Season 4 doesn't fool around, does it? Already the all-time classics are coming thick and fast. I know some of you have been waiting for "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" since the very first post in this series; it's easily the most quoted episode in the comments, and the one that folks just discovering the blog mention first as their favorite. But in our house, Bill's political songs have always been the signature memory of NewsRadio. We trot out "When Johnny comes marching home again — he's gay! He's gay!" as often as we do Seinfeld or Simpsons quotes. And to be frank, it's always been my impression that the brilliance of Jimmy's reading in "Monkey" towered over an episode that wasn't overall as strong as some of the ones I cherish most, and caused fans to overrate it.
I'm happy to report that we're both right. "The Public Domain" is in fact one of the most fall-down hilarious half hours of NewsRadio, and not just because of Bill's songs; "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" surrounds that one towering scene at the bookstore with two other plotlines that deliver consistent brilliance. And the secret weapon of both killer episodes is The Pile-On. Let's take a closer look at this strategy, shall we?
The Pile-On is a modified kitchen-sink approach to the sitcom form. You pack more than the usual number of plotlines into the episode — so many, in fact, that they can't be called plotlines at all. They're really running gags that keep fighting for space. And if you do it right, two things happen. First, your viewers can't keep all the running gags in their heads, so when some of them pop up, we've almost forgotten about them in the crush and get a huge jolt of delighted surprise. And second, the ones that manage to have enough dramatic arc to deserve the label of story are so attenuated that they lose some of their seriousness as Conflict/Resolution structuring devices for the half hour, and become purer in the comedic sense — more abstract, if you will, less tied to the Situation and more arising from the almost chemical interactions among these characters. If you want to understand why NewsRadio moved toward untethered comedy fantasia in this season and next, the implications of the mechanism and effect achieved in these two episodes just might be key.
In "The Public Domain" (a title that apparently refers to the fact that Bill's tunes were chosen for their no-cost availability), the plotlines are: (1) Matthew keeps showing up to try to get his job back; (2) Andrea gives Dave an "assistant," Steve, to do half his work; (3) Jimmy is being followed around by a reality-show film crew; and (4) Bill has a political piano act. ("Like Mark Russell," Dave offers. "I have no idea who that is," Bill responds.) Plotlines 2 and 3 actually have some plot, even if it's minimal. Dave is miffed and concerned by Steve's presence and wants to show Andrea that he can handle the staff on his own. And Jimmy alternately can't function with the cameras rolling and is far too candid about his disdain for the public. As soon as he gets his cue from the filmmakers, he turns into stagestruck robot. "So Lisa Miller," he intones (in a voice similar to Milton Waddams'), "what is it that you would like to discuss today … here in the office where both you and I work in?" So Lisa comes up with a plan to have the cameras actually on when the director says cut, which works fine until Jimmy goes off on a citizen's group upset about Bill's language on air. "You don't see me telling people what they can or can't say, and I've bribed hundreds of guys!" he fumes, causing Lisa to abandon the charade and yell "Cut!"
Bill's incessant piano playing is the running gag that occupies every spare nook and cranny left by the two main stories. The distant sound of his vamping before launching into a song — always the same four chords — serves as an endlessly repeating comic button that cues Dave's panic and exasperation. And the songs themselves are brilliantly moronic, perfect skewerings of Mark Russell's smug, lazy PBS specials. My family used to watch those, and every time I would think, "this guy can't be that bad — he's so popular! I must just be missing something." But for a huge Tom Lehrer fan like me, Russell's brand of comedy was so shallow that I couldn't give him any respect. Bill's parody nails the mistaken belief shared by Russell and his audience that just mentioning a political topic in a song is enough to make it brilliant satire. "Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Star/Special Whitewater prosecu-tar!" A forced rhyme, the complete absence of a joke — that's the style in a nutshell. But what puts "The Public Domain" over the top is that one extra plotline/gag — Matthew being unable to stay away from the office. The quintessence of the strategy is the moment when Dave calls out Matthew for hiding behind the plant in the background after Bill's riffs on gays in the military. We not only have no idea that gag is going to come barreling into the piano gag — we've actually forgotten about the Matthew gag entirely. And there he is emerging from the plant in the extreme back of the shot, attempting to pick up the enormous plant as if that's what he came back for, then abandoning it and fleeing offscreen to the left. The Pile-On has reached its teetering height.
