Summer sitcom rewind: ‘NewsRadio’ – ‘The Public Domain/Super Karate Monkey Death Car’

06.04.14 3 years ago 53 Comments

NBC

As I announced last week, instead of picking one classic drama season to revisit over the summer, I'm trying an experiment, highlighting different classic sitcom episodes from the past. First up for this summer sitcom rewind: “The Public Domain” and “Super Karate Monkey Death Car,” a pair of “NewsRadio” episodes from early in the show's fourth season, coming up just as soon as I have fancy plans, and pants to match…

In terms of their status at the time they aired, “NewsRadio” is among the more obscure shows I expect I'll be dealing with this summer. The mid-'90s was a pretty great period for TV comedy: “Seinfeld” at its peak, “The Simpsons” at its peak or close to it, “Frasier” presenting classical excellence each week and each season, “Friends” being a phenomenon, etc., plus other series like “3rd Rock from the Sun” and “The Drew Carey Show” that had stretches as both big commercial hits and creative successes. “NewsRadio,” on the other hand, was known and loved pretty much only by hardcore comedy nerds, and NBC never had much faith in it, as it seemed like the only long-running sitcom of the Warren Littlefield era to never get a tryout on Thursday nights next to “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” even as they tried it in virtually every other timeslot on the schedule. I went to my first TV critics press tour in the summer of 1996, after the second “NewsRadio” season, and the show almost never came up in conversations with other critics (who were dealing with a Too Many Great Sitcoms problem in the same way we are today with Too Many Excellent Dramas). When I referenced a joke from season 2's Christmas episode in a conversation at that tour with the show's creator, Paul Simms, he seemed surprised someone at the party other than his actors was actually watching his show.

But for those of us watching, it was special, blessed with a crackling comic ensemble (including three different Swiss Army Knife performers in Dave Foley, Stephen Root and the late, great Phil Hartman), a mixture of nerd humor, broader farce and physical comedy (as he does at the end of “The Public Domain,” Andy Dick fell down a lot, and it somehow always felt fresh and funny), and even warmth when required. NBC would try copying bits of the show into other sitcoms (Kathy Griffin's character on “Suddenly Susan” was such a rip-off of Vicki Lewis' Beth that they even named her Vicki), but never with the weird genius or originality (or ensemble) that made this one so good, if largely ignored in its time.

The Short Version For Newbies: Dave Nelson (Foley) is the eager, polite, absolutely doomed new program director at New York news station WNYX, appointed by eccentric billionaire Jimmy James (Root) over the objections of ace reporter Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney), who wanted the job herself, and smug anchorman Bill McNeal (Hartman), who doesn't like answering to anyone. Other characters: Dave's bored secretary Beth (Lewis), conspiracy-loving electrician Joe (Joe Rogan), anchorwoman Catherine (Khandi Alexander) and strange, inept, accident-prone Matthew (Dick).

If the entire series was readily available to stream, I might have gone with season 3's “Arcade,” which is probably the perfect synthesis of all that was great about “NewsRadio” (I had to pause my writing of this paragraph for a moment to laugh at the thought of Bill describing the disgusting sandwiches from the office vending machine), but “The Public Domain” comes awfully close in its own right, and “Super Karate Monkey Death Car” in turn features the show's best (and probably most enduring) joke, and some outstanding moments beyond that, so they'll do in a pinch.

Though “NewsRadio” never hit the meta levels of a “Community” or an “Arrested Development,” Simms and his writers were often engaged in a dialogue with their audience; when too many critics and viewers compared Joe Rogan to Tony Danza, it became a joke in an episode that Matthew tried insulting Joe by doing the same. The arc that opened the fourth season functioned as both a way to shake up a comedy entering middle age and a commentary on the constant feedback the show was getting from NBC executives who didn't get what Simms was doing and thought they could improve it. Enter Andrea, the efficiency expert played by a young Lauren Graham, who sees Dave's eccentric operation and decides she can make it better, starting with the firing of weird, grossly incompetent Matthew.

