The premise of this entire NewsRadio TV Club Classic endeavor is to figure out why this unassuming little sitcom achieved such towering heights of comedy. We are trying to perform that quixotic vivisection that so often kills what it studies. We are analyzing comedy. And here in the final days of the project, in the doldrums of the fifth season, a moment occurs that, for the first time, feels so soap-bubble perfect in its hilariousness that I’m not sure I want to pick it apart.
It’s near the end of “Ploy,” a strangely affecting little episode of which I had no memory from the original network run. Joe is trying to persuade Lisa not to change her name to Lisa Miller-Johnson, now that she’s married, because it will mess with her brand. This leads Mr. James on a brief nostalgic aside about a company he once owned that made a successful detergent called Handi-Clean. During the breakdancing craze of the eighties, though, the makers wanted to change the name to something hip and young, and in doing so completely destroyed their market.
“What did they change it to?” Lisa asks. “Breakdancing Detergent,” Jimmy replies matter-of-factly, on his way out the door.
We missed about the next sixty seconds of the show because we were laughing uncontrollably. The ridiculousness of the name (reminiscent of engrish), the way it undercuts the object lesson, and Root’s just slightly abashed delivery — it all struck us without warning. There’s nothing elaborate about the moment, no fancy staging or complex timing. Just a gag that pays off like a well-engineered firework, building on four and a half seasons of who Jimmy James is and what kinds of stories he tells. For all the things NewsRadio finds itself unable to do anymore in its hobbled last days, it can still do that, and do it as well as any show ever could or ever will.
“Wedding” (season 5 episode 17, original airdate 3/2/99)
Going straight from “Marry me, you bum” to the wedding in a matter of days should have given this episode a madcap energy. But the whole affair is strangely muted, and that’s probably because of the episode’s lopsided structure. The natural climax of the plot is the wedding ceremony, but because the show has so much business to get to afterwards — Johnny in jail, Lisa moping around in her dress, etc. — that big setpiece happens at the beginning of Act 2. Yes, it contains almost everything you’d want in a NewsRadio wedding: Johnny spouting poetic vows (“Lisa, radiant pink-fingered dawn …”), Lisa explaining to the guests that she wasn’t informed of any vow-writing expectation, Dave raising his hand to “speak now or forever hold your peace” before clergyman Paul F. Tompkins finishes the phrase, Beth gesturing dramatically while singing “White Wedding” (“Hey little sister shotgun!”).
Something feels overexplained about the whole thing, though. It’s as if the episode is too aware of where it’s headed, turning all of its business into machinations to get there. On their own, Dave’s protests and Lisa’s ignoring of same (especially when he traps her in his office to listen to them: “I promised nothing! You sat down of your own free will and were tricked!”) are just fine. But in the rushed and inevitably overheated context of a sitcom wedding episode, they don’t click along with the requisite effervescence. Perhaps the best example of what is going wrong here is when Matthew throws a bachelor party in the breakroom, complete with sodas, snacks, and a very special movie. “Dude, this is the movie Bachelor Party,” Joe points out upon examining the video. And then there are another half-dozen jokes all riffing on how clueless you have to be to think that the movie Bachelor Party is a good choice for a bachelor party. Instead of transforming the joke, elevating it to different and higher levels of absurdity, this scene runs it into the ground.
“Ploy” (season 5 episode 18, original airdate 3/9/99)
“Wedding” ends with Dave’s attempt at comforting Lisa in her foolish married-to-a-homeless-wino-thief-convict predicament — “Having a husband doing two years in prison, that’s a great way to balance marriage and a career” — backfiring as Lisa decides that’s exactly what her career needs. “Ploy” reveals that the show is going to stick with that continuity, using one of its plotlines to explore the effects of Lisa changing her name. The best of these effects (aside from the perfection of Breakdancing Detergent, already mentioned) is that Matthew lets slip that he’s always regarded Lisa Miller as an ugly name, and is pleased she now has the chance to improve it. Adding Johnson is a good start (“Your name just went from disgusting to beautiful,” Matthew compliments her, then waxes poetic: “Lisa Miller Johnson/Walking through the woods/Is there a snowflake?/Wet”). But more could be done to give Lisa the pretty name she deserves, and Matthew delivers in the beginning of his on-air Brock Report: “Thank you, Svetlana Monsoon.”
