NewsRadio - the ill-fated gem of comedy
NewsRadio - one of the best, but unfortunately overlooked, gems of comedy. With great atmosphere, unique chemistry between actors it was candidate to be a hit, but as they say fate is a cruel mistress.
In 1995 the first, short, season of NewsRadio has made the debut on NBC. The line-up chosen by the network was promising - the new sitcom was placed between Wings and Frasier, two well-established series that gathered large audience. The creator of NewsRadio, Paul Simms, had experience as writer - he previously worked for Late Night with David Letterman and later for The Larry Sanders Show (that was in a way parody of David Letterman) - but this was his first project as creator. The story, as it was easy to guess, was set in office of New York news radio station WNYX, where new news director Dave Nelson arrives from Wisconsin. On the first day he meets the eccentric owner of the station - billionaire Jimmy James - and the staff, including current news director, who does not even know that he has been fired. Jimmy James puts this duty on shoulders of young Dave, who also learns that the employees of WNYX have very unique approach to their jobs.
It doesn’t sound very original, does it? No, it wasn’t original, the setting was rather typical for American sitcoms, the characters were rather typical, the jokes were typical. But there is something that made the difference - the great cast and the chemistry between actors. The cast itself was rather unusual - the main part was played by Canadian Dave Foley, who had experience in sketch shows, but never actually worked on sitcom. The part of eccentric owner was played by Stephen Root, who appeared in many sitcoms prior to NewsRadio, but always in support roles. Three female characters were played by Vicki Lewis, Maura Tierney and Khandi Alexander - all of them with only marginal experience. The only two experienced actors were Andy Dick (who played in The Ben Stiller Show and Get Smart!) and Phil Hartman (who was one of the icons of Saturday Night Live). The last part, of the station handyman, was given to Joe Rogan, martial arts expert who started his acting career a year earlier. When you take under consideration the lack of experience of the creator himself, it shows how risky his casting decisions were.
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But those decisions proved to be the right ones - from first episode we sink into the great atmosphere of the office gossip, the childish owner, who loves to play mind-games with his employees, the walking disaster Matthew, over-ambitious reporter Lisa and her secret romance with Dave, the rivalry between the station anchors and handyman who holds the company together with duct tape. All of it made with great sense of humour and with distance to the situations made it one of the most entertaining sitcoms of 1990s (with easy-going atmosphere that could be compare to f.e. early The Drew Carey Show). The creators made one more decision that was unusual for American sitcoms (but rather typical for British) - the story is set in the office, we hardly ever see the characters when they are not at work. We know nothing, or almost nothing, about their personal lives, we don’t see their homes, they have no bar or restaurant where they hang out after hours (only in first few episodes we see them having a drink), we don’t know much about their families or friends. Perhaps that factor created an atmosphere of being in the group between the WNYX employees and the owner - they are close, because they have nothing outside the work. Whatever it was the atmosphere in NewsRadio was exceptional - warm, fun to watch and at the same time relaxing.
But there was also a dark cloud over the show - NBC was insisting that their sitcoms would follow the "will they, won’t they" routine that, in their opinion, worked so well in Cheers, where Diane and Sam were attracted to each other, but there was always something in the way of them being together. Paul Simms decided not to follow that instructions and two main characters, Dave Nelson and ambitious reporter Lisa Miller, had sex in second episode, which killed the whole "will they, won’t they" idea. The rather rough relations between network and NewsRadio writers were one of the factors behind the fate of the whole show. NBC was pushing their, let’s face it - ridiculous, ideas, like the "Three Weddings and a Funeral" night (to capitalize on success of "Four Weddings and a Funeral" movie). In that one they came up with the plan for three of its Tuesday sitcoms to have funerals (one of which was NewsRadio), while The Pursuit of Happiness would include a wedding in their episode. NewsRadio did provided a funeral, but as the title of the episode suggests ("Rat Funeral") they did not take the suggestion too seriously. Another example of how the network was completely out of touch with their own productions was the idea to boost the series ratings by... introducing a wedding into one of the episodes.
