In July we learned about Sirota’s Court which Night Court seemed to be a clone of. Debuting on NBC in January of 1984, Night Court ran for nine seasons until May of 1992. The series was supposed to begin in fall of 1983, but the executives at NBC were concerned about Harry Anderson’s lack of experience as an actor. They delayed the show; every show that debuted in fall of 1983 was cancelled, so Night Court was put on the schedule mid-season.
Thursday nights on NBC were part of “Must See Thursday.” The schedule featured The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Cheers followed by Night Court.
An unconventional judge, Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) presided over a Manhattan night court overseeing petty crime and dealing with a lot of wacky clients, odd coworkers, and bizarre situations. The role of Judge Stone was originally offered to Robert Klein, but he could not come to an agreement on the salary with NBC.
The main characters include Judge Stone, a public defender, a prosecutor, a couple bailiffs, and a clerk of court.
Harry Stone is a humorous judge (and magician). Although he was young, he was appointed because when the outgoing mayor called prospective judges, Harry was the only one who answered the phone. Stone likes old movies, Jean Harlow and adores Mel Tormè. The show’s creator Reinhold Weege discusses Stone’s admiration for Tormè on the DVD commentary. He said Tormè said he began to notice a younger audience at his concerts which he attributed to the Night Court references and happily appeared on an episode of the show.
The public defender role went through several changes during the course of the show. Gail Strickland was Sheila Gardner in the pilot. Paula Kelly was Liz Williams during the first season. Ellen Foley was brought on board for season 2 as a possible romantic interest for Judge Stone. Markie Post showed up for season 3 as Christine Sullivan and stuck around for the next seven seasons. Post was the first choice for the role in 1984 but was committed to The Fall Guy. When that show was cancelled, she was hired. Christine was a bit naïve and committed to helping others. She was a fan of the royal family and collected Princess Diana memorabilia as well as porcelain thimbles.
The prosecutor was Dan Fielding (John Larroquette). He was a sex-obsessed, somewhat witty, egotistical and greedy man. However, at times he could display compassion for others but not for long. He was always trying to get Christine to go out with him, but there was always a romantic tension between her and Stone.
Nostradamus “Bull” Shannon (Richard Moll) was on the show for its entire run. He came off as a bit dim-witted but was patient, kind, and devoted to Judge Stone.
For the first two seasons, he worked with Selma Hacker (Selma Diamond), a chain-smoking older bailiff who had been married six times. Diamond was diagnosed with cancer after season 2 and passed away shortly after. Florence Kleiner (Florence Halop) came on for season 3. Older like Selma, they had similar personalities. “Flo” loved motorcycles and heavy metal music. Halop also was diagnosed with and died from cancer after season 3. Rosalind Russell (Marsha Warfield) began in season four and stayed for the duration of the show. She was a practical, no-nonsense woman.
Clerk Lana Wagner (Karen Austin), was asked to leave the show after only ten episodes. I could not substantiate it, but she claims it was her diagnosis of Bell’s palsy that ended in her being asked to resign. Macintosh “Mac” Robinson (Charles Robinson) would take over in season two for the rest of the series. A Vietnam veteran, he was easy going and funny and always wore a cardigan, plaid shirt and knit tie.
Weege also mentioned in a DVD commentary that he named a lot of the pimps and hookers on the show after friends of his.
Although there were a lot of great crooks on the show, one of the most interesting episodes featured Seinfeld’s Kramer, Michael Richards. He appeared as a burglar who thought he was invisible and showed up naked in court. He was one of the funniest criminals on the show.
Like many of the 1980s shows, Night Court had a jazz instrumental theme song. This one was written by Jack Elliott and featured Ernie Watts on saxophone.
Critics loved the show. It was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series in the Emmy awards in 1985, 1987, and 1989. In 1985, the show was up against Kate and Allie and the rest of the shows that was part of the Must-See Thursday with The Cosby Show winning. In 1987 it was up against the same slate except Kate and Allie was replaced with The Golden Girls which won. In 1989 it lost to The Wonder Years. Larroquette, who was the most popular character in the show, won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor four years in a row and then asked that his name be taken out of consideration. Overall, the show was nominated for 31 Emmys and won 7 of those. In an aside, Larroquette was offered his own spin-off show, but he turned down the offer.
Anderson received credit for writing five of the episodes and Anderson, as well as Larroquette and Robinson directed several episodes of the series.
After season seven, the show began losing its audience. The cast members were getting tired of their characters, and the writers had a hard time coming up with new plots. Season eight was supposed to be the last one. Among other character wrap-ups, Harry and Christine would get married and Dan would become a priest. However, at the last minute, NBC renewed the show for another season, so the marriage did not take place and Dan ended up with Christine in the finale. The cast was offered more money to return for a tenth season, but they declined.
In doing a bit of research, I learned that New York’s real night court operates from 5 pm to 1 am. Because of the crazy goings on that happen there, it has become a tourist attraction. It’s the only place where courts operate during these hours. One reporter wrote that “At 12:30 am on a freezing Wednesday morning, it’s not just New York City’s famously 24/7 bar and club scene that’s a hive of activity. Deep in the heart of Manhattan, a man in handcuffs is standing in front of a judge, listening to a string of firearm and assault charges as a crowd of lawyers hum around him and solemn family members watch from the benches. This is night court, an operation that has become a strange kind of tourist attraction for visitors in New York looking for something a little out of the ordinary.”
This show was based on characters rather than plots, and the wrong actors would have made the show a disaster. This cast was able to pull it off. They were quirky but still allowed the audience to get to know them and like them. The fact that the show was set in the same setting for most of the nine seasons and did not seem to be repeating plots over and over again is pretty impressive. I don’t think they should have done a season 9 but hindsight is always 20/20 as they say. The show holds up well after almost four decades. It’s worth watching just to see how the main characters interact and grow during the run of the show.