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Here Come Da Judge!

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While cable, satellite and the Internet have eroded their dominance (and it’s a good thing, too), for a time, the big three television networks each seemed to own a decade to themselves. In the 1960s, CBS’s combination of Ed Sullivan and a raft of folksy shows (The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle, et al) dominated the ratings. ABC’s fluff–Charlie’s Angels, Happy Days, Mork And Mindy–seemed perfectly attuned to the 1970s.

In following decade, new president Brandon Tartikoff made NBC the network to beat by creating a hip blend of shows that combined, at their best, good writing, unusual premises, and quirky ensemble casts. He was also willing to keep a low-rated show on the air an unusually long time in an industry that heretofore had believed in instant success or failure. Hill Street Blues, Cheers, and Miami Vice all benefited from this formula, as each overcame low-rated first seasons to emerge as ratings powerhouses.

By the middle of the 1980s, NBC owned Thursday night, with a combination of shows that included:

  • The Cosby Show

  • Cheers

  • Family Ties

  • Night Court

  • Hill Street Blues
  • There’s probably no way a show as quirky as Night Court could have made it, without being bracketed between ratings winners Family Ties and Hill Street Blues.

    Numerous Cast Changes

    It took Night Court a surprising amount of time to find its bearings. Its supporting cast went through several changes. Its first two seasons ended with first Selma Diamond and then Florence Halop, each veteran comedic actresses and heavy smokers, both sadly dying after each appeared in succession playing the diminutive comedic foil for Richard Moll’s hulking Bull Shannon character.

    It also was surprisingly difficult for the show to find a public defender to play off of John Larroquette’s Dan Fielding, the show’s sex-crazed lecherous assistant district attorney. Paula Kelly played the role the first season, but her character appeared under-written. Rocker turned actress Ellen Foley joined the cast the second season, but also failed to click.

    Finally, in its third season, the cast stabilized with new additions Marsha Warfield and Markie Post, and went on to run for a total of nine seasons.

    Scant Bonus Features On New DVD

    The new DVD of Night Court‘s first season has only two bonus features in addition to the expected first year’s 13 shows. There’s a retrospective documentary, but perhaps more interesting is the audio commentary on the pilot by the show’s creator, Reinhold Weege, who explains that the show’s premise (wisecracking magic-performing misfit judge with a love of Mel Torme) was actually written before Harry Anderson auditioned. Which is somewhat surprising–Anderson was the character, and he was being groomed by NBC for stardom, first in a series of appearances on Cheers’ early episodes as their loveable conman in residence, along with several featured performances on Saturday Night Live (during Lorne Michaels’ interregnum) where he juggled, performed magic, and generally cracked wise.

    Weege was a veteran of the 1970s hit Barney Miller, and Night Court has the same feel to it: gritty but funny Manhattan eccentrics shuffling through their jobs at 2:00 AM. Both shows were built primarily for laughs, not Important Social Messages, and both delivered. As Johnny Carson once said, “New York is an exciting town where something is happening all the time, most of it unsolved”, which sums up Night Court’s flavor pretty nicely.

    While few of us find the thought of appearing in a real courtroom to be a laughing matter, the folks who run Manhattan’s fictitious Night Court are guaranteed to cause maximum guffawing. If you need to laugh–or want to remember one of the shows you watched on Thursday night in the 1980s–or both, book some time there.

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    About Ed Driscoll