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Litigation may not seem like the most humorous backdrop for a sitcom, but back in the 1980s, chaos and disorder in the courtroom were comedy gold.
Airing from 1984 to 1992 on NBC, Night Court presented a look into the bizarre Manhattan courtroom of Judge Harry T. Stone (Harry Anderson), a youthful magic enthusiast who admired 1940s culture, and who presided over cases involving what one episode quipped were the “dregs of society,” night after night.
While sex workers, flashers, and petty criminals don’t exactly convey elements worthy of a laugh riot, the superb writing, hilariously unfathomable plotlines, and the motley crew of characters gave Night Court its panache—although it would take several years and cast changes to get there.
In addition to Stone, the first season’s cohorts included court clerk Lana Wagner (Karen Austin), public defender Liz Williams (Paula Kelly), bailiffs Selma Hacker (Selma Diamond) and Bull Shannon (Richard Moll), and prosecutor Dan Fielding (John Larroquette). As the series progressed, the premise and laughs were starting to pick up steam. Through various recasts, the show began to find its niche in the second season. Charles Robinson would replace Austin as the sweater-loving, mild-mannered Macintosh “Mac” Robinson, and Ellen Foley stepped in as new public defender Billie Young. After Selma Diamond’s death in 1985 from cancer, character actress Florence Halop replaced her as the equally petite and acerbic Florence Kleiner.
This revolving door of supporting cast members would continue, however, viewers got a brief introduction to the show’s eventual permanent defense attorney when Markie Post guest-starred in the Season 2 episode “Daddy for the Defense.” Post’s first foray as the naïve and conservative Christine Sullivan would strike a chord with viewers, and once her role in the Lee Majors action program The Fall Guy ended, Post officially joined the cast and remained until the series’ end. Then, after Halop’s death in 1986 (also from cancer), the back-to-back loss of two bailiffs would be colloquially referred to as the “Night Court Curse” The significantly younger Marsha Warfield would be picked up as Roz Russell, a new bailiff who was just as balls-to-the-wall and vocal as her predecessors.
Ask anyone with even a remote familiarity with the show, and they will stress that Night Court ’s breakout character was definitely Dan Fielding. Originally presented as a pompous, pretentious snob, Larroquette would transform him into the kind of man not typical of a TV star: lecherous, womanizing, often unscrupulous, and a borderline deviant. While Dan could very well be considered a precursor to How I Met Your Mother’s resident player Barney Stinson, the character was undeniably scummy. Through his impeccable comedic interpretation, Larroquette added a vulnerability and heart that made the character loveable (despite being a sleaze), earning him four consecutive Primetime Emmy awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series.
Once the cast was perfected, they bounced off of one another wonderfully, with a symmetry and synergy that has been almost impossible to replicate. In truth, there are only a handful of shows that contain the same level of chemistry and rapport as this cast does.
Created by the late Reinhold Weege, who had also written for ‘70s cop comedy Barney Miller and M*A*S*H, Night Court used plenty of wit, sight gags, a bit of slapstick, and (at times) insults, raunchiness, and gross-out humor to bring joviality into judicial tedium and mundanity. While Harry and Christine’s underlying romantic tension would remain just below the surface throughout the seasons, many of the storylines can be viewed as completely implausible (four pregnant women go into labor at the same time after a hurricane traps everyone in the court building), coincidental (three elderly ladies running a phone sex line recognize Dan, and by association, Christine), or downright strange (a disturbed man claims he’s from the planet Saturn and holds the crew hostage).
Part of NBC’s consistently strong primetime programming block, which during its run included Cheers, The Cosby Show, A Different World, Family Ties, Hill Street Blues, and L.A. Law, Night Court was the odd duck among its peers. Let’s be clear, the show was quite weird. No judge in real life would pull out magic tricks during a session, no attorney would ever be lascivious or outwardly insulting toward a litigant, and half the cases depicted were so outlandish that a suspension of disbelief was guaranteed. It was lightning in a bottle and I loved every minute of it.
