Newsradio: The subversive sitcom that snuck under everyone’s radar

For many, many years now, I’ve considered myself well and truly done with the traditional laugh track sitcom of yesterday. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic when it was the standard in the industry, and now that single-camera, laugh track-free shows are the mainstream, I’ve switched and never looked back.

Except… I did look back. Just once, for a very special show that makes me more than willing to put up with the old laugh track format. That show is Newsradio. My wife can fawn all over Friends, the internet can keep prostrating itself at the shrines of the Simpsons and Seinfeld, but I’ll be over here enjoying a snarky and subversive show that delighted in tweaking the noses of both the network and viewers.

Created by 29-year-old Paul Simms, Newsradio took the most tired of sitcom formats — the work family — and made it into a glorious cavalcade of weirdness and wit. Simms and NBC roped together a truly astounding ensemble cast that included Dave Forley (Kids in the Hall), Stephen Root (Office Space), Phil Hartman (Simpsons), Maura Tierney (E.R.), Andy Dick (The Ben Stiller Show), Vicki Lewis (Finding Nemo), Khandi Alexander (There’s Something About Mary), Joe Rogan (Fear Factor), and later, Jon Lovitz (The Critic). This impressive assortment then was handed scripts featuring lightning-fast conversation, bizarre storylines that would crash into each other, and a surprising amount of physical comedy.

All set in a dull news radio office.

At the start of the show, Dave (Foley) is the incoming news director of WYNX in New York City, having come fresh from the innocence of Wisconsin. At WNYX, he finds nothing but wall-to-wall eccentricities and egos that test him from the very first episode to the last. While nobody ever seems to get any work done, they are quite quick to take up any dumb diversion that comes along — whether it be a talking ball game, a mission to remodel the men’s bathroom into a lounge, or a funeral for a rat. It’s a whole lot more weird than you’d think going into it, furthered along by the machinations of Jimmy James (Root), a billionaire who strangely loves to hang out in the place and throw his money around on a whim.

Newsradio continues to impress me with its sharp writing that doesn’t take the lazy sitcom way out of jokes. Often you think you’ve heard a setup before and know where it’s going to go, only for Newsradio to yank the joke in a different direction or have characters subtly acknowledge the obvious while continuing to do their own thing. Dave, ostensibly the straight man of the series, is quick to lash out with sarcasm and astute observations that cut right through the stupidity.

One of my favorite lines: “Joe, if what you’re saying is true… then I still don’t care.”

As I said before, there’s a whole lot of slapstick and vaudeville in Newsradio that was already antiquated at the time and is almost never seen in sitcoms today — yet it’s funny as all get out. I swear this show had a bigger budget for stunt doubles than your average Fast and Furious film due to all of the activities the scripts would demand. I’ll never forget the time that Matthew gets tied up to a guy falling out of a window and slowly is dragged across the floor behind two talking characters while moaning “What is happening to me?” in a pitiful voice.

But it’s undeniable that Newsradio’s biggest weapon was Phil Hartman as the egomaniac radio personality Bill McNeal. Bill is a larger-than-life figure who assumes everything is about him, caters to him, and exists for him. And while he’s certainly a caricature in motion, he’s delightfully sincere and unstoppable even so. In one episode, Bill figures that as an upstanding man of means, he should have a cane — and so he gets one and brandishes it for any and all activities from then on out. It’s only when Dave steals — and then breaks — the cane does Bill at least temporarily come to a halt.

This is why it was an additional tragedy when Hartman was murdered in 1998 at the end of the fourth season. Almost everyone agrees that the show should’ve wrapped up with that, but for some reason, a fifth season was greenlit and Jon Lovitz (a friend of Hartman) came in to substitute. It’s hard enough watching the episode where all of the cast cries for real over their friend’s death, but it’s also hard going through the fifth season feeling the loss of Hartman and seeing a cast kind of going through the motions until the clock winds down. There are some great moments and episodes in Season 5, but it probably wasn’t worth doing.

That said, Newsradio’s first four seasons are brilliantly funny and have a welcome home in my TV watching rotation. It did its own thing and snubbed sitcom tropes and the network alike, and it was so much better because of it.

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