When recorded series go live, it’s usually hard to overcome the stuntiness of it all. (Alec Baldwin promised in a promo that the live 30 Rock would be “liver” than ever, so we all get to make up new words). But 30 Rock found a brilliant, hilarious meta-solution by making its live show about live TV.
The conceit was that the show-within-the-show, TGF, was about to stop being broadcast live, so Kenneth (Jack McBrayer’s performance gets slyer all the time) locks Liz Lemon and the rest of the TGF staff in a room until they agree to protest the change. This led to flashbacks, in black and white, of vintage NBC shows, including a Honeymooners homage called The Lovebirds, with Baldwin as a Ralph Kramden doppelganger (Baldwin can do anything, including a killer Jackie Gleason) and Tina Fey as an Alice Kramden clone with a secret.
The Lovebirds was presented as part of the “Kraft Product Placement Comedy Hour,” sponsored by Kraft singles, “The Cheese That Won World War II.” Even if you DVR’d and zapped through the commercials, you might have noticed that the next commercial up on 30 Rock really was for Kraft singles.
The edgier flashback was to a how echoing Amos and Andy. But because NBC was too skittish to cast two black men in the old days, Tracy Jordan’s (Tracy Morgan) co-star was played by – and there’s no way to prepare for the hysterical shock of his entrance – Jon Hamm in barely-there blackface and an Afro wig. Tracy Jordan’s character was the erudite, educated half of the team; Hamm’s an overall-wearing stereotype.
There was no reason this 30 Rock couldn’t have been recorded, of course, but the live gimmick seemed to give the writers a sparkling burst of energy, in a half- hour crammed with guests including Amy Poehler and Jimmy Fallon, some timely pop-culture references (that “Zou Bisou” song from Mad Men will be stuck in your head again) and so many clever moments you might have a hard time choosing a favorite – although it is very hard to top the casual way Paul McCartney slaps Jack Donaghy on the face while strolling toward the bathroom. That was the kind of casual throwaway moment that made the entire show land just perfectly, giving gimmick-TV a good name.