For years, I thought it was the buzzer. The buzzer that Joe installs on the complaint box because Dave tells him not to put a bell on it. The sound of that buzzer, insistently repeating while Dave tries to have his employee-handbook-mandated official meetings with everyone against whom a complaint has been lodged. I thought the buzzer was the stroke of genius that elevated "Complaint Box" into classic farce and pushed an inspired set of ideas, hilarious writing and acting, and perfect pacing beyond merely great and into the pantheon of televised comedy.
I was wrong. It's the oscilloscope.
What I thought, pre-enlightenment, was that the addition of a purely auditory gag (well, not purely -- obviously Dave's reaction to the buzzer is essential to the effect) provided the unexpected punch to the premise and provoked the biggest laughs. What I now understand is that moving pictures are a visual and aural medium, but they're visual first and foremost. And true brilliance comes from uniting those two dimensions in ways that go beyond the standard repertoire of dialogue and foley effects.
Hence the oscilloscope -- the old-fashioned screen on the box that Joe builds so that Mr. James can keep in touch while he's on his fishing trip. Not only does Mr. James's voice come out of the box, you see, but the waveform appears on the screen. Sounds quite elementary. But in the hands of masters -- when combined with crack pacing and the right directorial decisions -- you get a sublime moment like the one that follows Dave extracting a complaint from the box, sighing, and calling out, "Lisa, can I talk to you in my office for a moment?" Cut to the box. The barest beat of a pause. Then the oscilloscope flutters and Mr. James's tinny voice provides an ominous musical sting.
Take out any element of that fifteen-second sequence, and you've lowered the comedic potential down to the merely ordinary. But it's the oscilloscope that gives the director something to cut to, that makes the pause effective by showing it visually as a flat line, then emphasizes the rhythm of the reaction: "Bum bum buhhhh!"
A commenter pointed out a few weeks ago that "Complaint Box" has everything I love about NewsRadio. (I wish I could locate the comment, because the list was spot-on.) I never could have guessed, though, that re-watching it while paying close attention to how the perfect edifice gets built would reveal the secret not in the complaints A-story, but the Jimmy-in-a-box B-story. Not that I haven't always loved Mr. James's box; "Dave Nelson and his robot buddy, fightin' crime!" has long been a staple quotation around our house. Look at that moment above, though, as the two plotlines briefly intersect mid-episode. Although it combines nearly everything that's funny about both stories, it feels serendipitous. That's the part of great comedy that leaves me in awe. When it all comes together but it doesn't appear that anyone brought it together. A minor miracle, and I'm all the more thankful for it that it passes through the pop culture mill without most people noticing.
Could we spend a whole week talking only about "Complaint Box," and even just about particular confluences of moments within "Complaint Box"? I think we could -- or at least, I could. But while I'm depending on the Jimmy James Robot Army to bring up any and all interesting qualities of these two episodes (yes, we have "Led Zeppelin Box Set" this week as well!), I'll try not to shirk my duty to at least mention the larger picture.
"LZBS" is an excellent idea -- Bill and Matthew have a feud, Lisa and Dave trade off trying to restore harmony -- and I love Matthew after he declares "I overthrew Bill McNeil, I am now king of the office ... I can say what I want, do what I want, mate with who I --" The edginess of "new Matthew," who acts like a particularly sexualized petty dictator, lends a lot of excitement to this episode. Bill's fond tales of his dysfunctional upbringing ("My mother said, 'Central's lost a fullback, but the McNeils have gained a daughter' ... in front of the other players, too!") are beautifully written and delivered. Catherine certainly plays the three-card monte plotline to the hilt, too. But it doesn't all come together into a memorable package. Perhaps it's for the best, though; the relatively pedestrian nature of "LZBS" certainly serves to highlight the delights of "Complaint Box."
Something should be said, though, about the C-story of "Complaint Box": Joe's efforts to use the Garrelli 5000 to record Catherine's audiobook of Our Mutual Friend. (Break room as recording studio? That is one low-rent audiobook production.) Even though the humor of this storyline is overshadowed, to a certain extent, by the hilarity in other scenes, I'm impressed by how it contributes to the overall atmosphere. Think of Joe and Catherine creeping around to discover the clicking, interrupted by Bill: "So this is where you freaks go to practice your interpretive dance." Think of the completely unremarked-on background at the plotline's climax, with everything in the breakroom having been duct-taped down (except, of course, the cheap-ass label on the Garrelli 5000 that is making the clicking noise ("The Garrelli 4000 had the exact same defect," muses Joe).
"Complaint Box" doesn't just work. It redefines comedic success.
Grade: "LZBS," B-; "Complaint Box," A
- Did Matthew learn the phrase "That's my policy, and I do enforce it" (spoken in regard to every argument ending in a handshake or hug at his book discussion group) from the three-card monte players? Or is it just a meme in the show's world?
- "They're not shut-ins, they just like to stay inside. ... All the time."
- Pratfall tally: Bill topples Matthew under the guise of fixing his back (then looks utterly shocked in an unusual foreground/background composition when Matthew pops back up with "Hey, it worked!"); Mr. James maneuvers Matthew via remote control into a box full of packing peanuts.
- Matthew claims not to have an older brother, but in just a few episodes, Jon Stewart's going to show up. Huh?
- Wait, maybe the reason that "Complaint Box" is so brilliant is because of the rapid-fire dialectic of presence and absence, connected by the physical and auditory evidence of self when not present. Nah, oscilloscope is easier to spell.
- Another perfect oscilloscope moment: Beth pretending to walk down the hallway with the box, doing bad (yet somehow, to Mr. James, recognizable) impressions of office denizens. When she says, "Hello, Mr. James" in a low, sexy voice, the pause before the oscilloscope registers Mr. James's intrigued "Hi" is explosively funny.
- Bill's hair is disturbing when slicked back like that. I keep thinking he's going to get out his Bible and have me turn to the book of Ezekiel.
- When claiming that he cannot divulge whether the card in his hand says "baby" or "a baby," Dave does a flawless Bob Hartley.
- At the multiplex where the delivery guy takes Mr. James to the movies: Star Trek, Space Jam, Set It Off, and Michael (the one he goes to see, although because of all the funny dancing John Travolta does, he's not sure it's isn't Pulp Fiction).
- "And on top of it all, I had to pay Joe a $20 processing fee."
- "The eyes are the window to the skull, my friend."
- "Believe me, I've seen my dark side, and it is yucky."
- All together now: "I try to be good hard worker man, but refrigemator so messy, so, so messy."