Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! In this week’s entry, I’m discussing and sharing my picks for the best episodes from Stark Raving Mad, the single-season multi-camera sitcom that aired in NBC’s Must See TV Thursday block from 1999-2000. Scheduled at 9:30 behind Frasier, this short-lived comedy was created by Steven Levitan (Wings, Frasier, Just Shoot Me!, Modern Family) and starred Tony Shalhoub (Wings, obviously, and Monk) as Ian Stark, an eccentric horror novelist who’s paired with an anal retentive young editor, Henry McNeeley, played by Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie Howser M.D., How I Met Your Mother), as they work on an upcoming book. Others in the cast included Eddie McClintock as Jake, Ian’s simple-minded roommate, Heather Paige Kent (who replaced Jessica Cauffiel a month before the premiere) as their neighbor Maddie, a bartender and college student, and Dorie Barton as Tess, Henry’s prissy girlfriend, who was elevated to the regular cast after a few well-received appearances that began with episode two. Also, Harriet Sansom Harris (Frasier) recurred as Henry’s boss.
Sounds great, right? Stark Raving Mad had both the cast and crew of a hit series… and the time slot of one, too. However, starting out as Must See TV was a risky business that presented its own challenges. You see, the rules of the network game were far different in the late ’90s than today, and as we explore more of these forgotten MSTV flops, it’s interesting to note that most of them, on paper, appear to be hits. That is, coming in at #15 (which Stark Raving Mad did) in a season that included over 150 shows is an accomplishment. But the prerequisites inherent to this real estate — the most popular comedy block of the era — demanded higher standards. (For instance, Levitan’s Just Shoot Me! finished in ’00 as the #53 most-watched show. But because it was scheduled on Tuesdays, it didn’t have to be in the Top Ten… or even the Top 50!) So, a show like Stark Raving Mad knew that it needed to stack its deck in order to survive in MSTV Land. First, the series boasted a hit-hopping creator like Levitan. Then it claimed a writing staff that included Jeffrey Richman (Wings, Frasier, Modern Family), Alan Kirschenbaum (Down The Shore, Yes Dear), David A. Goodman (Flying Blind, Family Guy), Gayle Abrams (Spin City, Frasier), Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones (Spin City, Friends), Lyn Greene & Richard Levine (The Crew, Nip/Tuck), Eric Zicklin (Dharma & Greg, Frasier), and Dana Gould (The Simpsons), along with a cast that featured two well-liked leads (Shalhoub and Harris) from past successes.
But 1999-2000 was a bad year to be an MSTV newbie. That season saw NBC losing a bit of its grip on Thursdays, for while the night’s three established hits (Friends, Frasier, and ER) finished the year as numbers five, six, and four, respectively, neither of the two hammock shows — Jesse (which was replaced by two other short-lived series before the year was out) and Stark Raving Mad (replaced at the end by Battery Park) — managed to crack the Top Ten. These primo time slots had been notoriously difficult ever since the network found two major league sitcom anchors for 8:00 and 9:00. Yet this was the first year since Friends launched the night that NBC’s season-opening hammock shows didn’t also stay within the Top Ten. This was due in part to enhanced counter-programming, particularly in the 9:00 hour, which featured The WB’s Charmed, FOX’s Action (which aired opposite Stark Raving Mad and was discussed here this past August), and starting in January, the Thursday edition of ABC’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which wrapped the year as the #3 most watched program. So, at a time when even making the Top Ten might not be good enough for a Thursday comedy (which also needed to retain a certain amount of its lead-in audience), coming in this season at #15 certainly wasn’t good enough either — and neither was a People’s Choice Award, apparently.
