Let the Record Show That Night Court Was a Hit

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.

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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.

No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5882810g) Harry Anderson Night Court – 1984-1992 NBC-TV TV Portrait

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Wonder Years Was Wonderful

It’s been a lot of fun this month to visit a variety of eras in my blog series: “Timeless Comedies: Living in the Past.” Last week we learned more about the fifties on Happy Days. Today we travel a few short years and end up in 1968 where we get to know Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) on The Wonder Years.

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Debuting in 1988 following the Superbowl Game that winter, The Wonder Years is narrated by an older Kevin; it described the life of a 12-year-old boy which is what viewers see. The show would last till 1993, and we were able to follow Kevin in his journey from a preteen to a man. The series produced 115 episodes during its time on the air.

Husband and wife Neal Marlens and Carol Black created the coming-of-age show. Kevin experienced all the typical angst and joy of an American kid growing up in the turbulent sixties. From heart-warming to heart-breaking, we journeyed with Kevin through the ups and downs of growing up.

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Kevin lives with his father Jack (Dan Lauria), his mom Norma (Ally Mills), his older sister Karen (Olivia d’Abo), and his annoying older brother Wayne (Jason Hervey). We also get to know Kevin’s best friend Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) and his girlfriend Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar). Although Kevin narrates the show, it’s narrated from an adult perspective and voiced by Daniel Stern. The narrator for the pilot was Ayre Gross. Later Stern re-recorded the episode so it matched the future shows on DVD.

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Both the critics and viewers loved this show. After only six episodes aired, the show won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

The theme song was Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends.”

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When Black and Marlens began casting, all five casting directors they spoke with recommended Fred Savage for the role of Kevin. He had recently been in The Princess Bride. Finding an actress for Winnie became a bit harder. After narrowing down the choices, the creative couple were looking at two sisters, Danica and Crystal McKellar.  It was practically a toss-up, but in the end, they chose Danica.  However, they liked Crystal so much, they wrote her into the show as Becky Slater as an alternate girlfriend for Kevin in the later episodes.

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In the pilot episode, Winnie’s older brother is killed in Vietnam. When Kevin consoles her, they end up having their first kiss. It truly was both the actors’ first kiss, so there is a tension there that made it touching. There is always an interest between the two but Winnie starts dating an eighth grader Kirk McCray, and Kevin eventually goes steady with Becky. When he realized he couldn’t shake his feelings for Winnie, he breaks up with Becky. Winnie goes through a similar process. The two share a second kiss at the beginning of their summer vacation the next year but continue to be just friends for a while.

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Winnie and Kevin eventually become a couple. Not long after, Winnie moves. While her house is only a few miles away, she must change schools. The two continue their relationship for a while until Winnie becomes interested in another boy at her new school.

The three schools that Kevin and Winnie attend are RFK Junior High, Lincoln Junior High, and McKinley Senior High. All three were named for famous political men who were assassinated. Another fun fact about the schools is that whenever the kids were in the cafeteria, they have green Jell-O.

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Winnie and Kevin would get back together again after she is injured in a car crash. They both attend the same high school and date much of that time.

It was tough for both the producers and the cast when you have minors on the set because you have to follow child labor laws. Savage explained his frustration at times. “You have to get at least three hours of school in every day. So, whenever I’m on a break, I go to school. It’s really intense because I have to get a lot done in short periods. And it’s hard because if they need you back on the set, they pull you away every twenty minutes. If you’re writing an essay and suddenly get inspired, you’ve got to stop and go back to work.”

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Black and Marlens left the show after season one.  I never found a reason listed, but some sources claimed it was because they were having a baby and wanted to escape the Hollywood environment and bring up their children somewhere else.

The show was cancelled in 1993. It was getting harder to keep the plot innocent and fitting for the primetime slot people were used to with a seventeen-year-old. Escalating costs and declining ratings also took their toll. When the final episode of the series aired, the cast still was not sure if this was the final show or if it would be coming back for a seventh season, so the finale was not as smooth or wrapped up as the team wanted.

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I’m sure one of the questions people ask Fred and Danica was were they also in love. The fact and fictional parts of the show blurred a bit. Both Fred and Danica mentioned in a People interview that they had a crush on each other at one time or another. Fred said, “I was in love with her for the same reasons every other boy fell in love with her.”  He also said, “You won’t meet a sweeter, nicer girl—and she’s gorgeous.” Danica also talked about her crush. “In the beginning we had a mutual crush. Then things went into the teasing stuff and then into a more comfortable, brother-sister thing.”

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Another blurring was some of the script language. I remember Sherwood Schwartz’s daughter complaining that something happened in her life and then it ended up on The Brady Bunch. In a similar manner, some of the writers incorporated things Fred and Danica said to each other off camera into the scripts.

Jason Hervey improvised some of the scenes he had with Kevin. Jason remembered some of the things his older brother did to him and in turn tormented Kevin with them. There are a few scenes when Wayne has to drop Kevin off or pick him up, and he would keep inching the car forward as his little brother tried to get in or out. That happened to him in real life.

