"Bill ... I stole your cane."
For many of us, clearly, it's the epitome of Newsradio-style comedy. We've been cackling about it in the comments since the very first episode. Here's the set-up: Dave has insisted for the entire second act that he is not responsible for the mysterious disappearance of Bill's latest annoying prop: "For the last time, Bill, I did not take your cane!" And then as Bill is leaving Dave's office after an unsuccessful search, Dave gets up out of his chair and crosses in front of the window.
Bill pounces: "You moved in front of the window -- as if you were protecting something!" He spins a theory: "You probably taped it to the side of the building ... no ... under the windowsill!" He heads for the window, heedless of Dave's protests that the attempt will just make him look ridiculous.
Then it happens. "Bill?" says Dave, stopping Bill short in the act of opening the window. Dave's bluster disappears, and in a three-second pause, he switches to a shame-faced yet delighted grin. "I stole your cane," he confesses, a reversal of all his previous attestations with no more explanation than that grin. It was fun to make you crazy, that grin says. I'm a goofball at heart. What can I say -- I couldn't resist. You got me.
I've been trying to make the case that Newsradio's genius results from a fragile blend of ensemble energy, careful attention to blocking and timing, characters and plots conceived more for their comic reactivity than for their believability, and a love of the traditional sitcom that never wandered too far into slavish obedience or misplaced reverence for the past. "The Cane" isn't a perfect episode, as I'll argue below, but this, its signature moment, encapsulates nearly all of that teetering, risky balance. And like the greatest achievements of comedy, it looks effortless -- almost thrown away.
Point the first: The build-up. Even though this is a Dave-Bill moment, with none of the other ensemble members present, the energy that it releases is entirely built through Bill's interaction with all the other characters in the first act. As he swaggers through the office flourishing his cane, using it to punctuate every sentence and practically breaking into Rex Harrison-style talk-singing everytime he has an opportunity to count something, he relishes the way the cane sets him apart from the peons. At the first staff retreat attempt, it's clear that Bill feels he doesn't need ideas to improve the station -- he's got a cane! And that means he can just use it to horn in on Dave and Beth's little presentation ("one, two, three cards!"). But when Dave and Bill finally have it out in Dave's office, the energy has changed. The cane has been absent from the mix for the whole second act, and Bill no longer has anything with which to captivate the staff, whom he had intended to appropriate as the audience for his own personal vaudeville act. The potential energy stored up through ensemble work provides the propulsion for the moment, even though it plays out one-on-one.
Point the second: The release. Take Dave Foley's reading of that line, with accompanying irrepressible grin. There's no way to indicate his absolutely perfect timing in written form. Just a split-second more, and it would have been artificial suspense -- like the long wait for the correct answer on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and its languid, overblown ilk. But any less, and it would have passed too quickly. As it is, we are just on the edge of wondering if it's too long, when the line pays off and the laughter explodes. And then the scene continues with two more stunning examples of staging, coming so rapid-fire after the big line that they feel like they were done on a dare -- "You like that? How about this? And this!" Dave breaks the cane, the Holy Grail of the episode, over his knee. It's a little shocker that is made all the more effective by Dave's air of resignation. We had our fun, but I can't let this go on, his attitude says. And then -- as if that wasn't enough -- the episode actually does end with a bit of music-hall razzle-dazzle that echoes the Newsradio signature move (people dashing quickly into and out of the frame) as modified for "Goofy Ball" (something being thrown through Dave's open door by an unseen character). The succession of canes tossed into the office, Bill's nonchalant catches and list of uses ("this one you can take to the Hamptons ... this one displeases me"), and Dave's realization that he's been topped yet again -- all of it as the episode is rushing headlong toward the credits. We're putting together the pieces that are going to build an episode like "Complaint Box", with the buzzer intruding on the integrity of Dave's office and the litany of reading the cards.
Before I go backward (in more ways than one) to this week's first episode, I need to explain why "The Cane" isn't a perfect ten. Even though both the main plotlines (Bill's cane and the competition between Dave and Lisa at the staff retreats) produce terrific comedy and provide illuminating examples of that blend I outlined above, there's something about the way it's put together that's less than solid. Many scenes end abruptly, fading out on a reaction shot, as if the writer and director couldn't finagle a way to get out naturally -- or comically. For that reason, the steady accumulation of detail and repetition that drives an episode like "Complaint Box" or "Security Door" doesn't quite happen here. (The cane story itself contains possibly its own fatal flaw -- the cane has to go missing for the second act, meaning that we don't get an over-the-top collection of cane moments from Bill. Bill looking for his cane and suspecting Dave of stealing his cane has its own momentum, but it's not as organically connected to Bill's prior joyful use of the cane as, say, Bill's nicotine withdrawal in "Smoking" is connected to his many prior bits of cigarette business.)