22 episodes were produced, but NBC only broadcast 18 of them — one of which aired in July 2000, three months after the show had been cancelled. The last four installments were seen in syndication. None of them have been released to DVD, but all 22 regularly circulate. (In fact, as of this writing, you can check out the entire series on YouTube!) So, I’m going to be sharing a list of favorites — and in a relative rarity for a Wildcard Wednesday program, I’m able to choose a full list of ten. (Eight would have been a more natural number, but I just had so many Honorable Mentions!) However, first, let’s get through some broad thoughts on the series. For starters, if you know that I’m highlighting ten out of 22 total episodes, you must be thinking that this is a good show. Generally, yes — simply because the scripts are funny. These pro scribes reinforce their paramount comedic objective time and again, and while there are a few offerings that structure themselves around a singular crescendoing gag or a gimmick of the most commercial order (ex: guest appearances from Shalhoub’s former Wings co-star Steven Weber, and MSTV’s own Kelsey Grammer), most of these entries employ a consistent humor that’s motivated from the characters… And yet, you wouldn’t know this just by watching the pilot, which earned the show initially middling-to-poor reviews from both critics and viewers. Opinions improved slightly after the initial month, but as I see it, there were a few issues through which the series had to work — and most of them stemmed from the premise.
Although promoted as a darker and more eccentric version of The Odd Couple, with Shalhoub and Harris adhering to the Oscar and Felix archetypes (but as “Stephen King” meets “Niles Crane”), its ensemble design really made this another “Singles In The City” beat — set in New York with a co-ed cast of non-marrieds. Overcoming the lingering scent of eau de cliché would be difficult based on the series’ design, requiring an even greater emphasis on how the characters could rescue and revive this tired format. Initially, this originality was more story-based than it should be, with extreme characterizations that posit Henry as a germaphobe who’s afraid of anything and everything, and Ian as a practical joker who engages in odd experiments designed to test human behavior. Early episodes have Ian playing jokes on Henry ad nauseam. This gets old, especially because there’s not enough humanity yet to allow the audience to connect with the players, who are instinctively funny and decidedly oppositional, but who also seem too much like story pawns than proxy-humans. Furthermore, the show’s not sure which one we’re supposed to believe is madder — the genius (inspired by Kelsey Grammer) or his keeper? Happily, things change with the elevated importance of Henry’s girlfriend, Tess, who gets to absorb some of Henry’s broader characteristics, freeing him to become more relatable. This then alters his relationship with Ian, as it develops less around jokes or story, and more around how their different outlooks, upbringings, and experiences contrast them — believably.
Once this works, we can really start to enjoy the other players, too — all of whom are comedic (like Kent’s Maddie, who supplies some welcome funk that bounces well off the preppy Tess), if not terribly well-defined and explored (specifically Jake, who is good for jokes, but not plot). Yet, although the ensemble members, for the most part, exist nicely together, there’s still a dilemma surrounding motivation. It goes back to the premise; this “group of buds hanging out together” construct is more labored here because it sits on the fence between the “want to be together” and “have to be together” gray area of sitcom ensembles. In the former category, we find low-concept comedies like Seinfeld and Friends, where the leads choose to spend time with one another. In the latter category are workplace comedies, like Just Shoot Me!, and family comedies, such as Everybody Loves Raymond, where either blood or money presumes regular interaction. In the middle, there typically exists fare that splits its time between the home and the office (like, say, Frasier), but this is usually centered around one key figure. So, what of a show like Stark Raving Mad, which ostensibly ties its two unalike leads together under the pretenses of work, but then builds its ensemble around the collective merging of their social circles? Well, the show has to make us believe that these two anchoring figures would want to spend time together beyond obligation. This is a challenge, and the show ping pongs between various levels of mutual tolerance and camaraderie. Naturally, they get closer as time progresses, but if a script necessitates figurative daylight, their relationship will regress for 21 minutes.
Meanwhile, we have to accept that the rest of the ensemble — both Ian’s roommate and neighbor, and once she’s made a regular, Henry’s girlfriend — are willing to hang out together as an extension of the primary two leads. This requires a bigger leap, and it’s one that Stark Raving Mad never fully justifies. Apparently, they’re together because the show has chosen to focus on them. But… why? This question of “why?” begets an oddness surrounding the structure, and though this off-beat sensibility simultaneously affords the show a freedom to be less beholden to certain narrative tropes (and it can always eschew schmaltz with a sarcastic button from any one of the core five, which is much appreciated), the apparently premise-driven writer-based contrivance also makes it harder to see future opportunities for this cast of characters. That is, looking at the show doesn’t inspire potential in the viewer’s head. (What kind of stories could they yield? It’s a head-scratcher.) Additionally, Stark Raving Mad, by design, seems to be part of the rote “Singles In The City” tradition, but in its valiant efforts to be fresh, also tries too hard with its construction, denying believability in the process and then warranting an emotional disconnect… In this way, the premise just doesn’t lend itself to apparent viability, no matter how funny the scripts are or how individually enjoyable the players prove to be.
