How The Cosby Show Saved Night Court From Certain Doom

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Written By Sedoso Feb

“Night Court” was a slapstick series about the people who work the wee hours in the Manhattan Criminal Court. It starred Harry Anderson as Judge Harry Stone, a wiseacre who doled out justice while winking and playing pranks. The put-upon and insufferably lascivious prosecutor Dan Fielding was played by John Larroquette, who won four Emmys for the role. Richard Moll, Gail Strickland, Charles Robinson, Markie Post, and Marsha Warfield also appeared. Compared to other sitcoms at the time, “Night Court” was a carnival, sometimes bordering on the surreal. One wouldn’t be surprised to see a character running down a hallway, fleeing a giant rolling billiard ball. 

As the A.V. Club notes, by the time “Night Court” first aired on January 4, 1984, most of the other recently-premiered NBC sitcoms had flamed out. The director of the pilot episode, James Burrows, concluded that a successful show couldn’t merely be good: it needed to fit into a pre-established mold. In Burrows’ words: 

“It’s a good show … but it will take a long time to get started. There’s no reason for people to watch it. Just because it’s good, that’s no reason. People will only watch high concept initially. They want familiarity from TV.” 

It wouldn’t be until “Night Court” was placed alongside the already-successful “The Cosby Show” on Thursday nights that audiences would begin to pay attention. At the end of the 1985 TV season, NBC had lined up “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers,” “Family Ties,” and “Night Court.” It became appointment viewing to watch all four in a stretch. Not only did those four shows — when bunched together — save NBC, but in many ways, they resurrected the sitcom as a viable TV format.

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