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Friday, August 7, 2015

Static Thoughts - NewsRadio "President"

Edited by Robert Beach

In case you’re reading this outside the United States or just aren’t engaged with politics, we’ve got a presidential election looming for next year which means the rest of 2015 is going to be all about the primaries as far as politics is concerned. The Democratic party seems like a fairly legitimate split between ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton and rising star senator Bernie Sanders. Both of them have good qualities along with legitimate ideological points of opposition, and while many foresee Clinton ultimately taking the nomination, Sanders is certainly making her work for it. 
Conversely, the Republican Party has 16 prospective candidates with the leading frontrunner as businessman Donald Trump. 

At the time of writing, the Republicans have just hosted their first debate, so it’s unclear whether or not Trump still holds his lead. Regardless, he’s put on one hell of a show in the lead-up to tonight.  Even though Trump throws his hat into the election ring every cycle as part of a bid to promote his various TV and real estate projects, this is the longest he’s ever maintained his campaign and the most popular he’s ever been. The whole thing is a bit of a political joke, but it got me thinking about an old TV show that saw it all coming.  

 NewsRadio was an NBC sitcom in the mid '90s revolving around the fictional AM news radio station WNYX. The show was actually very funny and well written, thanks in large part to the work of Paul Simms who would go on to direct and produce The Flight of the Concords. The show was a blend of whacky sitcom antics transposed to an office setting rather than a group of friends or a family unit.  The major emphasis comedy wise was on sight gags, cutting humor, some enjoyably out-there surreal absurdity, and well-placed pop cultural references. 

The show also had the good fortune of having two comedy giants in the lead roles with Dave Foley of The Kids in the Hall as the stations wunderkinds manager and the incomparable Phil Hartman as the station’s lead broadcaster. The two men are comedy greats, and they had consistently funny chemistry in their competition. The show also had a strong supporting cast with Stephen Root of King of the Hill as the station’s eccentric billionaire owner who tended to plant scheme-based shenanigans in the office and Joe Rogan as the street-smart station handyman. Andy Dick was also on the show as doofy and bizarre news reporter who was often the source of a lot of physical humor. 

The episode I’m focusing on here is actually the first one I ever saw, the premier of season 3 entitled ‘President.’ The main plot of the episode is that the station’s owner Jimmy James has decided to run for President.  This is one of the purest examples of NewsRadio’s style of comedy I could think of, taking what’s essentially a whacky sitcom scheme and transposing it to the world of corporate business class. 

In many ways the show reads like a proto-Office only without the more realistic grounding that show took from the handheld mockumentary approach. What’s more, Jimmy James’ presidential campaign really does come off like a satire of Trump’s multiple presidential campaigns only a couple decades early. From his meaningless slogan’s, his “everyman” speech affect in regards to the press, and even a hidden agenda that informs his decision are all eerily uncanny visions of things to come.

Even without the shockingly spot-on prestidigitation, the episode is still very funny all around as it gave the show a chance to dive into some political humor in addition to their standard array of sitcom antics. It’s especially fun seeing Phil Hartman’s self-interested reporter character of Bill McNeil being dropped in the center of what he describes as “the story of the crazy man who’s going to be president.” 

The media aspect of the show is really blown up here, though the show would often make good use of the fact that this is a news station first and foremost. Specifically, the episode uses WNYX’s position to mercilessly skewer the joyous, tabloid titillation that so often seems to surround mainstream news coverage of stunt candidates. As I said, the show was well written and smart with a lot of the characters serving as fully realized individuals as well as transliterations of classic sitcom archetypes.  It actually plays a lot like a previous era of Brooklyn 99.

NewsRadio enjoyed 4 fairly successful and thoroughly hilarious seasons before the tragic death of Phil Hartman. After his death, the show tried to carry on, bringing in Hartman’s close friend Jon Lovitz as a new character to replace him but the show really never recovered.  Still, the first four seasons are supremely funny and well worth seeking out.  

The kind of predictive storytelling and unique blend of genre absurdity with sitcom hyper reality of “President” are truly emblematic of the show overall and a lot of tricks and tropes that feel standard now found their start on NewsRadio.  It never really got its fair shake in the ‘90s; hopefully more people can rediscover it today.  

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