Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

NewsRadio: "Big Brother" and "Beep, Beep"

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It’s time to talk about Matthew. And that means it’s time to talk about Andy Dick. I’ve known this day would come since the beginning of this project, but I haven’t necessarily been looking forward to it. NewsRadio inevitably brings up sad stories --  we can’t stop talking about them in the comments, from Phil Hartman’s fate to the underperforming careers of the cast after the show — and Andy Dick’s has always affected me deeply.

I don’t follow celebrity gossip and scandal stories. I don’t read those magazines in the check-out line, I don’t watch E! or Extra, and I don’t visit TMZ.com. My knowledge of who’s being talked about in those poisonous venues comes indirectly, from The Soup making fun of those TV shows and from my husband kindly keeping me informed about what’s being passed around online. Maybe that’s why I’m so bewildered and depressed by the process through which talented people become late-night punchlines. Or maybe it’s not that I’m missing something — maybe no one understands it.

When I watched the original run of NewsRadio, I was gobsmacked by Dick’s brilliance. My husband and I were fans of The Ben Stiller Show, Dick’s most widely-distributed work to that date. But seeing him as a bit player in that sketch-and-interstitials format didn’t hint at his ability to create a multi-faceted character. Matthew had all the trappings of broad comedy — the pratfalls, the neuroses, the spaz label. As written, he’s arguably the character farthest from reality and most confined to the sitcom universe. Yet Dick consistently underplays, creating sympathy and nuance. The way Matthew’s mind works, in his portrayal, is far from simple; he has layers of crazy — along with the accompanying internal logic —  not present in Bill or Beth or Joe. That makes him less predictable for us jaded sitcom viewers, and creates a dual opportunity for comedy: the other characters often understand Matthew better than we do on the one hand. but consistently underestimate him on the other.

The side of Matthew that brings out his coworkers’ exasperated maternalism is on display in “Big Brother,” where Matthew goes to Big Brother/Big Sister to get a mentee and emerges, through an only-on-television mixup, with a fellow volunteer, each of them thinking they’ve been assigned to give guidance to the other. (“I see now why those two little kids were trying to tag along with me and Danny at the agency … guess we shouldn’t have ditched ‘em,” Matthew muses.) It falls to Lisa and Beth — especially Beth — to straighten out the mess without offending the well-meaning Danny. Despite his age, Matthew clearly needs a strong adult role model, so Beth reassures Danny that he already has one, because she’s his big sister. Cue the faux-parental fighting and ensuing brief fling.

My favorite part of this storyline is shoved right up against my least favorite. When Danny and Beth remind Matthew not to tap on the glass at the Central Park Zoo’s penguin enclosure, Dick goes on a little mumbled monologue: “I know, but I have to get their attention … Boy, if I could really talk to them!  That’d be something, wouldn’t it?” That little detail about why Matthew taps on the glass, causing his keepers to remind him reflexively not to do it, is the shading Dick constantly brings to Matthew. Then he turns around, sees Danny and Beth kissing, yells “But you’re brother and sister!” and runs out. It's a moment that has nothing to do with who Matthew is, really; it’s just the kind of reaction any generic man-child would have to that wacky contrived situation.

Interesting, though, that the funnier storyline in “Big Brother” — Bill trying to prove to Dave that Lisa’s got another man on the hook — kicks off with Matthew as the booby prize for Dave winning back his old job. Lisa turns in Matthew’s latest piece of reportage to be edited, and Dave asks, “Not another story about a courageous cat, is it?” “No, it’s a book review of The Hobbit,” Lisa replies.  “Positive, I assume?” Dave shoots back. “Effusive!” Lisa agrees, “except for a few moral reservations about the negative depiction of Druids.” It’s a little disappointing that in an episode where he’s at the center of the titular storyline, Matthew is reduced in the eyes of his peers to a fantasy geek with a childish love for zoos. Far more entertaining is Bill playing the part of the man-of-the-world, convinced that Lisa’s new yoga hobby means she’s boffing a new stud (“She meets a guy in some sleazepit, he says ‘what are your hobbies,’ she panics, says yoga!” he explains). His escalating attempts to trap her finally lead to an impromptu courtroom-style confrontation (with Mr. James offering deadpan rulings from the bench) where Lisa reveals that she did have a one-night stand … with Dave, whose guess that Jefferson was the sixth president was close enough for her intellectual standards.

Matthew’s more interesting and less caricatured side comes out in “Beep, Beep,” kicked off by Mr. James’ gift of a battery-powered toy roadster for his birthday (possibly as very belated compensation for not giving him a Miata in season 2’s “Xmas Story”).  It’s not surprising to anyone that Matthew drives it everywhere, including into Dave’s office to deliver papers after honking to having the door opened (then carefully backing out to the accompaniment of the reverse beep).  What his colleagues can’t believe is that he piques a girl’s interest after running into her on another floor, then driving off with her shoe.  (“You must think me quite the bounder for speeding off like that,” Matthew says to his hit-and-run victim in a charming use of outdated slang.)  Nobody foresees the toy car turning Matthew from enthusiastic kid to teenager-on-the-make, but there’s the evidence: the car takes over his desk, covered with Turtle Wax.  After a simple but gorgeously-executed audiovisual gag in which Joe sets off the toy’s whooping car alarm, then reaches under the miniature dash to silence it by pulling out a full-sized clump of wires, Dave has to take drastic measures by suggesting to Joe that the car (not Matthew) meet an unfortunate demise.

