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NBC's Live "30 Rock" Was Spectacular - Twice
April 27, 2012  | By David Bianculli  | 8 comments

NBC’s 30 Rock presented a brilliant live episode Thursday night, inspired by and spoofing on the history of live TV itself. Then, three hours later, did it all over again, just as brilliantly – but by no means the same…

Taking full advantage of the opportunity to mount a live “rerun” for the West Coast three hours after doing a live telecast for the East, 30 Rock swapped out punch lines, theme song lyrics, and, on some occasions, even guests.

Team East Coast – and the viewers watching – won big in one respect. For a cameo appearance at the beginning of the show, in which Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon was extolling the virtues of live television by insisting that anything could happen, the scene was interrupted by Paul McCartney. Team West Coast and its viewers, instead of a former Beatle, got a visit by… Kim Kardashian.

On the other hand, during the East Coast performance, a spoof on NBC’s 60s-era news team of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley had Alec Baldwin playing Huntley and guest star Jon Hamm as Brinkley. They were hilarious together, making fun of a “woman reporter” played by Fey – but on the West Coast, reprising the segment three hours later, Brinkley was played by NBC’s current real news anchor, Brian Williams.

In most cases, Team East Coast and Team West Coast got served slight variations on the same delicious menu. And the show even had a point. “Live TV made us all what we are today,” Fey’s Liz Lemon realizes at the climax – then, at the very end, lands one final joke about how few people are watching. Well, at the end of the West Coast show, anyway.

In the early days of live television, one NBC executive, Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, initiated what he called “spectaculars” – one-time shows that were so ambitious, they deserved a description grander than “specials.” 30 Rock, in both versions Thursday night, was exactly that: Spectacular.

Some favorite moments, from the show, which was written by Jack Burditt and Fey, and directed by Beth McCarthy Miller:

In one flashback to an ersatz TV variety show, a “joke wall” paid homage to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Alec Baldwin, for the East Coast, imitating Richard Nixon. On the East Coast, Baldwin imitated Paul Lynde – both of whom made cameo appearances on the real Laugh-In.

The Lovebirds, a spoof of The Honeymooners (with only the names changed, to protect the innocent) had Baldwin taking Ralph Kramden’s spousal threats to new heights, or lows. “Bang, zoom,” he tells he tells Fey, who plays his wisecracking wife. “I’m gonna drown you in the bathtub and say a mental patient did it!”

And perhaps most bravely, Alfie ’n’ Abner, an obvious spoof of Amos ’n’ Andy (TV’s first all-black sitcom, and still the most controversial series in TV history), had Tracy Morgan playing opposite Jon Hamm, and taking outrage at his white co-star’s exaggerated dialect and dialogue. “Alfie, I done stole dis catfish!” Hamm bellowed as Abner, prompting his co-star to recoil in offended disgust.

Other segments, on both coasts, poked fun at vintage cigarette commercials, at the live TV version of 12 Angry Men, at Dean Martin’s ultra-loose variety show (with Baldwin surrounded by bouncing beauties on The Joey Montero Show), and even at vintage telethons, where Jimmy Fallon got to guest star in flashbacks, playing a young version of Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, being prank-called by a young Liz Lemon, played by Amy Poehler.

Sheer brilliance – but almost no one got to enjoy both versions live. And too few are watching anyway. Last week, NBC’s most-watched Thursday program was Betty White’s Off Their Rockers. Ironically, that program is a throwback to one of the shows from TV’s early years, Candid Camera.

And one final irony: Eventually, the best place to compare and contrast both versions will be the DVD set of 30 Rock. Which, of course, is not live at all – but one more factor, along with DVRs and time-shifting, that is making live TV, or even watching TV in real time, quite literally a thing of the past.

