When most TV shows tackle a live episode, one of the biggest issues is the cast getting over its fear of performing without a net.
That's definitely not the case as NBC's "30 Rock" gears up for its first live episode on Thursday, Oct. 14, originating from 30 Rockefeller Plaza, where the action of the Emmy-winning sitcom is set.
"For a couple of years we talked about the idea of trying to do a live show, because we felt we had sort of interesting personnel for it," series star and executive producer Tina Fey explains. "Alec (Baldwin), of course, has hosted 'Saturday Night Live' so many times, and Tracy (Morgan) and I had worked there, and Jane (Krakowski) is Broadway-trained, so we thought it would be fun to do. And, of course, Jack McBrayer is a Second City (improv) actor, too, so he's very comfortable.
"During the writers strike, we did a live performance of the show as a benefit for our crew, and it was so fun to feel the different timing of the show live and the audience response, which you just don't get in a single-camera show."
But Fey freely admits she does have one major concern on her: the timing, and not the performers' acclaimed, Swiss-watch comedy timing that won "30 Rock" three consecutive Emmys as best comedy series. But producing a live episode of a show as tightly constructed as this one poses a number of special challenges, starting with the fact that, unlike previous episodes, it will be performed in front of a live audience. And the same laughter and energy the actors may enjoy getting from that audience could complicate cramming all the jokes into an unforgiving half-hour time slot, Fey says.
"The story takes place on the night of a 'TGS' show," she explains, referring to the fictional "SNL"-like show around which the sitcom revolves, "so we are keeping it in relatively real time. We are doing the show in Studio 8-H, which is where 'SNL' is done, and most of our sets are made to look like Studio 8-H anyway. We will build Jack Donaghy's (Baldwin) office and a few other sets in there.
"The really biggest challenge, I suspect, will be in getting the show short enough. Anyone who has seen the show knows that we talk very fast, and there's almost no air between anything. We cram everything in, and if we have even the least little bit of 'laugh spread,' we may be in trouble."
Executive producer Robert Carlock, also one of the show's head writers, said it took awhile for the "30 Rock" creative staff to wrap its collective mind around the technical challenges, such as how to pull off the show's signature flashbacks in a live performance.
"It kind of changes the show completely, but you don't want to change the show completely," Carlock says. "You want to get all the energy of the live performance, and the fun of that, without losing our usual show. You want to see a different show, sure, but only in a fun way."
Upping the stakes, the cast and crew actually will do two live performances on Thursday night, the first for East Coast audiences and then a later, slightly different version for West Coast viewers.
"I think we'll probably try different jokes, but the two versions will be the same basic story and cast and everything," Fey explains. "Also, the fact that we're live may make it possible to do something topical and use jokes that normally would appear to be four weeks behind."
"Mad Men" star Jon Hamm, who has won back-to-back Emmy nods for his disarmingly goofy guest appearances on the sitcom, is due to reprise his role as crushingly handsome but clueless Dr. Drew Baird in the live telecast, but fans will see return engagements for several of their other favorite guest stars as well this season, most notably Matt Damon as Carol, an airline pilot who may just be Liz Lemon's (Fey) dream man. Despite the actor's busy schedule, Fey says she hopes Damon will make recurring appearances on her show.
"We're also trying to find a way for Carol to be a 'condition' in Liz's life even when Matt the actor is away doing movies or something," she says. "But he's a New Yorker, and he has been very generous with us about doing something, so I feel pretty sure we will see him at least one more time.
" Elizabeth Banks will be back as Jack's (Baldwin) fiancee and the mother of his child. Sherri Shepherd is coming back as Tracy's wife. Will Forte will also be back as Jenna's (Krakowski) cross-dressing love interest. Will Arnett is filming his own show (Fox's "Running Wilde"), but he is shooting in New York, so who knows? But I think my good friend (and former NBC programming chief) Kevin Reilly at Fox will give us permission to borrow Will Arnett."
Don't expect "30 Rock" to devolve into a vehicle for stunt casting, however. At its heart, the sitcom will keep its focus on the main characters, especially Liz and Jack.
"The characters had some large life events set in motion at the end of last season," Fey points out. "Jack is engaged and has a baby coming. Tracy has a baby coming. Liz is in a positive relationship, so they are in a different state than they have been previously."
"Last year was really our shaking it up a little bit and exploiting what we had built up over the first couple of years," Carlock adds. "So this year, we're getting back to those core relationships but in a new way, to tell stories about Jack having a kid and dealing with this suddenly very serious relationship and how that affects his relationship with Liz. So we're building on what we did last year to return to 'business as usual' this year."