Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “snide” as “to cut, as in a cutting remark” and “slyly malicious or derisive.” Snide can be mean. But it can also be very funny. I love the snide wit of “post-feminist” comedians like Janeane Garofalo and Sandra Bernhard, particularly when they go off on tirades about standards of female beauty, sex, and Madonna. Male performers, like Just Shoot Me‘s David Spade and talk show hosts Craig Kilborn and Dennis Miller, have a tendency to cross that fine line between snide and smug, which is snideness with an added air of superiority. David Letterman is, however, one notable exception. Although one might categorize his humor as more smartass than snide, the talk show host can be ruthlessly biting, particularly when he really goes after someone like Kathy Lee Gifford, George W. Bush, or himself.
So as an avid consumer of snide culture, I had high expectations for the new sitcom Welcome to New York. And so far my expectations have been met. Produced by Letterman’s company, World Wide Pants, this addition to CBS’ new Wednesday night line-up focuses on an Indiana weatherman, Jim Gaffigan (played by the comedian of the same name), who, not unlike Letterman, himself an ex-Hoosier and former weatherman, moves to New York City when he lands a gig on AM New York. But that’s where the comparison to Letterman ends. Unlike Letterman, Gaffigan is a genuine golly-gosh-darn Midwesterner, who soon finds himself a fish out-of-water on that isle of snide better known as Manhattan.
The pilot chronicles Gaffigan’s first few days on the job. His fast-talking, sharp-tongued producer Marsha Bickner (Christine Baranski), her impudent assistant Amy (Sara Gilbert), and the show’s conceited, insincere host, Bryant Gumbel look-alike Adrian Spencer (Rocky Carroll) round out the newsroom ensemble and provide much of the show’s sharp humor as they bombard Gaffigan with zingers about everything from his home state to out-of-style corduroy jacket. Each has a particular problem with their new hire. Marsha observes when he first appears in their New York studio, “Somehow you looked elegant in Indiana surrounded by the pear-shaped folk”; Adrian assumes Gaffigan is after his job, worrying that the new weatherman plans to sport the same $1400 glasses on-air (even though Gaffigan’s are prescription and his are purely cosmetic); and Amy finds her own ways to undermine the newcomer (standing at the craft series table, Gaffigan asks her to pass a knife, and she reminds him that she doesn’t work for him). Baranski, Gilbert, and Carroll are all terrific performers, particularly Baranski, a Tony-winning Broadway actress who made a name for herself (and won an Emmy) as Cybill Shepherd’s martini-drinking sidekick Maryann Thorpe on Cybill a few seasons back. Baranski delivers one-liners so fast the audience barely knows what hit them. More importantly, she adds shading to what could potentially be a one-dimensional character. One of the advantages of having a gifted actress like Baranski doing comedy is her ability to make both snide Marsha and serious Marsha equally believable. And the writers are no doubt capitalizing on her ability to make that transition from snide to serious (and back again) seamless.
In the second episode, Marsha starts to let her guard down and reveal the human being hiding behind her tough-as-nails exterior. First, she breaks her own rule of fraternizing with her co-workers when she gives Gaffigan four tickets to a Broadway show. She has no intention of going with him, but you can see in her eyes that she really does feel sorry for him when he admits he has no friends in New York. Later on, she is sympathetic when, marching into Gaffigan’s office to reprimand him, she learns he’s in the middle of a phone conversation with his father, who is telling him about his brother’s farming accident. She backs down immediately and leaves him alone. Gaffigan is also a nuanced performer, never overplaying his frustrations with Marsha. He never comes across like a stereotypical Midwestern hick, but rather, as someone who’s smart and perceptive, only having a little trouble keeping up with his co-workers’ snideness. And even that idea is undercut on occasion: in that scene when Marsha comes into his office to chew him out, he is actually only pretending to be on the phone with his father (he is actually in the middle of ordering his lunch). He just made up the story about the accident to keep her off his back.
As all of the above examples indicate, Welcome to New York does seem to be stuck on its city-country opposition. When, in the second episode, Gaffigan buys two tickets to a Jets-Colts game with the intention of inviting Adrian to accompany him, Marsha suggests it’s a bad idea: “Maybe in Indiana it’s okay to fraternize with your co-workers at T.G.I. Fridays, share your onion rings and nacho supremes, but this is New York.” Poor Gaffigan never gets to see the game because, before he even invites him, Adrian snatches the tickets out of his hand. A few minutes later, Gaffigan discovers that Adrian scalped them to Marsha who gave them to someone else who gave them to Adrian who sold them to the FedEx man. Gaffigan goes into Marsha’s office to vent his frustration:
Gaffigan: “Back in Indiana, tickets aren’t some form of currency used to manipulate people or to make a quick buck.”
Marsha: “That’s because tickets hold very little value when they are to a….”
Amy: “Tractor pull.”
While the danger of these Indiana jokes being stretched too thin is obvious already, the writing in the first three episodes has been fresh and funny. As long as they continue to develop Gaffigan’s character and give him a chance to spar with his co-workers, there will be plenty of reason to continue tuning in. And who knows? Perhaps Gaffigan will continue to follow Letterman’s lead and transform himself into a snide New Yorker. But let’s hope that takes a season or three.