Splitsider

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

The Lost Roles of NewsRadio

Casting is one of the most important processes in television. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire show rings true. Thus, casting directors and showrunners consider a variety of possibilities before going into production. In “Lost Roles,” we’ll be examining the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and exploring how some casting choices that almost happened would have changed the TV industry and the comedy world, at large.

NewsRadio was NBC's critically-acclaimed but ratings-challenged offbeat ensemble workplace sitcom a decade before the network's current Thursday night block. Although not as influential as The Larry Sanders Show, NewsRadio, created by Larry Sanders alum Paul Simms, is the link between the no-holds-barred style of Sanders and the workplace sitcoms of today, cleaning up the language and toning down the darkness in order to bring a pay cable feeling to mainstream audiences. In addition to borrowing Larry Sanders’s cynical attitude toward the workplace, Simms threw several new elements into the mix, using his deep respect for smart physical comedy to ramp up the wackiness. NewsRadio had an absurdist, Simpsons-esque, tone that didn't exist in any other live action shows at the time.

NewsRadio was notable in its use of many elements that have since become sitcom mainstays, including its realistic handling of broad, over-the-top character types (Parks and Recreation, The Office), surreal theme episodes (Community), and cartoonish antics in a live action world (Scrubs, Community). The dueling egos of NewsRadio media personalities Catherine and Bill predate the similar dynamic between 30 Rock's Jenna and Tracy. But above all else, what made this show work was its large cast, a once-in-a-life time assembly of drastically different but equally talented actors who somehow gelled into a singular entity with a shared sensibility. In recent years, shows like Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, Party Down, and many others have made assembling large groups of diverse but likeminded performers seem easy; but it used to be that a strong ensemble TV comedy was a rare thing.

To put together this well-balanced cast, NewsRadio producers auditioned numerous actors who have gone on to find fame after missing out on joining the show's great ensemble. As expected, if some casting selections that almost happened were made, it could have drastically altered the history of comedy as we know it, preventing many shows, movies and careers from existing as they do today.

Ray Romano

The role: Electrician character (later renamed Joe Garelli)
Who got it: Joe Rogan

In 1994, Ray Romano auditioned for the part of the radio station’s electrician and got it. Romano began rehearsing with the cast, but the producers decided to go a different route with the character and fired him on the second day of rehearsals. They felt Romano’s slow-paced delivery didn't fit within the rapid-fire style of the show. Romano went on to create and star in one of the biggest sitcoms in history, a long-running hit series whose high ratings easily eclipsed the always-struggling NewsRadio's. Romano was replaced by actor Greg Lee for the pilot and Joe Rogan took the role from then on. Rogan’s comedic style was best-suited for the series and he brought the right dynamic to NewsRadio, becoming an integral part of the cast.

If Ray Romano had held onto his part on NewsRadio, he would have been under contract with NBC for several years, keeping him from creating and starring in the much more commercially successful Everybody Loves Raymond, the show that made him a household name. At the time, being fired from NewsRadio probably seemed like a missed opportunity for him, but I'm sure he's thankful about how things worked out now. By the time Romano would have left NewsRadio in 1999, he most likely wouldn’t have been able to get a lead sitcom role, with Hollywood producers thinking of him as only a supporting actor. Just look at Rogan’s career immediately after NewsRadio. Fear Factor was his first gig after the show and it’s likely Romano would have been only able to get work as a reality show host or a supporting actor, not a lead/showrunner position.

There are many good and bad things for comedy that could have resulted if Romano stayed in the cast. While Romano's presence would have altered the perfect balance of the NewsRadio ensemble and could have weakened the show, the absence of Everybody Loves Raymond from CBS could have prevented the crop of generic family sitcoms that followed in its wake. Raymond was a huge hit — CBS's flagship comedy at the time — and the network used it to anchor a Monday night block of otherwise-awful comedy that still exists today.

CBS used Everybody Loves Raymond as a springboard to launch shows like The King of Queens, Yes, Dear, Still Standing, and yes, even Two and a Half Men, which replaced Raymond as the network's (and television’s) highest-rated comedy. In turn, Men was the springboard for The Big Bang Theory, which was used as a lead-in for $#*! My Dad Says. Everybody Loves Raymond set off a chain reaction inside the sitcom world which even impacted shows on ABC. According to Jim and George Lopez were attempts by that network to find their own Raymond which may not have existed were it not for the huge success of Romano's show. In an era where sitcoms are moving towards being more subtle, highbrow, and doing away with laughtracks, Everybody Loves Raymond is the show that inspired the only holdouts: the current CBS crop of shows that feel like they belong on the air in the '80s or '90s.

