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Friday, November 8th, 2013

Looking Back at the 'John Larroquette Show'

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 150,000 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.)

A note: The original version of this article inaccurately and unintentionally inflated Mitch Hurwtiz's role in the creation The John Larroquette Show. Hurwitz took over the show after the second season. The pilot examined below was written and created by Don Reo and the article has been updated to reflect as much.

In the modern television landscape, shows like Louie, HBO's various comedies, and Adult Swim's often strange programming offer audiences windows into all sorts of strange worlds. Not all that long ago however, viewers didn't have quite so many choices in programming, and so there were much fewer opportunities for subversion to make its way through the cracks. Today, we examine the pilot of The John Larroquette Show, one such show that snuck through and, for a few seasons, made television a little darker.

The show, which was initially named Crossroads after the bus depot that the main character John Hemmingway has become the manager, was John Larroquette's chance to breakout after his role on the long-running Night Court. Behind the scenes, the show featured a very talented crew of writers, headed by television veteran Don Reo, creator of Blossom and My Wife and Kids. The writers' room featured Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz, Jim Valleley, Golden Girls alum and future Arrested Development writer, and John Levinstein, future AD producer. The first thing that strikes you about the first episode of this show is how dark it is. This is a prime-time sitcom in 1993. This is the era of Seinfeld, Home Improvement, Cheers, and on the darker side, maybe Rosanne. This show opens with a grizzled looking Larroquette standing at the podium at an AA meeting, admitting that he's only been sober for 36 hours and that he really needs this new job to work this time. And this is just one of the many heavy topics discussed in this episode.

Larroqutte's character, John Hemingway (get it?), is given his first impression of Crossroads in the form of an old wino who immediately offers him a drink as he walks into the building. He soon meets Mahalia, his assistant, who shows him his office. It's drab and dreary and doesn't house much besides the bottle of scotch sitting on the desk, a simple painting on the wall, and the chalk outline on the floor of the previous manager. "What happened?" asks John. "He died in his sleep. Never even felt the bullet."

We are then introduced to Dexter, who works behind the counter at the lunch counter and quickly becomes a source of great anguish to John. Dexter is a smart ass, but he's also street smart: he tells the police officers eating at his counter that their money is no good there. They thank him and tell him that now there's almost no chance of them shooting him by accident. ("Sorry about the last time. It was dark.") When Hemingway makes friendly conversation with Dex about how the night shift is going to throw off his eating schedule, Dex tells him that if he's not eating he needs to move his alabaster butt off his stool. John protests that he was just trying to be friendly to which Dex replies, "And a lovely try it was!" John initially tells us at the beginning of the episode that he was the only person to apply for the manager position but that notion is soon shattered when Dex informs him that he was the only WHITE person to apply for the position.

On top of that, now Ray Romano's TV mom, Doris Roberts, is mad at John because the bus from Detroit is late, along with her husband's kidney donor. This being the pre-cellphone age, Hemingway has no information to give her, and after she hits him several times with her purse, he's able to move on to the janitor who refuses to clean the disgusting men's room and that he can't threaten to fire due to union issues. Then he has to shoo a hooker named Carly away from his lunch counter after she insults a customer.

Customer: What would it take for a girl like you to go out with a guy like me?

Carly: $300.

Customer: What would it take for you to go out with me free?

Carly: A rip in the fabric of time.

Eventually things work out for Hemmingway, sort of. The bus from Detroit shows up on time, he patches things up with the hooker, and he even helps Dex avoid getting scammed by a lady running a con. However, when he returns to his office after a long first day of work, there's still that bottle sitting there. As he sits there, contemplating giving in, a burglar shows up, and gun in hand, demanding the money, and Dex, inadvertently joins them and is forced to stand alongside John against the wall. In a normal sitcom, this would be the point where the two bond and overcome this obstacle, either by force or through intelligence. On The John Laroquette Show, Dex tells the robber to "Go ahead and shoot him. He doesn't deserve this job." Betrayed, John retorts with, "You watch the news! You've got a better chance of getting off if you shoot him." Befuddled, and a little freaked out, the robber runs away. Dex begrudgingly thanks John for helping him with the con artist before encouraging him to just drink the bottle. With nothing left to lose, John solemnly stands up, exits his office, picks up the gun that's kept behind the front counter, and goes back into his office, closing the door behind him. A shot rings out and the people out front fear the worst until John steps back out, shows the top of the empty broken bottle and says simply, "Got 'im."

Earlier in this episode, John symbolically replaces the cheery painting left in his office with a simple sign reading "This is a Dark Ride," it's less of a character trait than a warning to the audience. Each episode of the first season takes us through one of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. It may not be a fun journey, but it will be a funny one, so hang on and enjoy the ride. The show ended up lasting for three and half seasons and went through some pretty radical changes along the way in an effort to prolong its life. The characters moved to the day shift. Carly the prostitute goes "straight" and decides to run the bar at the bus station. In one episode, according to producer John Levenstein, an elephant was on the loose. A love interest shows up and reveals that she's pregnant with John's baby the same day as he's supposed to get married to Carly the former hooker! The show lost a lot of its bite and has been relegated to the TV dust bin ever since, leaving behind a legacy of jokes that I can't believe they got away with on prime time network TV twenty years ago.

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