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Tied to the 90s: 8 of the funniest episodes of NewsRadio Wednesday, March 21, 2007

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Tied to the 90s

Welcome back to “Tied to the 90s“, a not-very complete guide to a decade that was. I’m your host, Yostal, and once more, I’ll be taking you through the pop culture landscape of the 1990s. If you have any suggestions for future columns, please email me at GoinYostal@gmail.com or leave me a comment.

A quick thanks to our Livonia pal and fellow Wolverine Amanda G. who pointed out that I had the wrong frat name on last week’s column. So totally my bad, so I thank her for reminding me it was, in fact, Sigma Chi in 1997.

Today, I’ll be looking at the 8 of the funniest episodes of NewsRadio. This is done to honor Season 5 of NewsRadio, which came out yesterday on DVD. I adore NewsRadio in a way that’s hard to put into words. It is easily the most underrated sitcom of the 1990s, and I am saddened to realize when watching my first four seasons of NewsRadio DVDs that the show was just hitting its stride when Phil Hartman was tragically taken from us. Never mind NBC’s constant schedule shuffling, never mind a sense of humor that would not always play in Peoria, never mind a little too much Andy Dick: NewsRadio was a show that was a perfect distillation of Gen X cynicism in the funniest way possible. I want to give major credit to the site NewsRadio and the Comedic Art for breaking down the humor for me in a way that helped me understand the why of what I thought was funny.

Now, I know that there are people who will disagree with my choices, which is why there’s a comment box, and I know that it’s completely subjective as to which one(s) is/are “funniest”, but in picking these eight, I tried to encompass the whole of the series.

1). “Super Karate Monkey Death Car” (Season 4, Episode 4, originally aired November 4, 1997)

I can’t say that any of the other seven episodes I will list will be in any particular order of favoritism, but this is clearly my #1 selection by a wide margin.

The plot: The premise is slightly convoluted, because it comes from one of the few episode arcs that the show ever did, but here goes. During Mr. James’ attempt to ensure greater efficiency of the WNYX staff, brings in an efficiency expert, Andrea (played by Lauren Graham, who was just wow hot at this point in her career…not that she’s not now. ..Mmmm, Lauren Graham…Oh yes, right, sorry, got distracted there for a minute.) She is planning to subject the staff to the a series of polygraphs (or lie detector tests, if you want to sound stupid.), of which Joe steals a copy (totally ruining the curve in the opinion of Lisa). Dave calls for a lunch for the whole staff. Now, that’s the A Plot, or so you think. In the meantime, the B Story is Jimmy telling Dave that the good news, his autobiography, Jimmy James: Capitalist Lion Tamer, has been re-released in the U.S. See, even though it bombed on the first run, it was translated into Japanese and it became a huge hit, so he had it re-translated into English from the Japanese and re-released it here. (As Dave points out, it’s sound logic, it seems to work well for VCR instruction manuals.)

The funny: Let’s see, there’s Lisa’s massive criminal record (but don’t worry, it was all SAT-related, and besides, she never went to jail, it was just juvie), there’s the call back to the episode “Negotiation” in the episode’s title, there’s the silent Ron Jeremy in the crowd at Mr. James reading cameo, there’s Brian Posehn’s questions at the reading, there’s Andrea confiding in her new best friend about her little arson issue, there’s Jimmy and Dave eating sushi at the Tokyo Airport, but mostly it’s a tour de force in Jimmy reading from his autobiography, with this line being the show stopper:

“I had a small house of brokerage on Wall Street. Many days no business comes to my hut. But, Jimmy has fear? A thousand times no! I never doubted myself for a minute, for I knew that my monkey-strong bowels were girded with strength like the loins of a dragon ribboned with fat and the opulence of buffalo…” (Mr. James then turns the page) “…dung.”

On paper, a funny line. As delivered by Stephen Root, showing the always upbeat Jimmy starting to be broken down by the poor translation, priceless. One of the funniest moments in television ever.

2). “Security Door (Season 4, Episode 14, originally aired February 24, 1998)

Note: In the DVD commentary for “The Public Domain” (Season 4, Episode 3), it is noted by the writers and producers that it was during that episode that the show lost all touch with reality and essentially became a live-action cartoon. I think that “Security Door” is living proof of concept.

The plot: Dave, upset with recent petty office theft, has a new security door installed at WNYX. Everyone on the staff sets out to immediately circumvent the door. Bill, meanwhile, asks Lisa to act as his agent for a negotiation for a blue jeans commercial (they’re Czechoslovakian!), and Lisa gets to see a new side of Bill in the process.

