Welcome back to the exciting conclusion of my epic two part post on Newsradio episodes you should most definitely, unequivocally watch. You can find part 1 here, and the article that kicked off the series here. Today we focus exclusively on Season 4, the creamy nougaty center of the Newsradio candy bar of comedy perfection.
The Public Domain- Season 4, Episode 3
I mentioned in the last post that “Complaint Box” might be the most perfectly constructed (and executed) episode of Newsradio, ever. But that doesn’t necessarily make it my favorite. Hard as it is to choose a single favorite episode, in a gun-to-head type situation I would probably go with “The Public Domain”. It has my two favorite characters at their best, and a manic energy that builds to a fever pitch. Also, songs!
A very brief plot synopsis: One episode prior, Mr. James had brought in an efficiency expert, Andrea Planbee (a young Lauren Graham, supposedly brought in at NBC’s request). In this episode she decides Dave can’t do his job and brings in a man to replace him as boss. Dave begs for one day to show he can do the job, so everything must run perfectly. Unfortunately, after Matthew’s firing in the previous episode, Bill has decided that everyone is headed to the corporate abattoir (which Lisa points out means slaughterhouse, though Bill thinks it means toilet), so he has been readying a new career, as a politically themed song parodist (think The Capitol Steps). And Matthew of course hangs around wanting to get his job back. On this most important of days, then, Dave must contend both with Matthew and Bill, a double whammy of comedic chaos. Meanwhile, Mr. James brings in a documentary crew to film his life at the office. As it turns out, though, the minute the cameras turn on, Mr. James transforms from laid back to frigid, uptight and robotic. It’s up to Lisa to help him overcome his camera woes.
As you can probably guess from that synopsis, this is a standout episode for Phil Hartman as Bill McNeil. On another show, Bill’s new “career” would have been mentioned as a one-off joke, then dismissed, but Newsradio understands Bill McNeil, knows that he is not a man of half measures. So Bill imports a piano into the office (and also the elevator), moving it around with ease to practice and perform his ditties. What makes this running gag extra effective is how inane his schtick is, combining overworn public domain songs (Row Row Row Your Boat, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star) with lyrics that merely mention current political happenings (the episode also works as a 90′s time capsule: Kenneth Star? Paula Jones? ZING). In a sense it is a prescient skewering of the kind of pop culture “Humor” that has come to dominate places like Fox’s Sunday night animation block, the shows that throw out reference after reference with no attempt to craft actual jokes. And of course Bill’s constant refrain, three bars in, of “That’s really all I have” just kills me every time. He may not do things in half measures, but he is not above half-assing his work. Here’s a clip of one of his exchanges with a very exasperated Dave. It includes my favorite of his songs (to the tune of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”):
I’ve spent much time in these articles praising Phil Hartman as Bill McNeil, and rightly so. But Bill actually isn’t my favorite Newsradio character; that honor belongs to Jimmy James, played to perfection by Stephen Root. Jimmy is a heady cocktail of business acumen, homespun nonsensical wisdom, and social unawareness. He is obviously, in his own way, a genius (having worked his way up from nothing to being one of the richest men in the world) but his is fundamentally lonely and inept. He tries acquiring a wife by cold calling a list of candidates, for example. And why, the question must be asked, does he spend so much time at the radio station, one of the least profitable arms of his business? Even though the other characters occasionally mock him for his quirks, they also accept him and give him a sense of family missing in his life. Stephen Root does a masterful job of portraying a man containing “many multitudes”, and “Public Domain” shows him at his best. I am no actor, but I imagine that it is very hard for a legitimately talented actor to play someone who is a bad actor. Root does just this, sucking all the easygoing energy out of Mr. James’ persona as soon as the film starts rolling. His delivery of the line “Here in the office where we both you and I work in” cracks me up every single time. It’s a bravura performance and it singlehandedly elevates the episode to “All Time Great” status.
Super Karate Monkey Death Car - Season 4, Episode 4
Yes, you read that right. This episode came right on the heels of “Public Domain”, a creative one-two punch that is simply astounding. This may be the single most well known episode of Newsradio, thanks to the scene we will discuss in a moment. Though in some sense this episode hinges on that single scene, it also contains a lot of really stellar material in other parts. Essentially, most of the episode focuses on Andrea administering a lie detector test to the staff to find out about any criminal wrongdoings. In a brilliant but completely logical twist, law abiding Lisa Miller has a sordid past, with many many juvenile crimes on her record (all revolving around her obsessive drive to do well in school). The others attempt to cover for her, but that puts pressure on them. Dave’s turn on the lie detector is a masterpiece of comedy. Lie detectors are a pretty wellworn gag in comedies, with their funny buzzing sound lending a natural timing. But Dave’s scene is a standout in the “genre” of lie detector comedy pieces, a flawlessly executed bit.
And then of course comes the scene. Mr. James goes to a reading of his autobiography, “Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer”. Initially a flop, the book was translated into Japanese and caused a sensation in Japan, prompting its retranslation back into English. Of course you know what comes next: Engrish garole. Again, a fairly typical source of comedy (LOST IN TRANSLATION), but a few things set the scene apart (also, I’d like to point out that Newsradio rode the crest of this particular form of translation comedy, coming well before the Engrish craze of the mid-aughts). First is Mr. James’ delivery while reading. Back to back killer Stephen Root episodes? Somebody get that man an Emmy! The second comes from the way the show carries the logic of the situation to its extreme. Not only does Jimmy read from the book, he also answers questions from a very eager Brian Posehn, who wants to know about every detail. Just another example of Newsradio taking old gags and making them fresh.
Security Door - Season 4, Episode 14
I mentioned in my write up of “The Cane” that Dave leads a precarious existence, perched between normalcy and looniness. As the series progressed, he went further and further towards the crazy side, assimilated by the chaos of his workplace. In “Security Door” we see him hover pretty solidly around “crazy”, but with good reason. A brief background fill in: earlier in the season Andrea replaced Dave as boss with Lisa. Eventually this situation is reversed (but not before Bill has a brief stint as head honcho), and “Security Door” is the first full episode with Dave back at the helm. You’d think this restoration to power would help stabilize things in the office, but in reality the whole experience seems to have pushed Dave to a breaking point. This episode centers around Dave’s obsession with the new security door, which he is convinced will help him prevent the theft of his things. The rest of the staff, however, is decidedly not on board, doing everything they can to go around Dave’s directives. The door of course is another example of Newsradio using both physical space and auditory gags to their maximum (the door is great because it has both a buzzer, like the complaint box, but also a large physical presence). The change to the physical landscape of the office leads to some great gags.
The episode is also notable for containing a fall down hilarious scene. With everyone breaking the rules, Dave attempts to restore order by hosting a small presentation on why the door is beneficial to the office. He does this by showing everyone a series of pictures illustrating various points he is trying to make. Go to the 6:25 mark in this clip to see the scene:
What makes the scene brilliant is the anticipatory nature of Dave’s illustrations. He knows his employees so well that he can think of any objections they may have, and respond in kind. This happens in increasingly ridiculous ways (just watch to see). Newsradio really excels at making over the top unrealistic scenarios seem commonplace, and this is one of the purest examples in the show’s run.
So what are you doing still reading this? Go watch some Newsradio!