The fifth and final season of NewsRadio began with an impossible task. How could the lighthearted workplace comedy continue after the surprising murder of Phil Hartman, an actor beloved by both his coworkers and fans of the series? That the show managed to face Hartman’s death head-on by incorporating his character’s funeral into the season premiere—while turning in one of the funniest episodes of the whole season—says a lot about the nature of NewsRadio’s unconventional brand of humor. Not every show can make laugh-out-loud jokes about a botched eulogy, a friend completely in denial about death, or going on a bender to get over a loved one—yet those are just the opening moments of NewsRadio’s fifth season.
But just because the comedy is a little offbeat doesn’t mean the show shirks all the conventions of a typical sitcom. In fact, the series whole-heartedly embraces these conventions, almost refusing to innovate. There’s a three-camera setup. There’s a studio audience with audible laughter. There’s a straight-man lead and a whole slew of wacky sidekicks. And that’s the way they like it. “It’s very hard for a single-camera show to make me laugh,” says writer Josh Lieb in a DVD commentary, available on sporadic episodes. “American audiences are accustomed to shows being four-camera. It makes them feel like they’re a part of the audience.”
In this way, the broad gags and rhythms of NewsRadio approach comedy from the opposite direction as all the other left-of-center workplace sitcoms that followed suit, most recently, The Office. While The Office opts for a realistic feel quasi-cinema-verité style and the single-camera format so detested by the NewsRadio crew, NewsRadio chucks all sense of realism out the window for zany plots about magic intelligence-enhancing drinks, hypnosis, Freaky Friday-like role reversals, and a form of martial arts called “Joe-jitsu.” If The Office finds comedy in small, awkward interactions between two emotionally honest characters, NewsRadio would rather see Joe Rogan falling through an air vent. Yes, this is stubbornly straight-up network sitcom comedy. Thankfully, the writers know how to finesse it so that it’s actually funny.
Really funny. When put-upon boss Dave Nelson (Dave Foley) says he’s sick of slackers and fantasizes about firing someone—possibly everyone—in the office, it’s a genuinely silly, not uncomfortable moment. When a new executive says that he’ll give up being “evil” to win the hand of Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney), it comes across as rollicking, not ridiculous. And that’s how, eventually, they were able to ring a few laughs out after the loss of Phil Hartman. Throughout the series, the writing is so tight and witty that when watching the DVD’s gag real, it’s tempting to hope that the actors make it through the scenes without breaking down because the jokes as they are written are more hilarious than the bloopers.
Though the show is not willing to escape the confines of a traditional three-camera sitcom, the fifth season of the NewsRadio series finally loosens up and plays with its own format a bit. The series tries experimenting with multiple-episode story-arcs, veering away from its strict policy of stand-alone episodes. Of course, this was a slow evolution, with executive producer and creator Paul Simms being reluctant to change the show’s winning formula. “I thought that when you watch it in reruns, you’d want to have whole story,” he says on one commentary track. “Now every show does multiple story arcs.”
Undertaking such an arc NewsRadio, undergoes a subtle transformation that builds on its already comedic foundations. Instead of focusing the continuing plotlines around the overused, unsatisfying device of a love triangle of some sort (a tactic even the iconoclastic The Office was powerless to escape), the series really swings for the fences and comes up with an off-the-wall saga about corporate boss Jimmy James (Stephen Root), his suspected involvement in a legendary hijacking, his escape from jail and life on the lam, and his dealings with archrival and replacement Johnny Johnson (expertly played by Patrick Warburton). This story arc may be the pinnacle of the show’s creative achievement.
It’s in this type of interplay—stretching boundaries of a typical workplace sitcom without ever subverting them—that is able to coax some of the best work out of its diverse cast. (Seriously, there must be some kind of NewsRadio curse that keeps its actors from ever turning in a comedic performance better than the ones on the series. Just think of what Andy Dick, Joe Rogan, and Dave Foley have starred in since—can you say Celebrity Poker Showdown?)
“I remember specifically [the first multiple-episode] arc,” says Simms. “I was feeling weird at the start of the fifth season. Phil [Hartman] wasn’t there and I didn’t feel like myself. I consciously rededicated myself to the show on this arc. And it was fun again.” So you can look at the series’ ultimate season just a typical three-camera show—an artifact of the mid-90s when, according to Simms, two years earlier NBC had 18 sitcoms glutted in its prime-time lineup. But then you’d be missing out on its quiet, pioneering efforts, and a ton of laughs.