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.