Furthermore, while the show retains its overarching claim to realism under which all Must See TV comedies from this period worked, there’s also a sense of lunacy — first supplied by the heightened narrative brush under which it paints the central relationship, and then eventually (and less overtly) by the text’s tonal and comedic sensibilities, which naturally set the series apart. Now, ordinarily, I’m against any smart character-driven comedy predicating a major source of its merit outside of character (like in tone), but in this case, I make an exception, not only because the ends tend to justify the means — the laughs are delivered and we didn’t have to leap too much — but also because during an era and comedic block in which template and formula tended to subjugate the funny, relatable, and human material genuinely trying to exist within these trite limitations, it’s exciting to see a show dare to be different. Now, don’t get me wrong, Stark Raving Mad is more like Friends than not. But both its set-up and its sense of humor are slightly warped, living up to its title — and doing so, eventually, without corrupting the characterizations, who were initially relied upon to propel the madness, even though they didn’t have the substance to make it authentic and connectable. The show never fully settles them (and one gets the feeling that the network is attempting to keep the show homogenized), but as the scripts come to know the characters better, the players begin to fit more within this inherent voice. Then the laughs become motivated and the stories, too, feel less forced.
So, with the exception of that issue regarding the “why?” behind this ensemble’s design, most of these initial kinks are solved during Stark Raving Mad‘s run, and in fact, I’d go so far as to note that, by November, the series is in a fairly evolved groove, cranking out comedic episodes with a narrative freshness that tries to build upon our understanding of the regulars. The show is routinely entertaining from this point forward, and certainly seems like it would have survived for a second season if the conditions of time and place (and according to Levitan, network politics) had been different. But, alas, with only 22 episodes, Stark Raving Mad gets to remain an amiable rarity. And I’m thrilled to share my selections for the series’ best — in airing order.
01) Episode 4: “Four Colds And A Funeral” (Aired: 10/14/99)
Henry feels responsible for the death of a beloved children’s book author.
Written by Eric Zicklin | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Making good use of the characterizations and Ian’s penchant for pranks (which is in full bloom during this early period), this delightfully dark entry finds Henry feeling responsible for the death of his childhood hero, an author who croaked of complications from a cold shortly after they dined. Also, Harriet Sansom Harris (Audrey) makes one of her four appearances.
02) Episode 5: “The Lyin’ King” (Aired: 10/21/99)
Ian and Henry plan to prank Henry’s cousin on Halloween.
Written by Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones | Directed by Gail Mancuso
Truthfully, this is one of those episodes that wouldn’t have made this list had I only selected eight. However, it’s one of the series’ best remembered — mostly for the climactic gag in which Henry turns the tables and pranks Ian with the birth of an alien baby. It’s absurd and story-driven, but it’s memorable and the teleplay is actually funny, especially in the Maddie subplot.
03) Episode 6: “Fish Out Of Water” (Aired: 11/04/99)
Henry, Ian, Maddie, and Tess go to a dinner party at Audrey’s house.
Written by Jeffrey Richman | Directed by Ted Wass
Among the funnier installments of the entire run, this excursion by Richman most resembles the delicious farce often offered by Frasier, as the action takes us to Audrey’s house for a dinner (hosted with her husband, Cesar, whose sexual orientation is dubious) and involves “wacky hijinks” as the foursome has to get a fish-out-of-water back in its tank. Millicent Martin guests.
04) Episode 9: “The Dance” (Aired: 12/02/99)
Tess contrives to pair Ian and Maddie together.
Written by Steven Levitan | Directed by Gail Mancuso
A surprisingly sweet entry, this offering is all about the relationship among members of the ensemble, and it’s particularly good for Tess, who narrates the romantically atmospheric proceedings as she attempts to play matchmaker for Ian and Maddie. (It’s a scheme so she can get more time alone with Henry.) It’s simpler, more focused, and good for character-building.
