So what is funny?
It’s the question we’ve been asking ever since this reconsideration of NewsRadio began three years ago. Those of you who’ve come every summer and every week to read and discuss are bound by a rough consensus that something about this show, underappreciated at the time but recognizable still, outlines an answer — at least, one of the possible answers. Those of us who write about comedies face the question every time we shift our gaze from the TV screen to the computer screen and face the blank document. And not to get too pretentious in a week where we contemplate the NewsRadio creative team raising what seems to be a huge middle finger to their network, but the question lies underneath every episode of every sitcom ever made. We viewers respond partly to the humor worked into the scenario, but partly also to the confidence with which the artists assert that they know the answer.
And it’s a question asked explicitly by the most elegant bit of juxtaposition in “Jackass Junior High,” as Bill tells a joke that falls flat, and Walt (and who among us could have expected that Walt would be central to this key philosophical moment?) picks up the rebound and stuffs it in the comedy basket, sparking a general celebration. Let’s look at the scene carefully.
- Bill is anxious about his position in the group. He hasn’t been asked to do the voices for the Crazy Eric’s electronics store ad, even though he believes that (a) he’s a gifted mimic, and (b) his mimicry is funny. Dave apparently speaks for the rest of the office when he asserts that (a) Bill is the best voiceover man in the business, but (b) funny is the one thing his voice talents are not. Now Bill faces yet another rival for his centrality — nay, ubiquity — on the WNYX staff, in the person of Mark Davis, man of a thousand voices (“a thousand and one, actually,” Davis corrects). But more importantly, he faces an identity crisis. Suddenly, making the staff laugh becomes central to his self-image. He’s the needy performer, the overcompensating clown, the star obsessed by plots to topple his fame. The only thing that can temporarily reassure him is adulation.
- Walt is in a big foam suit. Sometimes people misunderstand costume humor. It’s not the costume that’s funny. It’s the juxtaposition of the costume with the action and reaction that goes on within and around it. A hot dog dancing isn’t funny, but a hot dog dancing while someone looks at it incomprehendingly or seethingly might be. A giant microphone isn’t funny, but a giant microphone standing in a group of people who don’t seem to notice that anything is strange might be. And of course, when the costume moves and speaks, humor can arise from the way normal gestures get transformed at the costume’s outsized scale, and from our sense of the personality of the costume’s wearer versus the personality asserted by the costume itself.
- A dichotomy of reactions ensues. Bill suggests that he can’t hear Walt because Walt needs to turn himself on. It’s an impromptu performance, an ad hoc bid for his colleague’s approval — and so it’s delivered like a Borscht Belt comic mugging to the footlights. Crickets. Then Walt cruelly turns the tables: “Maybe people couldn’t hear you, Bill. Next time try speaking into me!” There’s even a little bend at the waist, as if to direct the giant sound-collecting bulb toward Bill. Hilarity ensues, high fives all around.
As with the classic positing of this question in comedy — Monty Python’s Oscar Wilde sketch — the difference between a joke that doesn’t work and one that does is revealed to be the audience’s sense of the speaker’s confidence and control, mixed with sheer spitefulness and caprice. It has nothing to do with the inherent quality of the witticism. Funny is whatever someone does who doesn’t need to be reassured that he’s funny.
Maybe that accounts for some of the oddness of these two episodes, especially “Sinking Ship,” which comes across as a bitter, expensive “fuck you” to NBC. The NewsRadio creative team was clearly sick of trying to prove themselves to an audience of studio executives whose reaction to their efforts was stonefaced. They knew that the very process of trying to prove that they and their show were funny was a potentially fatal blow to the comedy they were supposed to be producing. Caught hip-deep in that paradox, all they could really do was write meta-comedy and poke holes in their own construct. It amounts to a scuttling of the enterprise, and of course, that’s exactly what “Sinking Ship” is. At the end, Hartman reassures us that the cast will at the very least live on past the show’s inevitable cancellation — and that Vicki Lewis has a career in film to look forward to. More angry denunciation of being put out of work than affectionate goodbye.
It’s hard to see the effervescent, virtuoso command of the medium that NewsRadio exhibited right from the start, and perfected at the height of this season, in these episodes. There are echoes of some of the signature framing, but it’s slightly off — the camera’s too close, or people are moving at the wrong speed. The interactions between characters still work in “Jackass,” but notice what’s happened to them in “Sinking Ship” — everyone has acquired an additional layer of character traits inherited from Titanic that muddies the water, as it were. It’s difficult to discern the familiar and potent push-and-pull between Dave’s hard-won center position and his shipful of eccentrics when Foley is playing the ramrod hero aristocrat in addition to the put-upon boss.