But what could be considered the worst thing Everybody Loves Raymond left us with is Kevin James's movie career. Romano gave his stand-up buddy James a big break when he cast him in a recurring role on Raymond. James had never had a professional acting job before this. James’s appearances on Romano’s show made CBS confident enough in his abilities to cast him as the lead in The King of Queens, which led to him popping up in Will Smith's Hitch, which resulted in Kevin James starring in undemanding tripe like Paul Blart and The Dilemma. Although Romano wasn't right for NewsRadio, maybe the producers would have bitten the bullet and kept him in the cast if they knew then it could have prevented Two and a Half Men, According to Jim, and Paul Blart from succeeding/existing.

On the other hand, choosing Rogan over Romano helped lift Rogan's fame, which hasn't been bad for comedy, failed reboot of The Man Show aside. Perhaps Joe Rogan's most significant contribution to comedy and those who love it is his public takedown of Carlos Mencia in 2007, which was a major contribution to the Mencia backlash that has kept him off our TV screens for almost three years now. Fingers crossed it continues. Even still, Rogan can't claim all the credit for Mencia's career slump, and the continuance of the CBS sitcom has definitely been a greater hindrance to the comedy industry than Mencia ever was.

Sarah Silverman and Mary Lynn Rajskub

The role: Beth the secretary
Who got it: Vicki Lewis.

In an episode of Comedy Death Ray Radio last year, friends and former roommates Sarah Silverman and Mary Lynn Rajskub mentioned that they each auditioned for the part of Beth, the gum-chewing secretary to Dave Foley’s character.

Although it would have been interesting to see either of these actresses in the part, Vicki Lewis nails the part of Beth. It would have been hard for Silverman or Rajskub to pull it off with the same apathetic charm. Following NewsRadio, Lewis landed a part on NBC's short-lived sitcom Three Sisters. Since then, we haven't seen much of her, besides some work in children’s shows and guest spots on primetime sitcoms, most notably a hilarious turn in Curb Your Enthusiasm last season, in which she played the mother of a young girl with a rash in an inappropriate area. Lewis was great on NewsRadio and perfectly suited for the part, and it's a shame she hasn't landed any big, long-lasting roles since.

While joining the cast of NewsRadio would have kept Silverman on mainstream TV soon after her cheerless departure from SNL, it would have kept her from earning her alternative comedy street cred in roles on HBO's Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show. Even worse, she could have been typecast as a slacker secretary. If Silverman's career had followed a similar trajectory to Vicki Lewis's after NewsRadio, she would have been stuck in supporting sitcom roles, keeping her away from the stand-up work and Comedy Central series that have so perfectly captured her voice.

After missing out on the NewsRadio part, Mary Lynn Rajskub got a similar role on NewsRadio's sister show Larry Sanders, replacing Janeane Garofalo. She also had a recurring role on Mr. Show until leaving the show because of her breakup with boyfriend David Cross. Being cast in NewsRadio also would have caused Rajskub to be thought of as a comedic actress, keeping her from breaking into drama, the genre in which where she’s found her biggest success yet. Playing Chloe O’Brien on the Fox series 24 has been the actress’s claim to fame, allowing her to advance her career in other projects, both dramas and comedies. While she had taken comedic roles on Mr. Show and Larry Sanders before, these pay cable shows were under the radar and not on a big mainstream network like NewsRadio was. Had Rajskub won the part on NewsRadio, it would have been hard for the producers of 24 to think of her as a dramatic actress.

While this casting decision didn't cause any horrific atrocities like Ray Romano’s firing did, Vicki Lewis getting this part was a very good thing. Lewis was an integral part of the NewsRadio ensemble, and this classic comedy could have been hurt if another actress who wasn't right for the role was cast. Also, Silverman and Rajskub went on to strong careers of their own, and either of them being cast here would have altered their paths, as well as the history of Mr. Show and Larry Sanders.

