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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "Lucky Burger"/"Noise"

Illustration for article titled NewsRadio: "Lucky Burger"/"Noise"
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“Lucky Burger” (season 5, episode 3; originally aired 10/14/98)

In which Lisa goes undercover in fast food, and Max searches for a personality.

In the first two episodes of the season, the NewsRadio creative team were extraordinarily open about what they had lost, and what drove their casting decisions. Now they prove equally perceptive about the difficulty plaguing their show in the wake of those changes. Max Louis worries that he has no core identity, that he’s a chameleon, that nobody knows who he is. And I nod my head in agreement. Yep. There’s your problem right there.

“Lucky Burger” suffers not only from that painfully accurate self-diagnosis but also from the always-risky strategy of isolating a character or two from the ensemble and sending them into a one-shot set. Here, it’s a burger franchise that hires Lisa, masquerading as Lorna, on a quest to blow the lid off lax health and safety practices in the industry. Mr. James poses as a customer in order to pass on to Dave her damning information (on microcassette tapes surreptitiously recorded while she’s on break). While there’s some good stuff in this subplot, notably in Lisa’s instantaneous shift of loyalty to Lucky Burger once David Anthony Higgins makes her the assistant manager, the energy is way off. There are good reasons NewsRadio quickly ditched the anonymous extras in the background of the newsroom set; number one, who needs ‘em? (Verisimilitude shmerisimilitude.) And number two, it’s potentially distracting to think about other people affected by yet incapable of playing an active role in our ensembles’ shenanigans. Here, we return, unnervingly, to a small set full of people in which the leads play out their plot. At least it pays off once, when Lisa yells at an offscreen employee to get the fries under the heat lamp, then when an extra ventures into the frame, reminds him “Ryan! Fries!” causing him to dash back the other way.

But it’s the strained effort to write a character for Jon Lovitz on the fly that is most dispiriting this week. And it begins so well, too, with Matthew hiring Joe to expose the lies in Max’s employment history (and paying him mostly in Monopoly money). When Dave calls Max into his office to discuss his resume, it sets off a classic NewsRadio rondelay: Max u-turns and walks out, Beth sticks her head in the door to accuse Dave of abusing Max, and Matthew strolls by to gloat (before running after Max to get change). Joe claims to know exactly why Max is so elusive, and Dave tries to guess: “He’s an alien. Time traveler. CIA operative. Robot man. … You know, half man, half robot?” (Joe scoffs, “I know what a robot man is, Dave.”) Correct answer according to Joe: Serial bigamist. When Matthew promises Dave he can crack the mystery by “having my best man break him down Beretta-style,” Joe demands $15. “What can you give me for five?” Matthew bargains. “Starsky-style interrogation,” Joe suggests, or he can throw in Hutch for $7.50. “Too rich for my blood,” Matthew concludes, dejectedly.

Maybe if it were just about Matthew’s vendetta and Joe’s enabling thereof, this story would work. But it has to also be about Max’s neuroses, Beth’s championing of him, and Dave’s fumbling toward a managerial strategy that can deal with Max. All at once, the show is trying to establish a soundbite relationship between each character and The New Guy. It feels both perfunctory and overdone, as if the writers know this stuff needs to build organically, promise themselves to devote a whole show to letting that happen, and then treat the whole thing like a hurdle everybody doggedly needs to get over before the show can go on. Worst of all is Max’s abject neediness. We’ve all got a big sucking emotional hole in our chests at this point; the last thing we want is someone else asking for our pity. And the reason—that he’s too weird for the group—never comes off as honest.  In “Lucky Burger,” the decision to go hangdog with the new character feels like a miscalculation—when it seems like a decision at all, that is, and not just one in a series of try-out personalities.

“Noise” (season 5, episode 4; originally aired 10/21/98)

In which Joe engineers Dave’s bliss and Max’s megalomania with the help of sound effects.

Look what happens when all that therapeutic stuff goes away and Max becomes something closer to a chaotic force with its own haywire logic. Even though it’s just the B-story to one of the more hilarious Dave Nelson plotlines the show ever produced, Max’s co-opting of Lisa’s “This Day In History” feature hints at how well Lovitz can work when the writers give him a role that makes internal sense (which is to say, involves the systematic dismantling of the sense that another character is trying to make). Almost all the little details not only work but feel delightful, from Max’s grandiose sense of radio drama (complete with conductor-like cues and hand-waving) to the congratulatory handshakes he and Joe share upon the successful completion of their segments. Whereas Bill was cavalier with the truth because he felt that it got in the way of his on-air image, Max lets theatricality trump accuracy: “I took your good idea and made it great, giving it that Max Louis panaysh!”

