When you think of great ’90s sitcoms, the first shows that probably come to mind are Seinfeld, The Simpsons, Friends, Roseanne, Frasier… all of which we love, don’t get us wrong. But there’s one series that tends to get left out of these “best of the ’90s” discussions — and deserves a spot right alongside the all-time greats.
Twenty years ago this week, NewsRadio debuted on NBC as a midseason replacement; following the zany adventures of the employees at WNYX, a New York City news radio station, it was your basic workplace comedy, with an extra dose of weird. But the cast had superb chemistry from the start, and as the seasons wore on, NewsRadio found its own distinctive voice, blossoming into one of TV’s last great three-camera network sitcoms. (We don’t even mind the laugh track.)
Dave Foley — fresh off a stellar run with The Kids in the Hall — starred as news director Dave Nelson, the archetypal normal guy surrounded by crazies: pompous anchor Bill McNeal (SNL great Phil Hartman); chronic overachiever Lisa Miller (Maura Tierney); office spaz Matthew (Andy Dick); spunky secretary Beth (Vicki Lewis); regal anchor Catherine Duke (Khandi Alexander); resourceful electrician Joe (Joe Rogan); and billionaire station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root).
These eight characters formed a drum-tight ensemble that bounced off each other in magnificent fashion, and like its predecessor Cheers, it’s amazing to see how much humor the show could squeeze out of essentially one location: the WNYX newsroom. But NewsRadio eventually got a lot crazier than Cheers ever dreamed; it’s closer in spirit to The Simpsons and Community, with the usual sitcom laughs spiked with surreal flights of whimsy.
The tragic 1998 shooting death of Hartman essentially ended NewsRadio as we knew it; the show continued for a fifth season without him (his SNL castmate Jon Lovitz joined the cast to fill the void), but it just wasn’t the same. Still, in those first four seasons, NewsRadio established a legacy of sitcom greatness that we’re still enjoying to this day. (Or we would be, if it were still available on Netflix — hint, hint.)
To celebrate NewsRadio's 20th anniversary, we've picked out 20 essential episodes that cement its place in the pantheon of great sitcoms. Good times… good times.
1. “Smoking” (aired April 4, 1995)
It didn’t take long for NewsRadio to get great. In just its third episode, we get a fantastic showcase for Hartman and Foley: A new no-smoking policy at the office forces Bill to quit cold turkey, and in a show of solidarity, Dave agrees to give up coffee. Both suffer major withdrawals and get increasingly cranky, angrily snapping at the slightest provocation. Anytime we get to watch Phil Hartman yell at someone for no reason, we’re happy.
2. “Big Day” (aired April 18, 1995)
The entire WNYX office is abuzz about the “big day”: when the staff’s annual bonuses are handed out. It’s not a great day for Dave, though, because Jimmy puts him in charge of deciding who gets the “big bonus” ($3,000, rather than the standard $400) and who gets “the shaft” (diddly-squat). The staff naturally starts sucking up and turning on each other in an effort to avoid the dreaded shaft. But they don’t want to all get equal bonuses, either; as Bill declares, “This idea is both fair and democratic. And I want no part of it.”
3. “Rat Funeral” (aired October 10, 1995)
It’s a sad day at WNYX when the staff has to say goodbye to a deceased friend: a rat named Mike, who they’ve adopted as a pet. Dave doesn’t understand his employee’s affection for Mike (“Does anyone here remember a little thing called the Black Plague?”), but he tries to play along as the rest of the staff pay their final respects and toss Mike down the trash chute. Then they spot more rats around the office, and have to say goodbye to a few more Mikes…
4. “The Cane” (aired December 12, 1995)
The story here is pretty simple: Bill gets a cane, and everyone hates it. Dave, especially, is annoyed by Bill’s ostentatious display, and immediately becomes the prime suspect when the cane mysteriously goes missing. Dave steadfastly denies any involvement as Bill hounds him to confess… until Dave finally breaks down, admitting with a devilish smile: “Bill… I stole your cane.” See? Maybe Bill McNeal isn’t so crazy after all! (OK, he’s still pretty crazy.)
