It was a noble experiment 30 Rock attempted Thursday: putting on its show live. Other sitcoms have attempted the same thing over the years, most recently by Will & Grace. But Tina Fey's Emmy-winning show is usually so dense in humor and precise to the second, it was immediately jarring to see all the loose ends.
Not that the differences weren't immediately mentioned in the episode. "Does it seem weird in her to you?" Alec Baldwin's character asked in the show's first line.
Broadcast live instead of on a glossier video, it had the feel of an extended Saturday Night Live parody of 30 Rock -- especially since it was shot in the same studio and featured these two vets of that late night show in the first scene, Fey and Baldwin.
It would seem that the humor of the show would translate whether it was live or on tape. But this one necessarily moved a little slower, and tried to emulate the original show down to the flashbacks and whip cuts to other scenes, which would normally be impossible to do, but they made key substitutions so Fey didn't have to appear in two places at the same time, mostly by having another sitcom (and SNL) vet sit in, Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
She was the first of what turned out to be a raft of guest stars - notable especially since they all had to be gathered in the same place. Most had been on the show a few times before, but having the likes of Matt Damon and Jon Hamm as well as a few more SNL veterans (Bill Hader, Chris Parnell, Rachel Dratch) as well as male model Garret Neff, made it seem like the most packed cameo version of the late night show possible.
A subtext of the episode had to do with Tracy Morgan's character willfully breaking character and cracking up in the manner of The Carol Burnett Show (and well, yes, Saturday Night Live). The running gag almost led to another incident in recent past live TV moments - the exposed body part.
They made a joke about things falling apart as things fell apart as planned behind them. But other things went wrong too - Baldwin dropped a book in the first scene of the East Coast version, shadows of booms were everywhere (and lighting was a mess in general).
They used the immediacy of the show to throw in a number of hyper-topical jokes from Bret Farve to Chilean miners (too soon?), the show also included just about the only actual skit from the show within the show, TGS, they ever allowed, taking a poke at Fox News.
There seemed an exaggerated artificiality to all of the characters in the live approach. Some, like Jane Krakowski's character, who play their roles theatrically, seemed especially brittle in this setting (but it was cool to have her sing the theme song live with a band).
Dratch's return to the show was significant. She was used as various characters in the show's first season, but as a consolation: She had begun life with the show as one of the show's stars, appearing in the original pilot in the role that Krakowski took over before they got on air.
That she returned to the role as a cleaning lady (in one of the best, unforced comic performances of the show), it may have been a commentary on her fate that her birthday celebration, too, was commandeered too by this unruly TV bunch.
Overall, it was a great, giddy event for 30 Rock fans, kind of like seeing the beloved show on tour. But it's so out of line with the rest of the season, I can hardly see it even fitting into the full season DVD.