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Loved the homage to the live shows. Is there anything Alec Baldwin can't do? His Joey Montero was pitch perfect! Jon Hamm once again proves there's a lot more to him than just being Don Draper. With OnDemand I've watched both EC/WC, and Team East Coast scores the win! But great show on either coast.
Apr 29, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
I wonder -- Will anyone look into how many fans did the compare and contrast exercise via OnDemand? Hmm. Maybe WE should...
Apr 30, 2012
I watch 30 Rock on iTunes, so I get both versions. I thought both were great but the East Coast was a little better. While Kim Kardashian was a (very) poor substitute for Sir Paul, it allowed them to slip in the viewership gag - 2.5 million viewers watched TGS, 14 million watched Kardashian's Twitter or Facebook or whatever.
Apr 28, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Right! It's Like Tina once said about being in on an NBC sitcom in 2008: "It's like being in vaudeville in the Sixties!"
Apr 28, 2012
Alec Baldwin's face when Paul McCartney walked in looked like genuine surprise. I'm sure younger viewers couldn't relate to the old TV shows parodied but I thought it clever, although I hope that Huntley and Brinkley would not have been so rude.
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
The Huntley-Brinkley incredulousness at a female TV reporter was aimed, I suspect, at Harry Reasoner's less than embracing welcome of ABC co-anchor Barbara Walters back in the 70s. And Baldwin indeed DID look surprised, especially when Sir Paul gave him a playful slap.
Apr 28, 2012
I thought it is was funnier than the "non" live shows. Especially since I am old enough to have watched the "flashback" shows first time around; except for Amos and Andy... You did not mention Jenna's Paul singing that "french" song (never remember the title) as he came down from the rafters. I thought Hamm was going to show up in that shot..
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Yeah, his rendition of 'Zou Bisou Bisou,' dressed an an angel, truly was, uh, memorable.
Apr 28, 2012
Tausif Khan
Notable appearances of actors in black face within last four years

Robert Downey Jr.- Tropic Thunder (still of Downey in black face used as Oscar nom picture)
John Slattery- Mad Men
Billy Crystal- The Oscars
Jon Hamm- 30 Rock (although I loved that Tracy beat him up and refused to do the show)

This is a trend that is very disturbing trend.
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Tausif, if it's a trend, it's not new -- and not nearly as disturbing as when the white stars of radio's Amos 'n' Andy put on blackface to star in the movie version. That was so horrendous, it led to the all-black casting for TV's version...
Apr 28, 2012
I think here on the east coast we won with Sir Paul McCartney and Jon Hamm with the news. Then again Hamm was great with each appearance. I have to say that I like 30 Rock and watch it every week but this particular episode had me and my friend laughing for the entire 30 minutes, I'm sure we missed some jokes. Live TV is a lot of fun.
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
Team East got Sir Paul. Team West got Brian Williams. I think even Brian, nice a guy as he is, would say the East won. Besides, the East was Kardashianless.
Apr 27, 2012
I didn't see the earlier live version, but I loved the one last night--especially the take-offs on the old shows. And thank goodness the Midwest saw the East Coast version! I have zero desire to see any of the Kardashians in anything. Glad I watched it.
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
David Bianculli
I know! One of the slogans we were considering using for the new relaunch was "No Kardashians, None of the Time." And look what happens: Week one, she shows up. But a Beatle on one coast, and a Kardashian on the other? Wow. Talk about coast-to-coast inequality...
Apr 27, 2012
Noel Holston
This is one of those instances where you read a critic you think you're on the same page with and go, "What?" Aside from the amusing McCartney walk-throughs, I thought was spectacularly unfunny, full of spite and nastiness and one more episode that suggests that Tina Fey is pissed about the audience loss .
Apr 27, 2012   |  Reply
Noel Holston
I will concede that it was logistically ambitious, but that's all. Marty disliked it even more than I did.
Apr 27, 2012
David Bianculli
I love you, Noel (platonically, just like I love your wife), but we're just going to have to agree to disagree on this one. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Apr 27, 2012
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