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Night Court was the black sheep of NBC’s sitcom dynasty

From left: John Larroquette, Markie Post, Richard Moll, Harry Anderson, Charles Robinson, Marsha Warfield (Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
From left: John Larroquette, Markie Post, Richard Moll, Harry Anderson, Charles Robinson, Marsha Warfield (Photo: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

In 100 Episodes, The A.V. Club examines the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity and/or longevity. This entry covers Night Court, which ran for nine seasons and 193 episodes between 1984 and 1992, concluding 25 years ago today.

Night Court took the long road to primetime. Created by Barney Miller veteran Reinhold Weege, the series’ eccentric courthouse denizens were part of a development slate at NBC that included a movie star’s ghost, a politically inclined orangutan, and a trio of roommates whose living situation was a blatant inverse of Three’s Company. Yet it was Night Court that was delayed until midseason, based largely on the network’s concerns about star Harry Anderson, a comedian and magician starring in his first television series. By the time Anderson took the bench as Judge Harry T. Stone—a green magistrate assigned to the wee, small hours of criminal court on a technicality—the Peacock’s other freshman comedies had flamed out. Forecasts weren’t positive. TV legend James Burrows, who directed Night Court’s pilot, predicted:

It’s a good show… but it will take a long time to get started. There’s no reason for people to watch it. Just because it’s good, that’s no reason. People will only watch high concept initially. They want familiarity from TV.

Burrows was right. Night Court’s legal hijinks took time to catch on, but the show’s fortunes were vastly improved when it joined a Thursday-night lineup that had a touch of the familiar, and just a little bit of high-concept. All four comedies in the self-proclaimed “best night of television on television” were good—and sometimes great. Leading the way was a vehicle for a familiar comedian starring in his first primetime series since 1972. The Cosby Show’s legacy is now tainted by the widespread allegations of sexual assault against Bill Cosby, but when it debuted in the fall of 1984, it saved both a network and a genre.

At the time, NBC was still recovering from a disastrous 1970s, a decade marked by sagging ratings, diminished ad revenues, dissatisfied local affiliates, and the $12 million punchline of Supertrain. The sitcom format was having a similarly rough go of it in the ’80s, as the sophistication and social conscious of the previous decade’s live-before-a-studio-audience fare either wore thin on viewers, mutated into hapless very-special-episode dreck, or flew under the radar. Night Court premiered in January 1984; at the end of that 1983-84 TV season, the Nielsen top 10 contained only one sitcom (CBS’ Kate & Allie at No. 8) and only one show on NBC (No. 4, The A-Team). “Situation comedy is not dead,” NBC President of Entertainment Brandon Tartikoff told the press ahead of the 1984-85 broadcast season. “It just has to be done better.”

Fortunately for the network, The Cosby Show was not the type of sitcom that needed time to get started. It raced to top of the Nielsen rankings in its very first broadcast, and pulled the rest of the Thursday-night comedies with it. All four—Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers, and Night Court—ended the 1984-85 broadcast season in the top 20. The following year, they came in (respectively) 1st, 2nd, 5th, and 11th. At the end of the 1986-87 season, NBC comedies made up four of Nielsen’s five top shows and ran the table at the Primetime Emmys, winning the prizes in every major category and comprising the entire roster of nominees for Outstanding Comedy Series. Night Court fell short of the ratings top 5—its series high 23.2 rating was good enough for a 7th-place finish that year—but it got one of those Outstanding Comedy Series nods, and John Larroquette took home the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series, the third of a then-record four consecutive wins for his performance as caddish prosecutor Dan Fielding. NBC, as Tartikoff hoped, was doing the sitcom better.

The Cosby Show was one of TV’s most important sitcoms, and Cheers one of its best, but the show that followed them at 9:30 did “better” differently. It was bawdy where Cosby and Family Ties (in the 8:30 slot) were wholesome, and tonally broader than any other show in the lineup. Befitting the time Anderson spent fleecing Boston barflies in the guise of Harry The Hat, Night Court had the most in common with Cheers. Both shows concerned surrogate families of co-workers; both expressed an affinity for outcasts and misfits and the disreputable places such characters might land. Harry T. Stone and Sam Malone serve as amiable ring leaders in each scenario, a little more levelheaded than the people around them but not without their own personal demons. Sam was an ex-baseball player and an alcoholic; Harry’s dad was a circus performer who spent time (and conceived his son) in a mental hospital.

The difference there says a lot about Night Court. As John Larroquette told The Los Angeles Times in 1988:

The show may not be in any way intellectual and we don’t make any pretenses of dealing with issues that are impossible to address or solve in the sitcom format. And some have been critical of our vaudevillian, burlesque kind of approach. But if you just want to forget it all for a minute and laugh at pies in the face and pants around the ankles, that’s what we do very well.

Larroquette wasn’t exaggerating about the show’s content: On Night Court, Harry greets his new colleagues with a bazooka of spring-loaded snakes and Dan’s prowess in the courtroom and bedroom (or lack thereof) required wild gesticulations from Larroquette. He wasn’t exaggerating about the critical response, either. Writing about NBC’s new Thursdays in the Philadelphia Inquirer, David Bianculli singled Night Court out as a weak spot, suggesting that a Harry The Hat spin-off would’ve been a better fit. Years later, a syndicated Tom Shales column recommended that the entire cast be fed to the sharks. In the book Kissing Bill O’Reilly, Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things To Love And Hate About TV, Ken Tucker singles Larroquette out for recrimination, but reads his co-stars their rights as well—and prematurely buries one as well (as of this writing, Richard Moll is still among the living):

Larroquette is certainly not without a small, carefully honed talent. No matter whom he’s playing he does a solid poker-face double-take and enunciates with comic precision […] On Night Court, as a supporting character to a non-actor—the “funny” one-time magician Harry Anderson—the six-foot-four Larroquette was a giant among thespian pygmies, even when placed next to a taller tiny-talent, the late Richard Moll (Bailiff Bull).

