Thursday, April 27, 2006

Perfect characters: Jimmy James from "Newsradio"

Look! A best-of-TV survey! Those of you who have e-mailed me discussing how you're carefully considering your ballots have but a little over two-and-a-half weeks to vote!

Moses wants more perfect character and episode write-ups, and I agree that I've let this particular feature slide (though it wasn't that I forgot about them; I just had other stuff that seemed more pressing).

So here we go.

Newsradio, the five-season-long NBC sitcom from the mid-90s, is, honestly, one of the all-time underrated sitcoms (even James Burrows thinks so), despite its near absolute critical acclaim when it was on the air (except for the Phil Hartman-less final season, which was good, not great). In the minds of most viewers, it was simply one of a huge glut of office-centric sitcoms that NBC put on the air in the 90s (to be fair to its legacy, it predated most of those office-centric sitcoms). Because so many of its peculiar peccadillos have been subsumed into the sitcom zeitgeist (Newsradio, in its huge influence and low ratings, was practically the Arrested Development of its time), those coming to the show cold now may wonder what all of the fuss is about. "Haven't I seen all of this on 'Suddenly Susan?'" they might say. (Yes. Yes you have. But executed MUCH more poorly.)

To those naysayers, I point to Jimmy James, played by Stephen Root (perhaps, not coincidentally, one of our great, underrated American comic actors). Though many shows have tried to have their own Mr. James, no show has found the right writers and the right actor to pull off the perfect blend of business savvy, sheer idiocy and outright weirdness that Newsradio and Stephen Root pulled off on a weekly basis.

There were dumb bosses before Jimmy James. There have been weird bosses after Jimmy James. But Jimmy James is a character unto himself. He seemed to arrive sui generis from the television firmament (in reality, creator Paul Simms had conceived Jimmy James as a much straighter character, but Root's reading of the role kept pushing the readers further and further into looniness).

But I've talked a lot about why Jimmy James was so great and why he was so original without giving you any real idea of why I think that.

Put simply, Newsradio was the ultimate expression of how the existential crisis of the modern workplace leads men to be forced to dream (Apparently, Moses missed my pretentiousness). The show tried to keep its tenuous grip to office-life reality before it finally gave up and spun off into its own galaxy somewhere in season three. If The Office (U.K. and U.S.) is the ultimate expression of just how soul-crushing office work can be, Newsradio is about how that soul-crushing can turn into something vital and alive (be it a workplace romance or a daydream).

Always pushing the show further and further in this direction was the character of Jimmy James. While the character doesn't really stand out in the pilot, by the end of season one, Root had begun to find in the character the sorts of eccentricity that hadn't been seen on television. By season three, Mr. James became the center of many of the show's best storylines (his run for president may have been the only long-running story arc the show had that actually worked and the episode where he's incapacitated and all of the staff speak to him while he's in his coma is pure comic bliss). In addition, Root and the writers allowed the character to completely lose his grasp on reality as only the ridiculously rich can (importantly, Mr. James' bouts of surrealism worked simply because he was so rich).

A typical Newsradio riff on a joke that might be found on another sitcom can be found at the start of a season three episode when Mr. James enters brandishing a sword. He proceeds to explain how he wants to sword fight like in "The Sound of Music." In and of itself, this joke isn't that great (someone getting confused about the plot of a movie or novel is a pretty old standby that's only funny if tweaked just right). But Root pushes the joke in a new direction when he begins swinging the sword wildly about, singing "Sound of Music!" to the tune of the Hallelujah Chorus. The joke goes from an obvious one, to a deliciously absurd one (Mr. James has obviously seen SOMEthing called The Sound of Music, though it bears no resemblance to what we know The Sound of Music as).

Of course, overanalysis is the death of comedy. In short, Mr. James was a character that shouldn't have worked, but through the actor's unusual reading, something was sparked, and the collaborative process between the rest of the creative minds behind the show created a character that has never been matched or duplicated on television.

The lesson to be gleaned? In any collaborative art form, the American impulse is to find someone to give sole credit for the enterprise to (in a film, it's the director or producer; in television, increasingly, its the show-runner). But the truly memorable moments we look for may come from a careful alchemy of different elements, arrived at through many minds melding as one. Don't shut out your co-collaborators. They just might turn a dull boss character into someone who might say this (I'm grateful to Jamie Weinmann for the transcript):

JIMMY: The original title of this book was "Jimmy James, Capitalist Lion Tamer" but I see now that it's "Jimmy James, Macho Business Donkey Wrestler." You know what it is... I had the book translated in to Japanese then back again into English. Macho Business Donkey Wrestler... well there you go, it's got kind of a ring to it, don't it? Anyway, I wanted to read from chapter three, which is the story of my first rise to financial prominence. "I had a small house of brokerage on Wall Street. Many days no business come to my hut. But Jimmy has fear? A thousand times no. I never doubted myself for a minute, for I knew that my monkey strong bowels were girded with strength like the loins of a dragon ribboned with fat and the opulence of buffalo dung. Glorious sunset of my heart was fading. Soon the super karate monkey death car would park in my space. But Jimmy has fancy plans and pants to match. The monkey clown horrible karate round and yummy like cute small baby chick would beat the donkey."

REPORTER # 1: Mr. James, what did you mean when you wrote "Bad clown making like super American car racers, I would make them sweat, War War?"

JIMMY: Well, you know... it's like when a clown is making like a car... racer... it's sorta... like... the FCC. The clown is like the FCC... and I was opposed to the FCC at the time, right? So it was like I was declaring War. WARRRR!"

REPORTER # 2: So then, did the "American yum yum clown monkey" also represent the FCC?

JIMMY: Yeah, it did. Thanks a lot.

REPORTER # 3: What did you mean when you said, "Feel my skills, donkey donkey donkey, donkey donkey?"


Daniel said...

Oh how I giggled while reading this. Like a school girl. THAT'S HOW.

I miss News Radio. I suggest that your next Perfect Character be NILES CRANE. You may disagree. But I say you do it anyway.

Moses said...

I DID miss the pretentiousness! And Niles Crane would indeed be great. So would George Costanza. Or Special Agent Dale Cooper. Or Steve Urkel. And I bet you could write a great perfect episodes entry on "Discos & Dragons" from Freaks and Geeks.

Todd VanDerWerff said...

Dungeons and Dragons is on the short list, but I really need to rewatch it (and the whole series), which seems like a task for this summer.

I'm literally buried in TiVo right now.

nwstreethawk said...

Thanks Todd! I have been anxiously waiting for this episode to be released on DVD. This helped work out some of those laughter induced tears that are normally repressed at work. Now everyone at my office wants to see this episode. Thanks again. :)