The mid 1990s spawned more than its fair share of sitcoms. Some were considered revolutionary, like Seinfeld. Others were ratings juggernauts despite themselves, like Friends. And the existence of others was completely unexplainable, like Saved by the Bell: The College Years. But one of the best, most underrated sitcoms of that era has to be NewsRadio.
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A young news director arrives in New York at the behest of eccentric billionaire and owner of the news radio station WNYX, Jimmy James. He’s immediately thrown into the flames, given the task of firing the man he’s replacing as news director and trying to control the asylum that surrounds him. After five seasons, does he succeed? Here’s a hint…
Dave Foley, from the classic Canadian sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall, plays the role of Dave Nelson, the idealistic young news director. He butts heads frequently with the insane, sociopathic and arrogant anchorman portrayed by the late SNL icon Phil Hartman. Stephen Root, Maura Tierney, Andy Dick, Joe Rogan, Vicki Lewis and Khandi Alexander round out one of the best ensemble casts to appear in a sitcom. Period.
From stand-up comedy to sketch comedy to traditional acting, each of these performers brought something very different to the table. Backed by snappy, intelligent writing, the individual talent grew and moulded into one of the funniest teams on TV.
Unfortunately, for the show and for the entertainment industry overall, Phil Hartman died between the fourth and fifth seasons of the show.
During his tenure on SNL alongside the likes of Adam Sandler and Mike Myers, Hartman had established himself as a brilliant comedian, first class impersonator and consummate professional. This translated into film and TV roles, such as Bill McNeal on NewsRadio. His death in 1998 was a devastating loss to family and friends both inside and outside Hollywood. Matt Groening was one of those people as Hartman was a key player on The Simpsons as well as preparing to voice Zapp Brannigan on the upcoming Futurama. While Billy West stepped to voice Brannigan, characters like Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz on The Simpsons were retired.
NewsRadio opened season five with the episode Bill Moves On in which we find out that Bill McNeal has died due to a heart attack. The episode begins with the staff of WNYX returning from Bill’s funeral which featured an insanely long and overdone eulogy by Dave Nelson, his friend and adversary.
This episode is one of the hardest sitcom episodes of any series to watch. The emotions flowing from the cast are raw and visceral. You are, essentially, watching the actors have a wake for their fallen friend. The hardest scene in the show is when the WNYX staff open letters left by Bill in case of his death. None of them make it through that moment without tears.
Hartman/McNeal was replaced by his friend and SNL alum Jon Lovitz. It didn’t really work as neither the actor nor his new character jelled with the cast. The show ended after the fifth season. But during its five season run, there were more than a few brilliant episodes.
Season 1, Episode 3: Smoking – In order to help Bill give up smoking, Dave agrees to give up coffee. Naturally, this goes nowhere good for either of them.
Season 2, Episode 3: Rat Funeral – Dave accidentally kills the informal office pet, a rat. To prove he has human emotions Dave holds a funeral for the rat and its…friends.
Season 2, Episode 9: The Cane – Bill buys cane, which irks Dave endlessly. The two face off over the cane, leading to its disappearance and accusations of cane theft.
Season 3, Episode 12: Rap – Bill’s love of gangsta rap is challenged when he finally listens to the lyrics and goes on an on-air tirade against it. Until Chuck D of Public Enemy sets him straight.
NewsRadio is filled with fast paced, smart writing accentuated by bursts of physical comedy and absurdist storylines. Even though not everybody got the joke at the time, NewsRadio stands the test of time as one of the funniest and most interesting sitcoms ever.
Just don’t watch season five.