'30 Rock' Live: A Funny Reminder of Why Sitcoms Aren't Shot Live Anymore

The show highlighted how far scripted TV has come from the days of the live studio audience.


Last night's episode of 30 Rock was filmed at 30 Rock. That's unusual. Tina Fey's Emmy-winning sitcom is usually shot at a studio in Queens. Then again, the NBC show is also usually shot in pieces, edited at leisure, and broadcast weeks later. Last night, though, for the second time in its six seasons, 30 Rock was broadcast live from its namesake building, 30 Rockefeller Center. There were two broadcasts, actually. The first was at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, and three hours later, the cast did the whole thing again—with minor variations—for viewers in the Pacific time zone.

Both were directed by 11-year SNL veteran—and Susan Lucci of directors—Beth McCarthy-Miller. Both broadcasts, to be sure, were technical marvels. The premise was that 30 Rock's fake show-within-a show TGS would save money by no longer being broadcast live. Only Kenneth the Page (Jack McBreyer) stands up for the tradition of live television, creating a sort of combination bottle episode/clip show when he locks much of the cast in a small room, swallows the key, and tries to convince everyone a la 12 Angry Men, that live television still has a place in the 21st century.

The cast reminisces about great moments in live television: the Moon landing, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Then a series of "flashback" sketches offers a history of live TV. There were no big, evident glitches, and only one flubbed line, when Fey confused two characters' names early in the Eastern version. The guest stars and cameos came at a frantic pace—Paul McCartney, Jon Hamm, and Donald Glover, along with plenty of Fey's friends from her SNL days, including Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler.

If the writing was typically sharp, the targets of the humor were a tad familiar. A spoof of The Honeymooners lampooned the sexism in 1950s sitcoms. A send-up of NBC's Nightly News in the 1960s mocked the sexism in broadcast journalism. There were two jokes about men being scared of menstruating women, and Rick Sanatorum's name seemed woven into the story for the express purpose of demonstrating how topical live TV can be. But the larger problem—one that made this episode such an admirable failure—was another quality typical of 30 Rock—the lack of depth in the characters or a believable story. For all the sharp writing, beloved stars, and technical accomplishment, Fey and company didn't make much of a case for live TV. In fact, 30 Rock Live perfectly illustrated why the tagline "shot live before a studio audience" has gone the way of rotary dial—and it isn't money.

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Hampton Stevens is a writer based in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, ESPN the Magazine, Playboy, Gawker, Maxim, and many more publications.

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