2. Introduction

If it can be said that there is one artistic medium that allows the hackneyed and the cliched to not only exist but to thrive, then that medium would have to be television. Perhaps it is the public’s desire for the comfort of familiarity that encourages the success of repetitiveness and obviates the need for imagination. Certainly, the number of situation comedies featuring a family man, his family and family life indicates the ratings dominance of this staple of American network television. However, from 1995 to 1999 a comedy series appeared on American television the likes of which had never been seen before or since. Its originality stems not from superficialities such as plot and characterization but exists in the very essence of its comedic style and what was communicated through it.

NewsRadio arose from the formidable creative mind of writer Paul Simms. While he abhors the unimaginative copycatting that is endemic to network television, the way Simms tells it, even more than his desire to be original, he wanted to create something that was true. "I wanted to do something not revolutionary but different than what was on TV then," he said, "Everyone was ripping off Seinfeld or Friends. For the last six years I’ve been working my ass off, sleeping at the office. I wanted to do a show about your life at the office.1 The very last thing I thought of was that it was a radio station. I realized I wanted a big open space ’cause I always liked that on Taxi. I didn’t want it to be a behind-the-scenes look at anything — I wanted it to be any office." However, truth of form is so extremely rare in art that by succeeding in being true, NewsRadio also succeeded by being original.

Even from the early days some viewers recognized that there was something different about this television comedy, but it is only with the wisdom of hindsight that we fully realize how unique it was. Though at times popular, NewsRadio was never popular enough to prevent the NBC network from quietly terminating the show at the end of its fifth season. Nevertheless, it managed to give us five seasons of sublimely profound art, something that is only now being appreciated by more and more television viewers.

And so it was that Simms assembled a cast of truly great actors, most of whom were still barely famous at the time, to become the greatest ensemble cast in history and forged the first morally expressive screwball comedy with a physical-verbal comedy style to appear on television. Make no mistake about it. NewsRadio is a cinematic masterpiece. It belongs to the cinema because it stands as an original monument to film art. In that and in so many other ways it stands apart from everything else that appears on television. I do not make a distinction between a television series and a full-length motion picture for all are film art to me. I subscribe to Godard’s philosophy that "The cinema is everything"2, and film art this magnificent belongs in the cinema’s pantheon.

This article is both an analysis and celebration of the art of NewsRadio.

 

It’s more than just getting a laugh

Certainly, if one rates comedies by the number of laughs per minute, then as hilarious as NewsRadio is we could say that there have been even better comedies. Monty Python films, Marx Brothers films and Mel Brooks films are amongst the funniest ever made, and by this criterion these should be masterpieces of comedic cinema. However, there is more to comedic art than mere ‘comedy-ha-ha,’ and understanding this is the key to understanding why Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is truly great while Spaceballs is not. The greatness of comedic art cannot be measured solely by how funny that art is. Most comedies convey nothing beyond the joke itself — when the laughing stops only a sense of emptiness remains. Comedy-ha-ha is probably the most powerful form of artistic manipulation in existence; the comedy of those artists who satisfy long after the last frame ends is a form of artistic communication. The former uses comedy only as an end; the latter uses comedy as both a means of expression and as an end. The vital difference between the two is the same as the vital difference between technique and mise en scène. Technique will always have its admirers, but only mise en scène has the power to move.

 

The secret of screwball is…

One of the most precious treasures of the cinema is the screwball comedy. It is a distinctly American genre — no other country besides the United States has succeeded in creating a good screwball comedy, essentially because so far only Americans have proved capable of morally expressive cinema (see the chapter below). One of the secrets of cinema is that film art (or more specifically, mise en scène) is the ‘writing’ of desires rather than experiences, and Americans are the only people who dare to show themselves as they desire to be seen — the vital instinct required for most of the distinctly American cinematic forms.

In actual fact, prior to NewsRadio, there were only fourteen true masterpieces of screwball comedy: Howard Hawks’ Twentieth Century (1934), Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl Friday (1939), and Man’s Favorite Sport (1964); Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey (1936); Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944); Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937); George Cukor’s Holiday (1938); Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1941) and The Palm Beach Story (1942); two Astaire-Rogers movies, Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat (1935) and George Stevens’ Swing Time (1936); and W. S. Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934). It should be noted that most of these are old films, for the genre passed into undeserved obsolescence with the sexual liberation of the Hollywood screen in the late 1960s. Since then, not only has the craftsmanship and know-how about screwball comedy been lost, but, most importantly, so has the artistic instinct required to create it. Peter Bogdanovich’s Illegally Yours (1987) is nearly a great screwball comedy, but Bogdanovich’s iconoclastic position as one of the few modern proponents of classical filmmaking only goes to show how out of step with contemporary taste he is.

To paraphrase Andrew Sarris, the screwball comedy can be described as a sex comedy without the sex. It should be noted that it was only when the Hays Code began to regulate morality on the Hollywood screen in 1934 that the screwball comedy came into existence (with the release of Twentieth Century, It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, and the first full-fledged Astaire and Rogers musical-comedy The Gay Divorcee). (The Hays Code even went so far as to explicitly specify the maximum amount of time that a man and woman could hold a kiss on screen.) It can be said that the zany antics and behavior that are the sine qua non of screwball are really a sublimation of the sexual energy between men and women. My own take on the screwball comedy is that screwball is unique in that it allows men and women to interact, or ‘play,’ with each other on screen. Outside of screwball, the relationships between the sexes tend to stagnate due to the codes of sexual politics that form between men and women. For example, in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1934), a great but quintessentially Continental film, Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier are always separated morally and physically by a social distance defined by their genders. By contrast, in My Man Godfrey (1936) and Bringing Up Baby (1938) the male and female leads are able to form relationships that are more intimate and interactive than those with any other character. Thus, the ultimate requirement for a successful screwball comedy is that there be a strong sexual attraction between the male and female characters that is at least partly sublimated.

The long discussion about the nature of screwball comedy is to establish the grounds for the assertion that NewsRadio is a screwball comedy — and a great one at that. In it we find the same sense of ‘play’ between men and women that marks the great screwballs. Contrast this with other TV sitcoms where no matter how weird the characters behave, a strong social barrier still exists between men and women. Furthermore, NewsRadio represents a somewhat unusual twist on screwball — a screwball (sex comedy without sex) with a touch of sex. If this sounds contradictory, it should be remembered that despite the fact that Preston Sturges always provided heavy servings of ‘subject A’ in his 1940s screwballs, a lot more was intimated than shown. Therefore, as Preston Sturges and NewsRadio show, you can dose out some sex as long as you never give enough to sate.

Beyond issues of cast chemistry (and the untimely death of Phil Hartman after the fourth season was a both a tragic and formidable loss), the first four seasons are the strongest seasons because of the strong sublimated sexual energy. The Dave and Lisa relationship was overt, but there were also relationships of attraction between Bill and Catherine, Joe and Catherine, Bill and Beth, Mr. James and Beth, and Lisa and every other male on the show. The fifth and final season was marred by a substantial loss of this energy, for reasons that will be explained later.


1 Wild, David. The Showrunners. (Harper Collins: New York, 1999).

2 Godard himself made several films with video, even making a television series called Histoire du Cinéma (History of the Cinema), a work that belongs wholly to the cinema as ‘cinema about cinema.’ Those who insist on the separation of television and video from cinema are more interested in cinema as an industry (the nature of artistic creation) than cinema as film art (the nature of artistic expression).

3 Sarris, Andrew. You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film, History & Memory, 1927-1949, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.