The Real Deal
Welcome to Know-Stalgia, my weekly peek into the past of popular television. We may be in the “Golden Age” of TV, but there’s a rich and storied past to the flat screen in your living room, and some shows have gotten more of a rub since their initial run than others. Know-Stalgia is here to showcase shows that may have been overlooked while we were anointing others as classics. The first entry, a personal favorite of mine; News Radio.
The comedy standard today, with a few notable exceptions, may be the single camera style, but way back in the 90’s, four camera sitcoms were king. The four major networks pretty much built their entire schedules around them. Snatching up stand-up comedians left and right to get the next Seinfeld. One such show, thrown into the middle of the NBC comedy juggernaut was News Radio. Taking place in a New York, AM radio station, it followed newly appointed News Director, Dave Nelson, played by Kids in the Hall member, Dave Foley, as he tried to please his eccentric, billionaire boss, Jimmy James. If that sounds surprisingly specific and a little too thin to be a sitcom, I can only assume you were born in the 90’s and don’t realize just how many sitcoms were out there. It was a decade of situations. You could always base a show around a family, or one persons specific occupation, so to stand apart, you’d see various concepts thrown at the wall to see what stuck. Sometimes you’d get creative gold, other times, not so much. So from the start, News Radio was a little show that could, through sheer tenacity and a great cast dynamic, it lasted 5 seasons. So what made News Radio so special, well it ultimately came down to embracing its own weirdness.
News Radio played it pretty straight in the early going. Just throw a bunch of somewhat wacky individuals into a somewhat mundane workplace. It’s the reason you’d hear so many people claim “they should make a show about this place, our office is hilarious”, because the 90’s was packed to the brim with workplace comedies. Some of them literally about just having a job. Then News Radio started dipping its toe into more idiosyncratic territory. Allowing the writers, and the stars to really have fun with the roles in a way that wouldn’t be the norm on TV for another decade or so. The show turned the workplace into a playground. One in which Dave Nelson could go from fish out of water yet stern boss, to a man crippled by the mere appearance of his favorite arcade cabinet. Or the many terrible family memories told by Bill McNeal(Phil Hartman), followed by a longing look and simple simple sigh of the words “good times”. News Radio wasn’t a show for everybody, and once it stopped trying to be, we were delivered greatness on a pretty consistent basis.
Yet, show quality was the only consistent thing about News Radio. The show moved up and down the ratings, but never cracking the top 25 despite critical praise. In order to find an audience for the fledgling show, NBC moved it to 11 different time slots. Making matters worse, while the show was truly hitting its stride, Phil Hartman was tragically killed. The rest of the cast honored actor by having an in character funeral to begin their fifth season, resulting in one of the most emotional episodes of “comedy” ever put on prime time TV. Jon Lovitz was added to the cast for the remainder of the series, but the dynamic had changed and the show never fully recovered.
Given the state of comedic television now, and this new found appreciation for serialized shows, you’d think News Radio would be held in slightly higher regard, but it never truly gained a foothold in syndication. Almost immediately after it was cancelled, A&E had syndication rights, making it one of very few sitcoms on the network. Nick at Nite and TBS picked it up in 2006 for less than a year. It had been on Hulu for a while before silently being dropped. As of this writing, you can find a handful of episodes on Crackle, but other than the DVD releases, you’d be hard pressed to find the show anywhere.
News Radio was one of those shows that simultaneously made me feel smarter for watching it, but allowed me to appreciate juvenile humor. In one scene, you’d have Chuck D debating Phil Hartman on the artistic value of rap music, in the next, Andy Dick would be letting off a fire extinguisher into his pants, and neither one felt out of place. It was a juggling act that few shows could pull off, but News Radio did so right under most peoples noses. It may not have been the perfect show, but it at least took some chances, and allowed the audience to be in on the joke on numerous occasions. You owe it to yourself to track down this comedy gem.
So what are some of your favorites from the past that don’t get much love? Let me know in the comments or on the twittah machine.