Let us now praise Bill McNeal. Yes, of course Phil Hartman plays him with singular genius — we'll get to that. But this week's two episodes provide an unusually clear portrait of a truly multi-faceted character. If he were just a blowhard, well, we've seen plenty of those on television. If he were just an egotist, or a horndog, or a sociopath with a sense of entitlement, ditto. But Bill McNeal is a chameleon. He prides himself on his ability to be whatever the marketplace wants him to be. And so all those other aspects of his personality get filtered through his infinite flexibility. Glop some insecurity on top, watch it ooze out over the whole mess, and you've got yourself a delicious treat.
Bill the Market-Driven Chameleon drives the premise of "Office Feud," aka "Get on the Rocket and see the stars, Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor, DAAAMMMMMNN!" Catherine challenges his live commercial endorsement of a product that (a) he clearly does not personally use, and (b) involves pandering to offensive stereotypes. (One wonders whether the Arbitron people mixed up the reports for WNYX and some urban station; does the Rocket Fuel demo really listen to news talk radio?) When Bill insists that he stands behind the product, Catherine assures him that his street patois is outdated — "strictly VH-1," as she puts it. Not only does she give him fake black slang to belt out during his spots ("Get with the crizappy taste of Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor! It's got that upstate prison flavor that will keep you ugly all night long! Gazizza, my dillsnoofus!"), but she gets him hammered on the stuff. When the (very white) Rocket Fuel exec shows up to pull the plug, Bill can only mutter, "Whaasssuuup … daaammmnnn."
See, it's the insecurity that drives him to adopt any persona that will bring him a buck and keep him on the air. It's the insecurity that makes him a chameleon. But in radio, being the Man of a Thousand Voices is a good thing. It means you're adaptable, a utility man, able to stay on air in any format, under any conditions. So Bill has redefined his insecurity as a strength. And that means he's rarely forced to confront it as a dysfunction. Instead he can ride the ego train all the way to the end of the line. When NewsRadio strips away that triumphalism from his affect — but gently, without malice — it can sprinkle just the right amount of righteous poignancy on top of the Bill McNeal sundae. And what makes that work is not just the way Phil plays it, but the writing that gives him all those notes to hit and a story structure that highlights them.
The Bill McNeal character-trait circus plays out far differently in "Our Fiftieth Episode," a much-maligned but actually quite winning half-hour in which Bill is put in a mental institution after losing his temper over a parking ticket. (NewsRadio returns to the pantomime pioneered in "Christmas" by having this scene play out in a long shot, obscured by traffic noise, and culminating in a double run-through-the-frame in the cold open. Pure genius.) Jon Lovitz plays a fellow patient who shows Bill the ropes and eventually convinces him that the institution is the perfect cure for what really ails him. What could be better for people with stressful jobs (or just stressful lives) where they are called upon to make important decisions all the time? A place where all the decisions are made for you. Lovitz (an air traffic controller) and the rest of the stress-vacation inmates ("we've got a heart surgeon, a guy who designs bridges, a member of a SWAT team") elect Bill Prime Minister, and naturally he doesn't want to leave when Dave and Catherine come for him. "I'll tell you what I'm high on — freedom!" he insists when they question whether he's been medicated.
I don't think this premise should work, but it does — and it does because of what we've established (and what is on display here) about the character Bill McNeal. He is stressed. Insecurity is horribly stressful. Add to that the necessity of making snap decisions all the time about who to be at any given moment — chameleon stress — and you've got a person who would very much appreciate simply being told who he is. In this case, he's Mike, a very sick person with a laundry list of fancy diagnoses. In a moment of honesty, he admits that he's unable to control his life, the one aim that all his shape-shifting had been designed to accomplish. (Not for nothing does he tell Lovitz the bedtime story about Urkel getting the job because after coming clean about his Urkel-bot screw-up, the company was impressed by his honesty.)
But that honesty is padded with a thick layer of egotism. He's special now because he's seen the light. He's free, and that makes him better than his poor slob of a boss who comes to "rescue" him. That very pride is his downfall (or his savior?) when he realizes what has become of his show in his absence. Even though he's acquired a new splint for his broken psyche, he can't let go of the crutch that's been holding him up all these years: being famous and being good at what he does. And back to the stress he goes.
