As Noel proves on a weekly basis in Popless, your life history is inextricably tied to your aesthetic judgments. So it's with some trepidation that we revisit the art, literature, and pop culture that we loved years ago. Will that sitcom that was a weekly source of delight back in the days of Aum Shinrikyo, Jacques Chirac, and Christopher Reeve falling off a horse not thirty miles from my apartment still seem as funny and inventive today? Or was it all just the pre-marriage, mid-grad school, Contract With America haze?
I'll be investigating that question with this summer's examination of Newsradio, one of my favorite television shows of all time. I can't pretend to be an unbiased inquirer, though — I'm entering the project ready to laugh and love with America's never-cracked-the-Nielsen-top-25 sweethearts, Dave Nelson and Lisa Miller, and I'm likely to cut even the soggiest episodes some slack. I certainly don't expect to be disappointed, although if I am, the wrath of the spurned lover could well ensue. And along the way, I'll be reconsidering the legacy and potential of the traditional three-camera situation comedy, a form I grew up on and a form that I continue to believe in, even in these postmodern times.
So with that in mind … WNYX News time: Tuesday nights in 1995!
Raise your hand if you made a special effort to watch the first episode of this midseason replacement because you were a Kids In The Hall fan. Dave Foley — one of the many Daves that Bruce McCulloch knows — made his debut on American TV, and those of us who'd grown fond of the boyish, gap-toothed comedian through KITH reruns on Comedy Central were pretty damn excited. (Cue Jimmy James: "That kind of strong language don't fly with me, Dave.")
And looking back on it, it's amazing how many elements of the Newsradio mystique were already present, in embryonic form, in the pilot. In the typical fashion, the pilot was shot long before the series got the green light for more episodes, so Dave's hair is atrociously feathered, the engineer ("Rick") is played by Greg Lee, Catherine is mentioned but has no lines (and is played in the background by a different actress), Matthew is only a moderate spaz with absolutely no cutesy detritus on his desk, et cetera. But an impressive amount of the series is already on model: Jimmy James, a character whose inscrutable hick-mogul enthusiasm was central to Dave's stuck-in-the-middle-with-you character arc, strolls onto the set completely formed from the first moment, and the whole point of the pilot seems to be to introduce the frenetic open-plan office energy that keeps Dave constantly off-balance for five seasons.
The teaser opening, in which Dave walks confidently into a building lobby and chats with the security guard, planning his elevator ride to arrive at the WYNX offices precisely at 9 am, establishes the Dave Nelson personality as a direct extension of the characters Foley played in a thousand KITH sketches: a man whose confident self-image is completely conditional on the inputs of his environment. It takes only an instant for that adult certainty to crumble, turning Dave into an anxious, exasperated, lost kid. And it's Foley's peculiar genius — I say this as a huge Dave Foley fan — to make that kid lovable, and to make us want to root for him.
It's also impressive that the very first episode features the appearance of what I think of as the signature Newsradio shot: a static medium shot in which a character runs full speed into or out of the frame. Here it's combined with Foley's gift for physical comedy (yes, he was once lithe enough to do physical comedy!). It's a callback to an earlier (very funny) bit of physical comedy where Dave briefly waffles between following Jimmy James into the office and picking up his scattered briefcase and papers on the floor. In the second occurrence, Ed the erstwhile news director has come back up the elevator after ostentatiously quitting, sliding his file box of office possessions into the lobby. As he and Jimmy stride back into the office, Dave starts to follow, but has to dash back to the box upon hearing Jimmy (offscreen) say "pick it up." I've been so conditioned to the inherent comedy in that combination of framing and blocking that the mere appearance of a static medium shot at the right camera distance causes me to chuckle.
Months after the filming of the pilot, the full WNYX crew as we came to know and love them gathered to begin filming in earnest. Khandi Alexander is on hand as Catherine (and one of the episode's B-stories is about Bill McNeal's attempts to curry her favor with birthday parties and dinners she doesn't want). Joe Rogen shows up as Joe, the engineer, in the same turned-backward ball cap and jeans as "Rick," but a lot more attitude. Matthew has a few lonely-looking colorful touches on his desk, but his main storyline is the attempt to get an original feature on the air — a trope that was teased in the pilot as well.
The storyline is about Dave and Lisa's secret office romance, and man, they didn't waste any time moving from glimmers of sexual tension to full-blown affair, did they? If you'd asked me before starting this blog how many episodes it took for Dave and Lisa to hook up, I would not have taken "two" in the pool. But that little shocker just underlines how serious Newsradio was about undermining the pacing of the traditional sitcom. Everything is breakneck, like we're running the 110-meter hurdles.
"Inappropriate" also signals how central the character of Beth was to the initial conceptualization of the show — much more so than Bill or Matthew, for example. Beth is set up as the liaison between Dave's clueless near-normalcy and the WNYX madhouse. Here she counsels Dave on the inadvisability of his fling with Lisa, based on her experience with the FedEx guy ("They almost had to call the supervisor in from Memphis," she recalls). I really like how naturally Dave Foley and Maura Tierney fall into screwball bickering; again, it's something we knew Foley could do based on many KITH sketches, but it's just a goofy trip to see them stepping on each other's lines and awkwardly jitterbugging around each other. And if there's anything more cute than the two of them readjusting their clothes after their lunchtime tryst, I can't imagine what it would be.
This is our clearest indication so far that the lead character of this particular fish-out-of-water sitcom (Midwesterner in the Big Apple subcategory) is not going to be a calm at the center of the storm, or a straight man to all the wackiness around him. Just think about all the comedies where the sidekicks get all the laughs, leading to the phenomenon of the Incredible Receding Lead. Dave Nelson is going to be funny, and not always as a foil to the funny people around him. So to the genius elements of Newsradio that we've identified so far, add the strong comic presence of the protagonist, here exemplified by Dave's response when Beth tells him he has a thing he does when he's lying. "No, I don't," he says, adjusting his tie, and then, with instantaneous dread — "This is it, isn't it, this is the thing!"
I can tell that one of the great joys of this project is going to be watching the character of Bill McNeal become one of the comic axes of the show. Here, after his almost absurdly professional entrance in the pilot (in the booth smoothly delivering a studio ID), he's just a tad on the external side. He hasn't quite figured out how the voice, the amorality, and the oddball obsessions coalesce into a character. But you can see it coming.
Grade: "Pilot," B+; "Inappropriate," B
- Dave Foley in 1995: So very … very … young.
- Look at those big cell phones they had in the nineties! Don't you love when a rich character from the past pulls out a fancy gadget of bygone times to signal how rich they are?
- Jimmy James to Dave and Lisa arguing over the on-air apology for Matthew's mispronunciation of Buttafuoco: "Who did I hire as news director here? … No, I'm really asking, I lose track of these things."
- Check out crazy more-than-a-full-beard extra behind Jimmy at Catherine's two-minute party. Somebody toss that man some grooming tools. And cab fare to the nearest SuperCuts.
- I get that Beth's cuckoo outfits are supposed to be her thing from moment one, but … the munchkin bellboy getup in the second episode looks actively painful. Sweetie, you don't need to sacrifice comfort for fashion. (Something tells me I'm wasting my breath.)
- Set Watch: The production studio set has appeared in both episode. The break room has yet to appear.
- Vicki Lewis gets the unexpected laugh of the first blog: "Oh, that's just wroooooong."