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Gavel Falls on That Other Long-Running NBC Show : Television: 'Night Court,' which piled up 193 shows in nine seasons, will adjourn tonight.

May 13, 1992|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a successful yet tumultuous eight-year run, one of television's most dependable yet forgettable comedy series draws to a close tonight at 9.

At least that's how NBC's "Night Court" has been alternately described over the years: as durable as a polyester suit but just as unfashionable. A politically incorrect courtroom farce that never preached on safe sex, environmental awareness, teen-age runaways, the Gulf War, date rape or head lice.

"There were no messages on this show," said executive producer Chris Cluess.

"We were so politically incorrect we would have had a cigarette sponsor if we came back next year," said executive producer Stuart Kreisman.

Still, "Night Court" was television's version of a Timex--it kept on tickin' despite 10 time-slot changes over nine seasons. Millions of viewers made the sitcom about a wacky Manhattan judge (Harry Anderson) and his kangaroo courtroom their guilty pleasure, as "Night Court" racked up 193 episodes, 29 Emmy nominations, four Emmys for co-star John Larroquette and consistent ratings wins in its time slot.

And through it all, the sitcom never achieved an ounce of respect from TV critics.

"We have a bit of a Rodney Dangerfield complex on this show," said Richard Moll, the actor who graduated from playing "one-eyed, desert-dwelling mutants" in B movies to co-star in "Night Court" as Bull, the hulking, bald bailiff.

"What is respect?" asked Larroquette, who graciously withdrew himself from Emmy consideration after four consecutive wins for his loutish portrayal of Dan Fielding, a self-absorbed, womanizing assistant district attorney. "You don't do sitcoms for respect. You do them for laughs."

After its midseason debut early in 1984, "Night Court" got lost the following fall in the formidable shadow of "The Cosby Show." They were part of a powerful Thursday night lineup that included "Cheers" and "Hill Street Blues." Perhaps fittingly, the final session of "Night Court" has been overshadowed once again by laurels that were heaped upon "Cosby's" grand finale on April 30.

"That is our legacy," Kreisman said laconically. "We've always been the other show."

"Night Court" doesn't even have a farewell episode befitting television's second longest-running current comedy series, behind "Cheers."

"The only thing I'm angry about is that Warner Bros. wouldn't allow us to definitively end the show, like 'Cosby' did," Larroquette said. "Because at the last minute, NBC was thinking about renewing the show. Then Warners was trying to sell it elsewhere. So they didn't want a definitive ending. That sort of tied our hands. It was a drag. We weren't allowed to turn to the audience, give a salute and say thanks."

Actually, "Night Court" was set to go out with a bang last season. Kreisman and Cluess, who started out as writers on the series and left after two years over creative differences, were brought back by then-NBC Entertainment Chairman Brandon Tartikoff to close down the creatively kaput "Night Court." At the start of last season, they carefully laid out character arcs that would lead to a show-stopping finale.

But just as the characters' story lines were winding toward a payoff--Judge Harry T. Stone and defense attorney Christine Sullivan (Markie Post) were scheduled to consummate their relationship, and Fielding was heading for insanity after becoming a philanthropist--NBC renewed the series for yet another season, thanks to a strong Wednesday night showing as the lead-in that helped establish "Seinfeld."

"When we found out we were going to go for another year, we were screwed creatively," Kreisman said. "And it took us the first two or three episodes of this year to undo all the stuff we set up last year."

Now "Night Court" has become a bit cumbersome for NBC. Cast salaries have steadily increased, and at a hefty cost of $1.2 million per episode this season, what had been a cash cow for NBC has just grown too expensive to feed any longer.

In the final days, the lack of respect for "Night Court," which wrapped in March, was even in evidence at NBC, Post said.

"I do not feel we did (have respect) from our own network," said Post, who will co-star with John Ritter in "Hearts Afire," the new Linda Bloodworth-Thomason ("Designing Women," "Evening Shade") sitcom for CBS next season. "I think we served them well, and they are aware of that. But the fact that we found out we were being canceled the day we were shooting the last show. . . . We read it in the paper. And we felt we deserved a little more than that."

When the cast members learned that "Night Court" was indeed going to relinquish its caseload for good, they all worked with the writers at the eleventh hour to give the sitcom some sense of closure. As it stands, Judge Stone receives an offer to go touring with Mel Torme, Sullivan makes it to Congress and Bull gets transported to Jupiter by aliens.

After a long network run and a potentially bright future in syndication, the cast members seem more than ready to move on. Larroquette, who will take a stab at feature films for a while, said of his pathetically funny TV character: "I felt as if I was sort of beating a dead horse after a while.

"The willingness for creators to completely change their characters and take them in new directions, as 'Cheers' does, is very wise on their part," he said. "That never really happened on our show. The characters never really changed. And if you do the same thing for too long, you mine all the gold in that vein."

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