Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our look at the best of The John Larroquette Show (1993-1996, NBC), a fascinatingly different never-quite-a-hit that stood in contrast to much of the Peacock Network’s mid ’90s fare. The series is currently unavailable commercially in any form, but I have access to off-air recordings of 83 of the 84 produced episodes (and I found the final draft teleplay for the one I’m missing), so let’s discuss! (UPDATE: I have upgraded the screen captures for this post, using recordings from Rewind TV.)
The John Larroquette Show stars JOHN LARROQUETTE as John Hemingway, LIZ TORRES as Mahalia Sanchez, GIGI RICE as Carly Watkins, DARYL “CHILL” MITCHELL as Dexter Walker, CHI McBRIDE as Heavy Gene, LENNY CLARKE as Officer Adam Hampton, ELIZABETH BERRIDGE as Officer Eve Eggers, and JOHN F. O’DONOHUE as Max Dumas. Recurring players include BILL MOREY as Oscar, DAVID SHAWN MICHAELS as Teddi, JAZZMUN as Pat, and DAVID CROSBY as Chester.
Unlike Frasier, which is available in full on DVD, can be found on several different streaming services, and remains in syndication as of this present writing, The John Larroquette Show probably resides entirely in your memories — maybe you read about it in the papers, caught its brief run on the USA cable channel, or, as is most likely, remember checking in on it during its three-and-a-half-year NBC run (almost two seasons of which were spent in the Tuesday slot behind Frasier). Because of its lack of visibility, though, it’s hard to respond to the show itself these days; all that most of us have is the ever-graying interior legends of what we think it was… Of course, the series pops up on YouTube every now and again (usually with contorted audio and an even worse quality than the VHS recordings from which it’s sourced, despite the efforts of one uploader currently trying to restore his copies) — and these posts may indeed inspire you to attempt sitting through one of those videos. But the terrible, faded appearance of what you’ll find is a generally apt analogy for the frayed recollections upon which many of those who discuss the show today base their opinions. Thus, the primary appeal of highlighting The John Larroquette Show here is being able to offer a clear-eyed look at what the series actually was, while working through a few of the myths that have come to be accepted as fact. As we’ll see over the next four weeks, I’d be willing to guess that everything you’ve heard about the show is based in some truth… but the truth, you know, is seldom cut-and-dry… For instance, many who succinctly appraise the show will tell you that NBC took a comedy with a unique, exciting first season and ruined it by attempting to make it more like the rest of their mid ‘90s offerings.
That’s only part of the story. Such a surface interpretation ignores the fact that the “unique, exciting” first season had MUCH room for improvement, and that the network’s annual tweaking — always a condition of renewal — was partly a reaction to their recognition of this genuine need. (The other big part was the Nielsens, of course.) Naturally, as more things changed, the less likely it was that any easy “fix” could make the show better — and therefore, the ultimate goal, of becoming a commercial success, moved further out of reach. Yet Seasons Two, Three, and Four — while indeed different from One — are each separate entities, with varying episodic success rates and opposing things that work (and don’t); they should be treated individually — not as one single post-One mess. Additionally, I’d caution against the tendency to believe that The John Larroquette Show became a “traditional” NBC comedy once it was forced to drop a lot of what made this first year different (for network television). Actually, as we’ll see, the series committed itself to finding other ways to claim and project its own uniqueness — and, sadly, this goal may have actually kept the show from improving in the very areas where it needed to improve in the first place… Eventually, yes, Larroquette was watered down by network-mandated changes. But this was a long journey — and many of those changes were sparked and compounded by the series’ own perennial failure to address its most basic shortcomings… So, I can’t claim there’ll be a lot of brilliance on these lists — certainly not in comparison to the material we got to highlight for Frasier — but it’s a great show to discuss!
