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NewsRadio: "Goofy Ball" and "Rat Funeral"

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Illustration for article titled iNewsRadio/i: Goofy Ball and Rat Funeral

They could've called it "Models," or "Bill's Stalker." But they called it "Goofy Ball," and a legend was born. On the other hand, they couldn't have called our second episode anything but "Rat Funeral," because absolutely nothing is going on except for the rat (and his friends) and their many funerals. Yet despite the lack of distraction from network-mandated death rituals, "Rat Funeral" holds up pretty well. I wouldn't say it puts the fun back in funeral, but at least it puts the ra back in rat.

The goofy ball in question in this the second episode of season 2 is a bright yellow toy that goes (as Beth describes it) "ga … ga … ga …" For some reason everyone sits around the conference table wondering what it is until Jimmy James informs them that, as the ball itself states in large bright red letters, it's a goofy ball. The hot-potato-esque toy is made by one of Mr. James' recently acquired subsidiaries, and he wants the staff to play with it and "see how long it takes you to get tired of it." (Like how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, the answer is "The world may never know.") The much-loved manic energy of "Goofy Ball" comes from the annoying ball's interruption of all normal sitcom processes. No scene is safe from the goofy ball flying in and out, or the most avid players (Beth and Matthew) darting around the office emitting high-pitched giggles. (When Dave admonishes Beth for a particularly piercing shriek, Matthew comes out from under a desk to confess, "That was me, Dave.")

Meanwhile Joe has discovered a trio of fashion models who apparently have become trapped in the elevator (or maybe, like me when I was a little kid, they just love riding up and down endlessly). Determined to "get Dave some," Joe arranges a date between the blond model (Beth: "Dye job, check the roots") and Dave, but this riles Lisa because it constitutes cheating on their secret relationship. And further meanwhile, Bill is convinced that a trench-coated, eye-patched man who's always outside their building is stalking him, and asks Joe to procure him a stun gun.

"Goofy Ball" isn't a classic escalation like "Big Day" or "Security Door." It's peppered with laughs, but the level stays consistent rather than snowballing into transcendent realms of hilarity. Still, it's an excellent example of what the show could do with a number of small ideas, stringing them together and intersplicing them to create a satisfying whole. Dave and Joe's interactions with the models had disappeared from my memory, and so it was a wonderful surprise to see Dave grope for an appropriate level on which to interact with them. (Models: "Where's a good place to get lunch around here?" Dave: "We usually just order in for lunch." Next time the door opens — Models: "We decided to eat in, too." Dave: "Well, I highly recommend it.") Lisa, too, gets maximum mileage out of the attenuated models-in-the-elevator premise, trying to stand up to their modish tallness and bare midriffs in her baggy cardigan and ankle-length skirt. (Only to be undercut by Dave walking out of the bathroom, prompting a chorus of "Daaaave!" from the models. "I was just washing my hands, actually," he explains, and then, delighted by the continuing cheers: "Well, thank you!")

The timing of the Bill's-stalker storyline hobbles a bit — our big guest star Dennis Miller comes wandering into the show at the end of the second act, does two scenes, and then disappears back to the coffee shop across the street. But the awkwardness of shoehorning Miller into the show is more than compensated by Bill's strangled, staccato scream, heard faintly from Dave's office, when his investigations into whether Joe made an actual working stun gun for him hit pay dirt. ("That goofy ball is completely disruptive," Dave comments angrily.) It's a shockingly effective edit in a episode that depends mostly on the actors rather than the cameras.

"Rat Funeral" riled the Newsradio fanbase back in 1995 because the network dictated the show premise — at least the death part of it. To promote NBC's premiere airing of the hit movie Four Weddings And A Funeral, executives decreed a theme night in which all the Tuesday comedies would feature weddings and funerals. The writers did the best they could, grumbling all the while — and as we'll see, they didn't do half bad — but the taint of creative interference has hung over the episode ever since. The premise is that unbeknownst to Dave, the office has adopted a rat as their unofficial pet, and Dave's insistence on rat traps leads to charges that he has no heart. Dave tries to combat this cold-fish image by supporting the staff as they mourn for Mike the rat.