The show offered a lot of original and funny scripts, the characters were put together in a way that the show was running smooth. At least until sitcom reached the fourth season and it begun to run out of fuel. The creators (perhaps under the influence of network) decided to introduce new character, the efficiency expert Andrea played by Lauren Graham, who was suppose to be the outsider that will bring the fresh element and at the same time will be the femme fatale kind of character that would put some pressure on staff. Unfortunately it didn’t worked - the chemistry was lost, Lauren Graham did not fit well in the cast, the tensions between the characters brought nothing new to the story. What is more Khandi Alexander, who played the anchor Cathering Dukes, decided to leave the show. It is unclear what were the reasons behind that decision, but it is believed that she felt pushed aside since in most of the episodes she had very little lines. After Alexander have left the NewsRadio the decline has begun - something was missing from the atmosphere, the subplot with Matthew being fired did not worked, the new character of Walt, Jimmy James’ "normal" nephew, was just trying to fill the gap and had not much to offer to the whole show.
Even though the show was placed in good spot in schedule the sitcom gathered only 11.4 million viewers (Frasier that followed NewsRadio gathered 13.6 million). But since creators of NewsRadio did not follow the network instructions NBC did what most of the networks do best... to kill a show - they shuffled the schedule. The network decided to reschedule sitcom for next season to a different spot on different day (Thursday), this time it was placed between John Larroquette Show and the disastrous American version of Men Behaving Badly. It wasn’t great surprise that this time the Nielsen rating sunk to 10.6 million. Next year it was moved back to Tuesday night and put between Mad About You and Frasier, but again the ratings have dropped to 7.0 million. In season 4 it was rather obvious that network has very little hope to keep NewsRadio alive - it was moved to Wednesday after 3rd Rock from the Sun and before Law & Order - but the audience figures were still rather low (about 8.0 million) and the cancellation seemed inevitable. Surprisingly NBC renewed the sitcom for another season, but then the tragedy struck the show - Phil Hartman, the star of the sitcom, was murdered on May 28th 1998.
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Phil Hartman’s wife Brynn was recovering drug addict, but NewsRadio actor Andy Dick re-introduced her to cocaine. Hartman had arguments with his wife about her addiction and after one of those arguments he was shot dead by his wife while he was asleep. Brynn Hartman was under influence of cocaine and later that night commited suicide. The death of Hartman was shock to a lot of people, he gained fame through Saturday Night Live, was involved in many projects (including The Simpsons, he was preparing to join the cast of Futurama). But for NewsRadio it meant much more than just losing an actor - Phil was the heart of the show and after he was gone the next season seemed futile. Nevertheless season 5 was made, the character of Bill McNeal was killed off and the part was taken over by Phil’s friend Jon Lovitz (they worked together on Saturday Night Live). First episode after Phil’s death was very moving - all the employees of WNYX opened the letters that Bill have left for them and read his last words. The scenes were filmed in many retakes since all the cast member had problems with reading their notes without crying.
With Phil Hartman dead, Khandi Alexander absent, the two characters (Walt and Andrea) dropped by the creators the only addition to the cast was Lovitz, who’s character of Max Lewis was suppose to be personal friend of Bill. Unfortunately the show was already gone - there was no chemistry, there was no atmosphere, there were only bad decisions in season 5. Not only the character of Max did not filled the gap (which was easy to predict), he was also underdeveloped and, let’s face it - Lovitz is not great actor. But what actually was biggest disappointment in the last season was the writing - scripts were chaotic, plots were just cliches, there were experiments with story-archs that would link together following episodes, but it all was far below the level of previous seasons. There were episodes written with drastic changes to the characters that would take place out of the sudden and disappear in next episode and... oh humanity... the wedding (just like the network ordered). The series ended on actual closure (it lacked logic, but is was some sort of closure) and it seems that creators have hoped to start a spin-off or new season with completely new cast.
Even though NewsRadio was one of the best, but unfortunately overlooked, sitcoms of 1990s it is up to this day the only comedy series created by Paul Simms. What is more none of the cast members afterwards took part in similar project - Stephen Root and Dave Foley played in several sitcoms, but always in supporting parts, Khandi Alexander became regular on CSI: Miami, Vicki Lewis did a lot of voice-overs, Andy Dick played in Less Than Perfect and had his own The Andy Dick Show, but both were not very successful (he became more famous for his alcohol and drugs addictions and controversial behaviour), Joe Rogan is tv host and martial arts commentator, Maura Tierney decided not to take part in sitcoms any more and became star of medical drama ER. The cast that worked so well together on NewsRadio never reached the same level in different sitcoms.