Harry Anderson and the Genius of "Night Court"

Brian Gongol

"Night Court" was one of my favorite childhood shows -- part of the inimitable Thursday night sitcom block on NBC. I'm sure I underappreciated most of the jokes at the time (there was no way to really grasp the lecherous Dan Fielding character when I was eight), but it was funny in an offbeat but kindhearted way.

It's possible now to re-experience "Night Court" as it lives on DVD. I've indulged in the first two seasons, and found myself very pleasantly surprised by just how well the show holds up. There are anachronisms, of course -- the inescapable presence of smoking and ashtrays is especially jarring to the viewer in 2018 -- but even story arcs with a distinctly chilly Cold War overtone still end up speaking to a surprisingly contemporary set of concerns today.

While the writers are always the underappreciated heroes of a good television show, "Night Court" was executed by a terrific core cast, even if some of the key characters took some time to lock in place. None of them were stronger than Harry Anderson.

Anderson, who has just passed away, managed to breathe a certain likability -- a believable earnestness -- into the character of Judge Harry Stone. Anderson's portrayal put sincerity into a role that could have easily strayed into a one-dimensional saint better suited to a Hallmark special than to a sharply written sitcom.

The way Anderson played him, the judge wanted to see redemption. He wasn't above the risque joke or the naughty prank; they were just part of the flow of humanity through a municipal courtroom late at night. But when it was time to tell a morality tale or to invite someone to actually hold fast to a real change of heart, Anderson was able to keep his character's words from sounding naive or overbearing.

It's hard to say what would hold up on network television today, since the landscape of the Netflix era is entirely different from that of the early Reagan years. But "Night Court" centered on a character who seemed genuinely interested in being good -- not in showing off how good he was. It was skillfully written work, but Harry Anderson deserves ample credit for anchoring the role of a merciful and fun-loving judge in a way the viewer could actually believe.

Character, mercy, and justice are pretty easy concepts to take to a nauseating and heavy-handed extreme. Harry Anderson and the writers of "Night Court" did a lot of good by showing they could be fodder for decent laughs, too.