The funny: My selection of this episode of is praise of Dave Foley’s performance as Dave Nelson. As the boss, in theory, Dave is supposed to be the sane one, the fearless leader of this goofy band of workers under his charge. But, I think the genius of NewsRadio is making Dave just as completely bonkers as every one else. Dave sees himself at times at the last sane man in a world gone mad, the spirit of Midwestern pragmatism in an office where zany schemes rule the day. That is what makes Dave’s presentation to the staff about the importance of the security door is so brilliant. He starts out with an easel, a pointer, and some basic drawings. The first shows a perfectly normal security door, closed, and the office is safe. The next card shows the door propped open with a chair, and a “thief” has entered, (looking suspiciously like the Hamburgler), (and Matthew makes a wonderful callback to the Rashomon-style stories of”Catherine Moves On” by noting that “I’ve seen that guy around!”) and that we are all in danger. The logically question follows from Bill, what happens in case of fire, we’d be trapped (followed by another brilliant misunderstanding of basic historical fact). Dave reveals another card to show that when smoke is detected, the security door immediately opens and allows safe egress. Joe asks what if the fire is on the outside of the door and back into the office is the only way to escape. Dave then points out on a new card the importance of having one’s key card to allow re-entry, lest one be charred to death (complete with flaming people illustration.) The group reacts in slight horror. Beth then asks “what if there’s an earthquake” and Dave, on a new card, points out that the building would likely collapse and the security door would be the least of your concerns. The drawing of a collapsing WNYX Building earns another look of mild horror from the group. Matthew then points out he has a serious question which must be asked, and Dave cuts him off, flipping to a new card and stating “If a wizard casts a spell upon the office” (complete with a wizard riding a unicorn illustration). This is the end of the presentation run. The rest of the episode has some wonderful comedic gems, but Dave’s desire to maintain order in the most insane way possible is five minutes of sheer comedic television genius.

3). “President” (Season 3, Episode 1, originally aired September 18, 1996)

The plot: Jimmy decides he wants to run for President as a third party candidate. Matthew returns from his vacation with an addition to his upper lip.

The funny: This one is on here largely as a tribute to the tour de force whirlwind that was Stephen Root’s portrayal of Jimmy James. It is perhaps his curse that Stephen Root does put-upon hangdog doormat so well that if people know him at all, it’s either as the voice of Bill Dauterive on King of the Hill or as Milton in Office Space, both of which he does a bang up job in. But, for me, Stephen Root will always be at his best playing Jimmy James, basically an overgrown kid with 7 billion dollars. To dismiss Jimmy as an overgrown kid though belies the shrewd business acumen that he had to possess in order to rise up from a dirt poor son of Florida sharecroppers to a media mogul. “President” lends credence to this notion. Jimmy decides to run for President, makes Beth his campaign manager, chooses Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” as his campaign theme (later played by a brass band as he enters his press conference), and taunts Lisa with the fact that he has no skeletons in his closet, well, at least, none she’ll be able to find. Jimmy claims he is Deep Throat, an assertion which goes unchallenged by the real Deep Throat (a moment of deft media handling as you will ever see, real or fictional). As Bill plays the sycophantic angle in the hopes of making Jimmy’s presidential run work to his advantage, Lisa solves the mystery. Mr. James is running for President to meet women, a continuing part of the wife search from Season 2. As Catherine states as the phone calls pour into the office “He’s too smart to be President.”

I also want to note that this is one of the few Matthew stories that I actually find funny, in part because Andy Dick does not oversell the character on this one. He’s convinced the mustache looks good. That perception is only broken when the office mate who kisses him on the test run is, in fact, Bill.

4). “Presence” (Season 2, Episode 19, originally aired April 14, 1996)

The plot: It’s hard to remember which episode of Season 2 is which, sometimes, because all of the later episodes that year bear the names of Led Zeppelin albums (I do approve of this naming strategy, it just makes it hard to remember which one is which.) Jimmy is playing in his annual media mogul poker game and loses Bill, largely because Jimmy is a lousy poker player. Lisa comes to the rescue, but not without putting Dave in the pot in the final hand.

The funny: “Hey, Boba Fett!” OK, there’s a lot more than that, but Dave’s joy at seeing the Boba Fett action figure that Joe was using to spy on the game is just a great moment. So is Joe’s deep appreciation of a Hogan’s Heroes re-run, Jimmy’s explanation of the history of poker (and the future of poker, or as it may be called ‘Spacepoker’), and Dave being forced to sit with the girlfriends and escorts at the poker game and being utterly Dave Foley charming, while at the same time, a newsman at heart. Just a top notch effort.