Night Court was indeed a product of its time, and while it remains one of my favorite sitcoms, in the scope of our current entertainment and cultural climate it seems unlikely that networks today would embrace the scripts and dialogue that made it so popular over 30 years ago. Back then, jokes were made at the expense of anyone or anything construed as different, including plus-sized characters, individuals with diminished mental faculties, and those who may identify as part of the LGBTQIA community. But the show also lampooned its own, where Christine’s prudish nature, Mac’s deep affection for his knit garments, Harry’s distaste for modern music, Roz’s tendency towards aggression, and Bull’s lack of intelligence were played up for laughs. The show routinely crossed the line of what was then considered good taste, but that quirkiness propelled the ratings.
For example, in the Season 4 episode, “Giving Thanks,” after saving Christine’s life during a choking incident, Dan attempts to inflict guilt and coerce her into giving him sex as repayment. The oft-visited subplot of Dan’s lust for his coworker was brought to the forefront, addressed, and resolved (albeit temporarily). Again, this used dialogue and action that had a comedic undertone, and while it tried not to make the situation too creepy, it would absolutely not be deemed acceptable today.
Regardless of its more questionable content, though, it was that edgy sparkle that gave Night Court such a rabid fan base. Unlike so many other sitcoms, there was never an agenda to teach the masses, it was there to just make you laugh. And I did. Hard.
And then 30 years after its final episode aired, the inevitable reboot was announced—much to everyone’s chagrin. Since Harry Anderson passed away in 2018, the new show would be executive produced and star The Big Bang Theory’s Melissa Rauch as Judge Abby Stone, ostensibly creating the connection to the original as Stone’s daughter. According to Deadline, it’s slated to premiere in the 2022-2023 season, and while Larroquette is confirmed to reprise his role as Dan and also serve as a producer, one logical question is how they’re going to pull any of this off. Do we still want or expect this legacy character to be a 70-year-old lech still chasing women? Will the reboot ignore the canon of the original, particularly the final episodes? What tweaks will the writers have to make to accommodate NBC’s standards and practices and viewers’ expectation of content, while still maintaining the spirit and irreverence of the original? As for the million-dollar question: with Harry and Christine’s romance finally (and briefly) having gotten off the ground towards the show’s end, is Abby their daughter? Will the show include the two other kids born during the series run (Mac’s daughter Reneé and Christine’s son Charlie) in some capacity?
Post and Robinson both passed away in 2021, and there has been no announcement made as to whether Moll and Warfield would be reprising their roles, so to fans of the old show, the new Night Court could be all but doomed. The cast cannot be replaced, nor should it try to be.
Night Court wasn’t typical courtroom fare. This was not the world of Perry Mason, Ben Matlock, or even Jack McCoy. Granted, there were a few dramatic revelations and a handful of surprise verdicts, but Manhattan’s Criminal Court, Part Two, was wacky, zany, and over the top.
While I will more than likely watch the new version upon its release simply to see what the writers and producers do, like most of the reboots and remakes that have all but taken over our television and movie screens, I’m feeling a combination of nostalgia and disenchantment. A true product of its era, you can’t make Night Court again, not as it was. But it’s a comfort to know that I can still go back and enjoy this glorious comedy that broke all the rules and had a blast doing it. To quote Harry Stone’s eccentric father Buddy Ryan (brilliantly portrayed by recurring guest star John Astin): despite that disappointment, I’m feeling much better now.
Watch on Amazon Prime Free via IMDBtv
Night Court currently airs OTA on nostalgia network LAFF, and the entire series collection is also available on DVD.
A Massachusetts native and ‘80s kid through and through, Katy Kostakis writes about Arts and Entertainment, Lifestyle, Food and Beverage, Consumer and Culture. Her work has appeared in Film Inquiry, YourTango, Wicked Local, and Patch. Check out her quips and rants on Twitter @KatyKostakis, on Instagram @katykostakis, and on her website, katykostakis.com.
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