1995 was a unique year for television, particularly NBC. Seinfeld was coming into its role as a gem in the crown that was Thursday night Must-See TV Lineup, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air began its final season, and a unique sitcom was making its debut. NewsRadio premiered on March 21, 1995, and became one of the single greatest shows of all time. At the time, though, it wasn’t recognized for its creative genius. A policy adopted by the sitcom Seinfeld was no hugging and no learning, mostly on the part of the actors. For NewsRadio, the policy would probably be no rules allowed and no learning.
By adopting this policy, this show was groundbreaking in how it dodged network suggestions and was able to dive into the abyss of sitcom craziness. Much of the show centered on the staff of WNYX, the second highest-rated AM news radio station in New York City where Dave Nelson, played by Kids in the Hall alum Dave Foley, is beginning his turn as news director in the pilot. However, on his first day, he learns that he has to fire the person he is supposed to be replacing. To Dave, this seems wrong but the station’s owner, Jimmy James, played by Stephen Root, thought this would be the perfect test for the kind of job he will do as a news director.
In addition to this, he had to deal with the wrath of reporter Lisa Miller, played by Maura Tierney. Lisa feels she earned the position by putting in more effort than anyone else at the station. Dave also has to contend with the fierce rivalry between the anchors of the station, Bill McNeal, played by Phil Hartman, and Catherine Duke, initially played by Ella Joyce in the pilot and later played by Khandi Alexander. It’s later revealed this came about due to an office affair gone horribly awry.
Bill and Catherine are vying for an interview with Al Gore but Bill is trying to annoy Ed into giving it to him. Dave finally gains the strength and courage to tell Ed the truth after he is fired for doing a bad sports report. The interview then is given to Catherine because Dave will not put up with Bill’s behavior.
Rounding out the cast is Andy Dick as ditzy and clumsy reporter Matthew Brock, Vicki Lewis as Dave’s secretary Beth and Joe Rogan as Joe Garelli, the station’s repairman.
During the second episode, Dave begins a sexual relationship with Lisa, which became a plot point of the show’s first few seasons. NBC initially wanted those two characters to be more like Sam and Diane of Cheers. However, show creator Paul Simms didn’t want Dave and Lisa to be like them, by having the chemistry build-up throughout the seasons.
Another quintessential plot of the show was Mr. James’s search for a wife. Rather than look for a wife by dating, he had a candidate list and treated it like it was strictly business. At one point, Catherine was on the list, though she was eliminated after voicing her disgust for the idea.
Much of what separated this show was how Simms ignored or twisted the notes NBC gave the show. During the show’s run, NBC, which was owned by Universal Studios at the time, wanted to do a promotion for the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. This meant that four shows would have weddings and one would do a funeral episode. NewsRadio got the funeral but Simms was not about to kill off a character. Instead, NBC got the episode “Rat Funeral”.
The episode centers on Dave setting up rat traps around the office to catch some pests but the staff reveals they’ve grown attached to the one rat in the office, affectionately named Mike. Soon Dave and the staff discover that aside from Mike there are numerous rats infesting the offices of WNYX. Since its debut, this episode has become a shining example of how NewsRadio was more than just another NBC sitcom. However, this also cost them dearly.
During the show’s run, Preston Beckman, the head of scheduling at NBC, disliked the show and changed its timeslot nine times across the show’s brief but memorable five-season run. While the show was championed by NBC President of Entertainment Warren Littlefield, Simms was furious at how NewsRadio had been screwed over. In an article done by Rolling Stone, he said that viewers aren’t as dumb as NBC executives may think. He called the Thursday night lineup “a double decker s*** sandwich” and said that people need to realize how dumb the line-up was. The comment was noticed by NBC but no one is sure what repercussions this had on the show except for the changing time slot.
Other suggestions from NBC they refused to listen to were that about Andy Dick’s pratfalls. During the cold open of seasons two and three, Matthew’s clumsiness became apparent through the pratfalls that would end each cold open. Whether it was slipping on a bunch of coins, setting a soundboard on fire, or falling through a card table after he sat on it, these gags got funnier every episode. However, NBC didn’t want the pratfalls anymore but they remained a part of the show, though they were taken away during later seasons.
Season 3 also saw the first appearance of the editorial show The Real Deal with Bill McNeal which had an episode all its own featuring a cameo with Jerry Seinfeld. The episode centers on Bill and Lisa, who produces the show, trying to keep the show from being cancelled by Dave and Mr. James. While having lunch at a restaurant, they meet Jerry Seinfeld, the actor not the character on Seinfeld. Though Bill’s interview is nothing more than a series of Jerry telling Bill to go away, he manages to attempt to edit it so it seems like Jerry is a deranged star. Bill thinks he can get away with this since Jimmy owns the station. However, Mr. James reveals that Bill is liable for any lawsuits brought forward by Jerry, according to Bill’s contract.