5). “Chock” (Season 4, Episode 11, originally aired January 13, 1998)

The plot: Dave turns 32 years old, and on his birthday, his college buddies from UW come to visit him to fulfill “The Pact.” You see, in college, among Dave’s litany of other crazy skills, he was a member of an all-male a capella group called “Chock Full of Notes” and they made a vow after a final performance at Badger Jam ’88 that if they were all 32 and still single, they would reunite and make a go of it (though Dave does question the validity of a contract drawn up on the back of a Denny’s place mat. In the barely there B-story, Lisa, as boss, is struggling to get newly rehired Matthew to do any work.

The funny: In listening to plenty of DVD commentaries about sitcoms and other comedy series, one of the common themes is about how there is a special danger in building an episode around a guest star, because you can’t always be sure how they are going to fit in with the core characters or how your audience will react. This episode proves that with deft casting and writing, you can make it work and how. Bringing in Mr. Show’s David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, and Brian Posehn (the latter in his second guest stint on the year) was pure brilliance. Watching Dave struggle to be the leader of his friends rather than his co-workers and fighting for control of the group with Bob is funny, watching David Cross in one his two funniest guest spots on an NBC sitcom of the 1990s (the other, the original Donny episode of Just Shoot Me, if only because to this day, I use “chicken pot, chicken pot, chicken pot pie!” as a text message of randomness to my college roommate and it floors him every time), and watching Brian Posehn monotone his way through his struggle to come to grips with the fact that no one wants to do it. Well, except Bob, and he’s not even being sagacious.

6). Noise (Season 5, Episode 4, originally aired October 21, 1998)

The plot: Having just hired Max Lewis as Bill’s replacement, Jimmy shares with the staff some concerns over Dave’s recent physical. It seems that Dave’s blood pressure is abnormally high, so Jimmy asks the staff to help him relax. Joe’s solution: A giant homemade white noise machine, with four settings. Dave (and later Jimmy) proceeds to get blissed out in his office on the white noise machine. Meanwhile, Matthew finally accepts Max as one of the staff, while Lisa and Max feud over the “This Day In History” segment.

The funny: This is the Season Five episode I placed on the list. In watching it, you can see how Phil Hartman was the glue that held the show together. He was the perfect foil for Dave, he was genuinely a comedic genius and when you watch Season Five, you can’t help but realize the huge void his absence created on the show. Jon Lovitz did his best to fill in admirably (after two solid guest shots as two completely different characters prior to Season Five), and Lovitz brings his annoying factor to the tension, but that was already sort of there from Andy Dick. But this episode is a tour de force for Dave, who, usually so high strung and ready to burst, blisses out on the white noise machine. During the segment where he’s just listening to “Yosemite Sunset”, Dave Foley also channels Bing Crosby in a way that I find absolutely hilarious. I do also greatly appreciate the hang a lantern on it moment when Max asks of the staff “Does anyone else find it highly implausible that someone could get addicted to a white noise machine?” and the rest of the staff just looks at him with that great “you’re new here, aren’t you” sort of look. A solid episode. And if anyone knows where I can get one of those giant white noise machines, leave me a comment.

7). “The Crisis” (Season 1, Episode 4, originally aired April 11, 1995)

The plot: A subway car has derailed and the WNYX team is trying to cover it, as it’s the first breaking story on Dave’s watch as News Director. Except, there’s the small issue of the new desk that Matthew got after having dinner with Dave. Pettiness on the part of the rest of the staff ensues.

The funny: It’s sometimes rare to have a first season episode hold us as one of the best when all is said and done, especially if it is just a six episode season. It makes sense, we don’t know the characters yet, boundaries and relationships are still being defined, so the best you can do is have some fun with that process. This episode stands out because it showcases Dave’s desire to be both a great boss and a great journalist. He wants WNYX to have the best coverage and he’s going to use every means at his disposal to get it, starting with the Yellow Pages. The bureaucracy of the Transit Authority would be enough headaches, but then Matthew’s new desk arrives. Like children, the staff cannot understand why Matthew gets a new toy and they don’t. All of their efforts move from covering the breaking story to getting their fair share. The harried nature of Dave comes to the fore in this one, and we still see the original characterization of Jimmy as eccentric billionaire boss, not the later, funnier characterization of Jimmy as really eccentric billionaire who happens to be the boss. You need these episodes to build on, and this is a solid block in the show’s foundation.

