The story of NewsRadio’s five-season run on NBC is so full of intrigue and drama that it could be its own series. Twenty years ago this week, the employees of the fictional AM news station WNYX found their way into our living rooms, and the show was unlike anything that NBC had aired to that point. Showrunner Paul Simms, just 29 years old at the time, had basically created the anti-sitcom, as he had no intentions using the standard formulas because NewsRadio was going to be the show that did things its own way.
At the same time, NBC had given its sophomore series Friends a prime piece of sitcom real estate as the opener for the Thursday night must-see TV block. A show that played by the network’s rules, Friends obviously went on to become one of the most successful sitcoms in television history. NewsRadio, on the other hand, changed time slots 11 times during its 1995-99 run, which explains why it never had the ratings that NBC executives hoped for when they believed that it, and not Friends, might be the network’s next Seinfeld. Of course, that was capped off with Simms’ epic 1997 interview with Rolling Stone, in which he referred to NBC’s must-see TV lineup as a “big double decker shit sandwich.” That was just the tip of his iceberg of frustration and rage.
The young showrunner’s point was clear. NewsRadio was different from everything else, and it suffered because it took a chance. From Tuesday, it moved to Sunday, then from Sunday to Wednesday, then from Wednesday to the canceled pile. Twenty years later, though, you can mention NewsRadio in a conversation about the best shows in TV history and faces light up. But we wanted to go straight to the heart of the WYNX studio, so we talked to some of the show’s stars — Dave Foley, Stephen Root, Maura Tierney and Khandi Alexander — as well as writers Brad Isaacs and Joe Furey, to find out how they feel about this series two decades later.
Now hiring at WNYX
I was now playing one character every week instead of five or six characters every week, and I never had to put on fake tits.
With his experience writing for “Late Night with David Letterman” and the HBO series “The Larry Sanders Show,” Paul Simms was a rising comedy talent. Despite being considerably young for a showrunner, Simms had a vision for a new series, and his idea was created with two specific sketch comedy stars in mind: Saturday Night Live’s brilliant Phil Hartman and The Kids in the Hall’s fresh-faced Dave Foley. However, CBS also had eyes for Foley, and if he hadn’t been all wrong for that network’s part, he may have never ended up on “NewsRadio.”
DAVE FOLEY, “Dave Nelson”: Paul Simms gave me a call. I was at my house in Toronto, and he said, “What are you up to? I’m making a show for NBC and I want you to star in it.” He called me literally 24 hours after I signed a deal with CBS to do a pilot for them. I had to say, “Well, I can’t do it.” Paul and I met at a party a year before that and he wrote the show with me in mind, but then just forgot to mention it to me. So, he called me right after I had signed to this other show, but then luckily I flew out to L.A. to shoot the pilot for CBS, and as they cast my wife they decided to fire me. I called Paul up and let him know, “I’m now free to do NewsRadio if you haven’t cast it yet,” and he hadn’t. I wandered back over there and got to play the part of Dave.
MAURA TIERNEY, “Lisa Miller”: I was living in New York, and I had to audition, but they were in California, so I had to go on tape in New York. I went to the casting director’s office, did my audition and left. A day or two later, they called me and said, “You know what, we completely lost your audition. You have to come back and redo it.” And I was like, “Ugh, God.” And the day I had to go back, the casting director’s office was right by where they light the tree in Rockefeller Center, and I thought it was a pain in the ass to have to go back and redo the whole thing. The day they light the tree in Rockefeller Center there is so much traffic, but then it ultimately proved to be worth it [laughs].
STEPHEN ROOT, “Jimmy James”: It was a straight audition for me. At that point I was doing a lot of guest staring on Bochco shows. I did one series called Harts of the West with Beau Bridges and Lloyd Bridges. But I hadn’t been a regular on a show except for that. So it was a straight audition for me. I liked that it was kind of bent, and I like doing bent characters. They were looking for more of a Mr. Carlson from WKRP, an older guy. Kind of a bumbling guy in his ’50s. That wasn’t interesting to me. But I gave them, and by them I mean Paul Simms and the casting director, a more interesting take that I had on it. Then Paul kind of guided me through the audition in that way, and so that we had a very useful idiot-savant type of character.
KHANDI ALEXANDER, “Catherine Duke” [Catherine was played by Ella Joyce in the pilot, and Khandi was unaware of this until now]: I had no idea that somebody else had done the pilot [laughs]. I remember at my audition for NewsRadio, it was just a very comfortable kind of atmosphere. I remember feeling very, very comfortable. I adored the energy right away. It wasn’t a tense situation at all. It was very calm.
FOLEY: When I read the pilot, it was one of the funniest scripts I had ever read, and amazingly, it stayed funny all the way through making it. A lot of times you have a really great pilot script, by the time you’ve gone through all of the different levels of notes and people’s concerns and fears, by the time you get around to shooting it, it can be terrible. This one changed a lot, but it just seemed like a really funny show. It was really smart and one of the things I liked about the script was you’d be hard-pressed to read the pilot script and find a single joke in the dialogue. All the laughs came out of characters actually talking to each other and interacting.
JOE FUREY, Writer: The show was created with Dave Foley and Phil Hartman in mind. Everyone else seemed to fall in place. Maybe at first, that was the toughest thing to figure out, the characters, which we spent a great deal of time doing. Who is this person and how do we make them unique and what do we do with them? We make them more of a believable character. And as we went along they developed more of the traits of the actors in the show, too. We leaned more towards what their strengths were. Andy Dick falling down, for example. Andy was always funny but his character just got goofier and goofier as it went on, because it just lent itself to doing that very easily.