In contrast to "Goofy Ball," this episode does attempt an escalation — and in an absolutely terrific belly laugh in the last fifteen seconds, it fully pays off. The episode is only intermittently successful with sound-based comedy, something that Newsradio plays with in "Goofy Ball" and perfects in season 3's "Complaint Box"; the snap of the rat traps is intended to be funny juxtaposed with the reactions of the staff, but that brittle sound turns out to be more plot point than joke. (The rat coffin tumbling down the chute, getting stuck, then tumbling down some more — rinse and repeat — is beautifully done, however.) In fact, there's a lot about "Rat Funeral" that lacks snap, perhaps revealing a writing staff too resentful to run with their premise. What could have been a very funny scene in the downstairs cantina (first appearance!) as the staff remember their old pets is timed like the Bataan death march, and Dave never completely embraces his hurt about being called unfeeling by Bill — it seems a put-on for the sake of the story, at least on his side.

But Bill has a wonderful time with increasingly creative ways of calling Dave unfeeling. "We thought we'd take thirty seconds out of our work day to grieve for an old friend," he explains about the incinerator chute funeral. "You can dock our pay if you see fit." Later he dares Dave to mock his grief: "Go ahead, laugh, it's your nature." When Dave turns to go back to his office, he taunts, "What, do you need to recharge your robot battery pack?" Jimmy reveals himself to be more allied with the staff than with his news director when he is overcome by the pathetic sight of a rat in a glue trap: "Poor little guy … got one paw free, you know … just horrible." And Matthew, setting off the traps early in the episode to try to save Mike's life, explains his ow's as rehearsals of his cockney accent: "'Ow ya doin', guvnah!"

What bothers me most about both of these episodes, frankly, is that Dave is something of a killjoy. He seems on edge, authoritarian. He snaps at everyone during "Goofy Ball," and I don't fully believe that he is trying to show a sensitive side to the staff in "Rat Funeral"; he doesn't seem wounded by their opprobrium, so why would he make the effort to change their minds? Maybe the underlying problem, at least with "Rat Funeral," is that there seems to have been some effort to inject warmth into the scenario — witness Dave's speech to Mr. James about how Mike allowed the staff their humanity when they spend all day dealing with war and crime and so forth. Pretty dire stuff for a show that has to this point not shown the staff reporting on war and crime and so forth; it feels like protesting too much about doing the episode at all. I hope for a return to the Dave who is at the center of the staff's insanity, rather than sitting off uncomfortably by himself at the cantina, barely included and unable to join in the repartee.

Grade: "Goofy Ball," B+; "Rat Funeral," B-

Stray observations:

- Out of left field references: Lisa's repeated invocation of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (Dave: "What is your obsession with the Rosenbergs?") Dave geek alert: Knowing too much about the career of Yoko Ono. ("A lot of people think that her work on Double Fantasy wasn't … completely disruptive.")

- Hey, It's The Nineties! Watch: The conspiracy theory that Dennis Miller spins involves Vince Foster and BCCI.

- After its inaugural appearance in "NTINBEOJL," the break room (or as the staff are currently referring to it, the "kitchenette") is practically the home base for these two episodes — from Joe's homebrew electronics workbench to the reappearance (and quick demise) of Mike (or perhaps, Mike's friend).

- Dave's deadpan recital of all the shades of blue shirt that only he can discern, ending with "… and standard blue," is a little off model — Dave is typically aware and apologetic about the ways he deviates from normalcy — but it's adorable nonetheless. (I'm not sure why it's Rainman-like, however — was Rainman obsessed with tiny distinctions? Or does she mean that he can see categories no one else can see?)

- Bill's speeches at the rat funerals are another example of snowballing comedy. I especially like the cut from the rat trap going off in the break room (as seen above) to Bill intoning, "Friendship — what is it?" out in the hall. ("A shared piece of cheese, perhaps, or a tasty bean.")

- Quote: "Gay? And you do realize that by 'gay' I mean a man who has sex with other men?"

Episode: "Goofy Ball" (9/26/95)

Context: Bill joins Joe and Dave's discussion about why Dave won't go out with Sheila the model (Joe: "Fear? Impotence?"), brilliantly staged with Lisa stewing in the foreground while pretending to read a newspaper, and punctuated by Matthew and Beth running past with the goofy ball.

Real-life uses:: When you suspect that the person whose sexuality needs clarification might misunderstand your question.

- The apartment building where my grandmother lived during my youth had a mail drop and a trash chute. That clunk-a-bump-bump sound of trash receding into the bowels of the building really brings back memories. (The mail drop, luckily, was only sized to fit standard envelopes.) I also get a little twinge of nostalgia from seeing Catherine putting her earring back on after she's done talking on the phone, something I associate with my mother's generation (or maybe I just wear smaller, less unwieldy earrings than the rest of womankind).

- Mysteries Of Sitcomville: Why do all television-show break rooms contain signage encouraging people to drink coffee?

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