Naturally it takes a fabulous actor to give us all those little nuances. Bill McNeal the character would have been nothing — in fact, probably never would have developed all those little nuances that then the writers began incorporating into scripts — without Phil Hartman the actor. Phil, we all still miss you terribly.
Grade: "Office Feud," A-, "Our Fiftieth Episode," B+
- The "Office Feud" B-story is Lisa trying to get interviews from kids at the White House Easter egg roll, aka "Pantyhose pantyhose pantyhose underpants!" Maura Tierney is so terrific in this little throw-away subplot — just the way she leans over and tries ineffectually to coax the kids is not only adorable but also beautifully character-driven — that one might be tempted to devote a whole post to her and Lisa. Patience, Maura, your day will come.
- Meanwhile, the "Office Feud" C-story is about people getting covered with various substances — Dave (then Jimmy), ceiling plaster; Joe, fire extinguisher foam and honey; Matthew, blue ink from a rigged elevator button … oh, Joe too on that last one. (Nope, the C-story is not noisy environmentalists moving in upstairs. That's just an excuse for the Wile E. Coyote-esque second ceiling-poke gag, the one where Dave carefully positions himself away from his intended poking area and gets covered with plaster dust anyway.)
- The B-story in "Our Fiftieth Episode" is more closely tied to Bill's institutionalization: taking instructions from Beth who's doing "audience research" down at a salon, Jimmy puts Joe on the air with Lisa and tells him to be provocative. ("You can't just make stuff up!" Lisa protests. "It's not me, it's my on-air persona!" Joe explains. "He's crazy!") In a well-timed escalation, Joe insists that Lisa weighs over 200 pounds, then apologizes and asks for her "heavy hand" in marriage.
- Hey, It's REALLY 1997 Up In Here! Kathy Griffin reference ("I don't know how to tell you there, but there's a spunky redhead in every office"; "Tell me about it"), Alanis Morisette reference ("yes, it's ironic, like when it rains on your wedding day").
- Wait, it's apparently still the eighties in that salon where Beth takes the unauthorized vacation. Check out the truly nightmarish styling art hanging on the wall behind her. Come to think of it, most salons are permanently stuck in the eighties, aren't they?
- Wardrobe notes, Catherine Duke edition: Cheers (and wolf whistles) for that floor-length, high-split black number with white trim in "Office Feud"! Jeers for the black-on-white animal-print pantsuit in "Our Fiftieth Episode"; would have worked as just a jacket, but not all over, honey.
- The apex of cracker-time humor: Jimmy keeps giving Lisa crackers, she keeps flinging them away when he's not looking, and then Matthew shows up with crackers stuck to his glasses — peeling them off and eating them.
- Can I have one of those WNYX t-shirts that Dave uses to wipe his face after his ill-advised poke at the ceiling? I don't care if it has ceiling dust on it. I really don't.
- That's the marvelous Taylor Nichols as Glenn, the Rocket Fuel ad exec. He's the star of one of my favorite movies of all time, Barcelona, and more than anyone else he perfectly encapsulates the Whit Stillman approach to moviemaking. I think the last time I saw him on television, it was on The Practice, or possibly Grey's Anatomy. It always makes me so happy to see that he's working.
- I'm a Jon Lovitz fan, I'll admit it. His characters on SNL usually had a little extra twist beyond the catchphrase that made them interesting, and he always attacked them with such strange gusto. So I'm not surprised by how much I enjoyed his performance in "Our Fiftieth Episode." Naturally, there's the immortal "Cigarette, prepare to be smoked!" (which makes me want to take up smoking just so I can say it). But there's also the odd little hand wave and somewhat desultory intensity accompanying lines like "Who among us has never wanted to make out … with a light switch?"
- "Ladies and gentlemen, she is holding a cup of coffee and pretending it is a government report."
- "When Rocket Fuel is an appropriate drink, I gladly serve it."
- "Prime Minister Mike, it's snack time!" "What are they serving?" "SNACKS!"
- "Joe, can you explain why you like sports?"