I am revisiting one of my favorite comedies, Newsradio. I watched the entire run of this show from my college dorm room, late at night, in syndication, in the Fall of 1999 and the spring of 2000. I knew, back then, before I began watching, that the star of this show was “that guy from Kids in the Hall” and that Phil Hartman was also in the show. [If you are young, and reading this, and do not know about the genius of Phil Hartman, let this show be an introduction.] The show exceded my younger self’s expectations. Newsradio – at least as I remember it – was terrific.
The pilot – what I’ll be watching here – debuted on March 21, 1995. The show ran for five seasons and ended on May 4, 1999, after 97 episodes. Does it hold up? Is it as good as I remember? Let’s find out.
THE QUICK AND CLEAN SUMMARY:
Dave Nelson is hired away from his native Wisconsin to be the news director of WNYX in New York City. After he arrives at work, he finds out from the station owner that his first assignment is to fire his predecessor, Ed Harlow.
After several interrupted attempts to complete the task, lying for most of the episode to Ed and others about being hired the new sports guy, and an introduction to the rest of the staff, Dave finally fires Ed after Ed tries to fire Dave first for his awful first effort at being the sports guy.
I wrote a lengthy recap of what transpired. However, after doing that, I am not certain that writing a detailed plot summary makes sense for this type of show. Maybe I will make that call on an episode by episode basis. Today, though? I will leave it out.
Since this is a pilot, I feel like introductions are in order:
The first person we meet is Dave Nelson (Dave Foley.) We learn a lot about his personality in the first few minutes of the show. He over-confidently signs in at the security desk and speaks with the security guard, annoyingly waits 35 seconds – looking at his watch the whole time – before boarding the elevator. He wants to arrive at the office precisely on time. As he steps into the elevator, the security guard tells him that he is at the wrong building. At hearing this, Dave comes undone and frantically runs to the correct building which is six blocks away. The juxtaposition continues. He spends most of the episode flustered and trying to get his bearings. Once the situation with Ed is settled, he quickly asserts himself as a confident and in charge leader – especially with Phil Hartman’s character, Bill. Then he returns to almost a state of panic when he meets “the new sports guy” at the end of the episode. Dave Foley somehow manages to make this strange mix of bravado and anxiety… charming.
The next person we meet is Jimmy James (Stephen Root.) “Mr. James” is a human whirlwind, constantly in motion from one spot to the next. He is business mogul who, even in this episode, discusses buying a sporting goods store franchise and a professional hockey team. Throughout the episode, we can never quite be sure if Jimmy James is being serious, or not, about anything. We also cannot be sure whether the whirlwind around him is an intentional method of management or whether it is a useful mechanism for avoidance. We get some hints that he has a firmer hand on the wheel than he lets on, though.
In one funny example of that, when Dave and Jimmy are exiting the bathroom after their conversation inside the bathroom, they walk by Dave’s briefcase, dropped on the ground, papers spilled everywhere. Without looking or breaking stride, James says to the clearly anxious-about-his-stuff Dave to pick it up. The gag is revisited later in the episode when Ed’s box is lying on the floor, Dave again does not know what to do with it, and Mr. James – no longer even in the camera view – tells Dave to pick it up.
Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney) is the other non-zany person at the station. She is confident and hardworking. She also appears to be of a belief that she can achieve career advancement without speaking up for herself. Prior to Dave’s arrival, she has been under the belief that she is going to get the news director job based on the amount of overtime she puts in at the news station. When Dave asks her if she has talked to Mr. James about that, though, she says no. The fact that she shared her aspirations with Dave, concerning the news director job, creates some awkwardness for her when she finds out Dave *is* the new news director. The show does not really attempt to hide that she is Dave’s romantic love interest within the cast.
Matthew is the first of the oddballs we meet. He is portrayed by Andy Dick, so I think it is fair to assume the character will get… stranger… as the show progresses. However, in this episode, he is a bit more childlike. He has an idea for a segment on the station. He completely craters when Ed rejects the idea – to the point of crying. Dave tells Matthew something in confidence? Matthew immediately tells everyone. They flirt and he takes an eyelash off her face as the episode ends.
Beth does not get a lot of camera time in the first episode. However, she has some of the funniest moments from the pilot. First, when it is clear to the entire station, except for Ed, that Ed needs to be fired, she offers to do it. When Dave declines her offer, she says:
Beth: Fire him as soon as he walks out that door.
Dave: Excuse me.
Beth: Fire him right here, right now in front of everyone. It will help you down the line. You’re not exactly establishing yourself as an authority figure with the staff.
Bill: She’s right you know.
Beth: It’s like, you know how they say when it’s your first day in prison, you should act like you’re crazy and beat someone with a chair so nobody will mess with you.
Dave: I’ve never actually heard that before Beth.
Bill McNeal is one of the prominent news guys at the radio station. Phil Hartman gets to use a “big radio voice” (it’s the only way I know how to describe how he talks) throughout the episode and it is hilarious. Hartman plays Bill as conniving and mean, with just enough of a wink to the camera, in the performance, that you like him and laugh with him instead of disliking him.
Bill has a great line, following Beth’s “chair” monologue, once Ed finally exits his office so that Dave can speak with him:
[Bill places his hand on a nearby chair and turns to Dave] Will this chair do or do you want a lighter one to beat him with?
The other main character that we meet in the pilot is the news room itself. It is open concept. You see people walking around in the background throughout. The show wants the viewer to feel the face-paced environment and the set sets the tone. I can only speak for my memories, and the pilot episode I just watched, but I think feeling somewhat rushed and off-balance helps the jokes to land with more *pop.*
Overall, I was not disappointed to revisit Newsradio. A quarter century has gone by since this pilot, and other than the old-looking phones, the show holds up well. I look forward to going through several more episodes.