Newsreaders

Newsreaders debuts tonight on Adult Swim at 12 a.m. Eastern.

When Newsreaders debuted smack-dab at the end of the middle of Childrens Hospital’s second season, it took the medical soap parody to a new level. Suddenly, the show was actually the show within the show, and there was a backstage with its own politics. There were spinoffs and international remakes, and there was a decades-long history of the original, all with carefully tuned production values. Newsreaders the program had the usual silliness, but the way it added a new dimension to Childrens Hospital was the best part. So how does Newsreaders stand on its own?

First of all, it is exactly the same show. Innocuous golfing clips quietly give way to innocuous noon-prayer B-roll as Louis Lafonda introduces the program: “Tonight on Newsreaders, we take you inside the world-famous Sneed-Normandy Youth Golf Academy: breeding ground for world-class professional golfers or training camp for al Qaeda sleeper cells?” Yes, Mather Zickel’s grave host still anchors the newsmagazine. The brassy intro still plays over the title credits, which are mostly images of Lafonda’s bountiful interview with Kate Walsh. The style is pitch-perfect newsmagazine, from the black stage and screen background to the deserted prison halls Lafonda walks through while reading some very serious copy about an inmate.

It’s not a parody, exactly. The name “Sneed-Normandy” reeks of The Day Today, Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris’ ‘90s news satire, but that show took newsperson bluster to absurdist ends, lampooning the gravitas of the newsroom with an anything-can-happen electricity. Newsreaders, on the other hand, is purely a structure for comedy. The first episode looks into a porn-related hike in van sales, and another investigates an alleged murderer of 17 lawyers whom nobody will represent. The point is simply to tell funny stories in the format of a news piece. Not even the tropes of the newsmagazine are skewered with force. Instead, they’re warped into delightful non sequiturs, like Lafonda’s closer: “If you’d like a transcript of tonight’s episode, use both your DVR and a computer, and you can probably knock it out in a couple of hours.” Lafonda’s host is a bit needy, a bit obnoxious, a bit dumb, but he’s not a collage or an exaggerated version of 60 Minutes hosts. Not having any specific points of contention with newsmagazines, Newsreaders has a certain sketch freedom. The show is humming with creative energy right now, but you can see how the lack of focus could tank it.

Then again, Ray Wise’s Skip Reming concludes both episodes I’ve seen with an Andy Rooney rant about kids today. His first is a masterpiece of slobbery rage, railing against kids with rubber soles that light up and ninja video games. But his second is already wearing a bit thin. It’s partly the writing and performance, which requires a more dazed, out-of-it grandpa to make all the necessary turns. But it’s partly the repetition of the same basic Gran-Torino-isms. 

The biggest problem has to do with proportion. When Childrens Hospital has a Newsreaders episode, there are tons of characters and agendas and clips. But on its own, Newsreaders functions more like a Daily Show segment (an impression bolstered by the facts that the first episode is written and directed by Daily Show producer Jim Margolis, who also executive produces Newsreaders, and the second is written by Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac). Lafonda has the main story: He goes off and interviews the relevant subjects, forms and warps his relationships to them, then returns with some kind of resolution. Then there are a couple minutes for Reming before Lafonda says good night. Lafonda’s a funny character, but is he that magnetic? The logo and trailer suggest a full six-person ensemble working at the newsmagazine, so perhaps the season has some structural changes in store. For now, the writing stretches to include some moments that wouldn’t plausibly make it through editing, and Lafonda takes the fall.

But those are fixable problems papered over by the wall-to-wall funny. “What if everyone who says they’re gay is lying? All that and more tonight on Newsreaders.” The show’s commitment to joking about the Kate Walsh interview—cut to clips of Lafonda and Walsh laughing for too long—is comforting. And wait till you find out who the Zodiac killer is. I hesitate to quote any more jokes, but Newsreaders is full of good ones—riffs on formula, weird character bits, pure absurdity—and guest stars like Brian Posehn and Missi Pyle have perfect dismounts. With that Daily Show cred, Newsreaders naturally nails the form, fitting right in on Adult Swim’s shadow network. The season will fine-tune or not, but Newsreaders has a hilarious start.

Stray observation:

  • I loved the Conan clip that doesn’t even pretend not to be contrived purely for Newsreaders purposes.
  • From an upcoming interview: “Mark my words: Human sperm is the new bacon.”
  • Grade update: Meant to put a B+. Great bones; can't wait to watch it grow.

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