NEW YORK—"30 Rock" went live. Thank goodness for film.
This much-hyped, much-awaited departure into live-ness was a one-time-only (one hopes) stunt by "30 Rock," which any other week is one of TV's funniest shows.
Instead, Thursday's episode was an overheated slice of self-indulgence and excess. It was "30 Rock" transformed into a shrill, gags-filled sitcom, complete with a studio audience roaring its approval.
Any other week, the zany intricacies of this NBC comedy make a half-hour episode seem like a comedic Swiss watch or ship in a bottle.
Instead, the live version of "30 Rock" seemed vaudevillian.
Was it meant to be a sitcom parody, an ironic send-up of the sort of comedy show most "30 Rock" fans would scorn?
As one sitcom chestnut, the episode found Liz Lemon (the harried producer of a variety show, played by Tina Fey) upset because she was turning 40, and no one remembered. Sound familiar?
Meanwhile, Tracy Jordan (the flighty star of Lemon's variety show, played by Tracy Morgan) wanted to burst out laughing during the show-within-a-show, because "breaking character" was what the stars of "The Carol Burnett Show" used to do and their audience loved it.
And Jack Donaghy (the slithery network boss, played by Alec Baldwin) was suffering because he'd pledged to stop drinking and wasn't happy to be sober.
"Does it seem weird in here to you?" Donaghy asked Lemon at the top of the show as they stood in his office.
Maybe he was asking because, for a change, he was sober. Maybe he was asking because the world he was inhabiting looked different from the filmic look of "30 Rock" any other week: "Everything looks like a Mexican soap opera," he said.
In any case, the studio audience howled. The show was off and running.
Originating from Studio 8-H (home of "Saturday Night Live"), this live "30 Rock" seemed like an unfortunate mashup of itself and "SNL."
Being live, it accommodated at least one topical (though not very funny) exchange.
"The Chilean miners are all out, and they're very angry about what you've been saying about them," Kenneth the Page (Jack McBrayer) told Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski), the vain co-star of Lemon's variety show.
"So I guess they're geniuses for getting stuck in a mine!" Jenna snorted.
And so it went. It was a disjointed string of sketches, insult humor and a cavalcade of cameos from guest stars (notably Matt Damon, Jon Hamm and Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
Although the characters made repeated joking references to the risks of performing on live TV, there were no noticeable stumbles by the actors, or technical glitches in the performance aired for the Eastern U.S. (The whole thing was performed again three hours later for the West Coast.) For that, at least, it deserves a hand.
"Live show! It's the West Coast live show. Let's talk about sushi," Cheyenne Jackson, who plays Canadian cast member Danny Baker, sang at the beginning of the episode.
The second version also appeared glitch-free, save for a couple of bobbled lines, and largely mirrored the first one. But there were scattered differences, and NBC's website invited visitors to spot them by watching the East and West episodes online.
(The dual episodes, promised "after the show" by NBC, weren't immediately available on the website after the West Coast episode ended.)
Of course, "30 Rock" isn't the first filmed TV series to stage a live telecast.
"The Drew Carey Show" aired a live improv-laced episode in 1999. Two years before that, "ER" produced an ambitious live hour of that medical drama.
"Will & Grace" kicked off its season in September 2005 with a live episode whose guest star was none other than Alec Baldwin.
Now maybe he and the rest of the "30 Rock" troupe have gotten this live thing out of their system. Good riddance.
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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org.