Night Court didn’t alter the landscape to the degree that its Thursday-night companions did, but it deserves to be remembered in a more charitable light. It had a wicked sense of the absurd, and came into its own when Weege and his team started loosening reality’s hold over Judge Stone’s courtroom. In season one, Night Court was the type of show that borrowed Michael J. Fox for a week and cast him in the anti-Alex P. Keaton role of a moody teen runaway clashing with a defendant who claims to be Santa Claus. Fast forward three seasons, and Harry’s running herd over rambunctious ventriloquists (and their dummies). For a few years in the mid-to-late ’80s, one of TV’s most popular comedies was also one of its weirdest, best exemplified by its series of “Day In The Life” episodes, each of which feature Harry, Dan, and company working through impossibly heavy case loads (involving increasingly improbable parties) in the span of a single shift.

That jobber approach to the law helped Night Court keep at least one toe on the ground. The cases got ludicrous, the actors leaned hard into their characters’ eccentricities, but the stakes of the work were rarely life-or-death: Arguments in the cafeteria held as much weight as the arguments occurring in the courtroom. This “it’s a living” philosophy went hand in hand with the small army of day players the show employed over its nine-season run. Some slapped on the wino’s wardrobe or sex worker’s spandex only once; others—like William Utay as Dan’s destitute gofer Phil, or Brent Spiner and Annie O’Donnell as the perpetually unlucky Bob and June Wheeler—became recurring presences. Before John Astin took on the role of Harry’s biological father, Buddy, he played a different character who shared a hospital suite with the judge in the second-season episode “Inside Harry Stone.”

The regulars weren’t immune to changes, either. “If you look at the early episodes, my character was this sort of tight-lipped, vested, pipe-smoking, conservative fellow,” Larroquette told The A.V. Club in 2008. “And of course I was putting garden hoses down my pants by the end of the series.” But when Weege and the writers found a trait that worked for their characters and their actors—Dan’s an acerbic womanizer, Harry loves Mel Torme, public defender Christine Sullivan (Markie Post) is a prude—they stuck to it. They had an especially game performer in Larroquette, whose baritone unctuousness and gawky physical outbursts gave Dan an amusing Jekyll/Hyde divide. “There’s a peculiar quality about him that only a few people have—John Cleese is another one—that allows him to play a character with an edge and yet you still like him,” Weege said in 1988. “The audience certainly doesn’t believe Fielding does all the things that he says he does, and that’s what makes it funny.” (The Cleese comparison proved apt the following decade, when Larroquette starred in the short-lived Fawlty Towers remake Payne.)

The people of Night Court were essentially cartoon characters, and by the time the show was experiencing its creative decline, they were prosecuting actual cartoon characters: The final “Day In The Life” installment infamously featured a punchline involving an animated Wile E. Coyote. The show also withstood a revolving door of cast members: When Post joined full-time in season three, Christine followed previous public defenders played by Gail Strickland, Paula Kelly, and Ellen Foley—though she’d actually preceded Foley in the role in a one-off guest appearance in season two. Charles Robinson’s Mac was the show’s second court clerk; Marsha Warfield came into the bailiff’s position following the deaths of Selma Diamond and Florence Halop. It had similar luck with timeslots once it left the Thursday-night nest, and producers were twice denied the chance to give the show a proper send-off—first when NBC unexpectedly ordered a ninth season, and later when Warner Bros. tried to find a different home for Night Court. It shuffled off the air in 1992, in the shadow of a higher-profile farewell: The conclusion of The Cosby Show. “That is our legacy,” executive producer Stuart Kreisman said at the time. “We’ve always been the other show.”

Yet there was a resilience to Night Court that weathered re-casting, deaths, and scheduling shuffles. Reinhold Weege’s departure following season six was a tougher pill to swallow, with a by-then-sturdy ensemble working their way through big swings like a pregnancy for Christine and a change of heart for Dan. Wackiness ultimately subsumed Night Court, but for a while, it and more cultishly adored sitcoms like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Sledge Hammer! made more room for weird in primetime comedy.

That influence could be seen 16 years after it went off the air, when the show was redeemed by another Emmy-winning NBC underdog. 30 Rock returned from its strike-shortened second season with a string of big-name guest stars, all properly positioned for the November sweeps period: Oprah Winfrey one week, Steve Martin a few weeks later. Between those episodes, the show brought a group of chummy fictional New Yorkers back to their old primetime stomping grounds: Harry Anderson, Markie Post, and Charles Robinson. Jennifer Aniston is there as well. In the words of NBC page Kenneth Parcell (Jack McBrayer), “The One With The Cast Of Night Court” finally gives America what it wants:

The setup smacks of mockery, and 30 Rock certainly doesn’t pull its punches where Night Court’s creative valleys are concerned: One of the episode’s best jokes is a cutaway to Jenna Maroney (Jane Krakowski) in the fictional guise of Sparky Monroe, Night Court’s “werewolf lawyer.” But “The One With The Cast Of Night Court” kids because it cares, pulling the Friends/Night Court switcheroo while showing affection for both series. (It even acknowledges Larroquette’s glaring absence from this ad hoc Night Court reunion.)

Night Court, Friends, and 30 Rock are all part of a comedy legacy at NBC, two-and-a-half decades of shows that pulled sitcoms back from the brink and briefly made the Peacock the most powerful name in network television. That commitment to quality produced ratings champions like Friends, and beloved square pegs like 30 Rock. For a few years in the 1980s, Night Court was the square peg that was also a ratings champion.