05) Episode 10: “Coffin To Go” (Aired: 12/09/99)
Ian orders a decorative coffin — but it comes with a body.
Written by Lyn Greene & Richard Levine | Directed by Ted Wass
Produced as the second episode following the pilot, this pre-Tess excursion was held to air for after the first few months. One can see why — it’s a bit rough around the edges, dealing with those story-heavy predictable prank trappings for Ian. But the premise is morose (and thus, ideal for the sitcom and this one especially) and the teleplay offers laughs. Valerie Curtin guests.
06) Episode 11: “Christmas Cheerleader” (Aired: 12/16/99)
Henry and Tess go to a party at Ian’s on Christmas.
Written by David A. Goodman | Directed by Michael Lembeck
Admittedly, this entry tries a little too hard to be flippantly irreverent for a holiday that typically engenders sitcom sap — only to inevitably give into the sweetness at the end. But if these tonal choices don’t quite work, the comedy still maintains, especially in the subplot in which Maddie flirts with a mental patient. Also, Gretchen Wyler appears as a faded Broadway star.
07) Episode 14: “The Hypnotist” (Aired: 02/03/00)
Consequences arise from Ian’s attempt to prove to Henry that hypnosis is real.
Written by Alan Kirschenbaum | Directed by Michael Lembeck
This is one of the series’ most successful episodes, for it takes an oft-used gimmicky sitcom bit (hypnosis — from which not even Dick Van Dyke was immune) and makes it sing. I can’t say this occurs solely through character, but rather from the hilarious plotting, which has Tess and Jake believing they’re Romeo and Juliet. They head down to the Friar’s Club to find a Friar to wed them. Jack Carter, John DiResta, Jackie Gayle, and Freddie Roman bolster the silliness.
08) Episode 15: “Therapy” (Aired: 03/02/00)
Henry and Ian clash in therapy.
Written by Eric Zicklin | Directed by Sheldon Epps
Essentially no more than a means to an end, this entry exists solely for the purpose of the comedic centerpiece, in which Henry and Ian attend therapy and swap roles (another classic sitcom gag). It’s easily amusing (if too easy), but it nevertheless attempts to reconcile the pair’s intermittent closeness and make it more consistent hereafter. It works, and thus, is a success.
09) Episode 17: “The Grade” (Aired: 03/16/00)
Ian writes Maddie’s report on his book and is enraged to receive a B.
Written by Brian Buckner & Sebastian Jones | Directed by Steven Levitan
There was no doubt in my mind that the terrible Steve Weber cameo was not going to make this list, but the other big casting gimmick mentioned above — the Kelsey Grammer show — found a place here. This isn’t because of his appearance, although he is naturally captivating, but actually because the premise makes smart use of Henry (and Ian and Maddie) — hilariously.
10) Episode 19: “He’s Gotta Have It” (Aired: Syndication Only)
Ian has an affair with Tess’ visiting sister.
Written by Lyn Greene & Richard Levine | Directed by Joyce Gittlin
One of the four outings that was never broadcast by NBC, this episode features Andrea Bendewald (Suddenly Susan) as Tess’ equally vapid sister, who spitefully engages in a lust-loathe dynamic with Ian. That’s a bit common and predictable, but again the laughs save it — and there’s fun in the details, like the gag with Jake and his erroneously “special” brownies.
Other notable episodes that merit mention here include: “Engaged To Be Engaged,” which was the closest to making the above list, for it’s instrumental in the show’s elevation of Tess, “My Bodyguard” [a.k.a. “Guarding Tess”], a solid entry with good character laughs (another close contender), and what would have been the season finale, “The Big Finish,” which features Harriet Sansom Harris and provides some closure. Of more Honorable Mention quality are entries that remain adequate outside of a single comedic centerpiece — “Secrets And Lies,” in which Henry learns Ian was once a “Grinning American,” “The Pigeon,” which has a funny subplot for Maddie and dog clothes, and “Dog-Gone,” which lets Shalhoub clown.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Wings!