BRAD ISAACS, Writer: Paul had done this amazing job on his own, putting together the cast and writing the pilot and getting the pilot shot, so by the time I came on, the characters had been established at least as to who they were and the tone of the show had already been set. There’s a story that I think is true and that’s when they were shooting the pilot, Warren Littlefield, who was the head of NBC, was sitting next to Brad Grey, whose company, Brillstein-Grey, managed a piece of the show. After the first or second scene was shot, Warren turned to Brad and said, “We’ll pick it up for six episodes,” which is really unusual because the normal way this all happens is you shoot the pilot and the pilot gets edited, and then it’s shown to the executives at the network. Then they all decide or the head person decides. The fact that they picked it up during the actual taping of the show was pretty remarkable.
ROOT: At the time NBC had done smart and funny, fast shows, I thought. And I, obviously, would love to be hooked up to a subject that was smart and funny, and they were doing that at the time with Seinfeld. There were several shows on at that time that were, I thought, fast-moving, well-written, and that’s the whole thing with me. Now at that point in my career, I couldn’t pick and choose as I can today. But you can tell when something is well-written. It wasn’t kind of a stodgy CBS joke-setup-joke sitcom, which they still have.
TIERNEY: I knew from The Larry Sanders Show, which I loved, that Paul Simms was funny, that the script was really funny. So, I didn’t really think about it in terms of the network, or must-see TV. I just thought about it in terms of, would it be a good job for me? Which, I really wanted it because everybody who was involved was so talented. Phil, Dave, Andy, everybody. So, I didn’t think about the network.
FOLEY: I ran into Phil at the Emmys, and we sat with each other for a while and talked and talked about how much fun it would be to work together in the future. Both of us thinking we were bullshitting, and then a year later we were working together.
ALEXANDER: I was working with so many great comedians, and I had actually worked with Phil Hartman twice before. So Phil wasn’t at my first audition. At my first audition it was Paul Simms, Jim Bellows and Jim Burrows, and then I think a couple of the other writers who I didn’t know at the time. But those were the two who were talking to me. And then at the next audition that’s when I saw Phil. And he and I, since we had worked together before, we had a dialogue. A nice comfortable feeling.
FOLEY: It was different. On one level, it was a lot less work because I didn’t have to write the show. With Kids in the Hall we wrote the show as well. I didn’t have to go to pre-production meetings, I didn’t have to edit episodes, so it was so much work. On another level, it felt very familiar because I was dealing with a really great ensemble cast and we were shooting in front of a live audience, which we had always done on Kids in the Hall. I love working in front of a live crowd. More than half of Kids in the Hall stuff was shot multi-cam in front of a live audience, so I already learned how to do that. The only real difference was I was now playing one character every week instead of five or six characters every week, and I never had to put on fake tits. Except for one episode, I did have to put on fake tits.
TIERNEY: It became evident fairly quickly that we weren’t really like Caroline in the City or some of the other shows that were on while we were on. I think our show was more unique and definitely left of center. It kind of became evident in terms of the way the network moved us around so often. You could put the show at any time slot and we would do fairly well, but we never had a chance to get a foothold because they moved us so much, and I think it’s because the humor was much more irreverent and out there than what else was going on at NBC at the time. It was not so formulaic.
ALEXANDER: At the time I was on ER. So I wasn’t really connected with NBC’s dominance of comedy because I was actually on their number one drama at that particular moment. I remember really being a fan of Seinfeld, but being very excited that I was on ER, so it wasn’t really on my radar. Most of the publicity and things I was doing had to do with ER. As a working actress you’re like, “Oh okay, comedy. No problem. I love comedy, okay.”
FOLEY: I knew from the beginning from the pilot script and the first seven that we did have a different tone to them and were kind of a little bit weirder than what most people were doing on TV at the time. I mean, now it doesn’t seem so weird after people have The Office and Parks and Rec and shows like that. But at the time I think people thought the show was kind of odd. And we felt like we were the punk rockers of network TV, we felt like we were being rebels, which is sort of ridiculous when you’re doing a primetime sitcom. But as a cast and as a writing staff, we felt that we were just doing what we wanted and not really listening to anybody else.
ISAACS: I thought this was the best bunch of actors that I’ve ever worked with. And even looking back on other shows that I liked, and didn’t work on, I just thought it was a very unique bunch of people and the way that they played off each other. Everybody was great. Dave and Maura had this on-again, off-again relationship, and their chemistry was great.
Dave and Lisa, not Sam and Diane
We were past the point where the notion of whether or not two characters were going to sleep together was something to giggle about.
“Seinfeld” famously bucked the sitcom trend of having a long-lasting sexual tension between its main male and female characters, being that Jerry and Elaine proved that sex always ruins the friendship. But that didn’t stop NBC from wanting its newest show to go with the proven formula established by Sam Malone and Diane Chambers in “Cheers.” If “Friends” was going to give us Ross and Rachel, then “NewsRadio” should have really dragged out the romantic angle between Dave and Lisa, right? Fortunately for us, Simms said no. Contrary to old stories about friction between the series and NBC suits, though, Isaacs and Furey insist it wasn’t all that bad.
ISAACS: I’m sure [the network executives] were disappointed. Warren Littlefield was a smart guy. He knew one of the reasons it didn’t do as well on the ratings was we were kind of left out there alone on a Tuesday night and then switched to a Sunday night. If it had gone on after Seinfeld, it probably would have been a big hit. Every network wants every show to be a big hit.
FUREY: They honestly weren’t that intrusive. They really weren’t. They had certain things that they’d like to do or that they’d try to impose, but we had freedom to do what we wanted to do. They wanted Dave and Lisa to be like Sam and Diane. Paul thought from the beginning, that’s just unrealistic, so I’m not going to do it. They weren’t thrilled about it, I don’t think, but they went along with it. It was never us against them, we weren’t fighting them or anything like that. We’d just say, “No, I don’t think we should do that.”
FOLEY: I totally agreed with Paul, who basically said, “Look, when two adults like each other, they fuck each other.” That’s what adults do. So, if we’re going to have two characters attracted to each other, we’ll just get it out of the way right away. Because that’s what happens in real life, as opposed to people dragging out a flirtation for years and years. Paul’s decision to do it that way, I thought, was great because it just seemed like we were past the point in our culture where the notion of whether or not two characters were going to sleep together was something to giggle about.