One of the things that made “NewsRadio” special was the presence of Dave Foley at the center. Like Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch in the '70s, and Jason Bateman in the '00s, Foley was a sitcom rarity: the straight man who could be every bit as funny as the lunatics around him. Foley had spent years playing all kinds of roles in “The Kids in the Hall” (including a variety of surprisingly attractive women, which “NewsRadio” would use to good effect in the season 3 Halloween episode), so he could do whatever Simms required of him. And some of the show's best episodes either involved Dave going crazy on his own (like becoming obsessed with his teenage arcade game nemesis Stargate Defender in “Arcade”) or, as happens here, being driven mad by his inability to control the staff.

There are so many wonderful individual things the supporting actors bring to “The Public Domain,” whether Bill's terrible imitation Mark Russell songs (I still hear the lyrics “When Johnny comes marching home again… He's gay! He's gay!” whenever LGBT issues are in the news) or Jimmy turning into a monotone, stone-faced goon whenever the documentary cameras are on him. (I would seriously watch at least 90 minutes of Root doing that voice and that gaze.) But the best part of the episode is the mixture of terror, anger and sheer bewilderment on Dave's face each time he has to charge out to the lobby, the men's room or, eventually, the elevator to find out why on Earth Bill is still playing that damn piano. Even if this is the first episode of the series that you've ever seen, and therefore don't have an attachment to Dave or didn't see Andrea's introduction in the previous episode, Foley makes the comic stakes so clear and so damn funny each time. And the fact that there are so many different problems intersecting constantly, so that he's constantly dealing with at least two of them at any one time (say, ordering Matthew to stop hiding behind the plant in the hallway right after he's yelled at Bill again), only increases the tension and the effectiveness of each joke. Even something seemingly disconnected like Jimmy's documentary ties into the rest nicely, because it's one more example of the unprofessional workplace Andrea rightly sees, and another example of the staff focusing more on crazy schemes than on job task checklists.(*) And the farcical structure builds and builds to that magnificent final gag where Andrea is on the verge of hiring back Matthew, who chooses that moment to emerge from under a desk, leap onto Bill's piano to celebrate, and of course fall off and spill coffee on Andrea's chest in the process. “Seinfeld” was the NBC show of the period rightly celebrated for the way its episodes' stories all converged together in the end, but “NewsRadio” could do a great job of that in its own right.

(*) In the first season or so, the show made an effort at depicting what it might actually be like to work at a  station like WNYX, before Simms recognized that nobody cared about anything but watching funny actors do funny things. After that, the characters' individual jobs only came up in service to a bigger joke.

“Super Karate Monkey Death Car” isn't quite so neatly constructed, in that the Jimmy subplot that gives the episode its title – and the series its most-quoted passage(**) – could be dropped into virtually any episode without difficulty. But ultimately, that doesn't matter much, since the joke about Jimmy's memoir – a failure in America when it was released as “Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer,” but such a huge success in Japan that it was translated back into English as “Jimmy James: Macho Business Donkey Wrestler” – is a sitcom all-timer. I'd put Jimmy's confused and increasingly despondent reading of the book in the sitcom scene Hall of Fame, along with Lucy at the chocolate factory, Reverend Jim's drivers test, Dwight Schrute's fire drill, etc. It's a beautifully silly idea, with the absurd language made even better by Root's puzzled delivery. (Whoever had the idea that Jimmy would have to pause and turn the page before reading “dung” is a genius.) It's only a few minutes out of the episode, but it's enough.

(**) I even used it as the basis of my review of NBC's disastrous remake of “Coupling,” which was itself at least somewhat a British spin on “Friends.” When you translate an idea one time too many, you get gibberish.

The Andrea/Matthew material that takes up the bulk of the episode is a little flabbier – even though I'm amused as usual with tales of Lisa taking academic achievement to such extremes, the sequence in the restaurant feels like it goes on forever, especially for anyone who hasn't seen it in a while and is just waiting to get to the book reading – but then the lie detector test begins, and everything's perfect after that. We get more excellent Dave panic as he tries unsuccessfully to beat the machine for Lisa's sake, all with Andrea being amused at how adorable he is under pressure. (The lie detector buzzing “I AM NOT THE CUTEST THING!” gets lost in the shuffle of Jimmy's small house of brokerage, but it's a wonderfully-executed joke in its own right.) And Graham – three years away from playing Lorelai Gilmore – is a delight as we begin to realize the instability of the person who now wields so much power over the staff's future. It's a tough gig, playing the antagonist to this eccentric band we've come to love over three previous seasons, and in the hands of some other actresses of the period, I could imagine Andrea being absolutely hateable. But Graham seems amused and happy to be there; she's too goofy to hate, even after you find out that she's a dangerous pyromaniac.

