Emmys 2011: '30 Rock' Director Recalls Live Episode Challenges and 'SNL' Parallels (Q&A)
As 30 Rock gears up for the 63rd Primetime Emmy Awards, director Beth McCarthy-Miller spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the challenges of October's live episode, the help she received from Lorne Michaels and "how perfectly it all came together."
This year, the perenially acclaimed NBC sitcom earned 13 nominations.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did the idea of doing a live episode of 30 Rock come about?
Beth McCarthy-Miller: Tina [Fey] had wanted to do a live show two seasons ago. The cast has so many great live improv actors, but when they shoot 30 Rock, none of it is front of an audience, so they have to trust that what makes them laugh is what's funny. Tina called me last August -- I had my whole fall directing schedule set up by that point -- and said: "You have to change the date in October of your Modern Family episode. We're doing a live show, and the only way we're doing it is if you can do it."
THR: Did you feel prepared to undertake such an endeavor?
McCarthy-Miller: I'd been a director on SNL for 11 seasons, so yes. I missed the rush you get from live directing. I mean, I've had scripts ripped out of my book while I'm in a commercial break.
THR: 30 Rock usually films at Silvercup Studios in Queens. Did you change venues for the live show? Lorne Michaels was so gracious to let us do it at the SNL studio.
McCarthy-Miller: It was so much fun -- the 30 Rock and SNL crews all worked together and made this amazing show. My stage managers were teaching the 30 Rock first ADs how to stage-manage live, and they were showing them what they do as first ADs on 30 Rock, and everybody got along and everybody was so helpful. It was the absolute perfect storm.
THR: How was the live-show script different from a regular episode script?
McCarthy-Miller: There was a lot of whittling down. [Showrunner] Robert Carlock and Tina had to keep true to the 30 Rock storylines, which usually involve a lot of quick scenes. But there were only so many sets we could fit in the SNL studio, so we had to realistically figure out how many sets we could fit, how quickly we could get from set to set, and then write a story based on that. I kept telling them, "You have to take 10 pages out than what you normally do." Tina was in like every scene, and we had to figure out how to get her from set to set. Using Julia Louis-Dreyfus to play Liz Lemon in flashback scenes was the most genius idea in the world. She was so perfect.
THR: How did you talk Matt Damon into doing the live episode?
McCarthy-Miller: He was already doing episode three with me and Tina, and one day we were talking about the live show. His wife was due to give birth on the date we'd scheduled the live show. We said, "Yeah, we heard you're not available because of the baby." He's like: "Well, I could maybe do like a day. Let's do it!" So we went through all the rehearsals with a stand-in, and then Matt came in for the rehearsal and the two air shows. He was hilarious and fabulous, but I'm sure his management was angry with us for the timing.
THR: You did the live show for the East Coast and again live for the West Coast. Did you change the script at all for the second air?
McCarthy-Miller: After dress rehearsal, we met in Lorne's office -- me, Tina, Robert and Lorne -- and talked through anything we wanted to change. We'd had two different ideas for the first time you see Julia and she makes fun of [actor] Maulik Pancholy. In one joke, she made an Aladdin reference; the other time was a joke about Slumdog Millionaire.
THR: The result kinda felt like a bizarro-world version of 30 Rock on PBS.
McCarthy-Miller: (Laughs.) Yes, the big difficulty for 30 Rock is having a ton of scenes without a commercial break. The first act alone had 108 different camera cuts. Normally, we'd be doing that in the edit room, not live on air.
THR: Did anything go terribly wrong during the shoot?
McCarthy-Miller: During the show, I was in the booth calling it live, and I think two people missed a line. Not one camera shot was missed. I mean, it was so lucky. All the special effects happened on time; all the cues happened on time. It was crazy how perfectly it all came together.
THR: Are there plans to do this again next year?
McCarthy-Miller: Nothing formal yet, but yes, everyone was like, "I want to do this again!"
THR: It's a competitive pool this year in the comedy series directing category, but you're the only person who helmed a live episode.
McCarthy-Miller: Does that give you an edge? I don't know. I submitted the live show because it was so different, truly a feat. I'm proud of the way we were able to keep the true feel of 30 Rock but be able to do it live. I love the directing category this season. Gale Mancuso [Modern Family] and Pam Fryman [How I Met Your Mother] are two of my favorite directors. I would lose happily to any of those fabulous people.