Summer sitcom rewind: 'NewsRadio' - 'The Public Domain/Super Karate Monkey Death Car'
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.