I grew up in the middle of nowhere, where the only channels available were those accessible via a physical antenna and subject to the whims of the wind, weather, and the thickness of the surrounding foliage. I was also a kid who fell asleep before 9 p.m. most nights, without coercion or cajoling. In sum, the great excitements of iconic generational television are mostly lost on me, and what I did end up seeing of the Shows Everyone Else Watched were episodes largely attached to other occasions, like sleepovers, wherein no one was really paying attention to the TV, anyway.
Except where Night Court was concerned.
I don’t remember ever watching Night Court at night, but rather in its syndicated half-hour slot at 5 p.m. Every night for what must have been years, in the thirty minutes before supper, I watched Night Court. I don’t know which years those were exactly, though I’m relatively certain I was at least a little too young for the show, a little too aware of the jokes I shouldn’t have understood but still did. I understood why prosecutor Dan Fielding was a sleaze and what too many of the cases were about. But why I kept watching was the show’s heart, the certainty that at the end of each twenty-four minutes, Judge Harold T. Stone was going to do the right thing, the kind thing.
Memory is imperfect. As much as I can’t say if I was eight or eleven while watching any of these scenes still etched on the mind’s celluloid, I’m sure I’m imagining a show better than the one I watched. I’m sure I’ve ignored a lot of problematic moments, elements that never stuck because I hadn’t the vocabulary or knowledge or experience to name what struck discordant notes. I haven’t watched the show since; I’m afraid it won’t hold up in the way that I want it to. These are a lot of caveats. But to a kid in a rural, almost exclusively white part of Appalachia, wherein I never met an adult of color until college, it was also important to see Mac and Quon-Le not only in the show but as a couple, and one that wasn’t, on the whole, played for laughs. Marsha Warfield’s tough-as-nails bailiff character, Roz, was my favorite, a role model who made far more sense to a tomboy who was as big as they were ever going to get by age eleven—which was still not big enough to fit in with an older, athletic brother and his friends—than Markie Post’s blond, feminine Christine. And Harry Anderson as the judge: a grown person who loved things and people, who was indefatigably enthusiastic about Mel Tormé and practical jokes, and though I didn’t really know much about Mel Tormé, I could guess that loving that music was not…cool. (In the same years, I was sending away for CDs from Columbia House that I hoped would make me cooler, too.) Coolness should not matter, Night Court reminded me. Dan Fielding tried to be cool. Judge Harold T. Stone did not, and so I think I took some better lesson: honest enthusiasm mattered.
In the midst of Night Court‘s primetime success, Harry Anderson made a television special: a sideshow of sorts. I watched Harry Anderson’s Sideshow (recorded via VCR and the diving scramble to hit play + record at the right moment) so many times I can still imagine the acts: a pair of Chinese women spinning ceramic pots and tables and chairs on the balls of their nimble feet; a grown man riding a bicycle so small its wheels were silver dollars. Somewhere in there, Harry Anderson did magic tricks, fun little sleights of hand, but I don’t remember those so much as the continual delight in his role as a kind of carnival Virgil, leading those of us out in TV-land through this whimsical landscape and introducing us to people whose talents seemed prodigious. I was five when that special aired. At age five, I was busy falling off everything there was to fall from: playground equipment, the front porch, my own feet. That grown people could do such amazing acts of coordination was better than anything that seemed like magic. A woman sawed in half was nothing. A woman throwing a chair with her feet to another one who caught it, sure and deft, with every confidence she could do it again, was everything.
Years later, I watched a few episodes of Dave’s World because I missed the goofy, tender heart of Judge Harold T. Stone, but I didn’t find it in the Dave Barry spin-off. I briefly taught a Dave Barry comedy piece as part of my earliest composition syllabi much for the same reason, but that, too, wasn’t right, of course. I don’t really know much about the real Harry Anderson, whether he was really like the man he played on television, or whether, now that he’s passed, we’ll learn anything more. What I do know is that somewhere along the line, I mostly forgot about Night Court, Harry Anderson’s sideshow, and more particularly, Judge Harold T. Stone, and how much a strange, silly show about a world I knew nothing about (a courtroom, a diverse and complicated city) had meant to me, who was never part of its intended audience. But tonight I was reminded, and it felt good to remember, and I’m grateful for all that laughter I was gifted as a child.