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Previously…on Outkick the Coverage…
If you hadn’t noticed, the schedule has been a little out of whack relative to the Top 10 comedy series list here at OKTC, so let me briefly explain. I’ve been posting a bit less frequently due to the importance of the end of the college football season and some more timely pieces. We’ll be back to a weekly update, sometimes multiple posts a week, very soon. Hope you enjoyed the Sons of Anarchy retrospective. Before the end of the year, I’ll have a year-end rankings article as we move to 2015. But that’s a week or so away, let’s get to today’s business at hand.
When I put together my list, which changed as I realized that ten is a finite number and also a relatively small one, I realized NBC dominated. There’s a reason for it, namely that NBC has controlled comedy for the past 30 years and most of the best shows, even those that would fall between 11-20, would come from David Sarnoff and company. It’s just the way it is, apologies to all you Grace Under Fire diehards out there. It’s probably not a surprise that today’s entry is indeed about an NBC show, but the choice itself might be a bit stunning, simply because, sadly, a ton of people missed this gem. For those that saw it, I’ll accept your adulation and approving nods.
NUMBER SEVEN: NEWSRADIO (1995-1999 – NBC)
When it was first announced all those many years ago, a widespread opinion emerged that NewsRadio would likely be a clone of WKRP in Cincinnati, but quite frankly, that’s a complete fallacy. It was a similar situation to how Wings was seen as Cheers in an airport instead of a bar. Paul Simms worked with David Letterman after writing for the Harvard Lampoon while attending the university. The satirical humor publication has also turned out the likes of Conan O’Brien and B.J. Novak, among many others. Simms would go on to create NewsRadio and serve as the lead writer and executive producer of the series. So in short, he knew comedy. In more recent years, he assisted with HBO’s transcendentally cool Flight of the Conchords, which would be on this list had it run longer than two seasons. Again, this dude Simms, he knew comedy. He still does. He always will.
WNYX is an AM radio station in New York focused on hard news programs, live local updates, and feature shows hosted by an eccentric group of personalities. Billionaire Jimmy James (Stephen Root), “the man so nice they named him twice,” owns the station and spends an inordinate amount of time there, despite controlling numerous businesses and corporations. Root plays the role of nearly crazy but always savvy exceedingly well. A show dominated by and successful because of the strength of an incredible ensemble cast, perhaps the most overlooked talent conglomeration in all of situation comedy history, had no weak points. Jimmy James could have been static and wooden but instead was hilarious and serious, strange and ordinary, but consistently funny. As a result of solid writing and a mentality that relied on risks and deviations in the show’s basic format, every character received plenty of moments to shine individually through the script:
Yeah, I mean, that is so weird, that is so weird. I knew a guy, I knew a guy named Joe Pants once. I mean, what a guy, what a character! Guy always wore pants. (Jimmy James, S4E5)
Dave: Mr. James, I didn’t see you come in.
Mr. James: Yeah, that’s the way I like it. Like, uh, that magician guy. What’s his name?
Dave: David Copperfield?
Mr. James: No.
Mr. James: No.
Mr. James: That’s the one. (S1E3)
A common theme amongst both OKTC television lists thus far is one that doesn’t require a degree in pop culture to comprehend. It’s very simple. If your cast is a knockout, it can overcome bad writing. If the writing is good on top of that cast, your show is likely outstanding. This is very basic stuff.
Here’s the NewsRadio main cast, in addition to the exceptional work of Stephen Root as Mr. James. First you have News Director Dave Nelson. He’s young, fresh out of Wisconsin, and hired in the pilot, played by versatile Kids in the Hall alumna Dave Foley. Maura Tierney (ER, The Affair) plays Lisa Miller, the go-getter reporter who feels she could run the station better than anyone else. Vicki Lewis plays Beth, who claims she has no last name. Andy Dick, yes that Andy Dick, portrays Matthew Brock, a weird (head scratcher I know), supremely clumsy, awkward news reporter. UFC standout Joe Rogan got his big break as Joe Garrelli, the station’s maintenance man and electrician. Rogan was, in two colloquial words, friggin’ great. Khandi Alexander (Treme, CSI: Miami, Scandal) rounds out the regulars as Catherine Duke, one of two WNYX news anchors.
Oh, I forgot one: Phil Hartman as William Evelyn “Bill” McNeal, the other anchor on the show. Full disclosure, Hartman has been a celebrity hero of mine since I was a child. His work on Saturday Night Live remains timeless and his death robbed the world of unthinkable talent and extreme class. It’s quite possible that Bill McNeal was his finest hour. The character is on my short list of best…ever. The dialogue, the way in which Phil was able to balance being a good anchor with being, well, kind of a dirtbag, always, ALWAYS worked:
Dave: Bill, haven’t you ever heard the expression, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade?”
Bill: Dave, haven’t you ever heard the expression, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and then toss it in the face of the person who gave you the lemons until they give you the oranges you asked for in the first place?” (S3E17)
Lisa: Okay, so the most important thing to remember is that we stick together, right? We are a unit. They take all of us, or they take none of us.
Bill: [walking in] Okay people, let’s go to Plan B. It’s every man for himself!
Lisa: Listen to me. The last thing we need right now is a power struggle.
Bill: Absolutely, I’m with you.
Bill: All those in favor of maintaining a unified front stay here; those of you who’d like to join my splinter group meet me in the men’s room in five minutes. (S2E11)
Modern Family, number eight in this list, is a show marked through its incredible award success, the same with the effort that began this Outkick comedy ranking, Frasier. NewsRadio didn’t win a boatload of hardware, but that’s simply because people didn’t notice just how special it was in its first four years prior to Hartman’s death. Incidentally, Jon Lovitz joined the cast for the final season. No one could have replaced Hartman, and his good friend Lovitz still talks about just how nervous he was but how he wanted it to be tribute. I can tell you Jon. You did well. It wasn’t a bad fifth season. It was somber because Phil was still fresh in the minds of the audience and everyone in the cast.