In the pilot of The John Larroquette Show, recovering alcoholic John Hemingway takes a job as the new night manager of a St. Louis bus station and hangs a sign in his office that reads, “THIS IS A DARK RIDE.” This was to be the series’ mantra, as established by Larroquette — then coming off a four-time Emmy-winning stint on Night Court — and creator Don Reo, whose other helmed shows (Blossom, My Wife And Kids) obscure his non-creator credits on better, more thematically rebellious works (like Laugh-In, MASH, and Action), with which Larroquette shares a stronger kinship. Together the pair conceived of an ensemble workplace comedy — in the structural vein, sure, of NBC’s darling, the departing Cheers — but with a regular cast that included a hooker, a bum, and a drag queen, along with a harsher, seedier vibe: more reflective of early Night Court, and better still, Barney Miller. (See more below…) This “Dark Ride” mission statement was to be an extension of the inner turmoil plaguing the protagonist, whose weekly AA meetings were at the heart of the show’s earliest stories. In fact, Reo and Larroquette claimed that these first 13 episodes were built to mirror the 12 Step Program. After studying those steps, I think this association seems tenuous, but it sounds good (at least), and indeed manifests a sense of focus that the series never again enjoys. For while the entire year is allowed to operate under that “Dark Ride” umbrella — exploring John’s rehabilitation (complicated, for instance, by his sponsor’s death) — there’s a difference in quality between the year’s two halves, with the first being far stronger (and nothing beating the hilarious, potential-filled pilot).
There are two factors that I think we can fairly blame for the descent in quality following the first 13 installments: a) the network stepping in when the numbers, up against Roseanne (#4 for the season), looked grim, and b) the show not mitigating its own shortcomings — a.k.a. the creative shot-callers not maintaining their due diligence following that well-laid “12 Step” plan. To the first point, there’s no doubt that the “darkness” emanating from the chosen ensemble, the weekly dramatic stakes, and the depths of Hemingway’s suffering (the very things for which this first season is glowingly remembered today), is more pronounced in the first 13 episodes than the last 11. And given what we know the network indeed requested as a condition for a second-year renewal (stay tuned…), it’s not hard to imagine that some “lighten up” advice had already been dispensed and heeded (to a limited degree) during Season One… although not for any tangible gains. For even though there wasn’t a wholesale reduction in the “Dark Ride” directive, this specific tonal choice had been motivated by the protagonist’s arc and intended as a way of defining the entire series, which means that “darker” first season episodes play better than lighter ones, and the back half of the year was thereby forced more often to fail within the prism of the show’s stylistic thesis… However, this in itself represents the core shortcoming: if we’re determining whether an episode’s good or not based on its fidelity to a tone, a style, or a structure, then we’re likely not deriving enough from its most satisfying tool: the characters.
Now, I don’t think tone is inherently in competition with character — here or anywhere. Just as we saw with Frasier, the Larroquette Show’s timbre (dirty, depressing, “edgy”) is an extension of its protagonist. And indeed, John Hemingway is rich and multi-faceted — because of the continued exploration of his inner demons, which again, define the show. But we’ve also seen before how a stylistic choice (the cousin of a story-goal, which the “12 Steps” design resembles) can get in the way of the characters. In this case, I’d argue that The John Larroquette Show built itself around John and its desired tone, but didn’t afford the same treatment to anything else, particularly the other players. Frankly, the ensemble — while filled with individuals who can sell a snappy line — is generally underdeveloped. The hooker is defined by her profession, the cops are broad and unbelievable, the janitor is story-resistant, the drag queen is a punchline source, and the bus driver… well, he’s so forgettable that he was dropped before Season Two (and replaced by a hobo). The most valuable cast members, beyond John, are the two who seem to actually have relationships with him — Mahalia (Liz Torres, of All In The Family, Phyllis, The Gilmore Girls), his secretary who handles the ticket counter and has several kids with an ex-husband that left her for a younger woman, and Dexter (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell), who runs the lunch counter and resents John for getting the manager job. These two suggest possibilities — but their viabilities are directly correlated to how the pilot establishes them in relation to John. The others? Without a solid association, they get less exploration, and thus, end the first year with limited definition.