In "Super Karate Monkey Death Car," The Pile-On takes a different form. It's the cheerleader pyramid where the acrobatics being performed at the top are so mesmerizing that it's easy to forget about the impressive structure that supports them. Here's the plotline-up: (1) Andrea wants to be Lisa's friend; (2) Andrea is giving everybody in the office a polygraph test; (3) the staff is trying to convince Andrea to give Matthew his job back; (4) Mr. James is reading from his retranslated memoir Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer, which has become a surprise hit in Japan under the title Jimmy James, Macho Business Donkey Wrestler. Where in "Domain" the pieces were relatively unrelated and their unpredictable collision was what made for hilarity, here three of the plotlines are well integrated. The prospect of the polygraph test brings out the revelation that Lisa committed a number of SAT-related crimes in her late teens. This all comes out during lunch at a restaurant where Matthew is pretending to work ("Bonjour, je m'appelle Matthew," he introduced himself in a bored service-job voice) in between begging for his job back. And when Lisa confesses her youthful indiscretions during her session with the lie-detector machine, Andrea takes the opportunity to ingratiate herself by revealing her own past as a firebug. At the center of these linked storylines is Dave's polygraph test, a masterpiece of close-up comedy with the buzz of the machine — and Dave's anticipation of and response to it — driving a classic, beautifully timed setpiece. Neither as flashy nor as absurd as Mr. James' reading, it nonetheless anchors the whole triple-stranded structure. Then, like a rococo icing flourish on top of an architecturally sound wedding cake, the reading comes swooping in to wrest attention away from the episode's main business entirely. It's the pinnacle of The Pile-On, but not just a punctuation mark this time; instead, a whole new act plays out in the penthouse.
What makes these wonderful episodes to revisit is not just their ability to generate big laughs. It's their largesse. Both "Domain" and "Monkey" give us way more than we would have settled for. Two big piles of comedy, their seeming excess of generosity belying the care of their construction.
- Matthew won Employee of the Month, but it was hardly a competitive election: "There were two votes for Matthew, 15 for 'employee of the month sucks,' and 8 just said 'ba-ba-booey.'"
- Two moments where the camera catches the cast cracking up: Phil can't quite hold his piano-performance expression at the end of "he's gay! He's gay!", and Maura loses it as Stephen Root continues to question her about what she wants to discuss in their first reality-show scene (she raises her hand to her face to hide her laughter, and an attempted match cut covers the break by having her hide her face in shame).
- A running gag that carries over from "Planbee": Joe carting Matthew out of harm's way, first over his shoulder after miming great disappointment finding him behind Dave's door, and then in a flat-out running tackle leaping across the spilled water.
- The second-most quoted NewsRadio line in our house, after "He's gay! He's gay!", also comes from "Domain": "Today is not the day for cunning plans or crazy capers." (To which Lisa replies, "Daaave, you never want to do any cunning plans or crazy capers!"
- Commenter Horsecow quoted at length a 2005 piece by Jon Carimanica in the New York Times, starting an interesting discussion about its dismissal of the show based on Foley's misuse therein. The best rebuttal to the piece, in my opinion, is the scene in the WNYX lobby where Dave keeps excusing himself to ask Bill to stop playing after making up stories for Andrea about the men's room stereo. His body language as he repeatedly tears himself away and races toward the bathroom is pure Foley and pure Nelson simultaneously, and recalls a very similar dash from the lobby in the pilot episode — proving to this fan, at any rate, that the show's wonderful use of Foley's gifts as its center were in place from the very beginning.
- Hey, It's 1997! Nearly Bill's whole act is Clinton-impeachment based, but perhaps the most obscure lyric is: "Oh, the Lincoln Bedroom costs this much/Moolah, moolah/Good Fred Thompson says it's bunk/Oh, the moolah-hey!" Coming in a close second: "Paul, Paul, Paula Jones, she's seen Clinton nude!" (My personal favorite, revealing how deep the shallowness of the whole act is: When Bill invites everyone to join on "Silent Night, Religious Right," they dutifully chime in: "Something, something …" before Bill adds opportunistically, "Madeline Albright!"
- "Bring this goon to me! I have a plan." … "Your plan is to punch him in the nose?" "I panicked."
- "That was grossly insubordinate. Inspiration struck, as it often does in the bathroom, and I just went with it."
- The cold open of "Monkey," with Beth playing Bill ("blah blah blah, this is an outrage!"), Andrea playing Beth (roleplaying limited to chewing a piece of gum), and Bill playing Matthew ("My cat is getting a hysterectomy," pratfalls out of the chair) is a joy to watch.
- "I had a big history test the next day, and the only copy of the Federalist Papers I had was abridged."
- The complete Macho Business Donkey Wrestler excerpt: I had a small house of brokerage on Wall Street. Many days no business come to my hut. But Jimmy has fear? A thousand times no. I never doubted myself for a minute for I knew that my monkey-strong bowels were girded with strength, like the loins of a dragon ribboned with fat and the opulence of buffalo … dung. … The glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans, and pants to match. Monkey clown horrible karate browned and yummy like a cute small baby chick will now eat the donkey.
- "She's fun!" "Yes, she is." bzzzt