TIERNEY: I thought it was great because it was, again, very sort of non-traditional and irreverent to not make the audience wait. I think on the third or fourth episode, Dave and I get together. And Paul was like, why string it out? He was more interested in seeing, and there was more comedy to be mined, in watching the fallout of a reckless hook-up. There was more comedy in watching them deal with that, and have everyone at the station make fun of us, than to tease out this tortured “will they/won’t they” thing.
ROOT: [Paul] said, “Yeah, we’re going to get that over with in Episode 2 [laughs].” There was going to be no waiting like Sam and Diane. That’s what they wanted and he said no. He wanted them to go ahead and have a relationship immediately and that’s what he did.
ISAACS: The Dave Foley/Maura Tierney thing just kind of was what it was. We just played around with it. Paul did a really smart thing. The thing with Sam and Diane on Cheers was will they get together or won’t they get together? That was a really powerful and effective thing to keep the audience watching. But that dynamic got played out. It became known as a Sam and Diane sort of thing on any show that had a romantic interest between people. I think the way we dealt with it, and this was Paul, was we’re going to get the will they/won’t they out of the way and then we just had them breaking up and getting back together and breaking up and getting back together. Pretending they were broken up but really back together. Every permutation of that.
ALEXANDER: I wasn’t a part of that. It was more that Maura and Dave had been aware of that. But because my storyline with Phil didn’t have that dynamic, I was not privy to that information, nor did I really care. I just wanted my part to be funny and wanted my interaction with Phil to be funny, so it made sense to me because Dave and Maura had such great chemistry. But I also had my own show going on with Phil. All the characters had their own world, we had our own world. It wasn’t like Moonlighting with Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, everyone else and everything else would be secondary to that relationship. In NewsRadio, each character had our own world. Like Andy Dick had his own world [laughs]. It was just a really wonderful and creative environment where each character got to have their own world.
ROOT: It was probably to the detriment of the show because you can only buck authority so far until they say, “No, you’re going to be doing this.” And I get that. It’s their product. But they were dealing with people of that nature, especially Paul coming from Larry Sanders, and that was groundbreaking in itself on HBO.
FUREY: There was an episode where we used the word penis in it four times. It was Phil’s character who said it. He was saying it on the air, and it was in a completely clinical way, but the whole thing was the network wouldn’t let us say the word penis. And then it turned into, “You can only do two penises,” and then it turned into an argument. “Well, what if we do three penises?” It was just this absurd argument that today wouldn’t even be an issue to say the word penis on TV.
The second episode we ever wrote was an episode we didn’t end up doing. It was an episode about Howard Stern and people were calling up Bill on the air and saying, “Baby Booey!” and all these Howard Stern things. Bill was upset and didn’t understand, and he was getting mad and fighting with them. Eventually, Howard calls in. I don’t remember exactly how it ends, but that was one where the network was saying, “I don’t know, I don’t think anyone knows who Howard Stern is. No one is going to care.”
ISAACS: I really don’t know what NBC wanted, to be honest with you. I think they just wanted the show to be really successful. I think creatively it was really successful, it just didn’t do great in the ratings.
Everything clicked from the start
People from the page to a secretary could throw in an idea, and if it was funny, we’d use it.
By himself, Phil Hartman should have been enough to propel a comedy series to the top of a network’s priorities. The former SNL superstar was long overdue for a front-and-center role, but even when a series was created with him in mind, it was still more about the collaborative process and chemistry. Fortunately, with such a beloved entertainer as Hartman on board, it didn’t take very long for this cast to bond, nor was it very difficult for Simms and the writers to identify the cast’s strengths and weaknesses.
FOLEY: There really was no separation between the cast and the writing staff on NewsRadio. Everyone was pretty much one team, and everyone hung out together and spent all of our spare time together. Everything that was going on was discussed between everybody who worked on the show. And everyone had the same feelings about it. Everyone just wanted to do the funniest, smartest show we could.
ISAACS: I had this interesting thing with Phil. I talked to him privately and said, “You know, Phil, when Khandi says this, maybe if you sort of took a pause…” and right in the middle of me talking to him, he just was looking at me and just smiling. And I said, “You know, why don’t I just shut up and let you shoot it again?” And he went, “That’s the best idea you’ve ever had.” He was just really funny like that. And it was really true. You didn’t need to give Phil a line read or anything. He might not get it the first time but chances are he was sort of playing around with it and eventually he would do it better than the way it was written on the page. He was really unique.
ROOT: It wasn’t like, let’s be revolutionary. It’s just what it was. It was smart and funny. We had the same senses of humor. It was having fun. The most fun you could have on a show. A very light atmosphere. People from the page to a secretary could throw in an idea and if it was funny, we’d use it. And that’s attributed to Paul, because that doesn’t really happen on a show. You stick to the script for the most part and very few improvs get in. With our show, we would write for each other on the floor during the week and a lot of that would get in. So, it was an unusual and great situation that we all relished.
TIERNEY: They understood people’s strengths and how I could be funny. That’s what I think they did with everybody, which is what all good writers do: understand the actors they’re working with and write to the strength of the actors. What they did was capitalize on how I could be funny.
FUREY: It wasn’t really that difficult to write for them, it was mostly difficult coming up with stories. Everybody’s favorite to write for was Phil because you could write any insane thing and it would work. It was the most fun. Whereas if you’re writing something for Lisa or Dave it was a little bit more grounded in that they were the more sensible people in the office, or more normal people. A lot of times you had to make it a little more realistic. You could do whatever you wanted with them. You could make them a complete lunatic. Basically, all of them were fun to write for.
ALEXANDER: The entire cast was highly intelligent. I mean we’re talking Dave Foley, Phil Hartman, Stephen Root and Joe Rogan. We’re talking highly intelligent comedic actors, as well as just great actors. It was also pretty obvious to all of us very early on if we happen to have casual conversation and Paul Simms, Josh Lieb or even Joe Furey overhear our conversation, then the next week, it would be in the show. That was something very funny that was happening. At first, we didn’t really believe it was happening, and finally after a while, you kind of realize you have to be careful because these guys are really smart.