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Finally, the show mirrored life in that on the show Paul Pfeiffer attended Harvard to become a lawyer. In real life, Josh Saviano also became a lawyer, after attending Yale.

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The show has held up surprisingly well in reruns. It’s similar to M*A*S*H. You know the show is set in Korea in 1950, but the themes it demonstrates are timeless and the relationships could occur in other times and places.

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The Wonder Years works for the same reasons. Neither Kevin nor Winnie are the most popular kids in the school, but they are two of the nicest. If you ever looked back in an old yearbook from junior year or high school, you’ll see kids that you kick yourself for not dating. At the time, they just weren’t the popular kids everyone was interested in, but you realize they were the kids you should have ended up with. Although this show is set with the backdrop of the sixties when times were unpredictable, the primary subject of the show is the relationships Kevin has with this friends and family. The reality and sentimentality of those relationships is the same whether you watch a show from the 1940s, the 1960s, or the 1990s.

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Do yourself a favor if you never watched the show or haven’t seen it in a couple decades and treat yourself to a week-end of binge watching. It only gets better with age.

thirtysomething: love it or hate it?

Continuing our Rewind 1980s, today we delve into the show that was thirtysomething. If you want to start a heated debate, just ask a group of people what they thought about the show. Everyone has a definite opinion, and the answers vary greatly. This is Us and A Million Little Things remind me a lot of thirtysomething. They are shows I look forward to every week. Not surprisingly, Ken Olin who played Michael on thirtysomething is the executive producer of This is Us; he also has directed many of the episodes, and Timothy Busfield who played Elliot Weston on the show has also been a director on This is Us.

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Gary, Melissa, Ellyn, Michael with Janie, Hope,
Nancy with Ethan, Elliot with Brittany

I loved the show when it was first on the air. The first couple episodes I watched on DVD had a few moments that seemed a bit too introspective and overthought, but as the series progressed, I remembered why I loved the show so much. Choosing between a show where characters might overthink occasionally versus some of the mindless shows currently on television, I’ll take the first option every time.

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A typical thirtysomething scene

Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who both worked on Family, created this show for United Artists Television. It was on ABC for four seasons from 1987-1991. A group of baby boomers, made up of single friends and married couples living in Philadelphia, experience life after college. Originally the show was called “Thirty Something,” but it was changed to thirtysomething before it aired. The word “thirtysomething” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary after this series became so popular.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the memorable music from the show. W.G. Snuffy Walden and Stewart Levin were the composers for the theme song and much of the music that was heard in the background. A CD was released in 1991, titled “The Soundtrack From thirtysomething”. I have that CD and still listen to it from time to time. Walden would go on to compose music for many series including The Wonder Years, The West Wing, and Nashville.

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The series was extremely popular with young adults. It won 13 Emmy Awards and was nominated for 41. It also won two Golden Globes.

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The Steadmans

Although this was an ensemble cast similar to Friends, the main characters were Hope (Mel Harris) and Michael (Olin) Steadman. Michael runs an advertising company with Elliot (Busfield).

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The Westons

He and his wife Nancy (Patricia Wettig) are good friends of Hope and Michael. (In real life Wettig and Olin are married.) Michael’s best friend is professor, Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton), and Hope’s best friend is Ellyn Warren, (Polly Draper) who works for the city. Michael’s cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron) is also part of the inner circle.

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Ellyn and Gary pretend to be dating as a prank on Hope and Michael

She dated Gary in the past and there is always a “will they or won’t they get back together” vibe between them.

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Michael and cousin and friend Melissa

Michael and Hope have a baby when the show begins, and the Westons have two young children, Ethan and Brittany. The children are all central characters in the show.

Intelligent scripts and realistic plots make the show a classic. As the show evolves, Michael and Elliot have to give up their company and go to work for someone else, Gary and his girlfriend Susannah (Patricia Kalember) get pregnant which leads to their marriage, Ellyn and Melissa have various serious relationships before they find their soulmates, Nancy pursues her dream of being a children’s author and illustrator, the Westons separate, and Hope is constantly weighing the advantages of being a stay-at-home mom versus returning to her writing career. Melissa’s career as a photographer skyrockets including work for Vanity Fair and a Carly Simon album cover. In addition, there is the unexpected storyline when Nancy battles ovarian cancer. She is told she is in remission and her friends throw a party at her hospital room, when Michael gets the call that Gary has been killed in a car accident on the way to see them.

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Susannah and Gary get married
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Michael and Elliot

In an article on hollywoodreporter.com in 2017, Craig Tomashoff interviewed Herskovitz about the creation of the show and the casting.