Our other episode this week is "The Negotiation," which is perhaps best understood as a trial run for "Station Sale." Jimmy James begins his epic search for a wife, starting off with 36 hot prospects (35 after he strikes Catherine off his list for calling the whole process "humiliating and degrading"). Matthew receives the title of coordinating producer, and immediately begins trying to improve the station (to Lisa: "You do good work, but ol' David and I would like to see it coordinated a little bit better"). Lisa is feeling anxious about measuring up to her brothers in the annual family holiday letter, so she decides to explore her options at MTV News.
We're starting to get into the groove where even when the episode doesn't gel to achieve transcendence, there's more than enough memorable humor on display to keep us entertained. Jimmy James gets the lion's share of comedy in "The Negotiation," as he tries to woo (Joe: "Woooooo!") and win a visiting accountant in a few hour's time. Matthew comes in a close second with his big board and color-coded cards (Bill: "Big board looks great, Colonel!"). And Dave and Lisa fall into their classic, comfortable whose-neuroses-are-on-first routine. But it's almost too much; with the exception of Matthew thinking that it's his fault Lisa is looking for other jobs, the three storylines aren't very well connected, and there's too much of a sense that all the cards in the air are going to fall right back into place by the end of the episode -- nothing much is at stake. Perhaps we can consider "The Negotiation" redeemed by its heavy "Hey, It's 1995!" factor -- that MTV News set (with Lisa in classic "I'm not one of those stuffy news anchors" hunched-over armchair stance), Anthrax, Kennedy, Lisa Loeb ... the time-capsule contingent will eat that stuff up.
Grade: "The Negotiation," B; "The Cane," A-
- Sure, we all remember Super Karate Monkey Death Car. But did you remember that it makes its first appearance in this episode, as Lisa's stab at remembering the title of the video game one of her brothers just sold to Microsoft?
- Bonus Hey, It's 1995! Alert: Microsoft was the dream market for video game programmers.
- This week's top-flight Andy Dick performances made me a little sad because Our Andy has been in the news so much this week. (Cruel swipe Jon Stewart took at him last night, no?) But I can't ignore that sweater he's wearing in "The Negotiation," which appears to have been fashioned out of a stadium blanket. And his lunch: two cans of beans.
- Wardrobe Watch: Maura's trim little black vest with the white short-sleeve top underneath? Man, I wish I could pull off that look.
- I thought we were going to lose the Joe earring, guys. He's still got the earring. It is freaking me out.
- Like Beth, I too would like a T-shirt with just Beavis on it.
- Carol, Jimmy James' secretary, is played by Jane Lynch whom I'm sure you all recognize from many Christopher Guest movies, The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, and a slate of TV appearances and recurring roles as long as my arm.
- You'd think that Jimmy James would want Paul Simon to endorse snow tires because of "Slip Slidin' Away," wouldn't you? Nope -- it's because of "A Hazy Shade Of Whitewalls."
- There's already been much discussion in the comments about the "Henry Ford and John Chrysler" line, their mutual amusement at which reunites Joe and Matthew after their little B-story spat in "The Cane." But what's brilliant about the gag is that Dave reverses the meaning of the example from the way Mr. James told it to him. Mr. James thinks that Ford and Chrysler wouldn't have gotten anything done if they were sleeping together -- conflict breeds energy and creativity. Dave tells Joe and Matthew that Ford and Chrysler wouldn't have gotten anything done if they were constantly bickering -- cooperation breeds efficiency. Nice try, Dave. (Or was he trying to unite them in derision of his automotive knowledge? Smooth, Dave!)
- From now on, my description of a beautiful day will be: "perfect cane weather!"
- Important Stuff I Leave It To You, The Commenters, To Discuss And Dissect: The whole Lisa-and-Dave-at-the-staff-retreat dynamic; whether subway updates "feel like" WNYX.
- "Bagel, Dave?"