Newsradio, the criminally underrated workplace sitcom featuring Phil Hartman, Maura Tierney, and Kids In The Hall’s Dave Foley that ran from 1995 to 1999 on NBC, was ahead of its time. Consistently funnier, more experimental and more unapologetically outlandish than its contemporaries like Friends, Frasier, and even Seinfeld, the show would have fit in seamlessly with the critically acclaimed cult hits of today like 30 Rock and Community. But it wasn’t just the humor and vision of Newsradio that made it stand out so much in the mid-to late-'90s, it was also the subject matter of many of the episodes.
Take, for example, the plot of episode 4.20 (called “4:20” because how could a show with multiple episodes named after Led Zeppelin albums call the twentieth episode of their fourth season anything else?). Boss Jimmy James hosts an “Ultimate Fighting” match at a charity night and books his employees Joe (Joe Rogan) and Matthew (Andy Dick) in the main event. Everyone is concerned that Joe will kill Matthew, but Matthew remains convinced that he has Joe’s number.
It sounds like an obvious plot by today’s standards. In fact, it’s slightly similar to a plot that happened on The Mindy Project last season. But there are two ways in which this episode is both remarkable and groundbreaking: its timing and its tone.
4:20 aired on April 28, 1998. To put that in context, it aired between UFC 16 and 17, after headbutts, small joint manipulation, and strikes to the groin, back of the head and neck were banned, but before the introduction of five-minute rounds (“no time limit” is one of the rules that Jimmy James cites in his praise of the sport). It was a time when MMA was still struggling to define its rules and itself as a sport in its search for acceptance and credibility. Mainstream America most likely thought of Ultimate Fighting as that awful human cockfighting that Senator John McCain hated if they thought of it at all. In that climate, one network comedy made an episode about the burgeoning sport of mixed martial arts, and it was better than any other television show has managed to do since.
Of course, the cast and crew of Newsradio had an advantage over the other shows. Rogan, who was one of the show's stars, joined the UFC broadcast team at UFC 12 in 1996 (he’s introduced as “a member of NBC’s sitcom Newsradio and a second degree blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do”).
It’s safe to assume that his connection to the UFC, not to mention his enthusiasm for it, played a huge part in the existence of the episode at all.
It definitely feels like 4:20, written by the show’s creator, Paul Simms, was made by people who had some idea what they’re doing. There’s none of the awkward exposition or predictable handwringing surrounding the discussion of the fight that exists in almost every other major television portrayal of MMA from Bones to Hawaii 5-0.
Early on in the episode, when the staff first finds out that Jimmy James is going to host a charity boxing match, there’s a moment when you expect Lisa (Maura Tierney), the fairly proper Type-A perfectionist of the office, to say something predictably dismissive about the violence of sanctioned fights, but then it veers into a far more Newsradio-like direction.
“But boxing, that’s just... gay,” she muses.
Then, instead of slipping into any sort of gay panic about the homoeroticism inherent in most combat sports, the show veers again, and the pompous announcer Bill (the late, great Phil Hartman), defends the sport as “a tradition that dates back to the cradle of civilization."
“No, Bill,” Dave (Dave Foley) corrects him. “Once again, you’re thinking of all nude Greco Roman wrestling.”
“But I thought you said it was at a men’s club,” Bill says, confused, but fine with it.
That’s it. No snickering. No horror. No pearl clutching. And the introduction of MMA is handled with the same kind of tolerance.
Jimmy James arrives and says that boxing is played out, and the fight at this year’s event will be “No holds barred, all-out Ultimate Fighting. Two men enter a ring. One man leaves. No rules. No time limits. No place to hide, baby.”
No one freaks out or calls it “human cockfighting.” It’s received like any other sport. No one becomes concerned until Mr. James announces his fighters: Joe "The Gorilla” Garrelli (Rogan) and Matthew “The Rock” Brock.
Then the fighters’ co-workers begin to express concern. Dave worries that they’re untrained and asks Joe if he’s ever fought before.
“I haven’t done it, but I’ve watched it on PPV... I didn’t pay for it,” Joe says.
This might actually be the most prescient part of the whole episode. Sixteen years after it first aired, bros are still begrudgingly admitting this about their own MMA prowess. The only difference now is that they’re usually wearing Affliction shirts when they say it.
Lisa and Beth (Vicky Lewis) are just worried that Joe will kill Matthew, because even a relatively skinny '90s Joe Rogan looks about a million times more tough and intimidating than Andy Dick. But Matthew seems completely unfazed. He says that he has a secret plan and he begged Jimmy James for the matchup.
The episode continues on this note, with Joe worrying that he’ll hurt Matthew and Matthew trash-talking the shit out of Joe. In Ultimate Fighting, the characters keep emphasizing, anything can happen.
“It’s all psychological,” Matthew insists. “It’s all about honing in and striking.”
Come match time (which, sadly, is in a regular ring and not in “an octagon of horror” as Jimmy promised), all of that promise pays off.
Joe gets the early advantage via an Ogoshi with an overhook to mount. But Matthew’s solid psychology and game plan win the fight. And he wins with a move that could only happen in an anything-goes, no-holds-barred fight.
On a side note, Andy joked that he still jacks off to this scene when he appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast in 2012.
It’s a perfect example of the way that television can and should explore not just MMA, but all subcultures. You don’t have to handle it with kid gloves. You can make fun of it, you just have to try to understand it first. It’s not just better that way. It’s also funnier, because you’ve got actual source material.
Newsradio tackled martial arts one other time: “Padded Suit,” a season five episode in which Joe schooled Matthew and Max (Jon Lovitz) in the art of Joe-jitsu, “a special blend of three unrelated martial arts plus some other crap that I made up.”
It’s just as good, if not better than 4:20, and easily one of the best MMA-related moments that scripted television has ever seen. As is the case with many aspects of Newsradio, the rest of the TV world is still struggling to catch up.
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