The late ’70s and much of the ’80s were great years in the U.S. for a particular sort of situation comedy. Put a relatively sane, wise, and cynical-yet-ultimately idealistic central character in a chaotic setting. Surround him with a secondary cast of insane, street-smart (or smarmy), sarcastic characters; insert bizarre guest characters from outside the setting; push “go.” Voila. Snappily written, performed-with-perfect-timing, funny, and sometimes even poignant, these comedies were the mainstay of my viewing pleasure during my 20-something years. Series like WKRP in Cincinnati, Taxi — and the object of my particular affection, Night Court.
Stand-up comic Harry Anderson stars as the young, idealistic, and very wise Judge Harry Stone, presiding over a New York city night-shift arraignment courtroom. But judge Harry also has a sense of the bizarre (and a definite appreciation for it), claiming the largest collection of chattering teeth in the world and an affinity for classic jazz (especially his beloved Velvet Fog, Mel Tormé). He isn’t above making silly faces at witnesses, trading barbs with teenaged smart-ass kids, or telling jokes so hokey… (How hokey? Thanks for playing.)…so hokey, even the courtroom observers have a “groan” ceiling of two per night.
Surrounded by District Attorney Dan Fielding (John Larroquette), Public Defender Billie (Ellen Foley), bailiffs Bull (Richard Moll) and Selma (the brilliant Selma Diamond) and clerk Mac (Charles Robinson), Harry presides over his court with humor, wisdom, and the sort of insanity befitting the New York nightlife characters who come to the court during its late night sessions. Each character, while a stereotype in some way and often fairly predictable, is fully drawn. We’re surprised when treated to peeks beneath their facades: Dan’s smarmy lounge lizard routine, or Bull’s big dumb guy, Selma’s tough broad, and even Harry’s childlike silliness, which occasionally reveals the wisdom of a Solomon.
Warner Brothers has just released season two on DVD. The collection on three discs contains the entire 22-episode run of the season — no commercial interruptions! Watching the entire season run back-to-back, I found the formula a tad tiresome after eight hours, but I could not stop watching, remembering the odd characters who popped into Harry’s court, the mild flirtation between public defender Billie and the young judge; the genuine warmth and caring between all of the main cast (yes, even Dan).
The three-disc set will please fans of the series, but was sorely lacking in two things. First, there were no extras. No interviews, reminiscences, bloopers, commentaries. Nothing. How unfortunate for such a long-running series. Secondly, the quality of the recording was marginal. Nothing had been done to spruce up the color or sharpness of the picture, and on my high-definition television, the picture was washed out to the point of near-colorlessness. I would hope that on the next release, Warner will be more generous.