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

NewsRadio: "Xmas Story" and "Station Sale"

Illustration for article titled NewsRadio: "Xmas Story" and "Station Sale"
Illustration for article titled NewsRadio: "Xmas Story" and "Station Sale"

Seventeen episodes into its lifespan, and Newsradio has really hit its stride. Today's two episodes are top-shelf stuff, and they illustrate what it means for a television show to be great overall, not just a collection of its greatest moments. American series television is a marathon, not a sprint. When a show is hitting on all cylinders, it's like a runner in the zone — the endorphins are flowing, everything seems to work effortlessly, and you feel like it could go on forever. By contrast, the most transcendent moments of a great television show feel like miracles that one could never expect nor hope to repeat.

"Xmas Story" introduces David Anthony Higgins as a Santa collecting donations in the building lobby. (Since when are charity Santas allowed to set up shop inside, by the way? Isn't enduring the crippling cold protected only by foam pillows and a cheap acrylic costume part of their contribution to the cause?) All the employees play along with the Christmas cheer, but when Bill tries his hand ("A Christmas secret? How very jolly!"), the Santa delivers whispered threats. It's Snuffleupagus all over again when nobody believes Bill's tale of the murderous Santa — not Dave and Lisa, who count up Bill's many stalkers (including the one he thought was identical twins stalking him in shifts), and not building security guard Tone L?c, who asks the Santa with faux sternness, "You been harassing the cap'n?" to which the Santa responds with a robotic holiday non sequitur.

Meanwhile it's time for the staff and Jimmy James to exchange gifts, and as usual overachieving Lisa has come up with the perfect thing for her boss: an authentic 1927 Yankees jersey autographed by Mr. James' favorite player, "Jumping" Joe Dugan. And we find out that Mr. James does not have a collector's mentality. "It was a bitch to get this thing out of the frame," he grouses when he returns to the office wearing the jersey. "But nothin' fits better than a dead man's shirt!"

For his part, after he's gotten everyone all wound up about their gift bags, Jimmy James gives them baseball caps with name patches on the front. And not just name patches — name patches that come right off and reveal that the caps are promotional giveaways for other Jimmy James business enterprises like Rockaway Lumber. The staff is bitterly disappointed, although Dave tries to get them to be grateful with "it's the thought that counts" bromides. "It's a great gift!" he protests. "Yeah, for a Little League team," Joe retorts. "With attention deficit disorder!" Bill adds viciously. When Dave proclaims that he will wear his cap proudly, Bill responds: "You've bested us yet again, Dan." And as Dave reaches for his hat to check whether his name is correct, Bill chortles: "Gotcha! This concludes the only enjoyment any of us will ever get from these gifts."

One of the regular joys of Dave Foley's work on Newsradio is his particular spin on the caught-in-the-middle dilemma of the sitcom "center." He must defend his superiors to his staff, and advocate for his staff to his superiors — and Dave's own sense of decency toward both sides comes out as he ping-pongs between the roles. When he explains to Mr. James that staff isn't happy with their hats ("It's a hat — with their name on it!" Mr. James protests, causing Dave to sigh, "I think everyone comprehends the internal logic of the item itself, sir"), Mr. James resolves to make it right by getting gifts for his employees that show as much thought as the one his employees got for him.

And so arrives the linchpin scene of the episode, the one down in the parking garage where Mr. James gives Matthew a box of "Fibber McGee and Molly" cassettes, and then gives everyone else a Mazda Miata. I vividly remember falling on the floor laughing back in 1995 when I first saw that scene. Not only are the Miatas completely over the top, but it's clear that Mr. James got tired of trying to think of thoughtful, personalized gifts after one go, and just threw money at everyone else. He makes a half-hearted stab at matching up the cars' colors to staff members (Beth gets the red one because of her hair), but even that peters out and he just tells everyone to pick the one they like. The staff reaction of extreme jubilation can't help but remind twenty-first century viewers of Oprah ("You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!"), and that possibly makes it even funnier. "We all got cars! Wooo-hoooooo!" Joe shouts from out of frame as Matthew continues to examine his box of cassette tapes — even inviting others to listen with him (Bill: "Screw that, anybody wanna take a ride in my car?!").