TIERNEY: It was rebellious. The humor was irreverent and super specific to Paul, who then hired other really interesting writers. When we did the pilot, all the writers, the showrunner, everyone were so young. By the nature of that, it’s going to be a little bit more renegade. Not that old people can’t be interesting. There was something about… there was a youthful, healthy irreverence for traditional comedy and that was exciting. And they were crazy. I mean, Joe Rogan’s crazy. Andy Dick is crazy. They’re crazy people.
ROOT: I kind of based my character on a little bit of my dad, but mostly the way I wanted to do it was I wanted him to be mysterious. They ended up writing Jimmy dumb at the end of the last couple of seasons, which they regret now, and I regretted then [laughs]. When that character started out, you didn’t know if he was really smart or really dumb, and it was kept kind of on the cusp there. He was kind of a dangerous character and a billionaire. He could go anywhere and do anything. It was great to be able to play that. And that’s what I wanted to play. I didn’t want to play some kind of stodgy station owner who was the dumb boss. I’m not interested in playing that. I had a lot of influence towards that, even in the audition process. And that’s what they liked and Paul wrote towards that.
FOLEY: My character was kind of a weird blending of real aspects of my personality and real aspects of Paul’s personality, I think. Dave Nelson became more or less Dave or Paul, depending on who the writing staff felt like making fun of more that week. So, they would either mock something I had done in the last few weeks, or they’d be mocking something Paul had done.
ISAACS: If Dave drank a lot of coffee, we did shows where part of the episode would be his addiction to coffee. Or Phil was always trying to quit smoking, so we did a smoking episode where he tried really hard to quit smoking. That’s one where Dave says, “I’ll quit drinking coffee if you quit smoking,” and that episode is one of the better episodes mostly because they really were addicted to the coffee and cigarettes. They really were trying to quit.
ALEXANDER: We could tell whenever the network would give them notes. That would end up in the show. It’s just really smart because the premise of the show was that we were doing a show. So, it would make sense in a very tongue-in-cheek and intelligent way to actually have the writers of the show take the notes the network was giving them and put it in the show. We loved that. It thrilled us.
TIERNEY: We all had a really good time. It was really, really, really fun. Show nights were really fun. I think one of the things I miss the most is during a show night, if something wasn’t working, to have all the writers come to floor and people would just pitch a joke for a fix. But the actors could also pitch and Dave would pitch or Phil. It felt like a team effort to make the show funny. And there weren’t these boundaries. The actors were very free to help each other and give each other notes. There wasn’t a lot of ego at all. It was really just about what was funny.
Write the tensions away
It ruined me for other sitcoms because there’s only so much fun you can have.
Things were clearly going well between the actors and writers on the set and in front of the camera. Furey (above right with Simms and Foley), and Isaacs described the writer’s room as non-stop video games and goofing around, but it wasn’t exclusive to just the writers. At any time, the actors might stop by to go over script ideas or just to joke around. Hell, they even joined in on a game of “Doom.” But that didn’t mean that everything was always perfect. Sometimes, the blurred lines between the actors and their characters could cause problems. Other times, it was just Andy Dick being Andy Dick.
FOLEY: At first Andy and Joe didn’t get along well. Andy always felt like Joe was making fun of him, and Joe was. So, there was an episode all about those two not getting along, which I think actually helped them become really good friends.
ISAACS: There was tension between Joe and Andy, and I’m not sure what it was, except Andy could be a little scattered, and I think he was probably going up to Joe a lot and asking him questions or trying to talk to him. Sometimes, Joe wanted to be left alone, like any actor, he wanted his own space. There was this dynamic where Andy became kind of afraid of Joe at some weird level. There were no restraining orders taken out or anything, but it became the second story in “The Cane,” dealing with the fact that those two characters didn’t like each other.
As soon as we did that script and that story, they became really good friends. They just sort of started liking each other after that. It was like taking whatever tension there was and throwing it out there and letting them play it out fictitiously, and doing that just took all of the tension away from the real people. They got along really well after that. That stuff usually doesn’t happen on shows. That was kind of fun.
FOLEY: The character that was furthest away from the actor who played him was Jimmy James, Steve Root was the least like his character. Maybe because he was the best actor [laughs].
ROOT: Most of the cast, after we shot the pilot, went to Vegas for the night. We were all in the same boat. We all had the same sense of humor. It didn’t take any time. Catherine and Phil had their own little show going on up in the box. We did a reunion at Sketchfest and one of the things that Catherine talked about was how much fun she had with Phil in that little box, when no one else could hear what was going on. They had a lovely time while we were on stage and they were in the news box.
FUREY: The actors themselves would come up with funny stuff, too. Like, Phil would add a lot of funny stuff and make it funnier than it was. Dave Foley did, too. He added a lot of funny stuff and lines. And Andy did, too. “What if I did this?” In general, we would go, “No, Andy. That’s too much [laughs].” It was a fun working relationship. Everyone seemed to like each other. They got along very well.
TIERNEY: It’s fun to watch people be creative right in front of your face. It’s really fun. And to come up with a joke. Sometimes Paul would say, “Fuck it, I don’t care if they don’t think it’s funny. I do.” Those moments are really fun.
ROOT: Dave liked to write stuff for Andy. Phil would suggest stuff for everybody. And Andy was meticulous on his physical comedy. He was like Kramer. It wasn’t something that wasn’t planned. He planned all those physical falls, which he was incredibly brilliant at. Just as brilliant as the character Kramer was on Seinfeld. Brilliant physical comedy.
TIERNEY: We’re all similar. Like Andy’s a freak show. Dave was extraordinarily witty, probably the wittiest person I know, have ever met, and quick. Vicki was really fun and sang a lot. I guess I was, I don’t know what it was. I was the straight man.
