Friday, November 12, 2004

But I'm Feeling Much Better Now

The first season of Night Court was just announced for February 5. This show was, of NBC's famous '80s Thursday night lineup (Cheers, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and this one), the most underrated and probably the funniest. The creator, Reinhold Weege, had been a writer-producer on Barney Miller, and Night Court was essentially Barney in a courtroom. Except that where Barney started out loud and brash and got more and more subtle every year -- until by the end the jokes were so low-key that they were barely identifiable as jokes -- Night Court started out fairly sensible and got wackier and wackier with every episode. In its prime, just about every line was a joke and most of them were damned funny; Weege loved working in front of a live audience (an annoying laugh, heard from the audience in every episode, is either Weege or his father), and told his writers to keep adding new jokes all the time right up until the moment the audience went home. One writer, Tom Straw, recalled that when they were doing an episode where Dan (John Larroquette) is rejected as a sperm bank donor, he pitched a new joke literally the moment before the final taping of a particular scene, and it made it in: "Don't be disappointed, Mr. Fielding -- many are called, but few are frozen."

If you don't like jokes like that, you probably won't like Night Court, but the jokes do work, and the combination of broad neo-Vaudevillian humor and character comedy and the socially-conscious attitude of Barney Miller was a pretty entertaining mix. The show remained strong up until Weege left at the end of the sixth season (due to disputes with the network and WB Television), at which point the show did one disastrous season of stupid jokes and bad plots, followed by two only slightly less disastrous seasons with out-of-character jokes and would-be "sophisticated" plots.

The first season is not the show's best, and it's mostly notorious for the number of cast changes: Gail Strickland, who played the public defender in the pilot, was dumped and replaced by Paula Kelly, who left after the first season and was replaced by a rotating string of guest stars in season two (including Markie Post), until they settled on a permanent replacement in Ellen Foley, except she wasn't so permanent because she was replaced by Markie Post in season three. And Karen Austin, as the clerk/love interest in season 1, left the show midway through the season and was replaced by Charles Robinson (as the clerk, not the love interest) in season 2. And I'm not even getting into the infamous "dead female bailiffs" curse, but season 1 and 2 are the only seasons with Selma Diamond, a walking piece of comedy history; she was one of the first female comedy writers in the TV business, most famously writing for Sid Caesar, and she was the model for Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show. She's the highlight of the first season. That and the famous exchange from the episode "Once In Love With Harry":

LANA: I hear you lost the election for city council.
DAN: That's not the depressing part.
LIZ: I heard you lost the election by ten thousand votes.
DAN: That's not the depressing part.
BULL: Hey, didn't your opponent die two weeks ago?
DAN: That's the depressing part.

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