What works so well in Dick’s approach to Matthew in this context is the way there’s always a tension between Matthew’s energy and everyone else’s.  He provides a visual and rhythmic counterpoint to the other characters considered as a group, with his constant fidgeting, his typically speedier movements, the textures and colors of his wardrobe, and especially his height.  Consider that Dick is probably the second-tallest of the cast after Hartman, and ruminate on the ways he exploits that slight differential by altering his level in pratfalls, crouching in a low chair behind his desk, and here, by sitting in a tiny car two feet below eye level.  Matthew has a completely alien physical presence in the ensemble, but it’s not alien in a zany, outrageous way.  It’s just that he vibrates at another frequency, and that creates a friction Dick masterfully controls.

Yet here we are talking about Matthew in the context of two episodes where his storylines are essentially one-offs, and where the more interesting dynamic is the continuing fight over Dave and Lisa’s relationship.  Perhaps the meta-fight over Dave and Lisa’s relationship — the back-and-forth with the network on whether the two needed to be together, a conversation directly referenced by Mr. James’ ratings, I mean productivity charts — lends their parts of these episodes an edge. Whatever made their Season 4 version of the Bickering Bickersons throw off sparks, it is in high gear in “Beep, Beep,” with Lisa pleading to “get back to my job as office slut” and Bill responding almost mechanistically to his role as provocateur (“Lisa is not my woman,” Dave insists wearily in response to Bill’s cliched characterization; “And how,” Bill adds as a seeming sequitur that is actually non).  It also prompts the unforgettable Exit of the Extras when Mr. James tells his crack team of secret observers that the study is over — they pour out of the office set's crevices and nooks like rats fleeing a sinking ship, outnumbering five to one the people actually working there.

NewsRadio featured brilliant writing, a singular grasp of the comic possibilities of its genre, and a cast of players at the height of their powers. Even within that framework, Andy Dick occupies a unique position as a talent that would never again be used to its capacity, partly because of the nature of that talent, and partly because of the way it went to waste in personal tragedy.  This week he’s the focus of the featured storylines, but at the same time, he and those storylines play out largely in isolation from the show’s deepest potency, its lifeforce, its center.  We have to pause to pay tribute to Matthew, because we realize our future is with Dave and Lisa..  

Stray observations:

  • The Dave/Bill interactions grow more hilarious the more they get reduced to bare comic formulae, like a long-running vaudeville team.  For example, the stuff about Bill’s gift of cigarettes: “No thanks, trying to cut down,” Dave says facetiously, having already explained to Bill that he’s never smoked.  “Good luck to you!” Bill answers automatically.
  • Hey, it’s 1998!Amistad?  Total makeout flick!”
  • There’s a lot going on in “Big Brother,” but it’s nice that the writers made room for a Mission: Impossible-style caper in which Mr. James distracts Lisa while Joe rigs her office drawer to open so that Bill can search for evidence of her love life.
  • Mr. James’ data collecting operation is vast and all-knowing.  “Wow, Dave, look at how much coffee you drink!” Lisa exclaims.  “Well, look at how many times you go to the bathroom,” Dave retorts.  “You two get a sequined thermos and a silver toilet, you could put on quite a magic show!” says Bill, evoking an image I can’t quite bring into focus.
  • How Lisa expresses that she misses Dave: “There are times when I do miss the warmth and intimacy of our former arrangement.”  “As do I,” Dave agrees.  But that’s too much for Lisa:  “Dave, let’s not get emotional.”
  • Jimmy James’ answering machine (heard after Bill calls the mystery number in Lisa’s phone records, and prefaced by Bill’s announcement “Here it comes, Lisa’s boyfriend … guy Lisa’s doing, get ready …”, features the inimitable synthesizer theme to The Rockford Files.
  • Matthew’s grasp of the Judeo-Christian tradition at least includes the proscription of service-organization-related incest: “Maybe you should try reading the Bible sometime,” he grumbles to Beth about her tryst with Danny.
  • Nerf football right off the face of the coffee-drinking extra: Comedy gold.
  • Is it just Futurama’s resurrection influencing my perceptions, or does Phil Hartman really get into a Zapp Brannigan mode in these two episodes?  “Just you, me, a bottle of wine and thou.”  “Or should I say … with whom?!”  “Quod erat … dimstramdiddinum.”  “They belong together like H and 2O.”  “Women, huh?  Can’t live with ‘em.”
  • Lisa and Dave’s dynamic explained: “There is more to life than work.”  “No there isn’t, and I wish you’d stop pretending you’re any different about this than I am.”
  • “This spike doesn’t seem to go as high as that other one.” “Well, you know, I’d been drinking …”
  • “Apparently her dad was a Lodge member, if you get what I mean there.”
  • “I try to … for the sake of others.  Of course, it always helps that I have no idea what you’re talking about.”