FOLEY: Janeane Garofalo and I were at the bar at the Formosa trying to have a conversation and this really annoying guy just kept coming up behind us going, “Oh, you should just fuck her! Just do it! Fuck her!” to the point where I said, “If you don’t go away,” and I hadn’t said this since I was a child, “I’m going to punch you.” Years later, Andy said, “Do you remember that time at the Formosa and you threatened to punch me?” I went, “Oh my God, was that you?” I had totally forgotten that was Andy.
ALEXANDER: It was one of those rare situations where you’re just in sync with everyone. You really do enjoy everyone’s company, love everyone’s humor. I know it doesn’t sound very exciting, but it’s great [laughs]. I remember coming home one day and Andy Dick lives around the corner from me. And I had a fence around my house, and I remember just coming home one day just in the afternoon, and there was Andy laying in the backyard. And I’m like, “Andy, what are you doing?” And he said, “Oh, I just wanted to get some sun. There were too many people at my house.” So I said, “So you scaled the fence?” And he said, “That’s okay, right?” [laughs]. And I’m like, “What if one of the neighbors had called the cops?” And he’s like, “But you would have come and got me if something happened, right?”
FOLEY: I think it just became a deeper friendship every year. We all fell in love at the first table read and really everybody liked hanging out. And as it progressed we got to know each other better and better and it went from a love affair to a deep family relationship.
ALEXANDER: We’re just very close. About two years ago, I was at a salon and this beautiful young girl, she had one baby in her arm and one toddler, comes over to me and she says, “Hi, I just wanted to let you know these are Joe Rogan’s kids.” I absolutely lost my mind. This was literally two years ago. Just lost my mind. It was insane. And there I am hugging the kids. I mean, I did a play several years ago, Stephen Root came. We still have so much love. So much love that’s still there. And respect.
TIERNEY: I was the straight-man, which sometimes made me sad because everybody was so funny, but we had a great time and it was very constructive for a while there. And then when what happened to Phil happened, it was not so easy to continue for anybody, I think.
ROOT: It was a seminal time in my life, certainly one that ruined me for other sitcoms because there’s only so much fun you can have. And that show was pretty much it. You could have a lot of fun, and we had a lot of fun until Uncle Phil left us. And then the last season was not fun. It was hard. Because it was not really NewsRadio. It was NewsRadio with Jon Lovitz. Not putting Jon down, but he had different rhythms than we did, and it wasn’t the same show. It was a sad time. We lost a friend, and we lost a show. But the first three years were certainly more fun than you could have.
Bill moves on
I still have this feeling that maybe I’ll run into Phil someplace, I’ll see him sometime and go, ‘Hey, how you doing?’
Despite Simms’ interview with Rolling Stone, “NewsRadio” was actually renewed for a fifth season in May 1998, after it had briefly been canceled. Then, the unthinkable happened. On May 28, 1998, Brynn Omdahl shot and killed her husband, Phil Hartman, as he slept. The heartbreaking news reports were met with shock and disbelief from Hartman’s friends and colleagues, as well as his countless fans and admirers. His “NewsRadio” co-stars especially could not believe that their big brother was gone.
ALEXANDER: Phil was wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. And I mean that, he was a lot of fun. The crew absolutely loved Phil and there were very few times that I’ve had in my career, even to this day, where you work with someone of his stature who is generous. I remember often Phil would say right in front of the cast and writers, he’d go, “Give this line to Khandi. It’s funnier coming from her.” You really don’t hear that a lot from stars, you know what I’m saying? [laughs] And that’s exactly who he was.
ISAACS: Phil Hartman couldn’t say anything that wasn’t funny. Even if he wrote something that wasn’t that funny, by the time it came out of his mouth it was funny. I know people have a tendency to exaggerate how good a person or how talented somebody was in life, but he was a rare exception. You really couldn’t exaggerate how good he was.
FOLEY: He just never missed a line. He never failed. If there was a laugh to be had, he would get it. As Kevin McDonald used to say, he would always come back with a full harvest. Whatever was in the field to be harvested, he would take. And so working with him, his professionalism and the detail he brought to all of his performances was amazing to watch. A very different style performer than I am, he was very methodical and thoughtful about everything he did. Whereas I tend to not think about anything until I do it. I was a big fan. Doing scenes with him, it’s that thing, when you’re playing with somebody who’s really at the top of his game it really pushes you to be at the top of your game. To try to be as good as Phil was the goal of any scene I was in with him, and I doubt that I ever succeeded. But it was certainly a fun challenge to try to hold your ground in a scene with him.
ALEXANDER: He wanted the show to be funny. He loved what he did and he was generous and just a sweetheart. And it was real because I had worked with him before. I knew it wasn’t a performed personality. It really was who he was. A generous, kind person.
FUREY: Phil invited Paul and me to go out on his boat with him after this break, the end of the fourth season. And we were just at his house maybe a month before this whole thing happened. Their house was perfectly normal. His wife was there, his kids were running around. It was like the Brady Bunch. We always knew he had… we knew there were issues. Phil always talked about his issues with his wife. He was always talking about it and joking about it. He was kind of always, “Oh, trouble with the Mrs. tonight, going home to the Mrs.” He was always joking about stuff. But I don’t think anybody in a million years would think it was anything like that, because he was always joking about troubles at home or whatever, then when we went to his house I remember thinking, “God, I can’t believe this is it, everything seems so happy and normal.” Like a fantasy. It made it doubly shocking when it happened.
FOLEY: I was in Toronto shooting a movie called Dick that Andy Fleming wrote and directed with Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst. I came into work and I was told, “There’s a phone call for you.” It was my manager and publicist. The guy on the phone said, “Oh Dave, we’re getting a lot of requests from the press for a quote about Phil,” and I said, “Oh, why?” There was a long pause and they told me the news that Phil had been shot. At that point nobody knew who had shot him, it was thought that someone had broken into the house and shot Phil. That was the story we had at the time, and that’s how I found out about it. It was pretty devastating.
