Fall 2011

30 Rock—and Roll

If 30 Rock wasn’t already enough of a challenge, the director recalls what happened when the show went live. It was no laughing matter.

By Beth McCarthy-Miller

It’s late August last year and I am enjoying the last few days of my summer vacation before I start my tour of duty of sitcom directing for the season, when the phone rings. It’s the lovely Tina Fey calling to ask me to change my schedule for October. I was supposed to be in L.A. directing an episode of Modern Family, but she wants me to change dates because there is a special live episode of 30 Rock coming up and she needs me to direct it. The folks at Modern Family were lovely and accommodating and so we were off to the races!

Beth McCarthy Miller
LIVING DANGEROUSLY: McCarthy-Miller says directing the live episode of 30 Rock was the most fun and most frightened she’s ever been on a show.

I was doing a few other episodes of 30 Rock early in the season, so we all took that opportunity to sneak in meetings about the upcoming live show. It was decided that we’d go back to our old stomping ground, Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Center, which is the home of Saturday Night Live. Tina, executive producer Robert Carlock, and I had spent many years in that studio and the 30 Rock pilot was shot there. The great news about being there is that the SNL studio is set up for a live show, has audience seating, and one of the best crews in the business. The downside was that the space is actually pretty small and we had to make some serious decisions about what sets we could fit in the studio to accommodate our show.

In general, 30 Rock is built around a bunch of smaller scenes with quick flashbacks, so several locations are always required. But we had very limited space to work with and now had to give Robert and Tina some limitations as to how many locations we could actually provide for the episode. Luckily, the existing 30 Rock sets were originally designed based on the SNL studio so we could at least use some of the backstage areas because they were similar to our sets. Also, we had a plan based on our experience at SNL so that we could put up and dismantle smaller sets during commercial breaks in order to provide a few more set areas for us within the studio.

Now, Tina and Robert had to write the episode given what was realistic for us to pull off. They had to accommodate an abbreviated number of sets and they also had to make sure the cast could get from scene to scene without any issues. The person with the last line in one set clearly couldn’t have the first line in another set. Cut to one of the best ideas that came out of doing the show: Get another actress to play Liz Lemon in the flashbacks. Enter Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who was perfect and graciously agreed to do it.

If that wasn’t enough commotion, to further complicate things, there was an episode of SNL the night before we were coming in, so we were not able to start building in the studio until Sunday afternoon when all of the SNL sets were wrapped. We would be building and dressing all day and night Monday and then we were able to go in and start dry blocking Tuesday.

Tuesday afternoon we began the process of seeing the episode for the first time on its feet. This was a bit of a luxury for what is normally a single-camera show because the only time anyone sees the full episode after the table read is in the editing room. Going live and multi-camera, we could see the episode unfold and we were able to make some changes as we went along. For instance, there was a scene in an elevator with Tina and a cleaning lady that became a longer scene once we knew Rachel Dratch was playing the part. There was another scene where Alec, who is "on the wagon" in support of his wife’s pregnancy, tries to kiss Jane (Jenna Maroney) to get some of the alcohol from her lips. As we rehearsed, it became clear that Alec actually sniffing her breath to savor the alcohol smell was much funnier, so we changed that and even added a second beat of it because it was playing so funny. So far things were working out; Wednesday we would be ready to add cameras.

We spent the day Wednesday camera blocking every scene. It was important to me to keep the 30 Rock look, even though we normally shoot on film. We did our best to keep the traditional handheld feel. We spent a good hour perfecting our "whip pans," which is the device 30 Rock uses to go into and out of flashbacks. We usually do them on the set, but they are added to and perfected in postproduction. Now we had to do them all live, and try to make them feel like our regular show. For each flashback, there had to be a precise orchestration between the two cameras we would cut between. I am still amazed that we pulled it off. There had to be a science to which cameras were used and where we put them in each scene so we could get in multiple scenes before a commercial break. Nothing was prerecorded—we even shot the opening titles live—and there was no room to breathe until the first commercial break. Oh, and to make it even more fun, we added fake commercials with Chris Parnell and Jon Hamm.

Thursday was show day and we planned to do a full rehearsal all day, stopping and resetting when necessary, and then doing a dress rehearsal with an audience before the East Coast show at 8:30 p.m. Then we would do the show live again three hours later for the West Coast. Rehearsal went as rehearsals go: For the most part, everything seemed to work, but there were enough things we had to spend extra time doing again that I think everyone (including me) was a little nervous. Will the cast get to their marks? Will Tina make it to all of her scenes in time? Will the cameras make it to every scene in time? Will all the cues work properly? And, of course, will the audience respond? There were more than 110 camera cuts in act one alone. It was a lot of pressure … mostly put on by myself. Everyone else had the utmost confidence in me, but I was definitely scared. I am such a fan of 30 Rock that I didn’t want to mess this up; I really wanted it to be a special moment in 30 Rock history.

We did a dress rehearsal in front of a very excited, responsive audience. Thankfully, the dress rehearsal was much better than our earlier run-through. There were minor tweaks and notes from Tina, Robert, and Lorne Michaels, and then we waited for the first air show. I am not going to lie: I was terrified. I had been in that control room for 11 years doing SNL and there have been shows that I have been worried about, whether it was because of last-minute changes or complicated sketches, but the stakes just seemed to be higher for this. It was the most fun I’ve ever had and the most frightened I have ever been at the same time. The East Coast show went off without a hitch. The live audience loved it. We spread in the first act because of all of the audience reaction and applause. But Tina and Alec, who are such incredible pros at live television, sped up their dialogue in the beginning of act two. (That is an amazing feat, since the dialogue on 30 Rock is already pretty fast.) Everyone was so happy after we went off the air, congratulating one another, shaking hands, cheering. I was so happy and then it hit me: We have to do this again in three hours! What were we thinking?

No rest for the weary. We began to rehearse a few things that we were changing. Then 30 Rock went on the air again live for our viewers on the West Coast and worked great once again. Finally, it was time to really celebrate!

Funny Business

First-person columns written by directors about their humorous experiences working in features and television.

More from this issue