If you don’t remember The John Larroquette Show, it debuted on NBC in the fall of 1993. It’s never been released on DVD and isn’t available to stream. Which is too bad, because the first season of the show is brilliant.
Larroquette starred as John Hemingway, who we meet at an AA meeting. He’s been sober for 36 hours and is about to start a new job as the night manager of a bus terminal in St. Louis: “I got the job because I have a masters degree in English literature, which is essential for working in a bus station. Did I mention I was the only one who applied?” Upon arriving, he learns what happened to his predecessor – the office still has the outline of the body on the floor. “He died in his sleep,” the assistant manager, played by Liz Torres, tells John. “Never even felt the bullet.”
This was the show’s tone – dark and funny all at once. And there were moments of surreal strangeness, but it was a pretty realistic show, which meant that the dark moments hit harder than if the tone veered towards the absurd.
The show managed to get uneasy humor out of the way that alcohol is present in our lives. Numerous times in the pilot episode, a character says to John “Let me buy you a drink” or “Let’s go to bar and get a drink.” It means something very different for John than the other characters. This was a network sitcom that aired a generation ago. If a character freezes in place after another character delivers a line, it’s supposed to be so the audience can laugh, not because the character has frozen in fear, all too aware of the temptation of taking a drink.
It was complicated and sometimes uncomfortable, and as the season progressed, it also went deeper. John attends AA meetings and gets a sponsor – a biker played by David Crosby. The show went through the twelve steps of AA in episodes through the course of the first season. John has to address the fact that being sober is a lot harder than he thought it would be. He is forced to confront his issues with women, his feelings about God, and tries to make amends with people, who for the most part don’t want to listen.
In one episode, John’s estranged con artist mother (played by June Lockhart) comes through town. He confronts her about his dad’s death and she explains that she had a baby and an alcoholic husband and all she could do was save herself. It’s a sad moment, and by the end we understand John a little better. It’s an episode about two broken people who barely know each other, despite being related, and what makes it funny is that they’re also wise-cracking, sarcastic people.
In another episode, John tries to make amends with his ex-wife (played by Donna Mills) and see the son he left behind. His ex-wife slams the door in his face, but at the end of the episode, John’s son shows up at the bus station. His son tells John that he wants to know him, but he needs time. It’s a triumphant moment, but it doesn’t play out as one. Perhaps because it is a small victory, but that was what the show did at its best – convey the way that these small moments were great victories and the work it took to get there.
That’s not to say that there weren’t lighter and weirder episodes, but John’s alcoholism also changes the way we experience the more typical sitcom plots. In one episode, John eats pot brownies. He engages in the usual harmless idiocy that happens in these situations, but when he comes down, he has to deal with the AA newcomer he spent the opening scene trying to counsel. It’s not something the show can just laugh at and move on from without comment. His circumstances – which we were laughing at – mean something darker than they usually do in a sitcom.
In perhaps the funniest episode, a Nazi wants to rent a bus. John and Gene (played by Chi McBride) mock the Nazi and when that doesn’t get him to leave, John throws him out – though the ACLU ultimately forces him to rent the Nazis a bus. Also during the episode, an old friend of John’s comes to town because he’s writing a book about when they were younger and their misadventures, and John ponders being the night manager of a bus terminal while his peer is a well respected author.
This was more like what I saw on dramas than on other sitcoms. It didn’t look like a multi-camera sitcom. The lighting is different. It has a dimness, which adds to the moody atmosphere. More than that, the small touches spoke to me. This was a show where John hangs on the wall of his office a sign that reads “This Is A Dark Ride.”
The show’s creator and executive producer, Don Reo, has never made anything quite like this. He’s best known for creating shows like Blossom and My Wife and Kids. Reo got his start as a writer working on M*A*S*H and All in the Family, and The John Larroquette Show owes a lot to the complexity of those programs.
I don’t simply mean that the show was dark, but it had a point of view and a unique perspective on the world. I don’t know much about Larroquette, but I do know that he’s from New Orleans, he is an alcoholic, and he’s been sober for decades. He’s also a rare book collector. This was a show where characters have conversations about Beckett, where there are references for Diane Arbus and Edward Hopper. John declares Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain one of the greatest albums ever made. There were brief back-and-forths in Spanish that were not subtitled.
As if all of that was too mainstream, one episode centered around Thomas Pynchon. Gravity’s Rainbow is John’s favorite book, and he still owns a first edition of it. He’s blown away when Dexter (played by Darryl “Chill” Mitchell) quotes from it. “The author’s a good friend of mine,” Dexter says. I’m sure plenty of people thought it was a weird episode about an invented character, but after the episode I checked V. out of the library and began my lifelong obsession with the writer. Later I learned that the producers sent that script to Pynchon for his approval, which I think makes the episode even funnier.
The way that John Hemingway looked at life and dealt with sobriety felt very specific. It was possible to see the connections that emerged between the character’s dark worldview and his playful nature. To see him struggle with getting older and reckoning with his life and the choices he had made was moving. The show captures being a certain age where you’re no longer young, but you’re still trying to figure out what to do with your life. I thought of the quotation by Annie Dillard: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
After the first season wasn’t that successful, the show was retooled and became literally and figuratively lighter. John became the day manager of the bus station and the lighting of the show became, well, that of an ordinary multi-camera sitcom. John moved into a nice apartment. He got an attractive neighbor/love interest. The show got canceled partway through its fourth season, but it didn’t stop being funny. One of the reasons the show succeeded, which I haven’t mentioned, is that it had a fantastic cast – people like Mitchell and Torres and McBride and Lenny Clarke and Gigi Rice. This was a great cast that could do anything. But the show became more generic and it lost some of that perspective and the weird, dark touches that made it so interesting in the first place.
The show has a lot in common with Mom, the show that’s currently a hit on CBS. It’s a very different TV climate today, but it was co-created by a very successful veteran producer (Chuck Lorre, in Mom’s case) and has managed to find dark humor in recovery and the effort to rebuild one’s life.
Today we love and praise half-hour shows that are funny but also manage to be much more like Louie, Girls, Atlanta, and Master of None. For one season, more than 20 years ago, John Larroquette and Don Reo made a show that could not only stand alongside them, but was possibly more ambitious. Because they made a show that aired on a broadcast network with all the restrictions that entailed, that had a laugh track, and yet was dark and strange and personal.
Maybe it should come as no surprise that it failed, but it’s a shame that they don’t get more credit. If I ran a network, I would ask Reo and Larroquette to pitch me a show. Reo co-created and is producing The Ranch for Netflix. I find the brothers played by Ashton Kutcher and Danny Masterson on that show boring, or at least characters I’ve seen before, but the characters’ parents, played by Sam Elliott and Debra Winger, and their relationship, is deep and thoughtful and complicated and really interesting. I’d love to see what Reo and Larroquette could come up with if asked to make a show about getting older, about death and art and alcohol and relationships and mortality. Because given the chance, I bet they could make something brilliant. Again.