5. “Xmas Story” (aired December 19, 1995)
Matthew learns the true meaning of Christmas — bitter disappointment — when Jimmy gives the rest of the staff sports cars for Christmas while Matthew just gets tapes of the old-time radio comedy Fibber McGee and Molly. Matthew puts on a brave face, though, as you can see. And the B-story is pretty funny, too, with Bill being stalked by a psychotic fan in a Santa suit. Happy holidays!
6. “Led Zeppelin” (aired March 31, 1996)
After weeks of clandestine make-out sessions, Dave and Lisa’s office romance goes bust, with Lisa only communicating with Dave via written memo and Matthew grieving like a child of divorce. Bill tries to console Dave with his own breakup story… but Bill’s ex sounds certifiable: “Why does Linda always turn herself into the police for crimes she didn’t commit? They’re women! Go figure!”
7. “President” (aired September 18, 1996)
Season 3 kicks off with some big plot developments, including Jimmy James’s announcement that he’s running for President: “You know what’s wrong with this country? Nothing!” (Bill’s response is a classic: “Your confusing thesis intrigues me. Tell me more.”) But the biggest development of all is clearly Matthew’s pushbroom mustache; Jimmy says, “You look like you belong at an amateur porn convention.” It eventually ends in a bathroom intervention, and a Bill-Matthew smooch on the (hairy) lips.
8. “Massage Chair” (aired October 2, 1996)
Bill’s megalomania hits new heights when he leads a staff revolt after Dave takes away the free snacks in the breakroom — and then Bill bargains for a swanky new massage chair, which he proceeds to hog all to himself, of course. Plus, Joe’s crush on Catherine leads him to trick out her office desk with a series of unnecessary upgrades: e.g. a video monitor so she can see what’s in her drawers without opening them. That sounds pretty handy, actually.
9. “Arcade” (aired October 23, 1996)
NewsRadio may have peaked with this Season 3 gem: Dave and Bill both freak out when the office’s sandwich vending machine gets replaced by an ’80s arcade game; Dave was addicted to the game as a teen, and Bill is a fan of the moldy, inedible sandwiches. (“They just remind me of the sandwiches my mother used to make for me.”) Meanwhile, Lisa fears she’s getting dumber and heads back to high school to take the SATs again. Everyone regresses, basically, for our viewing pleasure.
10. “Movie Star” (aired November 20, 1996)
NewsRadio's track record with guest stars is a little spotty, but James Caan does a great job here as himself; he's following Bill around to learn about the radio biz for a role, but he finds himself fascinated by Matthew: “That guy's gotta be the strangest son of a bitch I ever saw.” Plus, Dave and Lisa debate the merits of television when he tries to buy her a new TV set. We're firmly on Dave's side here: TV rules!
11. “Led Zeppelin Boxed Set” (aired January 15, 1997)
When Bill’s relentless mocking of Matthew finally crosses the line, Dave and Lisa have to patch things up between them. Dave tries to build up Matthew’s self-esteem and ends up building it up way too much, while Lisa has to listen to Bill’s wistful memories of his horrific childhood — the origin of the immortal phrase, “Good times… good times.” Plus, we get one of Catherine’s best ever plots, as she teaches Jimmy how to not get scammed at three-card monte. (The answer: Don’t play, basically.)
12. “Complaint Box” (aired January 29, 1997)
This mid-Season 3 episode marks the point at which NewsRadio started to ascend into the truly strange: Jimmy goes on vacation, but leaves behind a radio transmitter so he can communicate with his employees, Charlie’s Angels-style. Meanwhile, the WNYX newsroom gets a complaint box, which forces Dave to sift through a flurry of joke complaints, each accompanied by a sharp buzzer sound when it’s dropped in the box. By episode’s end, the buzzer alone gets a laugh.