Why is Matthew on the air? Because Max has delivered his resignation on the back of one of Lisa and Johnny’s prison-press thank-you notes (“Somebody on Cell Block D loves you”) and insists, with an understatedness that is oddly touching, that the bluebirds and spring winds are telling him to move on. Beth believes it’s all an act to get her to go out with him, and Dave immediately sets about the business of placing a want-ad for Max’s position. In one of the most graceful Jimmy-Dave interactions of the season (and this is a season when the scenes between the two of them are always standouts), Mr. James tells Dave that he needs to fight for his staff, not just ask them once if they’ve made up their minds and then take their word for it. “After all, Max is the man who taught me to share,” Mr. James states with a touch of emotional intensity, then swats Dave’s hand when he tries to get his coffee cup back. (This after Mr. James has to remind Dave to surrender his desk chair and go perch on the desk when the boss enters the room.)
Of course, when Dave does make a second effort with Max, he finds out that Max was right — it was all a ploy for Beth’s benefit. And so that Max doesn’t lose face, Dave now has to publicly beg Max to change his mind. When he does so through gritted teeth, Max milks it — “Am I to understand that you’re begging me to stay?” — then, after telling Dave to grasp his arm, intones: “Take your hands off me sir! Grovelling is one thing, but this is too much!”
I couldn’t care less about whether Max and Beth get together; as previously noted in this season’s posts, shoehorning the two of them into a will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation will stand for all time as one of the worst ideas the show ever had. But Lovitz is weirdly magnificent in “Ploy,” dropping all his schtick for the first half of the show, then cracking open his theatrical facade for moments like his concern over the two balls of string Beth unearths from his moving box (“Don’t get those two tangled up!”) before buttoning it all back up with a smirk. It’s like a midrash on all the NewsRadio plots where Dave has to humiliate himself for his staff’s benefit, and the fact that he doesn’t even want to do it — that he doesn’t care enough about Max to make the effort, and has to be ordered to do it by his boss — reveals just how far the creative team has allowed Dave to drift from the warm-fuzzies substitute-family model of the TV workplace. And that realization is bracing and moving in its own way, as we witness both the decline and the frequent stabs of piercing brilliance in the show’s final hours.
Grades: “Wedding,” C; “Ploy,” B+
- Beth wants to take advantage of Mr. James’ offering his greenhouse as a wedding location but worries about the specific occasion: “If I wake up and discover that I’m already married, can I use it for my reception?”
- When Joe offers to hook Johnny up with “this one guy who does this elaborate salad tossing routine to the theme from Rocky,” I suspect that he is talking about himself.
- Lisa can’t help but grin with goofy delight when mentioning that one of Johnny’s pet names for her is “Sundancer.”
- The writers had a lot of fun coming up with ways to describe Johnny. “Unemployed, wino, history of evil,” “penniless goof,” and “formerly evil vagrant” are my favorites.
- Why Johnny stole the ring and held store employees hostage for over an hour: “You’re a successful career woman who deserves the best. I’m a homeless wino on a very tight budget.”
- One joke about Mr. James’s wedding present stretches over two episodes: “But you already gave us that toaster oven,” Lisa protests, and Mr. James — both times — assures her, “I can return it!” (The half-swallowed, no-consonants form in which he says it the second time is flat-out adorable.)
- Max appeals to Dave’s buck-stopping talents: “I took a shot and I failed — now c’mon Dave, help me get out of it! … Will you be a man for once your life and take responsibility for my actions?”
- The Brock Report is a little comic gem, starting with Lisa’s intro: “Opinions expressed by Matthew Brock are not necessarily the opinions of WNYX; facts stated by Matthew Brock are not necessarily facts," and culminating in the report itself: “A recent survey shows that 80% of Americans never ever smile. These people need to go to jail!”
- Netherworld-centric anagrams for Lisa Miller-Johnson: Lo, hell rains on Jim; join Lamros in hell.
- “So much for the legendary hobo gold.”