In a period of abundant comedy riches for TV in general and NBC in particular, “NewsRadio” was unfortunately an afterthought. But it shouldn't have been, as these two episodes demonstrate so well.

Some other thoughts:

* I asked Simms if the passages from “Macho Business Donkey Wrestler” had been conceived with their original English version in mind – you can imagine the bit about Jimmy's monkey-strong bowels, for instance, originally being about the guts it took to stand up to some financial opponent – and he said that no, it was just amusing gibberish. But, he added, while writing for SPY magazine, he had worked on a feature where they had English text professionally translated into French, then into Russian, and so on through several more language before returning to English. It yielded “odd and amusing results.”

* It wasn't until I revisited these episodes last week that I finally made the connection of the two Sarah Bravermans having worked together here, which always reminds me of one of the great ironies of “Parenthood”: Maura Tierney was far and away the best thing in the tonally uneven original “Parenthood” pilot, but the opportunity to shoot new material with Lauren Graham gave Jason Katims an excuse to make the show around Sarah much better. I'd like to think he'd have figured out the balance even had Tierney not contracted breast cancer, but history went this way instead.

* Speaking of Tierney: the commentary tracks on the “NewsRadio” DVDs settle into a predictable, amusing pattern, where each time they bring in a man to record his first commentary for the set, he has to interrupt whatever is being discussed the moment young Tierney appears on screen so he can note how hot she was at the time. (I'm pretty sure even Warren Littlefield is guilty of this.) It's impressive in its consistency. 

* Before season 4, the actors filmed new footage for the opening credit sequence, appearing in front of various New York landmarks (note the Twin Towers behind Lisa). There were also a few episodes like “The Public Domain” where they shot sequences specifically for the credits to those episodes, like Joe carrying Matthew out to the trash can in front of the WNYX building.

* Khandi Alexander's only in one of these two episodes. The show never quite figured out how to use Catherine as a character in her own right, though she was a terrific foil for both Bill and Joe, and Alexander would leave the cast a few episodes after these two, returning in the fifth season premiere to be part of the Phil Hartman tribute.

* That's comedy vet Dave “Gruber” Allen (Mr. Rosso from one of my previous summer projects, “Freaks and Geeks”) as the bookstore emcee, and Brian Posehn as the customer with all the questions about the book. (Posehn would appear later in the season in a different role, as a member of Dave's college a capella group, alongside Bob Odenkirk and David Cross. Simms, like David Milch, never seemed troubled by the idea of bringing back a guest star in a new role, up to and including Jon Lovitz – who had played a suicidal man in the stunt-filled season 4 premiere – becoming Hartman's replacement in season 5.)

* That's Paul Gleason as Dave's would-be replacement Steve, which gives me the excuse for two Gleason-related links: 1)Roger Ebert's 2-star review of the original “Die Hard,” where he felt Gleason's idiot police chief character ruined the film, and 2)His introduction as the evil vice-principal from “The Breakfast Club.” (Which is mainly an excuse to point you to last week's “This American Life,” which concludes with a segment where Molly Ringwald watches the movie with her 10-year-old daughter.)

If you liked these episodes, try: Like I said, “Arcade” is probably the show's best episode, but you'd need the DVDs for that one, or for “The Cane” or “Complaint Box” but season 1's “Smoking” is on Crackle.

Coming up next: I don't have any master plan for how this project's going to work, and though I have many series in mind, I don't always have specific episodes, or am limited by what's available on streaming. (Hulu has very limited selections of a lot of the '70s shows I was considering, so “Chuckles Bites the Dust” is out of the running for now.) But let's try going back in time decade by decade for the next few installments before branching out from there. Since we started with a '90s show, next up will be one from the '80s: “Theo's Holiday,” a second season episode of “The Cosby Show.” (“Cosby Show” is unfortunately Hulu Plus-only, but I'm running into more availability issues with this project than I had anticipated. I promise the one after will either be on Netflix or Hulu basic, even if I have to break the chronological approach to do so.) Ideally, that'll be done around this time next week, I can make no promises.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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