You see, these shortcomings — part nitpicky, part seminal — become clearer when the show steps into the “light,” or rather, when the scripts are forced to downplay the tonal hook and can no longer use the “12 Step” narrative crutch. And future network-mandated “lightening” will only expose more of these problems — especially as scripts focus on John’s romantic relationships over his platonic ones. Yet I think we see enough of the trouble already, for in the latter half of the year, there are many story-driven excursions — John destroys the U.S.’ official “inch”; John and Dexter spend the night in a hotel with chickens; a witch curses Dexter’s lunch counter, etc. — that reveal a series struggling with how it can motivate episodic plots through character, even those who are relatively well-defined. I would imagine that this conflict — justified by the low ratings (in spite of good reviews) — made a convincing case for, if not cancellation, then at least some major retooling. But we’ll talk more about Season Two next week… In the meantime, I want to clarify that in the midst of some needed tweaks, The John Larroquette Show’s first year deserves attention — and part of this is due to its subversive tone, which stands in contrast to the material only just starting to typify NBC’s mid ‘90s brand (that seemed best embodied, for better or worse, by Friends, which premiered in Larroquette’s second season), and encourages many today to call the series “ahead of its time.” (Even though the show is actually a latent off-shoot of the sitcom’s late ’80s rebellious streak, it’s true that its aesthetic particulars are more commonly seen on network TV today — heck, just look at Mom.) Yet, beyond this stylistic appeal, the Hemingway character is appropriately layered and the show’s classically designed structure, à la Night Court and Barney Miller, is easily appealing.
In fact, the network saw enough potential here to renew the series (with its low ratings) — and offer it a huge vote of confidence, placing it behind a known hit, Frasier, which was moving to Tuesdays to take on ABC. And despite my above commentary, the general quality of these scripts, particularly the first 13, makes the case as to why NBC was eager to stick with Larroquette… Speaking of scripts, the staff for this first year included Reo, his wife Judith D. Allison, who shared several of his same credits, J.J. Wall (Blossom, Grace Under Fire, Less Than Perfect), Bill Richmond (Welcome Back Kotter, Three’s Company, Blossom), and Blossom alum Eve Needleman. Rounding out the staff — and making it most interesting — were two veterans of the final seasons of The Golden Girls (and The Golden Palace): Jim Vallely, who wrote for Action, Arrested Development, and Two And A Half Men, and Mitchell Hurwitz, who created or co-created The Ellen Show, Arrested Development and Lady Dynamite. Their presence — this was a Witt-Thomas co-production — and our awareness of their future credits, gives credence to some of the “edgy,” “dark,” and “ahead of its time” talk that fans often afford this individual season… Ultimately, though, it’s true that Season One is the darkest. It’s also true that it’s the most rewarding — because of this first 13 (where the Emmy-nominated Larroquette shines). But it’s never perfect, and the shoddy character work should NOT be downplayed in a discussion of the show’s trajectory, for while NBC may not have made things easy on the series in future years, these early foundational kinks are equally troubling; more later, though… In the meantime, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Every episode this year, except for one highlighted below, is directed by John Whitesell.
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/02/93)
John struggles to stay sober on his first night in the bus station.
Written by Don Reo
As mentioned above, I don’t think there’s any episode of The John Larroquette Show that’s stronger than the pilot; not only does it exist within that first focused order of 13, but it also represents the most promise — for there’s not yet been any time for this potential to have been squandered. However, the teleplay itself is deliciously strong, filled with sharp characterizations that reflect the darkness with which the series initially intends to be associated. Watching the entry today, some viewers may be drawn to the guest appearance of Doris Roberts (who plays a woman angry at John over a missing bus), but it’s the regular character work (never better, by the way) that’s supreme here — with the introductions of Mahalia, Dexter, and Carly (who has a dynamite opening exchange with a man trying to pick her up) being particularly memorable. (Also, note that NBC premiered the show in a special Thursday slot — over a week before the actual fall season was to begin — hoping to build its audience before Roseanne returned.)
02) Episode 3: “Celibate!” (Aired: 09/14/93)
John’s sponsor orders him to be celibate for six months.
