Fundamentally, the central pleasures of last night’s live episode of 30 Rock existed independent of the episode’s content. As the time draws near for a beloved show—even a grudgingly beliked show—to perform such a stunt, the committed viewer experiences a tingle of anticipation. Looking forward to the coming installment of any serial in any medium— Bleak House, Full House, whatever—has always been a reward in itself, and the approach of a live episode heightens this thin delight. Someday, MRI machines will reveal the particular parts of a fan’s brain that flood with an extra hit of dopamine upon learning that the cast of a favorite show will be swinging through the airwaves without a net.
Another thrill (a minor one, but you take what you can get) lay in joining millions of other spectators. TV “events” create self-conscious communities to a greater degree than do regular episodes. Whether the assembled have been joined by a triumph of hype or the unreeling of actual news, they are instantly gratified in the joining.
Combined, these two ingredients can make a little cocktail, producing a buzz of semi-sadistic curiosity. Watching a live stunt such as 30 Rock’s, we are eager for errors—a particular flavor of liveness. The excitement of a football game or an awards show is in that it’s happening right now. In the absence of breaking news, a newscast simply offers the latest. And though there is a delicious urgency to Saturday Night Live, one wonders whether we take its liveness for granted and assume that all will go smoothly. If so, is that why some viewers felt a unique disdain for Jimmy Fallon in the days when he would giggle in the middle of a sketch?
Fallon’s giggling, as the 30 Rock audience knows, was breaking. Self-referential as ever, the show took its liveness as its subject, in both its decorative elements and in a B plot about the live show within the show. Tracy, being daft, made it his aim to force laughs while onscreen; Jenna, being a diva, threatened to one-up him with a deliberate nipple slip; there was a small something going on here. Tracy and Jenna, bent on sabotaging their own show, were slobbering attention hounds—less interested in publicity than in the love that a misstepping performer can receive. When the audience sits hoping that a TV actor will err, perhaps it wants a glimpse of the “real self” who rebounds from a flubbed line or misses a cue—a moment of unplanned intimacy to deepen its affections.
The live 30 Rock offered little to gratify that desire. Its production was competent. Its humor was merely competent. Cleverness about liveness was no substitute for the show’s usual liveliness.