’30 Rock’ Recap: Live Show

S5: E4 Before I say anything, I’d like to preface it all by expressing my unconditional love for Tina Fey. No matter how bad it gets, I’ll always be one of her biggest fans, even after last night’s live 30 Rock episode. It was a huge deal, everyone’s been talking about it for weeks, and it was not pretty. Sorry, it’s sad but true.

The good folks at 30 Rock (with some help from their old SNL buddies) put out two live episodes last night – one for the East Coast and one for the West Coast. Since I’m an East Coaster, I’ll be referencing the East Coast version of last night’s episode, sorry California. (It was the same plot and script; you’ll get the idea.)

The cold open established that they were going to make as many references to the show being live as possible – yes, Jack, it does look like a Mexican soap opera. Amid overpowering audience laughter that manages to kill the awesome fast-paced style that is the hallmark of every other 30 Rock episode, Jack tells Liz that he’s giving up alcohol while Avery is pregnant. Liz says it’s a bad idea, like that time when she gave up refined sugars – uh-oh I feel a flashback coming on…but how are they going to- oh, they’ve got Julia Louis Dreyfus playing Liz in the past when she hit Lutz over the head with a coffee pot to get her hands on his doughnut. (Nice Liz impression, Elaine.) Liz leaves and asks Jack’s assistant if he remembered her birthday, but it turns out he left Liz off the staff birthday list. He snaps at her with a line about her being 1000 years old. Liz fires back with, “Really, you want to play this game with a comedy writer?” before squirting him in the face with a water bottle and running away.

Jenna treats us to a 30 Rock theme song with actual lyrics – cute, but not all that funny. This has SNL written all over it, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but SNL has gone significantly downhill since the 90s.

Kenneth finds Jenna and gives her a few (fairly topical) messages – Mr. Brett Fah-rey dropped by with a picture of a hot dog (yup, Farve you’d better get used to it), the Chilean miners are angry about what she’s been saying about them, and thanks to “Obama-care” she can’t get a prescription for ecstasy. Liz comes by and Kenneth’s having a giggle fit. He sends her to Tracy’s dressing room and she thinks it’s time for her birthday surprise, but nope. Tracy’s finally watched the non-porn version of The Carol Burnett Show and has decided his favorite part is when the actors “break” and start cracking up the middle of a sketch. “They laughed so hard they couldn’t even finish the skit.” (He was reading the cue cards so hard, he couldn’t even finish that line.) He tells Liz he wants to add breaking into TGS. (Ooh, live show about breaking, how meta.) Liz says they don’t do it, because it’s cheap just as one of Tracy’s posters falls on cue. I guess they need to do a bunch of easy jokes to make it easier to the live audience to keep up.

We find out that Kenneth was laughing because Lutz is wearing an “I’m With Stupid Shirt.” No, why? Why is this happening? Live TV doesn’t have to mean bad jokes, does it? Liz gets called up to Jack’s office, but not before Pete delivers a birthday message. Nope, not that kind. It turns out they can’t use the song in a sketch, so they’ll have to use “It’s Your B-Day Bitch” by Snooki’s mom. Come on 30 Rock, you can do better than that.

Even Alec Baldwin is a little more flat than usual, I guess he needs the comfort of multiple takes to really hit his Jack Donaghy stride. Liz gets to his office, where he’s replaced alcohol with knitting – he’s wearing a hideous red poncho only made even cheesier by audience laughter. He says he can’t give up alcohol (it’s only been half a day, but he’s Irish, I know how it is) and he needs her help. Still no birthday wishes. Blerg.

With a live 30 Rock episode, we actually get to see a TGS sketch about Fox News – and take another dive into SNL territory. Tracy breaks yelling, “I’m breaking, Tee hee giggle giggle!” Wow. They cut to commercial – an SNL style commercial for “Dr.” Spaceman’s solution for erectile dysfunction – it’s “no longer just a dog problem.” He’s recorded an album of “doin’ it songs” to help, and we’re subjected to Chris Parnell’s impromptu live singing (which wasn’t ever good on SNL and doesn’t work here either).

On commercial break, Liz gets faked out yet again about her birthday – they’re passing around a card for the cleaning lady, not her. Double blerg. Liz berates Tracy for breaking, and he promises he won’t do it again…or did he? Just then Carol calls (yeah, Matt Damon!) not to tell his girlfriend “Happy Birthday.” Nope, sorry Lemon. He’s on a dangerous flight and needs her to rid his apartment of porn in case he dies in flight. And he’s just incurred the Liz Lemon wrath. (Side note: Carol’s co-pilot is played by Bill Hader who I’m pretty sure had more screen time on 30 Rock than he’s had on SNL all season. Sad.)

Meanwhile, Jenna’s pissed that Tracy’s decided to steal the show by breaking. She’s a real “ahk-tor” and if it continues, she’s going to slip a nip – and the “big one” at that. (Alright, I’m annoyed with the live thing, but the writers are still very funny people.)

Down in the basement, or prop room, or something, Liz finds Jack huffing paint to replace his usual scotch buzz and she finally yells at him for forgetting her 40th birthday to which Jack replies, “Damn you, she-beasts!” Still frustrated with his commitment to Avery, he complains that women are always leaving traps for him to fail (typical dude-speak) and throws a thousand bucks her way. Liz says she knows that she’s not the fun co-worker who people want to “party-dance all night” with, but she thought they could at least do something when she turned 40. Of course the mention of the number only makes Jack want to drink a 40 – oh no, he’s reaching college freshman level desperation.

Back on set, Tracy’s breaking character again, pulling off pieces of his Oprah costume and bringing back memories of his debut on 30 Rock. “This is an exciting mishap! This is live!” Liz throws her arms and storms off saying, “What the blerg!” (I thought the phrase was “What the what?” but who am I to criticize?) Jack grabs Jenna as she runs past, asking if she’s been drinking – he needs to smell her mouth. He rushes to her side, wraps his hand around her neck and wistfully brings her open mouth to his nose. As much as this episode annoyed me, that shot was golden.

Jenna rushes back to set so she can get even by slipping the big one, they cut to commercial – another SNL style fake one with Jon Hamm whose character has replaced his hook for a hand with a hand donated from a prison inmate. Whoa. (Lots of attractive guest stars for the live thing, woo!)

Jack gathers the crew and tells them they have to figure some way to make up for the fact that they all forgot Liz’s birthday. (But not before plugging for a Capital One card. “Capital One is amazing!” This show really does know how to take corporate money and stick it to the man at the same time.) They put together a big surprise for the goodbyes, and Carol calls as Liz walks into find the surprise. Carol jumps in on it, “Surprise! I was totally in on it, it was really expensive!” You’re lucky you’re so cute, dude.

But oh, no, Henry Winkler is on the cake! (The Fonz is Yadwega the cleaning lady’s hero.) Jack stole the old cleaning lady’s birthday for Liz, to which she replies, “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me!” Aww, rich people screwing over poor people. Happy birthday, Lemon.

Back in Jack’s office, Julia Louis Dreyfus is filling in as Liz until Tina Fey can run across the set, Tina jumps in mid-sentence and takes over. Cute. Liz has one last birthday wish, for Jack to have a drink with her. He toasts to Liz – she’s halfway to death – before the scene returns back to its usual recorded format. Liz and Jack sigh with relief – yeah, I was relieved too, guys. It’s not that it was unwatchable, but 30 Rock thrives on its spastic, nonstop pace to deliver its zany brand of humor, and when you have to slow that down to accommodate for audience participation and laughter, it just doesn’t work. No more live episodes, please?