Saturday, October 16, 2010

The live 30 ROCK

Anytime a show breaks format it’s a big risk. On MASH we did it from time to time. When my writing partner, David and I pitched the “Point of View” concept to producers we told them it would either be the best or worst show of the year.  But we took these chances primarily because we were in a format that was completely locked-in to a time and place. All other sitcoms could naturally evolve. Characters could move into new apartments, get married, divorced, have kids. We asked to audience to believe that eleven years of shows all took place in one calendar year. So to shake things up we broke the format (usually once a season). By the way, credit Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds for coming up with that.

On the other hand, the 30 ROCK live show was a ratings stunt. I can’t imagine Tina Fey feeling the urge to completely re-imagine her successful Emmy-winning show just cause she was creatively curious. A likelier scenario was NBC coming to her begging if she’d do this because they really needed help launching OUTSOURCED.

So it was more of a Mission Impossible assignment. And as such I thought Tina & everyone did an amazing job. Not only did they manage to pull it off live without any real hitch (at least on the West Coast) but the episode they staged was very ambitious. Yes, it was a little uneven, but Jesus, that’s like criticizing Evil Knievel for not landing smoothly when he jumped the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.

When I saw the first scene with Liz and Jack just talking in an office, not even moving, I thought – what a cheat this is going to be. But then the show really took off.

There were ingenious touches like flashbacks with Julia Louise-Dryefus playing Liz, topical references (I hope Brett Favre was watching), and the Tracy subplot dealing with “breaking” in a live show. Normally I hate when characters know they’re in a comedy but in this case it really worked. Tina took full advantage of the conceit. And had there been a major screw up and everybody broke up it would have made no difference. We still would have loved it at home. It was brilliant insurance.

I actually found myself laughing more at this 30 ROCK episode than in most lately. So do it again next week, Tina! (What I’d really like to see is HAWAII 5-0 done live.)

I’ve seen a number of articles marvel at how Tina made changes and tweaked some jokes for the West Coast live version. Uh… that’s what we DO. On any multi-camera show we have a dress rehearsal in the afternoon, change some things, shoot the show in front of the audience, pause and generally re-shoot scenes with some new jokes, and even after the audience leaves we go back and revise some more jokes or moments.

Also remember, Tina comes from SNL. She’s hardly a stranger to live shows and the format.

Anyway, kudos to Tina Fey and everyone associated with 30 ROCK for an impossible mission well done. If you want tips on doing the POV episode just give me a call. February Sweeps are coming up.


Anonymous said...

I found the show funnier than usual in this format, and my theory is that it primarily has to do with the way it is shot. The wide angle television camera lenses they used are just inherently 'funnier' than the longer film camera lenses they usually shoot on. They enhance the comedy. I heard that from Barry Sonnenfeld, who believes wide angle lenses are just funnier. When shooting City Slickers 2, Billy Crystal called up Barry Sonnenfeld and said, "The director is shooting with long lenses. It's not going to be funny, is it?", to which Barry replied, "No."

Mike K said...

Here's a great article on the differences between the two broadcasts ---

It's interesting to see the kinds of changes they made. I hope they put both versions on the dvd (or hulu or whatever), I'd love to see them back to back.

Anonymous said...

You can watch both versions on It was really fun to see how the different audiences reacted to the same jokes. I thought both episodes were well done.

Dave Mackey said...

If it was such a big ratings stunt, why didn't NBC wait for the sweeps?

WV: spointer: a hunting dog who drools more than usual.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you say Mash (my favorite show ever, thanks in part to you) took place over one calendar year because the episode A War For All Seasons is post-Henry Blake and covers one calendar year.

I happen to love that episode. David Ogden Stiers, with his baseball cap, in the compound during the pennant call never gets old.

Anonymous said...

I really liked it too. I generally find the show the biggest comedy roller coaster on TV-- one week terrific and the next a disaster. It did prove one thing though: whatever the format 30 Rock is being recorded in, it is still basically a half hour comedy sketch. This last episode felt like it was comfortably at home. I agree, they should do them all this way instead of trying to tart it up on film.

amyp3 said...

Oh gawd, I hated the thought that this 30R might benefit Outsourced somehow.

I got the impression the different versions had been planned far in advance. (I definitely preferred the major changes in the West.)

I know that Tina & Co. thought about doing a live 30R for a long time. During the writers' strike the cast did a benefit at UCB to raise money for out-of-work PA, a partly-staged version of a real script. (It's on a 30R DVD. The home video is awful but the performance is hilarious.) They've pointed to that as a motivation for this.

I think I was too harsh on the live show right after seeing it. I hadn't prepared myself for how different it would look (Filmic vs. live look). And that threw me off.

I'd been falling out of luurve with the show for quite some time. But I think they have some new good energy this season.

Hal Tepfer said...

While the show was - um - interesting, it felt like an extended SNL skit, or set of skits. The "normal" show had more subtlety, I thought. And, I was very very disappointed at the shilling for a credit card, done within the context of the show. Yes, to some extent they were pointing out how absurd it would be to do this sort of "in show" promotion, and - yet - they did it. This trend is very very troubling when it doesn't just come from within the show's plot or character development. It can be done well (this past week's community, for example).

