TV Retro Review: Night Court.
With the passing of actor Harry Anderson, we look back at the long running comedy series Night Court.
As part of our Retro Reviews, we rarely cover vintage television. With the recent passing of actor/comedian/magician Harry Anderson, I wanted to find a way to memorialize a performer who starred in many of my favorite shows growing up. Usually when a star dies, we try to round up three of their most interesting films and share them in our See It Instead feature. While Anderson was in a few feature films, he was primarily a TV guy. We’ve already covered his best known role in the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s IT, so we thought it best to look at his most famous television series: Night Court.
Night Court (1984-1992).
Night Court was a situation comedy set during the overnight shift of a Manhattan court, which ran for nine seasons. The prosaic and unorthodox petty crimes that made up the staple of the court docket served as a backdrop for the comedic antics of the eccentric cast, presided over by a young and easygoing judge named Harry T. Stone (Anderson). The series was popular with audiences on NBC as well as with critics, garnering 31 Emmy nominations and 7 wins over its run.
One of the qualities that endeared Night Court with me as a child was how versatile the show was. Despite being set in the same courtroom week after week, the show had a depth and breadth to its comedy. It could be bawdy and broad when it came to the defendants who came in to get their summary judgement of “50 dollars and time served” every week. It could also be satirical and pointed, often taking shots at the judicial system and the rapidly changing political landscape of New York City.
Judge Stone was a goof who did card tricks while listening to the disputes of the marginalized people forced into night court (often pimps, prostitutes, the homeless and mentally ill,) but he would come down like a ton of bricks on the powers that be if he saw them taking advantage of these people. The show’s liberal leanings were a stark contrast to the Rudy “Jail-iani” Giuliani years that were just getting under way in NYC, where the people who would have found themselves in an episode of Night Court were rounded up, jailed or run out of town.
The variety of source material behind the comedy was complimented by the talent of the main cast and numerous guests. Anderson, who would go on to work with Disney on several TV movie remakes, was family friendly but not saccharine. Judge Stone was laid back and streetwise, willing to see people’s good points while not falling for much BS. This set-up was mirrored by the main characters of district attorney Dan Fielding (John Larroquette, who won so many Emmy’s for this role that he declined to appear on further ballots in the category) and public defender Christine Sullivan (Markie Post). Dan was an inveterate lecher and slime ball who was unfortunately very good at his job. Christine was a crusader who was often taken advantage of by her clients. Post and Larroquette found a great chemistry portraying the mutual acrimony of the two lawyers.
The rest of the cast was an odd bunch of lovable weirdos, like Richard Moll as a gigantic bailiff with a bald head and a heart of gold. In addition, there were frequent cameos from comedians, musicians and stars like John Astin, Mel Torme, Yakov Smirnoff and Gilbert Gottfried.
Final Verdict: 50 Dollars and Time Served!
Night Court is probably overshadowed in pop-culture nostalgia by the big comedies that immediately followed it – Frasier, Friends, and Seinfeld – and the juggernaut that aired during the same period- Cheers (which Anderson also had a recurring role on as a petty grifter and con man.) For all that, my favorite comedy of the era still remains Night Court.
The characters were memorable and well played, the stories were well crafted, and there was a nice variety to the episodes that meant you never knew what you were going to see every time you tuned in. The series evolved over its run in a way that reminds me of a current comedic procedural, Brooklyn 99. Both can be broad and wacky while still having smart elements. The series is widely available through streaming and syndication, so if you’re looking for a great comedy series to settle in with, Night Court is well worth your time.