For the rest of Act II, the staff worries about Matthew's substandard gift and pathetic carlessness, doing him the favor of pointing it out when he doesn't understand it at first. (He thought the Miatas were rentals.) When Dave intervenes with Jimmy James and Matthew sheds his veneer of sarcastic gratitude (revealing that Jack Benny is the old-time radio show he really likes), the moment is surprisingly raw. Andy Dick always gave the picked-on, hapless Matthew a deep sense of dignity, and showed how wounded he was when that dignity was stripped away from him. I'd buy a Fibber McGee and Molly T-shirt to put in my hall closet to support Matthew — wouldn't you?

And the murderous Santa storyline (remember, from six paragraphs ago?) winds up with the Santa cornering Bill in the men's room, taking off his beard and revealing that he's Sam Belford, a communications major trying to break into broadcasting: "And now that I have your attention, I'd like to present you with my demo tape." Bill confesses that he has to admire the kid's … "chutzpah?" Belford asks. "What? I'm not familiar with that term," Bill replies foggily. But he promises that after the Santa-stalker stunt he won't soon forget the jobseeker's name. "Merry Christmas, Mr. … Bleford," he muses, as he contemplates the tape he's just pulled out of the trash can.

Our second episode this week, "Station Sale," just keeps the hits rollin'. Like "Xmas Story," it pits the staff against Jimmy James with Dave squarely in the middle — a winning Newsradio formula. Jimmy James' list of potential wives is back ("with a great deal of reluctance I have had to scratch off Loretta Swit"), and he announces that Robertson Communications has expressed interest in buying the station. The two halves of that sentence are not unrelated, as Dave finds out when he meets Jane Robertson, a statuesque blonde in a power suit. (Is it just that Stephen Root is that short, or did the producers indulge their own fetish for tall women as guest stars on this show?)

As we did for the Miata reveal in the previous episode, let's pause for a moment to savor the most sparkling scene of comedic brilliance in "Station Sale" — the rumor mill about Robertson Communications. It's a game of telephone, where Joe first reports to Dave that at the last station they bought, they eliminated half the staff and made the rest take pay cuts. Then as each subsequent staff member rotates through Dave's office, the absurdities creep in (Beth: "they made the rest get hair cuts — can they do that, Dave?"), until Catherine is wringing her hands because "they eliminated half-and-half and made the staff eat cold cuts." It's one of the oldest gags in the books, and it works here because of (say it with me, now) staging and timing. Staging: Dave's office door is like the bedroom door in a theatrical farce, with people bursting through it in a state of agitation brought on by misunderstanding. Timing: The whole scene takes a minute or less — not nearly enough time for the rumor to spread, even if there had been a vector — and so plays like a ultra-compressed, almost telegraph version of the typical drawn-out rumor mill. We all know what's happening outside, so there's no need to show it or even give it time to happen. Cutting to the chase while appreciating the evergreen beauty of the gag: that's the Newsradio way.

Bill isn't worried about the potential sale, believing he's flexible enough to fit into any format, be it music, Spanish-language, or (apparently) Arabic. But he does encourage Matthew to stage a protest against Mr. James' actions by handcuffing himself to a chair, and even provides the cuffs. After Dave finds out that the whole sale business is just a courting maneuver, he spills the beans to everyone in the breakroom that the station won't be sold. But Bill has just discovered to his evident horror that Jane Robertson has no idea who he is, and bursts in ready to abandon the sinking ship: "Here's the plan — every man for himself! Anyone who wants to join my splinter group, meet me in the men's room in five minutes!"

For the first time on the show, Jimmy James becomes a figure not just of ludic wealth and folksy wisdom, but of real sympathy. The loneliness that fuels the wife search is evident, and Dave responds to it — helping us respond to it, too. And in the genuinely moving final act, Beth, who in the cold open was accused of making the office snack bar her primary dietary source because of her poverty, scrapes together $49.25 and a piece of gum to offer Mr. James as a desperate last pitch to save the station. There was much discussion in the first few posts on the Newsradio TV Club Classic about Beth's initial centrality to the show, and I agree — it surprised me, too, how much the writers relied on her to hold the show together. They conceived of her as a bridge between newbie Dave and the staff, the same way that now Dave is a bridge between his staff and Jimmy James. And maybe that loss of Dave-as-n00b situation meant that it was inevitable that Beth would relinquish center stage; both episodes this week show that Bill and Matthew have moved closer to the heart of the show. But here, in this tense scene, Vicki Lewis is as brilliant as she ever was and will ever be (and these rewatchings have shown me that she was truly, effortlessly brilliant).