WV: conesops - those little napkins you get at the ice cream shop.

That Neil Guy said...

@hst The obvious shilling for product is one of the things that drew me in to 30 Rock in the first place. I passed on the first couple of episodes and then found myself watching one day. It was the episode in which they did a big, obvious shill for Snapple and it was utterly hilarious. the way Baldwin ended the little segment with "Yes, we all love Snapple" (or something like that) was the perfect button. That one scene hooked me on 30 Rock and I've been watching ever since.

Now, that being said, the Capital One reference was not nearly as funny, was much more egregious, but it made me smile and didn't bother me at all.

amyp3 said...

The ironic product placement bits have been such a 30 Rock trademark that there'vw been Net debates over whether some product appearances were ads or not. (One was related to a McD's menu item IIRC.)

If someone involved with this episode wanted to use it for their Emmy nomination, they'd have to choose East or West version, right?

[Verification word: cokia. Jokes way too easy.]

Anonymous said...

I actually think they made it look so easy that the average viewer probably didn't even know how challenging it was to pull off.

And now I will never be able to watch the opening credits without hearing "Live show, it's a 30 Rock live show for Pacific time...Portland, Vegas, Glendale this is 30 Rock!"

p.s. who would you like to see in the World Series?

Ted said...

Loved the show, and as always, hated the inside-the-show commercial.

Last season, they had a whole story that promoted the DVD release of "Mama Mia." Can they please stop with that?

Unknown said...

Oddly, I didn't like the live 30R. It felt like an overly-long SNL skit, and although there were promising throughlines that did give me a chuckle - Tracy Jordan attempting to have a wardrobe malfunction - there were plenty of almost-jokes that almost-worked. I am sure it had something to do with the live broadcast, but the cast's comic timing seemed off by *that* much... just enough to make the difference between funny and not.

There were also too many sex jokes for my taste this time, and I had to wonder if they were hoping to hedge their bets on the format change by going for the crotch.

Dodgerbobble said...

I just finished watching the episode(does it still count as live, even though I watched it two days later?)and it was one of the funniest shows they've done.

It would take a lot more than that to get me to watch Outsourced again.

Anonymous said...

30 Rock is probably hysterical in the writers' room. Conceptually, it's funny and smart. In execution, it's flat and unfunny. Except for Alec Baldwin. Louis-Dreyfus's appearance demonstrated this: when Fey wobbled in to replace her in the one gag, I thought "wait, why's the pretty, talented, funny woman getting buMped for the schlub?"

A_Homer said...

I was won over at the moment the first flash-back occurs and the brilliant decision to have one well-loved character, "Elaine" from Seinfeld, doing another - "Lemon" from 30 Rock. It's got layers to it but still economical and quick to get.

The dialog from Baldwin to Tina Fey afterwards knows how to benefit from such a great situation without over-doing it (to paraphrase it: "So why does your memory look so much better?" "She has Seinfeld money..")

I liked the fact that everyone could manage it, and so what if it was an extended SNL sketch, it was live, people really sang, acted and made cues on time. Seriously, if the music industry had to do that today... and this is comedy no less.

Script-wise, I had one issue that Jack is falling into that rut of just being a character who now only has personal issues to work out all day. He used to be driven on by his job and making decisions, bad, crazy or good for the network. Now it's like this energy has to be happy with discussing home-life situations, upcoming baby and so on....The baby is usually the bad sign in comedy. Jack has to get some mojo back.

The other point was Tracy. I felt his delivery or something wasn't doing the material much merit and so that whole "breaking" joke wasn't dynamic enough to maintain momentum for as long as it was required, which was to occur not once, but TWICE. I expected another twist the second time around when he's supposed to be doing "Oprah", rather than just more of the same.

Still, all in all, weaker segments and stronger combined, Tina Fey is a force, no doubt.

D. McEwan said...

@Mike K, I read the article you linked to. Thanks. It noticed several changes I'd missed. But it made one error, when it described Jon Hamm's East Coast hand merely as "scary-looking." It missed the joke: the hand was the hand of a black man. How could they miss that? That joke would read, even in black & white. But the female hand getting turned on by being attached to Hamm was funnier.

All-in-all, I really enjoyed the live show, West Coast more so than East Coast.

MattA said...

I wonder if they considered having Sarah Palin play Lemon in the flashback scenes? Not that Julia Louis-Dreyfus wasn't good, but Palin would have been surreal.

DwWashburn said...

In the Poochie episode of the Simpsons, Homer asks if the cartoon will be broadcast live. The June Foray parody says "No it puts a tremendous strain on the animators' wrists." So there are some shows that will not benefit from live broadcasts. I can't imagine a live MASH episode.

lucifervandross said...

The beginning of the east coast feed felt off, like no one was really prepared to be on the live feed.

I think it's funnier in the normal format.

Unknown said...

@MattA - Not that Julia Louis-Dreyfus wasn't good, but Palin would have been surreal.

You're right!

MBunge said...

"her successful Emmy-winning show"

Successful at winning Emmys. Getting people to actually watch? Not so much.


Anonymous said...

I like how they handled the difference in the look between film and video... clever. The west coast version looked like a shakey-cam episode of AFV. It's like they forgot what camera pedestals and stedi-cam rigs are for.