It never reached past 26th in the Nielsen ratings and the timeslot seemed to change constantly. NBC actually hit double figures in its NewsRadio moves and shifts. It was also incredibly bold in a willingness to change things up and try things the network either didn’t like or didn’t fully understand. For instance, the final episode of Season 3 showcased what the program might have looked like had it occurred completely in outer space. The end of Season 4 was a spoof of Titanic, introduced by Hartman, featuring Dave Nelson as a ship captain warning of icebergs but being laughed at by the rest of his crew. Sadly, Hartman would be killed two weeks after “Sinking Ship” aired on NBC. I’ll admit the deviations weren’t my favorite episodes of the show, but, the willingness to take those jumps may well have influenced the future. Community is a show that continually stretches its own boundaries and at times certainly leaves me thinking of the NewsRadio experiments.
Dave: Have you ever heard the expression that you can catch more flies with honey than you can with vinegar?
Bill: Have you ever heard the expression, “Only a hillbilly sits around figuring out the best way to catch flies?” (S3E17)
The show pushed NBC in terms of content as well, with perhaps the most glaring moment being the funeral episode, “Copy Machine”, in which a staff member no one knew dies after an office accident. Dave ends up doing the eulogy and finds out as he looks at the crowd in the church that his deceased associate was a higher-up in the Ku Klux Klan. But, in classic NewsRadio fashion, during the eulogy, after admitting the KKK tie-in, “He also…enjoyed tennis.”
It was ballsy as hell in 1995 and honestly, if it was on in 2014, it would still be somewhat gutsy. Not every single move Simms made with the show was a home run or even a ground rule double, but nearly all trips to the plate put the batter on base. It was funny, often uproariously so, and it was astonishingly sharp in a time where most sitcoms were extremely formulaic. Simms fought for and executed mutli-episode story arcs in a time when that kind of thing was unheard of, both because of network hopes as well as production or studio desires for easy syndication.
The guest stars, well, here’s just a sampling. Bob Odenkirk, Brian Posehn, and David Cross appeared as Dave’s college buddies from his a capella singing group “Chock Full of Notes.” Dennis Miller worked across the street and Bill was afraid he was stalking him. Lauren Graham appeared in four episodes as an efficiency expert that shook up the office and put Lisa in the position of News Director. Ben Stiller worked as a salesman at an expensive gym that would soak Bill for what he called, “an assload of money.” Other cameos included Bob Costas, Jerry Seinfeld in one of my favorite episodes, “The Real Deal,” Bebe Neuwirth, and Daily Show host Jon Stewart as Matthew Brock’s adopted brother.
When rewatching NewsRadio today, it’s striking how effective it still is and how well it holds up. The program was so far ahead of its time. While it was a multi-camera sitcom, it had depth, the jokes were anything but telegraphed, and the humor required a brain. If it was in wide syndication today, an entirely new generation would discover and love it, because it had and will always have so much to offer as an entertainment property.
Bill: It’s like my father used to say: “When I was a child, I thought as a child and spoke as a child. And when I became a man, I took that child out back and had him shot.”
Dave: Bill, was your father in the Khmer Rouge?
Bill: Automotive sales. (S4E11)
As a high school student, NewsRadio was the first show I laughed at that also made me think and actually sent me to an encyclopedia or a dictionary. I needed to know why Bill McNeal quoting John Keats was so funny. I needed to understand who D.B. Cooper was and why it was a subject on the show. Maybe I should have known, but I was 15. Sue me. Or as Jimmy James would query Bill McNeal after an overnight stay in the hospital:
Jimmy: Hey there. How you feeling?
Bill: Good, thanks.
Jimmy: Feel like suing the station?
Jimmy: Good… I gotta go. (S1E3)
Before its time, overlooked, underappreciated, but truly worthy of a spot on anyone’s short list, NewsRadio is the show that will still be funny when a lot of others you think are just the best right now — fade from memory or feel a bit hokey when you pick up that DVD set out of a feeling of nostalgia. I mean, who doesn’t love a good Cambodian atrocity reference in the middle of an office comedy?
Bill McNeal: First thing we need is pick a position. Like Custer, we will make a stand.
Catherine Duke: Wasn’t Custer massacred?
Bill McNeal: Big Chief Custer? No, he killed many palefaces that day. (S3E3)
So much of what the masses consume today stunts mental growth or snuffs out a spark. NewsRadio’s biggest achievement is in never treating its audience like the punch line had to be obvious every single time. It followed Frasier in that regard, but certainly pushed the envelope far further than our OKTC number ten comedy. It’s just not feasible, outside of book format, to talk about all the great moments, from The Real Deal to Rap to Super Monkey Death Car to Pure Evil to all the rest. My best advice is to grab the discs or stream it. The DVDs are always cheap. Pick ’em up and just sit back and enjoy. Once you reach the Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor episode and watch Bill do the live spot for it on WNYX, you’ll thank me.
Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor…DAMN! (S3E19)
(All five seasons of NewsRadio are available on DVD and through Hulu. Sadly, it was removed from NETFLIX and many fans have asked for it to be added back to the instant queue, so keep your eyes peeled.)
Follow me on the Tweets @GuyNamedJason and then either shower me with praise or lob word-grenades at me for eternity. All hail Phil Hartman.
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