TIERNEY: I was in a taxi in New York and I heard a newscaster say it. I thought it was a joke or fake. It was so incredibly bizarre. They said, “Once again, actor Phil Hartman dead at 49,” and I remember asking the cab driver, “Can you turn that up?” It seemed so bizarre. But then I got home and people from the show had called. I mean, I really did think it was fake. When I got home and had these messages I was like, oh, it wasn’t. So that was hard to continue. Everyone loved him and he was a huge part of the show, and working the way it did.
ALEXANDER: This was the craziest thing, I was actually at the gym. There weren’t any televisions on for some reason. I’m not sure why. But I was at the gym, it was early in the morning, and I had some running around to do. Then I came back to my place and, now remember this was a long time ago when people had answering machines, and I remember looking down at my answering machine. It said full. That’s rare because it holds up to like 50 messages or something crazy like that. I was feeling something as I pressed play and I was listening to the messages. And each message just became, things became clear. I mean, I couldn’t comprehend anything. So I finally turned on the television and I don’t remember much after that. I remember people coming over, making sure I was okay, and bringing food. I don’t remember leaving the house for a couple days. I just remember being in shock for quite some time.
ISAACS: There was this bar or restaurant down the street from the studio where the cast and writers would go after every show and I would see him once in a while. I was never great friends with him or anything like that, but we would have great fun together. I can’t remember who told me when it happened, but it was painful to hear it. He was such a good guy and nobody ever had a problem with him. He didn’t make waves, he didn’t get caught up in the drama of anything, the melodrama that can happen on a show.
FUREY: I was at my mother’s house in Long Island and she called from upstairs and said, “Hey, did you see that something happened at Phil Hartman’s house?” And I was like, what? I had just assumed that somebody got into a fight at his house, like a gardener or something. Because it wasn’t really revealed what the hell had happened yet. It didn’t even occur to me that it was Phil. Never in a million years did it register that it would be him when it was reported that there was a death at his estate. Then, of course, when it was revealed later on, it was surreal. It didn’t seem real to me. So completely bizarre. It almost feels like it didn’t even happen, it’s so strange. And I still have this feeling that maybe I’ll run into Phil someplace, I’ll see him sometime and go, “Hey, how you doing?” That could never happen. It’s so strange, that’s the only way I can describe it.
FOLEY: The people on the movie were great. They took down all the location signs so the press wouldn’t find our set. They gave me a couple of hours to sit in my trailer and call up the rest of the NewsRadio cast and writers and check in with everybody and see how everybody was doing. It was unbelievable news. Especially as it started to unfold that it was Brynn who shot him and that she had shot herself.
ROOT: I had heard in the middle of the night, unfortunately. The night before, and lots of reporters started calling me. How they got my number, I don’t know, but it was a drag. And I was also dealing with another family crisis the same morning. So I was back and forth with press about Phil and this other family crisis. It was pretty much a horrible day. None of us thought that Brynn would go to that extent. I think she was really jealous of Phil and his talent and his writing. And she was on a lot of different drugs and drinking, and that’s what happened. It happens sometimes but nobody had any sense that she would go that far. So, a pretty terrible day.
ISAACS: When it happened there was a thing at Paramount, they had this memorial for him and everybody showed up. People like me who hadn’t been on the show in a while. We all just sort of sat together and quietly shared a painful experience. I know the people working on the show at the time, the cast especially, they were just devastated because everybody really, really loved him. They thought highly of him, and they had those five years together. For the cast it really tore them up, it tore everybody up, but I think the cast especially.
FOLEY: The last time I saw him was our last day of shooting when we were shooting the Titanic episode of NewsRadio. It was the last day before hiatus, so last I saw him we were all floating around in an indoor swimming pool on a sound stage and having a great time. We didn’t know if the show was going to be picked up or not so we all were kind of celebrating and just enjoying being together. That’s the last I saw him.
WNYX after Bill McNeal
She’s taken enough away, don’t let her take each other away.
After Hartman’s death, the cast and crew believed that there was no way that NBC would still move forward with a fifth season. But just as the network had surprised everyone by bringing “NewsRadio” back from its brief cancelation, people couldn’t believe it when NBC chose to stick to the plans for Season 5. Hartman’s “Saturday Night Live” costar and close friend Jon Lovitz had previously made two appearances on “NewsRadio” as two different characters, and for the fifth and final season, he would join the cast full-time as Max Louis. It wasn’t easy for the cast to accept change, and it was even harder for them to get through “Bill Moves On.”
FUREY: We thought we were going to be canceled every season. At the end of every season we thought, “We’re probably not going to come back.” And then that happened and I had the feeling, and others did as well, now they’re totally going to cancel us. Without a doubt. It’s over. Then they picked it up. They decided that they wanted to do more of them. So we did. Which was really difficult and it never gelled very well with the cast.
FOLEY: It was incredibly hard to do. When we first got back, everyone was a little detached from what was happening and sort of peddled into work, just getting the work done. There was one scene where we knew we were going to have to talk about Phil’s character being dead, so everyone was being very practical and technical about it and trying to avoid dealing with it. The show night came and we had to do it in front of an audience and I think all of the emotion of it just flooded out of everybody.
ISAACS: I know there was a little bit of talk on whether to go on, and they just decided, everybody, if the actors hadn’t wanted to do it I don’t think it would have happened. I don’t think it was an easy thing for them to do. But in real life Jon Lovitz, who ended up taking that part, was Phil Hartman’s best friend. That’s what it seemed like. Maybe that helped some. It wasn’t some stranger that was coming in. It was somebody that Hartman cared a lot for. I think that was tough for him. I don’t think the show ever quite recovered from it, because he was so much a part of the spirit of the show and what made it funny and what made you care about the show. It was a tough moment, I think, for the folks who were there.
FUREY: It just became a totally different dynamic. We brought in Jon Lovitz, who was good friends with Phil and was in a couple episodes before and it seemed natural. It wasn’t Lovitz’s fault, it was just a different dynamic and it wasn’t the same thing anymore. The last season of it was not particularly easy to do.
