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Friday, April 12th, 2013

Watching 'Not Necessarily Television' Skewer 1985's Pop Culture

The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)

Not long ago on the site, writer Nell Scovell wrote about her early experiences in "the greatest Writer's Room you've never heard of," working with Conan O'Brien and Greg Daniels on a short-lived program known as The Wilton North Report. The show was a nightly, hour-long topical comedy show and collected a pretty impressive roster of writers from a number of prestigious houses of satirical comedy of the time period. These included writers from Spy Magazine, The Realist, and of course Conan and Greg from HBO's Not Necessarily the News.

Never heard of Not Necessarily the News? Unfortunately such is the fate of many topical comedy programs: they are true products of their times, and the more time that passes, the less relatable they become. (Ever watch a late night show's monologue, realize it's a rerun and feel a pang of disappointment? Multiply that by a few decades and you'll see why TV Land doesn't show reruns of That Was the Week that Was.) NNTN aired on HBO from 1982 to 1990 and launched the careers of SNLers Rich Hall, and Jan Hooks. The program was based on a British version known as Not Necessarily the Nine O'Clock News and often incorporated bits of actual news footage, overdubbed comically, as part of it's satire.

I say all of that in one giant infodump of a paragraph because we're not going to talk about NNTN today. Instead we're going to look at a one-off special that poked fun at television as a whole, called Not Necessarily Television.

Not Necessarily Television aired on November 23, 1985 and I would say that some of the material still holds up today. And before I'm accused of damning this special with faint praise, considering the fact that we're talking about a special that was produced 27 years ago, "some" isn't too shabby. Some of the material is very specific, such as the first full sketch that serves as a parody of Steven Spielberg's anthology TV show called Amazing Stories that turns out to be an episode of The Twilight Zone that turns out to be an episode of Albert Hitchcock Presents. Some of the material, on the other hand, is more general and broad, such as the short cold open that features actual footage of then Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone standing in front of a line chart, dubbed over so that the Prime Minister is discussing CBS' ratings. The main thrust of this sketch seems to come from the very un-PC motivation of "wouldn't it be funny to say "Angera Ransbury" a bunch of times?"

However, a number of these sketches still work without an in-depth knowledge of 1980s pop culture. For example, a sketch that takes place in a board meeting for ABC executives trying to pitch their new shows. Ultimately they decide to just take the shows that are working for their rivals and change them just enough that they're new. For example, the executives look at The Cosby Show and decide that the next best thing to Cosby is, of course, Alan Thicke! And so Growing Pains is born. Or, while thinking about Miami Vice the concept slowly evolves as the different executives pick away at the idea. "New York Vice!" "Calgary Vice!" "Hollywood Beat!" "That's it! And nobody'll ever know where we got the idea…"

One thing that sets this special apart from many of the sketch shows of this time period is the pace: often times these scenes are short, one-joke premises that enter, present their idea, and then politely exit without overstaying their welcome. Take for example the Miami Vice parody that begins with their quick-cutting MTV-style opening theme song, and then our two heroes bursting in on a bad guy who just can't hear them over the loud electric guitar music. Or the commercial for the new crime drama: "He was a streetwise ex-con turned two-fisted Orthodox rabbi!" It's Torah!

My favorite sketch of the piece is also the one that is probably the least topical, and instead plays on the idea of the big "event" mini-series that networks frequently aired like Roots or Jesus of Nazareth. In 1985, ABC aired a series entitled North and South, featuring Patrick Swayze in the lead. The Not Necessarily Television version is entitled "Far North and South of the Border." In it, we see a son hastily make his way to his father in the woods to inform him that shots have been fired and that it looks like war. "So, what?" the father replies. "That won't affect us here in Canada!" We see the same beat happen in Mexico with the word "gringos" thrown in for good measure, and that's it. Short, sweet, and right to the point. (Also, it may be wishful thinking on my part, but I think the fact that the Civil War is such a favorite topic of O'Brien's that I may be drawn to this scene because I want to assign it to him.)

From Not Necessarily the News, O'Brien and Daniels moved to the aforementioned Wilton North Report, then to the big leagues at Saturday Night Live in 1987. The pop culture that is prevalent throughout this particular special feels very reminiscent of the type of humor SNL has subscribed to for years, and excluding the direct copycats such as Fridays, this may be the closest program tonally to the NBC mainstay. Though it's not easy to find today, and may not be the most relevant program from top to bottom, Not Necessarily Television does create some laughs that still resonate nearly 30 years into the future.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, the head writer of his website, a podcaster and a guy on Twitter.

  • ManfredYon

    The British version, so you know, is just called Not the Nine O'Clock News.
    Big success, by the way, launched too many comedy writers to mention, as well as giving Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith (Alas Smith and Jones), Chris Langham (The Thick of It, I suppose, I'm not sure what gets shown over there),. Pamela Connelly (nae Stephenson the so far only Australian on SNL) and Rowan Atkinson their big exposure.