R.I.P. Reinhold Weege, creator of Night Court
Reinhold Weege, who introduced a much-needed and slyly influential note of absurdity to 1980s TV with the creation of Night Court, has died of unspecified causes. He was 62. (Weege died on Dec. 1, though sadly, we only became aware of it now.)
A former newspaperman who broke into comedy with a staff job on Barney Miller, Weege's tastes were unquestionably shaped by that show and its well-defined ensemble, the assemblage of strange cases passing through Greenwich Village's 12th Precinct, and particularly the otherworldly characters like Steve Landesberg's Arthur Dietrich. (Among many others, Weege was responsible for the episode "Voice Analyzer," in which the squad becomes suspicious that Arthur is really an alien born, as he says, "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.") Weege wrote for the show through its 1979 season, even working on its brief Abe Vigoda-starring spinoff Fish.
Weege was inspired by his work on Barney Miller to come up with another show set on the quirky side of the law, this time examining the various nutcases on both sides of the bench who parade through a Manhattan courtroom in the wee hours. Night Court premiered in 1984, with the honorable Judge Harry T. Stone (played by magician/comedian Harry Anderson) presiding over an equally nutty group of criminals and lawyers, most notably John Larroquette's four-time Emmy-winning character, the perpetually horny prosecuting attorney Dan Fielding. (In a third season gag, it was revealed that Dan's embarrassing real name was "Reinhold," as an obvious nod to their benevolent creator.) He also presided over arguably the greatest, funkiest sitcom theme song since, again, Barney Miller.
Though it started out as a dry, Barney Miller-like satirical look at the mundanity of petty crime, Night Court began to find its own voice the more out-there it allowed itself to become. In fact, in its heyday, Night Court seemed like a veritable human cartoon compared to its Thursday night "Must See TV" companions The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Family Ties—right down to the time it actually had Wile E. Coyote turn up as a defendant. Still, its skill was in the way it created genuine, heartfelt moments and people you actually cared about amid all the zaniness, demonstrating that it was possible for a sitcom to be incredibly absurdist, yet still be grounded in its characters. (In many ways, you might say that Night Court was sort of a precursor to Community. It does seem that, at least, Dan Harmon is something of a fan.)
Night Court accidentally became notable early on for the way it handled death amid all the hijinks, a necessity brought on after losing its bailiff characters, played by Selma Diamond and Florence Halop, to real-life illnesses. It deftly mined that balance between drama and humor to surprising effect many times thereafter: Storylines like the death of Dan's homeless toady Phil, or Roz and Mac's respective spirals into depression after being diagnosed with diabetes or losing all of their money weren't afraid to get maudlin or even downright unnerving. In fact, nearly every character had moments where the façade of their sitcom wackiness was stripped away by some sort of personal breakdown, like this Harry monologue written by Weege himself:
Weege had a writing credit on some 100 episodes of Night Court before bowing out in its sixth season, having tired of the weekly grind. (The show's quick slide off the rails in its final years can perhaps be attributed to the lack of Weege's guiding hand.) Though he never won an Emmy for his work, he leaves behind a legacy of having created one of TV's weirdest shows, and demonstrating that weird can be hugely popular if done the right way.