46. "Complaint Box," NewsRadio (1997)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
Before The Office, the sitcom that tried hardest to capture the meetings-and-memos hell of a desk job was NewsRadio. Appropriately for a show on which just about every attempt to improve a workplace failed spectacularly, NBC changed NewsRadio's timeslot 11 times during its four-year run without it becoming more than a cult success. Maybe the show became more surreal as it went on just because everyone involved got dizzy.
NewsRadio was technically about the crew at an all-news radio station in New York City, but the show rarely featured plots having anything to do with journalism. Indeed, a scene from last week's Community ("Curriculum Unavailable") would have been perfectly apt for the finale of NewsRadio: The revelation that WNYX existed only in the minds of a group of inmates at an insane asylum. (This explains "The Sinking Ship" episode.)
Dave: (reading a complaint card to Matthew) It says, "Matthew tells long, boring stories about his personal life that nobody cares about."
Dave: Don't worry. It's just somebody's idea of a joke.
Matthew: Well, I think we should talk about this.
Dave: It's really not necessary.
Matthew: I think it is necessary, because I do, actually. I do tell long, boring stories. Haven't you noticed?
Dave: Be that as it may, it's not disruptive to the workplace.
Matthew: I think it is. I mean, people are trying to work out there, and there's me, telling my long, boring stories. Blah, blah, blah. Even I can't get any work done, because there I am going blabbety-blibbity-blabbety all the time. Jeez.
Dave: You wrote this complaint about yourself, didn't you?
"Complaint Box" is mostly about a new employee conduct policy that creates problems and solves none. It's also something of a Triple Twonky episode in that all three of its storylines involve needlessly complicated inventions by do-it-yourselfer Joe: the complaint box with its loud buzzer; the oversized walkie-talkie that Jimmy James uses to keep in touch with the office while on a fishing trip; and the device that stymies Catherine's attempt to record a Book on Tape in the office kitchen. (It's Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, which someone must have donated to the asylum's library.)
The complaint box, which is supposed to bring some order to the griping about colleagues' behavior that goes on in any office, is more like a toy thrown into the monkey cage at a zoo. One of the best remembered NewsRadio scenes is Dave reading aloud all the cards that have been quickly stuffed into the box.
Dave: "You suck." "You suck." "Howard Stern rules." "If you can read this you are a dork." "Coupon for one free kiss from Joe if you are a girl." "We need more complaint cards." "Coupon for one free kiss from Joe if you are a guy."
Dave: "Who's the black private dick who's the sex machine with all the chicks?"
Everyone else in unison: Shaft!
Bill: I thought we'd all enjoy that.
The episode reaches its climax with Dave facing disciplinary action over one of the facetious complaint cards; the scene is Python-esque in the way it keeps revealing one more layer of absurdity. As far as I know, the complaint box never appears again, but NewsRadio never had much trouble with continuity. When everything introduced to the office is a misfire, there's not much to keep track of.
• Also on the Top 100 list: "Bitch Session," at No. 26.
• Cheers has a funny, but somewhat darker, Twonky episode about a fortune-telling machine. The A.V. Club's Donna Bowman picked up on a sound effect similarity:
Ratchet sound... ding! That’s the secret of “Fortune and Men’s Weight” to me. As Carla talks to Cliff in the front of the bar, as Diane agonizes over her all-too-accurate fortune, in the background we keep hearing: ratchet sound... ding! Like the buzzer on NewsRadio’s iconic “Complaint Box,” it’s the constant reminder that the action continues off-camera, and that the resulting complications in people’s lives keep twisting.
• Restricting Jimmy James to the voice of a box for most of the episode doesn't make him any less funny — which isn't surprising given Stephen Root's extensive voice-over work, including multiple roles on King of the Hill. In her review of "Complaint Box," Donna Bowman also notes how effective the box's oscilloscope screen is at generating laughs. My favorite moment comes when Dave is talking with Jimmy-in-a-Box and makes the mistake of calling the company lawyers "a bunch of jackasses." There's a shot of a completely flat line on the oscilloscope, which finally jumps to life as Jimmy sighs, "Oooh, boy." (Jimmy also asks Dave, "Do I look like I'm joking?")
• Jimmy's voice box reminded me of the Roald Dahl short story "William and Mary," though the similar-looking device in that story could see but not talk. It needs to be remade with Root in a speaking role.
• It is really hard to get a screencap of Dave Foley with his eyes open. Also, I think his Canadian roots show up in his reading of the line "I take the complaint boucks very seriously." But his deadpan delivery is very funny, as seen in the complaint-card-reading scene below.