"Station Sale" is all about the spirit of Christmas: the underdogs get to win, for once. (That is the spirit of Christmas, right?) Beth melts the heart of Mr. James (or does she? that sly old fox won't ever let on), and Matthew gets the better of Bill, leaving him ankle-cuffed to his desk as the episode ends. Warms my heart, it does.

Grade: "Xmas Story," A-; "Station Sale," A

Stray observations:

- We get our first two Matthew cold-open pratfalls in these two episodes; in "Xmas Story" it's a fakeout followed by a pratfall when he almost slips on the spilled coins from the Santa's kettle, then goes down hard on the second try. I like the "Station Sale" pratfall as much as any of the ones in the series, because it involves climbing on top of one of those tippy, reclining conference room chairs, which everybody who's ever tried to stand on one to get something out of the top drawer of a filing cabinet knows are disasters waiting to happen.

- The Higgins Boys and Gruber comedy specials are not available on DVD as far as I know, but that hasn't stopped HB&G; quotes from getting frequent workouts at our house (most popular: "If I said 'Chad Everett' …" "'Things in the Universe'?" and "Breasts, a woman's breasts?").

- I Am Matthew: My dad loved old-time radio shows and collected dozens of tapes of them, which eventually got appropriated by my brothers and me. "Fibber McGee and Molly" was among them, and because I heard the famous hallway closet gag so many times (it always ended with a little bell tinkling after the 30 seconds or so of foley carnage, which inevitably made my dad crack up), I feel a special kinship with Matthew here. Also like Matthew, "Fibber McGee" wasn't my favorite, but when I'd listened to all my Bob and Ray tapes, I'd put them on as a palate cleanser.

- Hey, It's 1995!: Cassette tapes were then the medium of choice for the old-time broadcasts, but last Christmas Noel got me every CBS Bob and Ray show ever done in MP3 form on one CD.

- Toby Hus as Guard #2, sucking up to Jimmy James: "Above average hats, sir!"

- We had to rewind the episode to enjoy the wonderful detail of Dave stapling his nametag back onto his hat as Mr. James comes into his office (complete with ka-chunk staple sound).

- Jumping Joe Dugan (1516 career hits, 571 career RBIs) led the American league in at-bats in 1923 with 644, and played on three Yankees world champion teams, starting at third base for perhaps the greatest Yankees squad of all time in 1927.

- Although as per usual the brand names are obscured or reworked on the food and drink seen in the office, the familiar Pringles mustachioed man is everywhere — in the breakroom and on the coffee cart. "A Horse With No Name," Pringles — what other specific bits of culture is this show secretly obsessed with?

- My appreciation for Phil Hartman skyrocketed in the nineties when I saw him on Carson doing his "Man Of A Thousand Voices" bit and realized just how versatile and professional an entertainer he was. His snippets of potential announcer personalities are little tastes of his gift for fluid mimicry.

- Matthew ties a black armband around Bill's bicep to protest the sale, but doesn't have enough for everyone: "I only have two right now. They're actually my socks."

- It's an odd energy for the ensemble as they slump exhausted in the office near midnight, trying to come up with a reason for Mr. James to keep the station, but it's one of the best scenes of its kind in the show's run. Two highlights: (1) Bill coming on all rational: "I'd like to raise a practical question" then breaking down suddenly "why, Jimmy, why?!" (2) Matthew (and the studio audience!) believing that he's outwitted Mr. James by turning the station clock forward so that Mr. James has missed his deadline to accept the offer, only to be told by Mr. James, "I'm dealing with a corporation here, not magical fairies."

- If I could get this cross-stitched on a sampler, I'd frame it and hang it in my office for inspiration: "You can sell the station and make millions of dollars; or you can keep the station, which is worth millions of dollars, plus you make fifty bucks."