Evening Court?

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we wrapped up our coverage on the best of Barney Miller, so this is my last chance to share a rarity associated with Night Court, which came up a lot in our discussion due to the Reinhold Weege connection. In support of that study, I’m offering, for subscribers who comment below to alert me of their interest, access to the pilot script of Sirota’s Court, a short-lived sitcom that aired for nine episodes on NBC during the 1976-’77 season (with four more segments produced but unbroadcast). Sirota’s Court was helmed by Harvey Miller, whose prior credits included Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.; Love, American Style; and The Odd Couple, making him more of an affiliate of the Garry Marshall school of sitcommery (which we’ll be discussing soon) than any of the ’70s’ other aesthetic motherships (like MTM or Lear). Although dismal ratings led to a quick demise, the cast was star-studded, including Room 222′s Michael Constantine, Mad About You’s Cynthia Harris, and Fernwood 2 Night’s Fred Willard, along with Kathleen Miller, Ted Ross, and Owen Bush… However, the main reason this series is notable is because it’s long been called a forebear of Weege’s aforementioned ’80s hit, a workplace comedy about the personal and professional antics of a New York City night court.

First though, just as with Park St. Under and the many bar sitcoms that predated Cheers, I always caution that one must be skeptical about overstating commonalities, for it’s unwise to be proprietary about a low-concept premise, especially with a fairly generic setting — like a courtroom. Naturally, it’s the characters that make every show special, and if it was merely the idea that these two shared, I wouldn’t have investigated. But Sirota’s Court and Night Court have a similar rundown of regulars: an unorthodox judge and his court clerk love interest, a passionate public defender, a sleazy D.A., and a daffy bailiff. That’s fishy, right? I thought so too. But I was willing to keep an open mind for, again, watching episodes of Park St. Under revealed that just because that show and Cheers claimed some leads whom we might describe identically from a bird’s-eye view, they’re not actually rendered comparably, or even in a way that would suggest the latter’s conscious awareness of the former. It could be, once again, that the premise is merely informing positional archetypes, setting up room for nuance, and inside a series-specific style.

However, these two are a little more similar than I hoped. After reading Sirota’s pilot — which, aside from a few name changes, looks to be a solid reflection of the series (it aired as the eighth segment on April 06, 1977) — I was shocked by how reminiscent it was of Night Court. I say shocked mostly because I thought there would be more of a palpable distinction in comic tone. That is, I didn’t expect Miller’s Odd Couple-like bigness and obviousness with character to be analogous to Weege’s own ethos, which is big and obvious with character in relation to Danny Arnold’s ideal, but otherwise fairly low-concept and realistic when taken inside the entire genre, boasting a snappy hardness that, frankly, is uncommon in, say, Garry Marshall’s ’70s output. And yet, Miller’s silly pedigree seems to be tempered here by both the setting’s quiet realism and its capacity, like Barney Miller, for topical socially relevant stories that have to be treated with smart sincerity. This bridges the gap that might exist between their voices, and indeed, while one imagines the broadness of Sirota’s Court indulging the Marshall-esque goofiness of the late ’70s as Night Court certainly hews more towards the metatheatrical absurdity of the late ’80s, in the early stages of both, the disparity apparently isn’t wide, if it’s even there at all.

That said, I get the impression that Sirota’s — had it run longer — would have proven itself more didactic than Night Court, as implied by its most famous episode, “Court Fear,” which notably featured TV’s first same-sex wedding. Also, Weege is more committed to giving his series equal parts personal and procedural weight, unlike Sirota’s Court, which has surprisingly smart character stuff (again, given Miller’s pedigree), but, based on published descriptions of episodes, less of a balance — more of the aura of an idea-led sketch, with a parade of cases and guests driving value. Meanwhile, there are just as many character deviations as similarities — for instance, despite some shared leads, Night Court doesn’t have a competitive private attorney in its ensemble like Sirota’s, and Sirota’s doesn’t have anything as one-of-a-kind as the established comic persona of star Harry Anderson. To that point, their pilots show significantly different interests with regard to character; Sirota jokily introduces us to each of its regulars through the arrival of a new idealistic public defender, while Night Court isn’t as funny at first and isn’t as good at providing us an immediate snapshot of each person (that would come with time, as in Barney Miller), but it’s nevertheless built entirely around establishing the well-defined and comedically dominating Harry, the court’s odd new anchoring judge. Accordingly, Night Court feels more like a singular, focused character piece — a fact that’s corroborated by the storytelling throughout its first season, which is more personalized than Sirota’s.

Of course, Night Court would evolve into more of an ensemble effort in future years, because after all, it got a nine-season run, during which time its regulars ended up much richer and more dimensional than Sirota’s ever could have hoped to be in 13 weeks. What’s more, the ensemble itself evolved quite a bit on Night Court too — the judge’s romance with the court clerk (or at least the suggestion of it) quickly transferred over to the public defender… who herself went through several iterations before landing on the one that most resembles Sirota’s. In other words, even character similarities in the 13-episode Sirota’s Court have to stretch and be applied to all nine years of Night Court, not just its comparable first season. Thus, my takeaway is not that Night Court is a shameless rip-off of Sirota’s Court — that would diminish Night Court’s quirks and trajectory — but rather that Sirota’s Court looks like something of a jumping-off point, if not for Weege, then for NBC, the network that aired both and clearly wanted to make this kind of sitcom, using certain types of characters, and a certain type of humor. For there are more than just premise-based coincidences: they feel very much like two versions of the same show. But don’t take my word for it; see for yourself. Here’s a clip that aired when Constantine appeared on The Tonight Show, and below is an excerpt from the script of the Sirota’s Court pilot, written by Harvey Miller, shot in March 1976 and broadcast in April 1977. It’s good — heck, it’s like Night Court (which, by the way, was Sirota’s Court’s original title).

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more sitcom fun!

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