ROOT: The last year with Phil, Andy was having substance problems. The show, in essence, was winding down, just because it was so revolutionary I think it had to come to a place where it was more of a network show. It wasn’t quite as dangerous, I think. So, the fourth year, with Phil, still fun. But Maura was doing movies. Andy, like I said, was having problems. Joe was more interested in UFC fighting than acting. Vicki and I still enjoyed the show and were on it. It changed a little bit in the fourth year and then in the fifth year there was Lovitz coming in for Phil. You knew that this was probably the last year of the show. And they were just finishing up the 100th episode for syndication. It took its toll.
FUREY: Phil was like the grounding force of all the actors on the show. He was like the big brother of the show. So their big brother was gone, which was very strange. But it was just odd and difficult. Then we had to put together an episode about him dying and explained how he died. It was one of those things that was odd. How do you explain it? You can’t really explain it well. And it’s not all that funny.
FOLEY: We all went to Paul’s house for a wake for Phil with the cast and crew. Everyone was debating, it was a discussion as to whether or not we should do another season. As Tom Cherones said, in reference to Brynn, “She’s taken enough away, don’t let her take each other away.” That was the argument that won everyone over. It’s bad enough that we miss Phil as much as we do, let’s not have to miss each other as well. I think it was a good decision and I’m certainly glad we had that extra time together.
TIERNEY: Ultimately, do I think that was our best work? No. But I wasn’t a part of that, and I don’t decide whether we do another season or not. Looking back I think it was difficult for Jon Lovitz to come into that. I was terribly mean to him for a while [laughs]. Until my mother said to me, “Don’t be mean.” I believe she said to me, “Don’t be a bully.” So it was hard, but we did it. We got through it. I’m sure there were some good shows.
FOLEY: To be there where we spent so much time with Phil, to be given that opportunity to mourn Phil together as part of the show – mourning Phil and mourning the character he created – it was very emotional. If you watch that episode you can see that we’re all really crying in the scene. It really was the first time, in front of the audience, everyone let themselves confront what they were feeling. It was a very raw moment.
Thanks for nothing, Preston Beckman
I had members of my family saying, “What night is the show on?” and that’s no good.
Furey and Isaacs maintained that things between Simms and NBC weren’t nearly as bad as history has made them seem, and even that incredible interview with Rolling Stone was just the case of a frustrated artist blowing off some steam. What everyone agrees on is that there was one specific executive who hated “NewsRadio”: Preston Beckman, NBC’s then-head of scheduling. Thus, the series was moved an incredible 11 times, which all but guaranteed failure. “What if,” we asked, “this show had the chance that Simms thought it deserved?”
FOLEY: The one thing that would have made a huge difference is if we were put in one time slot and left alone for a little while. I certainly know that I wouldn’t change the way we did things. And I don’t know that the group of people that Paul assembled, and Paul included, I think that was the show that we all knew how to make and all wanted to make. I don’t think we regret doing it that way, we were making the show we wanted to make, and I think we all thought it would be a hit. We weren’t deliberately trying to be just a critical darling. We were trying to be a hit show, but we thought the kind of stuff we were doing could be a hit.
FUREY: A couple of times, they did put it on Thursday, and it actually did very well. I don’t know, they never treated the show all that well. If they had put it on Thursday, it would have done a lot better than it did. It would have been, I don’t know if more highly regarded or anything, but it certainly would have gotten more attention and people who knew about it. Paul got in trouble because he said something specifically about the Thursday night lineup, and the network wasn’t thrilled about that. But it was kind of true. They would take shows that were struggling and put them in there. That was our argument, we’re kind of struggling, why don’t you put us in there? He was mad that they never really committed to it and pushed it more.
TIERNEY: I keep using the word irreverent, which it was. But there’s another word, it was just more conceptual than what was going on at the time. Now you just sort of have these shows that have wild POVs. I don’t know if it was ahead of its time or just that it was unique. I think it was unique as much as it was ahead of its time. I don’t know any other show like it, so it’s not like now all the shows are like it, or doing something now that everyone is doing. I still don’t think people are doing that kind of comedy.
ROOT: It predates shows like Big Bang Theory, fast and funny shows that were really well-cast and well-acted. You kind of thought that was going to continue from our time on, and it didn’t, really. I think sitcoms got kind of dumber. They went from A sitcoms to B sitcoms. There just weren’t A sitcoms anymore. But I think there are now. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is fast and funny and in that vein. There’s stuff that’s good, but I think there was a big lull for a while.
ALEXANDER: I don’t think the show would have ever been what it became. Especially with our audience. Remember, our biggest audience were boys in college. Which, if you think now how badly the network wants that audience, that was our number one audience. And the network honestly didn’t want them [laughs]. You look back and you think, really? Now you want men ages 18-34 and when you had them you didn’t want them! I don’t think NewsRadio would have worked if it was anything other than what Paul Simms wanted it to be, regardless of how long it went on. It touched the nerve with exactly who Paul wanted it to, and now it’s the audience that networks would kill for. Isn’t that funny?
ISAACS: The time slot after Seinfeld was this very coveted time slot because there were so many people watching Seinfeld and they would just keep watching. NewsRadio was supposed to get that time slot. From what I heard, Warren Littlefield thought that our show was so strong that we didn’t need that lead in. That he could put us on Tuesday in the middle of nowhere, and the show that they put in that time slot was Just Shoot Me, which went on to really big success while our show was hard to find. They kept moving it around, and I think it gained a pretty good cult status, but it never became this huge hit that NBC thought it would be, or frankly what we thought it would be.
FOLEY: As I understand, it was a guy named Preston Beckman who was in charge of scheduling who didn’t like the show and openly told a reporter from Entertainment Weekly that he didn’t like the show. And the Entertainment Weekly reporter called up Paul and said, “You should know that I have this quote from your network.” I think it was the sort of show NBC should be making and I guess it was his job to make decisions like that. I mean, when it’s all said and done we stayed on the air for five years. Not many shows get to do that. We were very lucky to get to stay on the air for five years.