Just as NewsRadio became increasingly known for its absolutely bizarre situations that rival Seinfeld in their levels of insanity, there came the third and fourth seasons. While some episodes simply reached the heights of nonsensical storytelling that could be found throughout the supporting cast of the CBS series Newhart, others delve directly into the wild side of sitcoms, which was unchartered territory. The best examples of this can be found in the finales of Seasons 3 and 4.
Season 3’s finale was the first “what if” episode called “Space.” It centered on the idea of WNYX being a space news radio station set in the future, with Phil Hartman telling the audience that is what the episode will be as a cold open. The episode is perfect NewsRadio as it deals with Dave and Lisa having a problem deciding to move in together, and Mr. James dressing like he is from the late 20th century. The best part is a news report Catherine reads. The report is about how rebel forces destroyed a certain Death Star and how Lord Vader was able to escape. The other “what if” episode was the Season 4 finale, “Sinking Ship” which parodied the film Titanic.
During Season 4, there were major changes to the show such as the addition of Lauren Graham as an efficiency expert, Andrea. She comes into WNYX and immediately clings to Lisa as a friend, though Lisa is initially apprehensive. However, she manages to flip things completely upside down after seeing Lisa berated by Bill and learns she was dumped by Dave. After that Andrea made Lisa the news director, Dave became Bill’s producer, and Matthew was fired, though he regularly came back to WNYX and was later rehired in the same season. This season also saw the departure of Khandi Alexander’s Catherine Duke. She left NewsRadio because she felt she wasn’t being used enough on the show. Alexander was given a grand send-off in the season four episode “Catherine Moves On”.
The episode centers on Catherine calling a staff meeting to announce she is resigning, effective immediately, from WNYX. However, because everyone was preoccupied with their own problems. Lisa can’t handle the stress of her job, Dave is annoyed by the noises Bill makes, Beth is annoyed that Matthew broke the coffee pot, and Bill is preoccupied with Catherine’s body. After Catherine announces that she’s leaving, everyone tells Mr. James the reasons they think she’s leaving. She finally reveals that she has been hired as the new London Correspondent for a satellite news service. Then came the final nail in the coffin of NewsRadio – the tragic death of Phil Hartman in 1998.
Just a few weeks after filming the last episode of season 4, Hartman’s wife Brynn killed him while he slept, then herself. NewsRadio had to deal with this directly and killed off his character Bill McNeal. The episode is hard to watch, even 25 years later. While the character was unlikeable, Hartman was known to be the exact opposite. The Season 5 premiere, “Bill Moves On,” dealt with the character of Bill McNeal’s death by a heart attack. The odd thing was that NewsRadio was going to be cancelled after the fourth season but was brought back for a fifth season after Hartman’s death.
Cast members on the show could hardly get through it without crying and the episode ends with a loving tribute to Hartman, in NewsRadio’s comic fashion. Everyone takes something off Bill’s desk to remember him. However, Jimmy decides to remove the desk entirely leaving an empty spotlight in front of Bill’s chair. It’s quite a tear-inducing moment. However, throughout the remainder of the last season, a copy of Radio Ink magazine with Hartman on the cover can be seen displayed in Dave’s office.
After “Bill Moves On,” Jon Lovitz was brought in to replace him. Lovitz played a similar character to Bill named Max Lewis, who was just as callous and uncaring as Bill. Other additions to the season were Lisa’s boyfriend turned jail-bound fiancee, Johnny Johnson, played by Patrick Warburton. He was introduced as a rival to Mr. James, though he is swiftly defeated and is reduced to a homeless man living in a subway station. He married Lisa but was put in jail not long after because he stole her wedding ring from a jewelry store in an armed robbery.
Though Lovitz and Warburton were able to fill the gap left by Hartman’s death, the changes to the season weren’t able to help the show remain on the air. After the last season, which is most notably the weakest, NewsRadio was put out of its misery. The show ended on a cliffhanger, with Mr. James and the rest of the staff moved to New Hampshire to run another news radio station. Dave remains at WNYX but seems to regret that choice when he sees Matthew hiding under his desk.
While NewsRadio was not always a rating darling, it was the office comedy that launched an era of office comedies. Shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation would use the format of a harried leader, a wealthy captain of industry, and a bunch of dysfunctional employees. NewsRadio was the epitome of office sitcoms and has had just as long of a legacy off the air than on it.