'News Radio': No News Is Bad News

Series creator Paul Simms talks about the highly likely cancellation of the NBC sitcom

Stephen Root as Jimmy James, Maura Tierney as Lisa Miller, Andy Dick as Matthew Brock, NewsRadio "Negotiation" (Episode 8), November 7th, 1995. Credit: Don Cadette/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

So NBC doesn't consider NewsRadio Must See TV. Can't it at least be Should See TV? Like Seinfeld or FrasierNewsRadio is the rare ensemble comedy that's never embarrassing to watch. It is also NBC's lowest-rated sitcom, and at press time it seemed like its days were numbered. So, like Bob Woodward heading off to see William Casey at the hospital, I made what I hope was not a deathbed visit to the NewsRadio set, in Hollywood, to talk with Paul Simms, the one-time Larry Sanders Show writer who created NewsRadio. Originally, we were going to talk about why there are so many sitcoms that take place at newspapers, magazines, and radio and TV stations. As we spoke in Simms' bunker (oops, I mean office), our conversation took an unexpected turn, and before long, we were talking about why, sadly, there may soon be one fewer show set at a newspaper, a magazine, or a radio or TV station.

Is cancellation imminent?
Pretty imminent. When is this piece coming out? It's not looking good. ... I've got a lot of fuckin' theories but no explanations as to why this show we're all so proud of is in the fuckin' toilet. I don't even mind being in the toilet, but I do mind not being appreciated by NBC.

Why is the show set where it is?
Working in offices is all I've known since college. Anything else I would be making up. When we started, I said I wanted it to be about things that happen at work. But the show's taken on a life of its own. There's stuff that happens in this office that's surreal and weird.

Kind of like your dealings with NBC?
[Pauses] I was about to say, "Those cocksuckers!" ... But I do see a lot of office shows that could as easily take place in a bar or a coffee shop. They're based on other shows and other movies. Look at Ink — it's like, "Let's do a show that's sort of like The Front Page ... but real bad and with stars!"

Some critics have said NewsRadio lacks heart and a point of view.
The point of view of NewsRadio is that people at the office are your family, like it or not. The other point is that it's not easy being the boss — I didn't want it to be an office where everyone is bitching about some evil boss; that's an old idea. Now as far as heart goes, I just had a huge argument with this guy, Preston Beckman, at NBC — the head of scheduling — who hates the show. I heard that he'd been bad-mouthing it off the record to reporters, so I confronted him. I said, "You just don't see this show as ever having the potential to be a hit." He said, "Well, I don't know of a lot of hit shows where the characters are so mean." First of all, they're not mean to each other. Even in the most contemptuous relationship — like between Dave Foley's character and Phil Hartman's — Dave's always helping Phil save face. And (2), what about Seinfeld?

Was the show ever close to getting Thursday-night exposure?
No. When we did the pilot, they said they were 99 percent sure this will be Thursday night. It was Brad Grey at Brillstein-Grey who said, "It's always that other one percent that gets you." Then we went to Tuesday, where we did well. We built in our lead-in and were winning the time slot. They thought, "Great," and moved us to Sunday, where we did the same thing. Then NBC decided it needed to have 18 nights of Must See TV, so they opened up Wednesday. And we're dying. We said, "You've got to do something." They said, "Don't worry — once we're finished launching the new shows, then it's you guys." Then it got to midseason, and they were promoting Chicago Sons.

Well, it's got a Bateman.
I'm amazed at the amount of just plain stealing or imitation that goes on. I'm astonished at how people are still imitating Seinfeld — like The Single Guy — how a writer can do that and feel like they're doing something new ... how can someone go home and sleep at night knowing they wrote that joke?

Yet they get Thursday night.
The whole thing has been, "You're a strong show; these other shows need help. So they need Thursday night," which is fine at first, but we've done 49 episodes, and we're almost dead. We're the lowest-rated NBC sitcom. They killed the show, basically. We had a meeting with Warren Littlefield the other day, and I said, "If this show went away and I tried to do a new one with the same cast and a different concept, there's like a 10 percent chance it would work as well as this." They told me in very blunt terms that it's not enough for a show to be well-written and well-acted anymore. It's about stars.

Even stars don't guarantee anything. Look at Cosby
I love when they talk about these "projects" — they're projects, not shows. When they start, they go, "We've got the best writers, who did this, and the best actors, who did that." And they all suck. They are all incredibly bad. Name one good supergroup.

Blind Faith was OK.
I've been told I made things harder for myself by not centering the show around a big star. Everyone knows who Phil Hartman is, but it's not the same as Tom Selleck. Yes, the show would be bigger if Michael J. Fox was Dave. Yes, it would be bigger if it was in a modeling agency instead of radio. But not because of viewers but because the networks are underestimating the viewers. I don't think viewers are stupid. People are starting to realize Thursday night is like a big double-decker shit sandwich with three good pieces of bread, and in between ... don't print that.

Are you sure?
You know what? Go ahead. I don't give a shit anymore. It's like, what can they do to me? "Oh, Saturday night? Fine." We are the lowest-rated sitcom on NBC. It can't get any worse. And if it wasn't for Dark Skies or something, we'd be the lowest-rated show on NBC.

If NewsRadio doesn't last, would you turn your back on sitcoms?
Yeah, this is the best I can do. Pretend you're God and you say, "If you do a show about a single father who's dating a lot and has two teenage sons, and it doesn't have to be funny, and it'll be a huge hit." I'd say, "Fuck you, God."