But the real difficulty is laughing at the bitterness on display, chiefly in the shockingly destructive special effects. I don’t know what it cost to flood the breakroom set or shoot a cascade of pressurized water out of the elevator doors or create the “listing newsroom” effect, not to mention retrofitting everything in brass-plated ship’s gear, but the tone isn’t one of “no expense spared to make you laugh!” so much as “we never took advantage of our corporate masters before, and this is how they thank us, so we’re stealing all the office supplies we can on our way out.” Saddest of all, perhaps, is how much “Sinking Ship” plays as one big “Hey, It’s 1998!”, so closely tied is it to the Titanic film phenomenon (rather than to the Titanic legend as a whole).
Oh, there are still some laughs — some satisfying ones, mostly at the smaller moments (Mr. James’ offhand “I could go for a cold phosphate, I guess”) but sometimes at the big expensive gags too (Joe responds to the elevator spewing water: “It’s just the boiler — it means the ship wants to go faster”). And “Jackass Junior High” hits a lot of highs, from Mark Davis’s not-that-funny script reading (“Luke, I am your father, and I’m going to Crazy Eric’s! Amen!”) to the staff responding with incomprehension to Bill’s various impressions. It’s certainly possible to see it as a fitting high note on which to end Phil Hartman’s career.
But it’s hard to deny the strangeness of “Jackass Junior High” as it closes with Dave and the staff fake-laughing to rebuild Bill’s ego, with Bill going for the boss-mockery in a kiddie version of a funny voice (not even an impression), knowing all the while that it’s a put-on but pathetically grateful for it all the same. What is funny? The real pain of the characters can be funny — back in Season 1 when Dave heard a similar performance from under his desk and called his mom, it was painful but very funny. But the pain of the people behind the scenes trying to be funny for people who’s opinions they don’t respect, willing to settle for pity laughter and hating themselves for it — it’s too raw to be funny. And that’s where so much of what we love about this show ends.
- This is the last post for season 4 and for this summer’s edition of the NewsRadio TV Club Classic. It’s been my favorite summer of writing these recaps so far, not only because the material has been so rich, but also because of you readers and commenters. Thanks for coming back week after week to analyze and celebrate. I know many of you have mixed feelings about the show’s swan song, Season 5, but I hope you’ll be back when we return next summer.
- Identifiable impressions performed by Bill: Irish (“Oh, so it’s funny voices you’re in the market for now, lad, is it?” which leads to Dave’s deadpan “Yes, that’s why we hired Mark Davis”), Charlton Heston, Bill Clinton. Also possibly Sling Blade.
- The A-story for “Jackass Junior High” is the all-male office (in which everyone calls Lisa “dude”). The other B-story is Mr. James having the station declared a historic landmark (“Apparently WNYX was founded in 1893”) and Matthew leading tours (“And the microphone, as we all know, was invented by a man by the name of Charles D. Microphone”).
- Male activities in the breakroom that disgust Lisa: shirtlessness, pantslessness, smoking cigars, eating without plates, drinking directly from the milk carton. (When she returns with temp Cheryl, everyone has plates, is fully dressed, and the milk is in glasses.)
- Lisa is reduced to a bit of a nag and killjoy in these episodes. In “Jackass,” she mocks the tea party waiting for her in the breakroom by asking if it was a belchathon or “garden-variety circle—” before Dave cuts her off. In “Ship,” she argues over the significance of Dave’s gift of Le Coeur de la Mer as the newsroom heels over (Dave: “It’s a birthday present — it just means I’m glad you didn’t die halfway through the year.”)
- Because the station is union-certified, according to Joe, “even if it is completely submerged, it still retains its unsinkable classification.”
- Dave suggests that the WNYX gift shop is failing because of a “bad batch of Ye Olde-Fashioned Radio Fudge.”
- Hartman’s intro to “Sinking Ship” makes veiled reference to NBC’s bad habit of changing the show’s timeslot: “Those of you who faithfully tune into NewsRadio whenever we’re on …”
- In “Space,” Lisa hands Dave the Governor Spacetaki interview. In “Sinking Ship,” she hands him the Admiral Patacki interview.
- Bill’s complete Dave Nelson impression: “Silence employees, be seated! We have a lot of work to attend to, but first these platform shoes are killing me! Let me tell you an incredibly boring story about growing up in Wisconsin! Lisa dumped me, but I keep pretending I don’t care! Hey, where are you going, you’re going to miss my big tap-dancing finale! My mom has a ball of string that’s over two stories tall!”
- “You’re not likely to notice many icebergs with your nose buried in that scandal sheet.”
- “Artistic — that’s poor for naked!”
- “Sometimes I just hate him so much!”
- “My name is not Deputy Dave.”
- “I think they blew most of the special effects budget on the break room scene.”