13. “Airport” (aired February 19, 1997)
Bill’s at his most delightfully intolerant here as he and Dave get snowed in at the St. Louis airport and he unleashes his New York snobbery on the Midwestern rubes and their “politeness.” (No one could deliver a devastating insult with a smile quite like Phil Hartman.) Back at the office, Jimmy puts Lisa in charge in Dave’s absence, and Beth and Matthew have to visit Bill’s apartment: a swinging ’70s bachelor pad decked out in shag, mood lighting, and a rotating bed.
14. “Office Feud” (aired March 19, 1997)
Forget the subplots about the White House Easter egg roll and the noisy neighbors upstairs: This episode is all about the joy of watching Bill McNeal discover his inner gangsta to endorse a malt liquor (“When the party starts bouncing and the ladies start bumping, tighten up your flow with Rocket Fuel!”), infuriating Catherine in the process. To get revenge, she tricks Bill into incorporating ridiculous made-up slang into his pitch. Gazizza, my dillsnoofus!
15. “Space” (aired May 21, 1997)
You know what we said before about “surreal flights of whimsy”? Yeah, that pretty much describes this Season 3 finale, set centuries in the future with WNYX still broadcasting from a space station. Humans are nearly extinct, Matthew has a robot girlfriend, and Joe has to be thawed out of suspended animation to fix the reactor core. The show was teetering on the brink of cancellation at the time, so this episode has the feeling of “If we’re going out anyway, let’s get crazy.” (It did eventually get renewed, though.)
16. “The Public Domain” (aired October 29, 1997)
First, a slight criticism: Lauren Graham joined the cast in Season 4 as Andrea, an efficiency expert brought in to cut the fat, but her giggly Jenna Elfman act never really fit in; she only lasted four episodes. But the rest of the show, in “no f—ks left to give” mode, kept rocketing into odder realms: Bill decides to start playing the piano and singing political parodies (inexplicable, yes, but hilarious); Jimmy hires a crew to film a documentary about him, but he can’t help freezing up on camera; and Matthew grovels for his job back after being fired.
17. “Super Karate Monkey Death Car” (aired November 4, 1997)
A lie detector is always comedy gold, and we get a prime example of that when Andrea hooks the whole staff up to a polygraph and Lisa frets over revealing her secret criminal record. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s autobiography becomes a bestseller in Japan (where it’s titled Macho Business Donkey Wrestler) and he has to do a reading of the ridiculously translated text, which never fails to make us giggle: “I had a small house of brokerage on Wall Street. Many days, no business come to my hut.”
18. “Stupid Holiday Charity Talent Show” (aired December 16, 1997)
The whole WNYX gang competes in a holiday talent show in the hopes of winning Matthew his job back: Dave reveals he’s an expert knife-thrower (with a cameo from Foley’s Kids in the Hall castmate Kevin McDonald as his old rival, Throwdini), and Beth tries to sing “Makin’ Whoopee” without Bill interrupting her. But it’s Matthew’s inept ventriloquist act that wins the big prize. Sure, it’s a pity vote (Matthew: “That’s how I win everything”), but we’ll take it.
19. “Security Door” (aired February 24, 1998)
NewsRadio is at its best when it focuses on recognizable office dilemmas and then sprinkles wackiness on top, like when Dave installs a new security door with keycard access, but the rest of the staff insists on finding ways around it. This leads to an increasingly paranoid Dave conducting a fear-mongering safety seminar, complete with stick figures on fire and wizards riding unicorns. And oh, by the way, Bill gets talked into dressing up like a blue genie in a TV commercial for Czechoslovakian blue jeans.
20. “Sinking Ship” (aired May 13, 1998)
Our final adventure with the original WNYX crew — Hartman passed away just two weeks after this episode aired — is another absurd fantasy, with the WNYX crew now aboard the Titanic. (This was when the nation was still suffering from Titanic fever, you see.) Matthew’s in charge of looking for icebergs, so you know how that goes, and Hartman is in fine form as a haughty, penny-pinching aristocrat. It’s silly, it’s smart, it’s packed with laughs; basically, it’s NewsRadio.
All five seasons of NewsRadio are available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.