Written by Jim Vallely
If you look down at my Honorable Mentions, you’ll see that 10 of the 13 episodes from this initial stretch are highlighted or discussed here in some capacity — one of those being the sophomore outing (below), which introduces John’s AA sponsor Chester. This offering, the third, continues the show’s heavy use of AA as a source of story when Chester tells John to remain celibate for six months — an order that seems especially challenging given John’s new girlfriend. Once again, the non-network tone, the heady subject matter, and the sheer excitement of this series having so much possibility makes this script’s pronounced comedy seem more rewarding — even Heavy Gene’s subplot (involving a discoloration on his genitalia) is a hoot!
03) Episode 4: “This Is Not A Step” (Aired: 09/21/93)
John gets a visit from his estranged mother.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz
Aptly titled “This Is Not A Step,” this is (supposedly) the only script from the first 13 that’s not patterned off one of the 12 Steps (which, again, I don’t think was ever an explicitly clear framing device, even though it seemed to provide a focus and sense of direction). Also, it’s the first time the series indulges a bit of stunt casting — something it would do throughout its run, especially as the bid to build an audience became more intense — here, with June Lockhart (best known as the mom from Lassie) turning up as John’s con-artist mother. Part of the joke resides in our knowledge of the actress, which isn’t character-rooted. But at least she’s not playing herself (as many future guests would). Again, it’s still funny and thesis-connected.
04) Episode 8: “The Past Comes Back” (Aired: 10/26/93)
A gay recovering alcoholic apologizes for seducing John.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
Yet another really funny outing that’s tonally baked in that subversive, recalcitrant “darkness” and narratively steeped in the soon-to-be-lessened exploration of John’s continuing struggle with his alcoholic past (and his present quest to maintain sobriety), this episode is one of the year’s most consistently written. That is, it’s worthwhile from start to finish. The premise finds another recovering alcoholic — a gay man — coming to make amends to John for apparently seducing him back during the latter’s drinking days. This plunges John into a crisis — is he gay or was it just the booze? There are a lot of amusing moments within the story — the drawing, the dream sequence, the AA meeting — and the ending is satisfying without being too tidy.
05) Episode 10: “Amends” (Aired: 11/23/93)
John hopes to make amends with his ex-wife and son.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
Donna Mills makes the first of her two appearances (in this season only) as the first of John’s ex-wives, the one with whom he has a son, Tony, a recurring role introduced here and played by Omri Katz. Because of the substantive, emotional subject matter, this entry isn’t among the year’s funniest — but since the telling fits the story, and the script finds ways to work in humor elsewhere (like in the extended car scene between John and Dexter, always a laugh-inducing pair), this isn’t a complaint. Also, as the storyline is so rooted in John’s character — just as the tone actually was in these early installments — that divine sense of premise-related fidelity and character richness is appreciated (and helps excuse Joe Namath’s gimmicky cameo, too).
06) Episode 13: “God” (Aired: 12/21/93)
Mahalia forces John to question the existence of God.
Written by Jim Vallely
There are a lot of guns pulled out in the first season of Larroquette (not unlike early Night Court, or as mentioned above, Barney Miller, both of which were also based in urban settings where vagrants and misfits could potentially be dangerous), and in this episode, Mahalia pulls one on John. Guns are a difficult object in the sitcom, for their dramatic presence raises the stakes on everyday truth. But because the premise stems from the focused telling of John’s recovery (his relationship with God), and because Mahalia is depicted in such a way (and in such a world) where this seems possible (she’s very religious and wants John to be as well), we make the leap and appreciate what is, essentially, the final chapter in the show’s well-designed character arc.
07) Episode 18: “Another Average Night” (Aired: 02/01/94)
John is held up at gunpoint while Mahalia holds someone else up at gunpoint.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
Although the series no longer has the “12 Step” structure on which to rely, this entry — produced as the year’s 14th (so right on the fumes of the initial 13) — still feels connected, tonally, to that first lot. As you’ll notice, it was saved for broadcast until February sweeps, for it’s the first strong outing since “God,” and this is because it plays with more of a unity of time and place by confining all three of its stories to the same general location. More guns are pulled, but while they extend from the show’s “grit,” the paralleling (John being harassed by his girlfriend’s husband, as Mahalia threatens her own cheating ex) is also clearly played for laughs and thus alleviates some contrivance. Meanwhile, the subplot features Frasier‘s Edward Hibbert, who’s managing the bar next door when a woman (Molly Shannon!) starts a topless protest.
