It's the penultimate NewsRadio post for this summer -- three big episodes to close out season 3 next week! -- and it's time to explore that most forbidden of dynamics, the Dave-Jimmy relationship. There they are together in "Sleeping," Dave trying to explain what Mr. James means to him, and never getting around to it because he's too busy cracking himself up playing both halves of the conversation and enjoying Mr. James's imaginary pop culture missteps. "And then I'd say, Sir, Siskel and Ebert are two guys, and you would say, Dave, just because the man's fat is no reason to make fun of him."
What does Mr. James mean to Dave? I suggested a few weeks ago that he's the only one in the office who truly looks up to the boss; everybody else throws away the cracker-time crackers as soon as humanly possible, sometimes not even waiting until they're out of the room. But in "Sleeping," after Matthew gives Mr. James a heart attack by hiding in the refrigerator ("Oh, my whole body's tingling here!"), everyone has to confess that they idolize Jimmy in one way or another. Joe sees him as the only man he could ever love (turning his handholding into "and that's how Bobby Ojeda used to throw his knuckleball"), Catherine adores him for sticking it to Bill McNeal on a regular basis, and Lisa ... well, Lisa is horribly intimidated by him, but somehow can't make progress in her relationships with Dave without him. Specifically, in two (count 'em!) hilariously underplayed scenes, she and Dave argue over Mr. James's break room sickbed about marriage and babies, bringing the man out of his coma to object.
But even if the whole staff does rely on Mr. James for guidance and inspiration, it's Dave that actually puts up with the man without either condescending to him or sucking up. You come to believe that Jimmy's hail-fellow-well-met demeanor with the staff is tinged with caginess and pity. Only Dave will tell it to him straight -- and only Dave has something to learn from him. As Dave puts it, "Whenever I'm confused, I go to you, and you usually end up confusing me even more." Dave thinks leadership is about clarity, but Mr. James provides an example of leadership through apparent chaos. It puzzles but intrigues Dave, because he senses it's the only way to actually handle creative, unpredictable people. And Mr. James appreciates Dave for his endless quest to make some sense out of the chaos, a noble effort without which we'd just be watching a zany anything-goes farce instead of a masterpiece of short-form comedy.
Yet Dave is the one lost in the fog when Lisa suddenly decides she wants a baby -- immediately. (Dave: "And I want to get married ... at an unspecified time in the near future!") There is a place for chaos, Dave believes, and that's in matters of the heart. Parse those too neatly into a spreadsheet, and you are crossing the streams; no good can come of it. Maybe what Mr. James teaches Dave is that a permeable membrane between the emotion-driven illogic of relationships and the straitjacketed numbers game of business isn't necessarily a bad thing. In other words, bring some love to your work, and some work to your love. Which is exactly what happens in "Sleeping," especially at the end when Jimmy wakes up and makes some requests: "I need a Wall Street Journal, a big bowl of puddin', and Bill, you got any Foreigner or Cheap Trick over there?"
In "The Real Deal," Mr. James is flying by the seat of his pants again, and those pants told him that having Lisa and Bill team up on an issues-driven talk show was a great idea. It takes Dave to remind him that a Lisa-Bill duo is an amoral Frankenstein powered by naked ambition. To avoid getting cancelled after Bill alienates every policy-wonk guest Lisa books (there's even a cart with a "well, screw you too" jingle, for God's sake), the two have to arrange a big get. Naturally their fellow NBC star Jerry Seinfeld falls into their laps in THE BIGGEST GUEST STAR OF THE SEASON! (Sorry, just flashing back to those 1997 promos that preceded the first airing of this episode.)
What I love about "The Real Deal" is how it reshuffles the character dynamic by showing how close Lisa's drive to succeed puts her to Bill's complete lack of scruples. And Jerry, Jerry, Jerry -- a revelation, actually, playing a very Larry David-esque character with complete conviction, ditching that little half-smile he usually wears while acting that says "I'm a comedian doing something funny!" And the pacing, good Lord -- it's a master class in moving along two completely unrelated stories at a clip that keeps you alert and involved no matter which one we're in at the moment. When the episode first aired, I was underwhelmed by the Seinfeld hype (as usual on NBC in those days, it was completely overdone), and though it was easy to recognize "The Real Deal With Bill Mc-Neal!" as an instant classic moment, I thought the whole thing didn't come together that well. But now I see the half-hour progression between Matthew revealing his virginity to Matthew having sex (and telling everybody about both conditions) and between the threat of cancellation and stalking Howie Mandel on a waiter's tip as beautiful examples of comedy through sheer speed.
Maybe Mr. James has taught me something, too.
Grade: "Sleeping," B+; "The Real Deal," A-
- The comedy practice of having some well-established procedure happen in a completely unorthodox way so it fits better into the conventions of a show -- like the doctors moving Mr. James into the breakroom instead of keeping him in "a damn hospital!" as he insists when he wakes up -- is so much funnier when nobody even tries to explain it, isn't it? You don't need any of the standard "well, it's against every rule of protocol" or "it's so crazy it just might work" dialogue that gets us from here to there. Just show Dave being flummoxed by a breakroom full of doctors and replace all the food on the background shelves with medical supplies.
- That's Drake Sather, comedian and core member of the NR writing staff, as the lawyer presenting Mr. James's video will. I love his little "whup! pretend you never saw that" when the first tape shows Mr. James announcing, "If you're watching this, I've probably been forced to live the country due to a little 'mixup' with the IRS." Sather will be back as Mr. James's lawyer next season in "Jumper."
- "It won't be the first time this voice has saved a life. Remember last year, that guy who stepped in front of the bus -- LOOK OUT!"
- The Matthew pratfall after he pledges to stop pretending to fall down all the time just to make people laugh is one of the best he ever did: spill hot coffee on a doctor, mistake his reaction for another heart attack, and hurdle the desk on the way to the telephone knocking himself and everything else to the floor.
- Dave puts Jimmy's limp arm around his shoulders as he carries on his imaginary conversation about Chuck Connors.
- "If you're hearing this, I've been -- murdered. [organ sting] Seriously, that's the music we got?"
- Bill's musical carts: "The Real Deal With Bill Mc-Neal!", "Hey -- good question!", "Hey -- don't mention it!", "Well, screw you too!" By the way, if you want to know where little musical snippets with radio station call signs and so forth come from, I wrote an "Ask The A.V. Club" answer about it two years ago.
- Beth rushing into Dave's office with her phone receiver on an impossibly long cord: "Can you hang on, Mom, somebody's a virgin. ... Yeah, you wish."
- "Whenever we get close to ... the act ... I have to pretend I can't get my pants off."
- The apex of Bill and Lisa's attempt to interview Jerry Seinfeld in a restaurant: Bill getting called on drinking Jerry's cappuccino, attempting to wipe off the rim of the cup with his fingers, then reaching into the coffee to try to fish something out of it. Close second: "Well, for starters, you can take your hand out of my salad." Tied with the exchange over the bill: "Who had the cappuccino?" "I did --" "Admit nothing!" "Too late!"
- "Let me be the first to congratulate you ... on having sex in the breakroom ... while we all stood out here waiting."
- "Godspeed, fair wizard."