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Nancy helping Gary with teaching children’s literature

Herskovitz explained after quickly putting the script together, based in part on the concept of the movie The Big Chill, they had to find their ensemble cast. He said each character was a totally different experience. When Busfield walked in the room, they said he was cast before he even read a line. Marshall and Olin were already friends, so they cast Ken as Michael and then hired his wife but explained she was going to be married to another character. She only had one line in the pilot so she was a bit worried about the character, but they promised her that her character would be developed more fully. Horton was also a friend of Herskovitz’s. They lived in the same neighborhood and their wives were also friends. He wanted to be a director, not an actor. But when he read the script, he thought it was the best pilot he had ever seen, so he came on board. Mayron and Draper were both brought in for auditions. Mel Harris auditioned for Zwick and Herskovitz but then heard nothing. She had only been acting for about a year or so at that time. She finally got the call that she was hired.

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Michael and Gary

The group worked very well together. The show focused on friendship and feelings. As Mayron once described it, rather than the big things in life, the show was “about the minutiae of life, not the disease or crime of the week.”

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Melissa and her soulmate

This was seen in the marital relationships as well.  Although there were a few big things that came between Hope and Michael, most of their arguments were smaller, petty things that most couples argue about from time to time. Hope wanted help with cleaning the house; Michael felt the laundry wasn’t done often enough. We didn’t see anything romanticized–the house needed repairs and trying to get a babysitter was a frustration. However, we did see things that were romantic. In the middle of a conversation about their daughter, when it was quiet, Michael and Hope would have a loving moment.

Busfield said the actors chose to focus on each other and insulate themselves a bit. Horton said “Ken, Tim and I became almost like brothers. We meshed in each other’s lives, never feeling competitive with each other. Tim was the most practical of all of us.” Because the cast was so close and they shared their lives with one another, Zwick admitted, that “we mercilessly robbed the cast of their life experiences.” Occasionally, someone in one of the actor’s past would not be happy seeing a story from their life on the screen.

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Busfield said the cast realized how important their characters were to the viewers and how much they related to them, sometimes in negative ways. Once in a grocery store, a woman came up and slapped him across the face because of the way he treated Nancy. She apologized when he reminded her that was not him but his character. Wettig said a woman asked her where she did her chemotherapy and then shared with her that she had just been diagnosed with cancer and had to find a treatment facility. Mayron started wearing her suspenders backward for Melissa just as a unique fashion. One day when she was out and about, she saw a lot of girls doing the same and they told her they were copying her. Horton’s story was that he had been a dedicated fan of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. One day at an event he had a tap on his shoulder and when he turned around, he saw David Crosby who shared that he was a huge fan of Horton and thirtysomething.

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Susannah coping with Gary’s death

The show mirrored real life for viewers. Many people were dealing with internal struggles and thought that they were the only ones who experienced such thoughts. There was a comfort in the realization that other people had the same feelings. Viewers had an intimate relationship with the cast.

Most of the characters wanted to do something big with their lives and careers. They are now at the turning point where that may come true or they might have to re-adjust their perspective of what’s important. The married friends are jealous of their single friends at times and the single friends return the favor. Nothing is black or white.

If you think of life as a mosaic masterpiece, you realize each episode of the show looked at one tile piece in-depth. It can be exhausting and feel overwhelming to do that, but once you do, you develop an appreciation and understanding of the artwork as a whole that you would not achieve just looking at it as one thing.

THIRTYSOMETHING, (L-R), Peter Horton, Rachel Nagler, Patricia Wettig, Mel Harris, Timothy Busfield, Jason Nagler, Polly Draper, Ken Olin, Melanie Mayron, Season 1, 1987. (c) MGM Television/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

When the show came out, critics were divided.  Some loved it; some hated it. Gene Seymour from the Daily News, wrote that is would “bring you down” and “make you uncomfortable.” However, he also said the show “deserves your attention.”

When the series was cancelled four years later, things hadn’t changed that much. An ABC spokesman said the show was cancelled partly for ratings decline and partly because Zwick and Herskovitz wanted to make feature films. At that time, Francesca Chapman, also of the Daily News, wrote that the series “has told us stories we already know and made it fascinating” and that “they were all the more gripping because a good story, told realistically and in detail, a story that doesn’t necessarily have a punch line or a happy ending, is an unusual thing on TV. After tonight, it will be all the rarer.”

The cast was featured on a reunion episode in 2009 on Good Morning America. When the show turned 30 in 2017, it propelled a lot of articles about the cast and the significance of the show. The show had not been forgotten.

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GMA Reunion 2009

When thirtysomething started in 1987, it provoked a lot of disagreement about the show. When it went off the air four years later, the debate had still not been settled. Now thirty-two years later, there is still not a definitive answer. You love it or you hate it. While I admit, when I began re-watching the episodes from the first year, I was surprised that I saw too much whining which was a big criticism of the show originally. But once the season got underway, the whining was replaced with in-depth discussions about life and friendship. I loved it, and I’m grateful to the show for creating a place on television today that can feature a show like This Is Us. Just when you think you’re going to give up on television and just read, a show like that comes along and brings you hope that it’s not all a wasteland and that there is treasure to be found if you take time to look for it.