08) Episode 19: “Dirty Deeds” (Aired: 02/01/94)
John sees his old college roommate in a drag show.
Written by Judith D. Allison & Don Reo
We’ve seen a variation of this story before on the third season of Night Court (discussed here in 2016), in which Dan Fielding had to come to terms with the fact that his old buddy was now living as a woman. In this take on the idea, John spots his old college roommate at a drag competition (where the crew has gone to see Teddi, who’s soon to be replaced by Pat, included here for just the second time). It’s a gimmicky, familiar premise — even with the character not transgendered — but the teleplay props it up with humor and bolsters the action with a subplot involving Mahalia and a blackmailer who has a secret X-rated film of her from long ago. Sexy Mahalia is always a fun source of comedy and this B-story easily improves the offering.
09) Episode 23: “Wasted Lives” (Aired: 03/29/94)
John accidentally gets high on marijuana brownies.
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Jim Vallely
The second of two episodes credited as having been co-written by the duo that had come from The Golden Girls (and The Golden Palace) — their first was a gimmicky show built around guest star Bobcat Goldthwait — this is the fondly remembered excursion in which John, who’s supposed to remain clean and sober, accidentally gets high on marijuana brownies. (Yes, it’s another overly familiar sitcom storyline — perhaps most notably recalled from its utilization on the aforementioned Barney Miller.) Frankly, this installment isn’t among the best of this season’s output, but because it connects to the original premise — John muddling through his recovery — and finds some non-cringeworthy laughs therein, it deserves to be featured. (Also, Joe Pesci makes a hacky appearance as himself — a sign of more gimmicks to come.)
10) Episode 24: “A Dark And Stormy Night” (Aired: 04/12/94)
John searches for meaning as the terminal is held hostage.
Written by Don Reo | Directed by Greg Antonacci
As the year’s finale, credited to the series’ creator and the man who also wrote the pilot, there’s a sense of character-rooted completeness that the show, when it’s much less tightly managed, will never again muster. For after a whole season of being sober, John Hemigway’s life isn’t exactly as happy and conflict-free as he’d have liked — evidenced by this weekly narrative, in which there’s yet another hold-up at gunpoint (this time it’s the entire terminal, allowing this to be an entry with moments for the ensemble). This is an interesting character-based foundation for the episode — a lot like Frasier‘s introspective first year finale, actually — and it doesn’t disappoint, even when it comes to its cliffhanger, involving a post-coital John and Carly; stay tuned…
Other episodes that merit mention include: “Pros And Cons,” a funny entry (filled with sex jokes) in which a bounty hunter, played by Ryan Stiles, stops in the station while transporting a naive male virgin from Mississippi, and the aforementioned Bobcat Goldthwait excursion, “The Big Slip,” which will delight fans of the energetic performer, even if it doesn’t earn great character points on behalf of anyone else. Of more Honorable Mention quality are others from the first 13, “Thirty Day Chip,” which introduces Chester and gives a fun scene to Mahalia, Dexter, and Gene; the funny-but-uneven “There’s A Mister Hitler Here To See You,” which boasts a gaudy A-story of John refusing to give a bus to Neo-Nazis, a worthwhile B-story in which a former friend writes a book about John’s lurid past, and a dreadful C-story with Dexter and a health inspector; and “Newcomer,” in which Empty Nest‘s Dinah Manoff guest stars as John’s new girlfriend — a fresh recovering boozer who must now be celibate for six months. Also, while I can’t recommend them in full, there are amusing moments in the first half of “Eggs,” as John and Dexter spend a night in a motel with a bunch of chickens, and in a few John/Eggers beats in “Grit.” (Incidentally, I find Eggers broad and hard to enjoy; she’s better in small doses; that’s why there are beats in “Grit” that delight, even if it, as a whole, doesn’t.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The John Larroquette Show goes to…..
Come back next week for my thoughts on Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for another Wildcard Wednesday!