[3 February 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
A good TV show is like a magic act. There’s plenty of patter, with lowbrow jokes for the belly laughers and higher cultural references for (poking fun at) the intellectual crowd. You get a few bad puns, a lot of wisecracks, some sleight of hand and some song-and-dance. Props might include a flash of sparkle and a pretty face to aid in the misdirection, and sometimes there’s even a gross-out geek gag or two. But at the center of it all is one goal, pure and simple: entertainment.
A good magic act could be one guy on the corner with a deck of cards, or an entire traveling troupe with elaborate costumes, escape artists and explosions in the spotlight of the center ring. The best TV shows are the ones that combine the mystery of the close up magician and the gawk-factor of the sideshow surprise with all the spectacle of a Big Top production.
There was a time when Night Court was one of the hottest attractions on the midway. It was an Ambitious Card, you see, running for nine seasons, getting great ratings and garnering numerous awards and nominations, despite being a mid-season replacement when it debuted in 1984. It was one of those rare and distinctive series that just don’t seem to appear on television anymore, and that’s a shame because the show’s uniqueness is part of what made it good. Or maybe the fact that it was good is what made it unique. Either way, right from the start, it was not your average sitcom.
The first season was a little more realistic in its portrayal of the workings of a New York arraignment court and its night shift denizens than subsequent seasons, but just a little. Night Court: The Complete Second Season begins to really show that the court’s employees, and their three-ring brand of justice, are just as weird and wacky as the wayward souls that stand before them.
The ringmaster is, of course, judge Harry Stone, played to perfection by Harry Anderson, then known primarily as an illusionist and comic, as well as for performances on Saturday Night Live and a recurring guest role as Harry “The Hat” on Cheers. The story goes that Night Court‘s magic-performing, Mel Torme-loving, joke-telling, toy-collecting judge was not, in fact, written with Anderson in mind, but that he showed up to the audition completely in character. One can see how this might be possible, but one can also imagine this as part and parcel with the pitch a talker uses to call towners into his tent:
“All rise (Step right up! )… Criminal court, part two, City of New York, is now in session (See the Wonders of The Seven Boroughs! )… The honorable Harold T. Stone prestidigitating…”
If the casting story were true, then it would truly be a feat of amazing proportion, because Harry—the bally behind the bench, the geek with the gavel, the judicial joker, the hustler with a heart—was the main attraction. Any insincerity and the audience would’ve spotted the scam, but Anderson played him with such affable ease, he seemed so comfortable with this character, that either he was actually playing himself, or he pulled off the best career-long, long con, ever. Harry Stone was pitchman and ringleader and leading man, both court judge and court jester, and whether playing him for laughs or on the level, Anderson was a veritable one-man show. Except, he wasn’t.
Along with Anderson, Night Court hangs on the brilliant John Larroquette, in a bit of a vaudevillian villain role as the greedy, seedy, smarmy, sometimes charming, always cocky and often clueless Dan Fielding (Direct your attention to the far ring and The Lovely Assistant DA, as he arraigns the animals!). Dan not-so-secretly wishes he could run with the judiciary equivalent of Ringling Bros., but he knows he’s just another huckster in this human oddities exhibit. Besides, he probably couldn’t handle that higher level of fairness and family values.
Some of Dan’s best storylines are the ones where he’s the straight-man, the set-up, the stooge, including Season Two’s “The Blizzard”, in which he’s trapped in the elevator with a man who finds him attractive. Larroquette plays his paranoia just this side of hysteria at first, making the final scene’s simple sight gag into a showstopper.
And then there are the rest of the principal characters, each one playing an important part in this circus personified. Watch as the Magnificent “Mac” does his nightly balancing act, walking the wire between dockets before high diving into His Honor’s dribble glass! See Beautiful Billie, breathing fire as Public Defender! Of course, Bailiff Bull was the auguste, performing eccentriks; he and Selma were the catchers and the clowns… Or maybe the elephant act… Definitely the peanut gallery.
To continue with the magic and midway metaphors, what would a comedy carnival be without its Ten-in One? Night Court: The Complete Second Season has a cavalcade of guest stars. In between the hookers and the pickpockets, we see Stella Stevens as a high powered madam, Lou Ferrigno as a pro-wrestler and a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards as an invisible man. Markie Post makes her first appearance as PD Christine Sullivan, and though she wouldn’t be a full-time cast member until the third season, it’s great to see the start of the dynamic between her and Harry.
Perhaps the greatest guest appearance in the second season is that of John Astin. Of course, any episode—of any show—that involves John Astin is bound to be a good one, and “Inside Harry Stone” is no exception. In it, Astin plays Harry’s hypochondriacal hospital roommate, and naturally, he steals every scene, even unseen behind a privacy curtain. Astin would make appearances as pivotal character “Buddy Ryan” later in the series, but during season two, he’s merely a man making merry with the Munchausen’s.
Night Court: The Complete Second Season has all 22 original episodes on three discs, but unfortunately, it contains no extra features. The First Season DVD set, released in 2005, included audio commentary with Reinhold Weege on the pilot episode and an interview featurette called Night Court: Comedy’s Swing Shift with Weege and Harry Anderson. Let’s hope subsequent seasons have more special features, and let’s hope Warner Bros. doesn’t wait another four years to bring the circus back to town.