcast version of a sketch with a dress version in repeats.

  7. "Another reminder that complaints about “laugh tracks”, always phrased as an example of the speaker's sophistication (I'm so smart I don't need people telling me when to laugh)"

    The only shows I watch are Colbert and Letterman, which are obviously in front of live audiences, so I never think about the laughter. However, at Thanksgiving dinner this week, various family members were talking about the new TV shows, and complained about the laugh track, and almost said verbatim what you wrote out about not needing something to point out when to laugh. I'm wondering what caused this switch that suddenly passive TV watchers became aware of the laugh track? I mean, a laugh track is not new. I can remember reading an Entertainment Weekly story, possibly as long ago as the late-1990s, stating that the laugh tracks used were recordings made of TV audiences in the 1950s.

    • I'm wondering what caused this switch that suddenly passive TV watchers became aware of the laugh track?

      Probably a bunch of things, including the removal of laugh tracks from single-camera shows (in the '50s and '60s and '70s, comedies shot without an audience had laugh tracks added, so we were conditioned to accept laughter in any comedy, real or not) and also I think a bit of "a little learning is a dangerous thing"; people are medium-aware enough to know about the "laugh track" and what it is, but not medium-aware enough to know that most shows don't use laugh tracks and that real audience laughter is different. People heard somewhere about canned laughter and telling us when to laugh and apply it to any sitcom with laughter on the soundtrack, even though it's not true — but a lot of commonly-known things aren't true, as we all know.

      • A few years ago, for "Back to You" and "Til Death," Fox revived the old " [name of show] is filmed in front of a live studio audience" practice. It didn't stick around, and I'm not sure why. It definitely would help clear up the laugh track confusion.

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