Result: increasingly absurd radio segments in which Lisa is physically shoved away from the mic in favor of Joe’s by-the-numbers sound effects (including a cavalry charge to evoke a tank offensive, and slack-key guitar music for the Guadalcanal victory celebration) and George Washington impersonation (promising to use against the redcoats “the only strategy I know: a straight-up street-smart all-American ass-kicking!”). I think we could have used one or two more of those segments, actually, to ramp up the craziness still further and really get the crackerjack rhythm of the radio performances deep into the DNA of this episode, and I’d be willing to sacrifice the Matthew-turns-into-Max’s-mother plotline completely in their favor, even if it means losing the beautifully underplayed Lovitz line referencing the note pinned to his jacket: “It’s a schedule of when I have to be in the booth. Matthew put it there because I lost the last one he gave me.”

Because the contrast between fast-paced, damn-the-facts-full-speed-ahead  “This Day In History With Max Louis” stuff and the sleepy and crushingly honest Dave Nelson under the influence of Joe’s white noise machine is brilliant. Everything about this storyline is gold, from the gigantic machine Dave begins carting around the office on his shoulder, to the goofy grin on Dave’s face as he reclines in the office listening to crickets, to the unexpected twist of having Mr. James get instantly hooked as well (leading to great “dueling druggies” dialogue like “Milk?” “Spilled”; “Gonna cry about it?” “Not even”). If this is the payoff for putting Dave through the wringer so far in season five, it’s worth it. And it’s one of the great Dave Foley performances of all time, recalling and drawing from four seasons’ worth of sweetness, frustration, and hard-won realism. “You’re just saying that because you have an overly critical mind that prevents you from enjoying the things that—well, that human beings enjoy,” he smiles at Lisa when she rejects his offer of a midday drink. “She’s nice to you because she wants to win the approval of her father. Don’t flatter yourself. Any older man will do,” he benignly informs Max in the middle of a moment with Beth. And when Matthew starts imagining that his favorite “Yosemite Lullaby” cricket is calling out a friendly greeting, watch Dave’s hard-won bliss start to fray around the edges: “No it isn’t, but if it makes you happy, that’s cool… What say you go away?”

“Noise” ends with Dave less angry and put-upon and more resigned to his unhealthy plight, revealing that the alarming medical results that Mr. James had been keeping from him are the result of his blood pressure rising steadily Monday through Friday. (“Then it goes back down over the weekend?” Beth suggests. “No,” Dave scoffs.) But for one episode he was able to dismiss all the dysfunctions of his staff with no more than a “Dude, this is really uncool.” With that, NewsRadio both gives us a break from the stress we’ve been feeling on his behalf and creates a space for comedy based on character rather than administrative logistics.

Grades: “Lucky Burger,” C; “Noise,” A-

Stray observations:

  • “Lucky Burger” not only features David Anthony Higgins in a very funny guest star turn (“In the short time you’ve been here, you’ve shown us the kind of worker you are, and that’s a grade A worker”), but was written by supervising producer Alan Higgins, his brother and one-time sketch comedy partner.
  • Mr. James’ wooden “I’m acting” voice, featured prominently in “Massage Chair,” returns briefly when he has to order a Lucky Combo from Lisa: “Yes, Lorna, that would be good, thank you.”
  • Matthew tries to frame Max for drawing an unflattering caricature of Dave but makes several errors: (1) It’s drawn on the back of Matthew’s time sheet; (2) with the same pen Matthew used to fill out the time sheet; (3) its idea of ridicule is have Dave riding a pegasus, winged horse of ancient myth, because “mere mortal riding the steed of the gods, you can’t get any more ridiculous than that!”
  • Max’s “noms de radio”: Knute Rocker (Cleveland sports station), Alistair McCello (Dayton classical station), Jazzmanian Devil (New Orleans), Dr. Dan the Bull Sesh Man (Wisconsin), Charlie Chowder (Boston), Johnny Tumbleweed (San Antonio).
  • A little bit of “Get to know me!,” one of my favorite Lovitz SNL bits, creeps into “Lucky Burger”: “Who is Max Louis? What’s his persona, his hooks? What are his likes and dislikes? Has he always come to life in the spring? When did he start losing his hair?”
  • One of the problems with “Lucky Burger” is that it’s devoid of much visual comedy, with the notable exception the cut to Matthew with only his eyes showing over the desk during Dave’s recitation of the staff’s eccentricities.
  • Mr. James didn’t tell Dave about the blood pressure readings because he “just thought it would make him more tense. It’s a hideous paradox, really.”
  • Callback to “Sweeps Week” with Matthew using a disposable camera to record precious memories from Max’s mid-forties; he ups the ante by tossing it in the trash when he’s done (only to dig it out again when he decides he needs shots of Max eating soup). A 2010 episode of The Office apparently recycles the trash gag.
  • Synchronized double NR signature shot in “Noise,” with Lisa dashing off stage left and Mr. James stage right.
  • “Spoiled meat at a Lucky Burger, what a scoop.”
  • “That’s a stone cold bummer, Mr. Natural, but you keep on truckin’.”
  • “The off switch doesn’t come till this weekend.” “Is there a volume switch?” “You want it louder?”
  • “Life’s a bitch.” “And then you die.” “My.” “Oh.” “My.”