Radio, Radio

Yesterday, we discussed the way streaming media — which has long held out the digital era’s promise of easy access to all filmed entertainment, anytime, anywhere — has in fact led to a balkanization of programming and resulted in a situation where many movies and TV shows are less available now than they were in the waning days of the physical media era.  One of the most tragic examples of the losses this fragmenting of media can lead to is the late, lamented NBC sitcom NewsRadio, which exists in streaming media only on Hulu, and there in only a token way:  less than a half-dozen of the series’ 97 episodes can be seen, for either regular viewers or paid subscribers.  It’s also been long out of print on DVD, leaving it in the hands of collectors and internet hustlers.  That means that one of the finest comedies of the 1990s, one that fell just short of making the magic number needed for syndication but that also nurtured some of the greatest talents of its day, can barely be seen by current audiences.  And that’s just wrong.

Watching NewsRadio today, twenty years after its debut and sixteen years after it went off the air, it can seem a little jarring. Sure, Dave Foley looks like a kid (a fact that’s frequently made light of in the show), but so does the rest of the cast; could Maura Tierney ever have been so young? And why did Phil Hartman, killed long enough ago that a whole generation has been raised without access to his sprawling comic brilliance, have to die at what could have been the peak of his career? But the show itself doesn’t seem dated outside of a few clunky references to then-current popular culture and some ‘90s-era technology; in fact, the humor is edgy, clever, and remarkably prescient. There are elements of NewsRadio, especially in its clever physical staging (a quality finely illuminated by Donna Bowman in her fantastic recaps of the show at the AV Club), its brilliant cast, and its willingness to play fast and loose with traditional sitcom tropes, that makes it seem like an early harbinger of the revolutionary single-camera comedies that rejuvenated the sitcom format in the late 2000s.

So, are we talking about the last of the great old-school workplace comedies, or the first of a new wave of sitcoms that refused to play by the rules? It would be nice if you could watch and judge for yourself, but the whole point is that’s not possible.  Try to keep up.  In the meantime, here’s my argument about why it belongs amongst the ranks of greats;

  1. The winning cast.

NewsRadio was one of the first latter-day sitcoms to not treat its premise — daily madness in the studios of a last-place New York news radio station — very seriously, and concentrate instead on the charismatic cast and the way its characters developed over time. Its original lineup – Dave Foley, Maura Tierney, the lamentable Andy Dick, the meatheaded Joe Rogan, the wasted Vicki Lewis, a pre-Treme Khandi Alexander, and the great Phil Hartman – was one of the strongest sitcom casts ever assembled, and while they were given some standard situational elements to work with, the joy of watching was never the story, but the way this amazingly talented group approached it.  They really went for it.

  1. Stephen Root.

Even with a cast this rich – indeed, even in a cast this rich and featuring the incredibly talented Phil Hartman as blowhard newscaster Bill McNeil, who stole pretty much every scene he was in and Andy Dick back when he was funny instead of just irritating – the now-ubiquitous Stephen Root was playing on a whole different level. As billionaire station owner Jimmy James, he combined a folksy, hands-on approach to his staff with complete and utter dementia, delivering comedic non-sequiturs the way Babe Ruth delivered home runs. He took a goofball Donald Trump parody and did something that should be impossible:  he made it even funnier than the actual Donald Trump.  Odds are, if there’s a scene you return to again and again, it’s one that showcases Root’s amazing comedic sensibilities.

  1. It was visually ahead of its time.

Though it was still a traditionally written sitcom with a standard multi-camera set-up, NewsRadio stretched the boundaries of what was considered normal in situation comedy at every turn. Much of this played out in the rapid-fire comic dialogue and the way the cast bounced off each other like superballs, but one overlooked aspect of the show was its brilliant staging: it set the tone for future single-camera sitcoms by using every part of the screen, and having every corner filled with slapstick and visual gags. Sometimes the funniest action took place off screen, and no shot was wasted.  It was something that is rare now, and was rarer still then:  a sitcom that was actually directed with skill and an attentive eye for what it looked like, not just how the jokes worked.

 

  1. It pushed hard against the fourth wall.

While NewsRadio was too controlled to go completely surreal and shatter the boundary between audience and performer, the way that shows like The Simpsons could do, it did delight in subverting and twisting traditional TV tropes. From the subtle running gag of having every guest actor on the show have an utterly banal name to characters impersonating one another to giant lampshades being hung on what seemed at first to be predictable jokes, its approach to TV comedy always dug deeper than it first appeared.  Creator Paul Simms — who had previously worked on the groundbreaking Larry Sanders Show and would go on to helm Flight of the Conchords — was largely responsible for its bent comic tone, but he assembled one of the best writer’s rooms in the business at the time.

  1. It’s hilarious.

All the fancy talk aside, NewsRadio is just flat-out one of the funniest comedies to air in the 1990s, and a good candidate for one of the greatest of all time. It took traditional sitcom setups and premises and gave them a baffling twist; and it was unafraid to let loose with even utterly absurd ideas like throwing the cast into outer space for an episode. By the time Season 4 rolled around, an impatient network was forcing difficult-to-handle changes onto the creative staff, but even then, they judo-flipped the attack, and turned in a season that has some of the series’ best moments. Sometimes – not often – NewsRadio lost its direction, but it never ran out of steam.  It’s a show that deserved better than the network gave it, better than its always-tenuous audience trusted it, and better than recent developments in media have left it.

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