ROOT: The programming guy at NBC hated us, so he moved us everywhere [laughs]. He tried desperately to get rid of the show, and he says that in one of our commentaries, “You know, I hated the show. I didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was awful, so I moved you around. And I don’t know why you didn’t die.” But we didn’t die because we were good, so it’s really up to the heads of the network what’s going to be going on. That’s why there are the lulls.
TIERNEY: I think we would have gotten better ratings [on Thursday night], which would have been great. I don’t think it would have affected the content of the show. It probably would have been nicer because Paul and the writers and actors probably could have gotten a little more recognition for being funny. But it was still funny. If we had been on Thursday night, would there still have been that unfortunate, tragic evening of what happened to Phil? That was the outcome of the show, regardless of what night we were on, it seems to me. So, would it have changed anything? I don’t know. It would have gotten more prizes, I guess, or more money. But it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of what happened historically with us.
FOLEY: I wish more people knew about the show now. I wish it was more widely run now so people could see it. Because I know now on the rare occasion when I see an episode of the show I really enjoy it, I laugh at it. Especially watching it now after all these years, I can relax and not think about all the little battles we had making the show, the things you worry about while making it. You can just watch it and go, “Oh, that was funny.”
ROOT: Obviously, we’re always happy that people appreciate our work but [laughs] it’s not something you think about. If they come up to you in the street and say, “Hey, I really love the show,” it’s a nice feeling. But the goal is not really to please people, it’s to please your peers and yourself and do the best work you can. We were going for the gold. For the best, the funniest, and that’s all you can do. Because there’s too many different kinds of people. Some who like it, some who don’t. You can’t do it for that. You gotta do it for the love of it and the excellence of it. So that’s what we did.
FUREY: A lot of sitcoms seem very forced, and I think the humor came naturally out of the characters. I don’t know if that’s being ahead of its time. I just think it was as good as we could make it be. Obviously, you always see stuff that can be better. It just wasn’t given a chance. I don’t think it was given a fair chance because they just moved it 11 times or something like that. It’s hard for anything to get a following. I had members of my family saying, “What night is the show on?” And that’s no good either.
TIERNEY: The funny thing about that year is that every year I thought we were going to be canceled and we weren’t. And that year I was actually surprised. I didn’t see it as having a cult status. But we all felt that it was funnier than the ratings. Like, Jerry Seinfeld did a guest spot on our show to help us out. He was the fucking king of comedy on NBC and he did a guest spot on NewsRadio because he thought it was funny. So people knew. We all knew it was funny and that people kind of weren’t getting it.
It will always be crizappy
We would all go back to the lot and hang out in the prop room, one of our dressing rooms, and everyone would hang out till dawn.
Despite approaching the end of each season thinking it would be the show’s last, and constantly having to worry about appearing in a new time slot, the cast and writers of “NewsRadio” never lost their love for the series and each other. They’ve experienced success, heartbreak and incredible loss, but 20 years later, they simply keep proving that just because some people didn’t get the joke, it doesn’t mean that they ever had to stop laughing together, regardless of where they are now in their respective careers.
ISAACS: Everybody on the show, the writers on the show, they were really funny folks. Josh Lieb is now the head writer for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and everyone has gone on… just a lot of funny guys there. When they started to do the more absurd shows, there was more a sensibility with the writers to try to push it and just see how kind of absurd and silly they could get away with. I know they all had fun doing that stuff and the actors liked it, too.
ROOT: Probably the most fun we had was doing the pilot because that was the most rigorous we were. We rehearsed for a couple of weeks for the pilot, whereas usually, you get a couple of days or three days to rehearse for a regular show. We were very prepared for the pilot. Jimmy Burrows directed it, and I think we finished it in two hours. We were out at 9:30, so the most fun were the Jimmy Burrows-directed episodes the first season because we were hitting on all cylinders. It was great fun. Introducing all the characters in the pilot was probably the most fun for me.
TIERNEY: I have a favorite moment with all the actors. I have a favorite moment with Stephen when we thought he was dying. I have a favorite moment with Joe when I think he was helping me take a test. And Phil when we did the Real Deal. I really do miss show nights. The thing I’m most nostalgic about is when a joke wasn’t working, and all the writers were on the floor with the actors, and everybody was really firing off and just on-point. It’s really fun to see people be creative that way on the spot, and that doesn’t happen in hour-longs when you don’t have an audience. That’s what I miss the most.
ROOT: I remember doing an episode with Maura where I was in a coma for most of the episode, and everyone would come in to talk to me. That was a great episode for me because it was a one-on-one with everyone in the cast. Phil would come in and talk to Jimmy while he was comatose and Andy would. Maura would. I remember there was some deal where she had some cards and she dropped them on my crotch and couldn’t quite pick them up. It was great fun. That episode for me was great even though I maybe had five lines in it at the end of the show [laughs].
FOLEY: All I can say is I had so many great times on Friday nights after we would finish shooting, and we would all hang out. We would go to a bar that was right next door to the studio. Then usually when that would close down, we would all go back to the lot and hang out in the prop room, one of our dressing rooms, and everyone would hang out till dawn. Just hanging out and having a good time together. That’s an experience I’m not going to replicate in my life again. Now, I’m just too old to have that kind of fun. It was great. We were just very close.
TIERNEY: We would go out after the shows and sometimes we would come back to the set and people who played instruments would set up and there would be a little jazz session. Nobody was a particularly good singer, guitar player, drummer, anything, but it was really, really fun. Also, as I said, it was such an unconventional show, and we could go to the writer’s room when we wanted, and they were just like giant kids with their video games. It was a very youthful, fun time. And you’re around so many funny people, so it was great.
FOLEY: I think everyone still feels like NewsRadio was all family, and it’s still this feeling that we’re all family after all these years.
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