8). “Arcade” (Season 3, Episode 4, originally aired October 23, 1996)

The plot: In an effort to save money for the station, Beth suggests removing the sandwich machine in the lobby, much to Bill’s horror. Lisa is worried because she thinks she is slipping intellectually, so she decides to retake the SAT and convinces Dave to join her in doing it. Beth’s budget cutting then proceeds to add a cabinet arcade game to the lobby, Stargate Defender, the very game that Dave was addicted to in high school.

The funny: Lisa’s obsession over her intellectual prowess is always a hilarious character trait in my mind, because she is written as exceptionally smart and competent, and you begin to wonder what she is still doing at a place like WNYX. And then you see it, she is so obsessive, too clever by half, and so single minded that she often misses the big picture in favor of the thing that is right in front of her. The fact that she becomes so obsessed about matching her SAT score from her high school years is proof positive of why she is where she is and why she fits in so well with the gang. Dave, meanwhile, is a man of many talents, including apparently Stargate Defender (as he notes, Wisconsin offers very few distractions for a pale friendless virgin.). Sadly, his talent and obsession is what kept him out of Stanford (but that’s OK, because who wants to go to school in California, because the winter is the best seven months of the year.) As much as I have hit the high points, the flow and tightness of this episode’s comedy is what makes it a star.

There are lots of other great episodes of NewsRadio out there, you should check out Seasons 1&2, Season 3, Season 4, and Season 5.

That’s all I have for this week. I genuinely hoped you enjoyed it, and please come back next week for another edition of Tied to the 90s. Until then, this has been Subcommandante Yostal, logging off.

Comments»

1. Greek McPapadopoulos - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Great list Yostal, and great analysis. “Super Karate Death Monkey Car” is a great choice for number 1, and great suggestions for the other ones. The only other great episode that I can think that you could also include is the one where Jimmy “attempts” to fly around the world in a hot-air balloon.

2. Yostal - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Greek, had I had more time to write this up, Balloon was on the list of the next four to make the list, because it encapsulates the sheer insanity that made the show great in one fell swoop.

3. throwbot - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

totally underrated show…the fact that every actor or actress on the show is still recognizable ten years after the show was on the air is saying a lot. Even though I would rather not recognize Andy Dick any more.

4. Tuffy - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I also feel compelled to point out that Dave Foley has a simply charming talk show and I hope against hope that he does more episodes soon because it’s already fully-formed and wonderful:

http://www.superdeluxe.com/sd/artist/dave_foley

5. Noel - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

I like your list. It has….pan-aysh! The episode I would have placed at #1 would have been “Catherine Leaves.” Then again, I’ve always enjoyed homoerotic adventures on the Big Muddy.

Honorable Mentions: Bill’s Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor and Dave’s explanation of a birthday gift in the Titianic episode: “it just means I’m glad you didn’t die partway through the year!”

NE

6. J.L. White - Thursday, March 22, 2007

What a great way to remember, perhaps, one of the greatest sitcoms in the last 20 years. Almost any episode is performed and written extremely well, and I could flip by it almost any time, and stick around to watch it all.

I would hope one of the episodes that barely missed out on your list was the “Big Bonus/Shaft” episode. I think that was in one of the first two seasons, but is really highlights the child-like pettiness of the staff. The others listed are all great themselves, too.

(Just a pet peeve, but when I see “UW” I only think of one place: the University of Washington. That’s the only UW out there, in my book. Wisconsin is…….well, it’s just Wisconsin. We can leave it at that.)

7. the_bad_one - Thursday, March 22, 2007

Excellent choices for this list. “Super Karate Monkey Death Car” is an all-time classic for all the reasons you named. The Boba Fett gag in “Presence” is the best bit of acting/comedy/anything Joe Rogan has ever done. “Arcade” is just everything that made NewsRadio great: Dave trying to suppress his dork past (and present), every cost-saving storyline, Bill’s insane childhood, and Jimmy’s divorce from reality. And between those three episodes, Lisa’s career of SAT-related crime and her incredible math skills really up her overall hotness.

If there’s one episode I wish you’d put on the list, it would be “Complaint Box”. The reading of the cards at the end is nearly the equal the equal of Jimmy’s book in SKMDC.

8. Emma Brand - Monday, September 17, 2007

I also liked the one where Bill is playing the piano in the elevator the entire episode. That one always makes me laugh.

9. Kait - Tuesday, January 8, 2008

I agree….think Complaint Box should’ve made it to this list. Or Jumper. Or The Cane. Those three episodes are extremely hilarious to the end. But this list is pretty fantastic.

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