Rob Schneider

The role: Phil Hartman’s replacement
Who got it: Jon Lovitz

After NewsRadio star Phil Hartman's tragic and untimely death at his wife's hand in 1998, the cast and crew had a tough decision to make. The producers ended up looking for a new face to step in for Hartman, considering the fallen actor’s SNL cohorts Jon Lovitz and Rob Schneider for the job. Lovitz, a friend and frequent co-star of Hartman’s since their Groundlings days in the late ‘70s, won the role.

Phil Hartman's death left a massive void in the cast (and in the comedy world as a whole), one that no one could have filled. Going on without him killed the show, but Paul Simms leaving his post as showrunner after four years and the overall grief looming over everyone’s heads sure didn’t help. While the fifth season of NewsRadio was unarguably its weakest and a far cry from where the show was when Hartman was onboard, Jon Lovitz's comic style is closer to NewsRadio's than Rob Schneider's. Lovitz was an admirable selection — quite frankly, the only acceptable man for the job — due to his longtime friendship with Hartman and his similar sensibility to Phil’s. No one could have replaced Phil Hartman, but choosing Jon Lovitz for the part was the decision that was most respectful to his legacy.

At this point in his career, Schneider had just come off of two seasons on the unsuccessful American adaptation of the British series Men Behaving Badly. Another short-lived sitcom role would have hurt his career. Also, Rob Schneider's stint as a lead actor in Hollywood began around the time that he was considered for NewsRadio. Had Schneider taken a part in NewsRadio, it would have precluded him from making Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, the film that kicked off his career as a big screen leading man. If Schneider had waited to begin his foray into movie stardom until after the fifth season of NewsRadio, the stink from two unsuccessful sitcom stints may have made it hard for Adam Sandler to convince movie studios that his friend Rob Schneider could carry a film.

Just as Romano taking part in this show would have prevented all of the mediocre comedy that his actual career inspired, Rob Schneider's involvement in NewsRadio could have stopped a boatload of bad comedies from being made. Deuce Bigalow was the first starring vehicle Adam Sandler produced for one of his friends, and the first film he produced through his Happy Madison production company. Bigalow’s success kickstarted Rob Schneider's film career, helped Happy Madison get off the ground, and allowed for Adam Sandler to produce a string of godawful vehicles for his friends Dana Carvey, David Spade, and Kevin James. After Deuce Bigalow, the studios gave Sandler the ability to grow his own movie stars. He began to build the careers of the cast of Grown Ups himself, like some mad scientist playing with spores in a lab.

If Schneider had been too busy with NewsRadio to make Deuce Bigalow when he did, Sandler’s Happy Madison would have started off with a few bombs, forcing him to give up on the production company and to quit producing movies for other actors in general. The next two movies after Bigalow that Happy Madison produced were the underperforming Little Nicky and Joe Dirt, and these two flops could have done the company in, keeping a dozen or so critically-reviled Adam Sandler-produced films from existing.

Well, there you have it. Two different ways backup NewsRadio casting could have stopped Paul Blart: Mall Cop from existing. NewsRadio creator Paul Simms, who has most recently written for Flight of the Conchords and Boardwalk Empire, hasn't created a show since NewsRadio. I like to imagine he's plagued by the guilt of indirectly contributing to Kevin James and Rob Schneider's movie careers, as well as Two and a Half Men's rise to King of the Sitcoms. I'll bet the guilt has caused Simms to lose his mind like the Manhattan Project’s J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the development of the atomic bomb without realizing the far-reaching consequences of his actions.

So, what do you think? Which would have been better for comedy as a whole, Rob Schneider being busy with NewsRadio or Ray Romano being busy with NewsRadio? While I have a deep respect for the show and neither of these guys were really right for it, I can’t help but wonder how this alternate casting could have saved the comedy industry from the jaws of that beast we call mediocrity. Check out this nice Venn diagram I’ve made to help you decide which alternate comedy universe you’d like to pretend we live in:

Bradford Evans is a writer living in L.A., who spends way too much time fantasizing about alternate comedy timelines.

  • JoshUng

    Interesting, but I don't think you're looking big picture enough.

    As comedians, I would argue that Ray Romano is superior to Joe Rogan (I think the fact that one of the top three moments of his career being "he called out Carlos Mencia" lends credibility to my argument). So while in a strange game of Six Degrees of News Radio has Ray Romano being the cause of Two and a Half Men, imagine if the game started with a much lesser than Romano, such as Rogan. We'd might be complaining about a show even worse than Two and a Half Men.

