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At Work With 'NewsRadio'

February 25, 1996|BRYAN MINGLE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"NewsRadio" may not be the NBC sitcom most of America is talking about this season, but it's getting honorable mentions as the funniest series set in a newsroom since "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

Following in the ensemble workplace tradition of "Taxi," "WKRP in Cincinnati" and "MTM" isn't a bad thing, and it only seems to help that "NewsRadio" is the mid-'90s dysfunctional hybrid of them all and that actual work is rarely if ever shown. But the actors and producers of "NewsRadio," created by 30-year-old TV writer-wunderkind Paul Simms ("The Larry Sanders Show," "Late Night With David Letterman"), are aiming to give the series its own idiosyncratic stamp.

Almost a year after the series premiered as a midseason replacement in NBC's Tuesday night lineup (it moved to Sundays earlier this month), viewers are responding. The week before Christmas, in the Tuesday berth, an episode hit No. 12 on the Nielsen chart; in its first Sunday outing, the show won its time slot and ranked No. 23 overall. Renewal for fall seems certain.

"I feel like we'll earn our way higher up the ladder," says Phil Hartman, who plays "NewsRadio's" buffoonish but archly articulate news anchor, Bill McNeal. On a series where each of the eight characters gets a chance to hit a home run in almost every episode, Hartman is the player most likely to steal a scene with McNeal's pompous deliveries.

"I think we'll be picked up ... but I don't really fret about things that aren't my responsibility," Hartman says. "My main criterion is to have a good time."

He's not alone. The first thing his brothers and sisters in the WNYX surrogate family offer in separate interviews is how much fun they're having. And how they're in constant awe of one another's skills and of Simms' writing team.

"Sometimes we have a debilitating amount of fun," says Dave Foley in his naturally soft and dry voice that's become a trademark of his character on the show. In fact, news director Dave Nelson, a fresh-faced Wisconsin idealist summoned to Manhattan to face a newsroom of doubting neurotics, was conceived with Foley, co-founder of Canada's "Kids in the Hall" comedy troupe, in mind.

The "NewsRadio" characters of "Saturday Night Live" alum Hartman and Andy Dick ("The Ben Stiller Show") also were written for them. "I thought, 'Who makes me laugh most?' " recalls Simms. With almost half of the "NewsRadio" cast borne of sketch comedy and the remainder from theater, Simms says he encourages the heavy amount of ad-libbing that has developed. "That's where you come up with the best stuff."

On this day at the Sunset-Gower soundstage where "NewsRadio" is taped, the actors are arriving for the first read of a script delivered that morning by Simms. The script produces ripples of laughter when it reveals that the WNYX gang may lease a summer house in the Hamptons on the condition that no one has to see Bill McNeal in a Speedo.

The only dirt to be found on the "NewsRadio" set today is inside a tabloid newspaper being passed around--and it turns out to be faux. Inside the publication are photos of "ER" heartthrob George Clooney out on the town with a dark-haired woman identified as Maura Tierney, who plays "NewsRadio" newswriter Lisa Miller. Only problem is, the happily married Tierney is not the woman in the photo.

Tierney's explaining how she thinks it's all "very funny ... but don't they check these things out?" when Stephen Root, who plays "NewsRadio's" bottom-line station manager perpetually on the lookout for a bride, breezes by. "This is Maura Tierney," he quips. "She knows George Clooney."

Root, enjoying a plate of bacon and eggs outside in the sun before rehearsal, says, "Everybody's on the same comedy wavelength here. We're trying to create a classic show."

Vicki Lewis, whose character Beth is described by McNeal in one episode as "the redheaded firebrand with a lust for life despite a go-nowhere job," is creating a secretarial fashion statement if nothing else. "We drop a little acid and then we put the clothes together," she jokes. In all semi-seriousness, Lewis' portrayal turns on her interpretation of Beth as a woman "who's had just enough therapy to be dangerous."

Joe Rogan says he doesn't worry much about the technical aspects of playing Joe, the resident WNYX technician. "Even though it's 'NewsRadio,' it's never really about news, which is great. Who cares? We don't ever work. Joe never has a toolbox."

Rogan is pleased that his character has evolved, much like Khandi Alexander's no-nonsense anchor Catherine has in sharing the broadcast booth with McNeal. "I'm really happy that my character is not your one-dimensional, blue-collar guy," Rogan says.

But how long can the series ply laughs from office high jinks? Only one episode has been written and taped in which the writers left the newsroom and ventured into a character's apartment, that of Dick's tick-filled Matthew. The episode doesn't have an air date and several cast members predict it never will.

"Obviously going to apartments is a curse," says Foley, who looks forward to future story twists caused by a March split between Lisa and Dave, who tried to keep their romance a secret but failed miserably.

"You're not going to see Jimmy's place for awhile," concedes Root. "You may see his corporate office or some place where he goes to drink."

Viewers will see more guest cameos (George Hamilton appears this week) and stunt casting from other NBC shows.

"We haven't had any members of the cast of 'Friends' on yet," Foley says, with more than a trace of pride. "It's an absolutely superb gig."

"NewsRadio" airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.

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