    • Bradford Evans

      That's a good point. But it's possible that a better show could have ended up being the trendsetter, rather than Everybody Loves Raymond. Just because Romano doesn't get his show, it doesn't mean that a worse comedian would.

  • Mike

    "Billy Murray as Jimmy James, Dave, Beth, Joe and everyone else would have made the show ten times better." –The article that SplitSider REALLY wanted to write.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Michael-Mischnick/699648889 Michael Mischnick

    What the hell is the Big *Band* Theory?

    • Bradford Evans

      It's a show about an attractive lady who moves in next door to two nerdy trombone players and teaches them that there's more to life than 1930s swing music.

  • Setec Astrology

    Not that replacing Lovitz with Schneider would ahve fixed this, but the big problem with Phil Hartman's death (from a purely dramatic perspective, obviously) is that it completely upset the power dynamic among the characters because of the replacement of a strong character (Bill) with a weak character (Max). So instead of the Bill-Matthew and Jimmy James-Dave power dynamics, you were left with only one alpha (Mr. James), and a bunch of weak characters moping around the office. (Beth and Lisa could flit in and out, but they didn't have the ongoing wars that the men did.)

    And I used to work in the building that they used as the establishing shot in the credits, but they've changed the facade since then.

    • Bradford Evans

      Good call. The Bill-Matthew relationship was always funny and interesting. If they had set up a strong relationship between Lovitz and Bill, it could have retained a similar dynamic. But there was a lot of friction between Jon Lovitz and Andy Dick on set, so they weren't able to have the same chemistry as Dick and Hartman. The glory era NewsRadio cast was such a well-oiled machine that taking a piece as big as Hartman out and replacing him with anybody else wouldn't have worked as well.

    • Jeremy Meyers@facebook

      @Setec Astrology The other thing is that Lovitz's rhythms were so much slower than the rest of the cast, that it screwed up the timing of the entire show. Not to knock him, he's done some funny stuff, but i guess they didn't take that into account when casting him (he'd been a really good friend of Phils, of course), but he by necessity slowed down the pace of the dialogue, and thats where the writing really shined.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Darin-Bulai/100001269810793 Darin Bulai

    Two objections with the Schneider side of the Venn: A) I actually really like Joe Dirt (I know, Splitsider heresy alert), and B) The House Bunny gave us a scene involving a greased-up half-naked Emma Stone, and anything that involves a greased-up half-naked Emma Stone is alright by me.

    • Bradford Evans

      I'm not saying all of the movies and shows in that diagram are awful. Some of them might not have existed if these casting changes had taken place, that's all.

  • Scott Saslow

    Hey, Setec, is that a Sneakers reference?

    Very interesting article. I agree about the quality of Newsradio's season 5 though, on the whole, I'd still watch any of those episodes before some of Seinfeld's season 9 episodes. And they managed to give Dave one classic scene in which he describes the staff to Max: [re: Beth] "A secretary who dresses like a barmaid from Blade Runner."

    I recommend everyone here check out this exhaustive essay: "Newsradio and the Comedic Art" at http://www.newsradioart.com/Pages/TOC.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jaime-Weinman/656722902 Jaime Weinman

    RAYMOND's influence was generally good, as it took some real chances — for example, moving away from the Hollywood rule that sitcoms have to have multiple plots in every episode, and having just one story per episode that the characters discussed in more detail. As well as doing a family sitcom with less sentimentality. It also used a more raw style of comedy performance, including a less "sweetened" audience than most, that influenced shows like LUCKY LOUIE.
    Some of its imitators have been less than great (though KING OF QUEENS was a terrific sitcom by any standard) but certainly RAYMOND was a more sophisticated and risk-taking show than most of the sitcoms that have followed in its wake.

    Eg 30 ROCK or MODERN FAMILY which take fewer chances than RAYMOND did, going back to more conventional multi-story storytelling and morals. Single-camera sitcoms are, after all, throwbacks to the early days of TV before I LOVE LUCY when sitcoms were single-camera without laugh tracks. RAYMOND at least seemed to be trying to move comedy forward a bit, while 30 ROCK, hilarious though it often is, is a very old-fashioned sitcom with lots of old sitcom plots.