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When God Was on Sitcoms

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

The late Harry Anderson and his appearances as the youthful Judge Harry T. Stone on Night Court and elsewhere in the 1980’s were funny and often magical.  It should not be surprising as magic was Harry’s passion.  He was a special guy and will be missed and the show that defines him, Night Court, which ran from January 1984 to May 1992, was a unique show.   Night Court was never popular in the way The Cosby Show, Family Ties, or Cheers were.  Perhaps this is because Night Court had strong slapstick comedy.  Night Court also had a more than a few very strong moments of seriousness that were never pushed in the “very special episode” way of reaching the audience.

In its early days Night Court was considered a realistic portrayal of a New York City court and could tell a powerful story such as the episode where a kid, played by a young Michael J. Fox, who was angry at the world and ended up crying in the arms of Judge Stone.  But nowhere were Night Court’s moments more powerful than in this sitcom’s several references to God.

Perhaps the strongest Night Court reference to God came in the October 1987 episode entitled “Death of a Bailiff” the ending of which can be seen here

The bailiff named Bull was struck by lightning and during the time he was critically injured Bull thought he heard the voice of God telling him to give away all his life savings to the needy.  Bull gave away all of his money to everyone who needed it, except for the narcissistic prosecutor Dan (played by John Larroquette) who hilariously dressed up like a hobo to get his friends’ money.

After giving away his money, Bull found out that it was not God speaking to him but Art, the building maintenance man, who definitely did not tell Bull to give away his money.  After finding out he lost his life savings, Bull sat alone in the courtroom.  A poor looking man came in the courtroom looking for the man who gave away all his money.  Despite having lost his life savings, Bull gave the man his last 100 dollars so the poor man could take a bus to South Carolina to see his son who was coming home from military service.   The poor man realized that Bull was the individual who gave away all his money said to Bull “I don’t know what to say. God bless you.”  Bull said he would not hold his breath.  Judge Stone came in and Bull said he wanted to be left alone.  Harry Anderson’s character patted Bull and told him “that my friend is something you will never be.”

Bull talked to God with honesty and told the Lord he was upset about losing the money but then came to the conclusion that “helping other people is the way we get close to you.”  After that, a Mayor’s office representative came in and offered Bull a check to not sue the city.  The check was the exact amount of Bull’s life savings and signing the check waived his claims against the City, calling it “an act of God.”  

Other episodes showed a fully robed Judge Stone sitting in the witness chair in a deserted courtroom talking to God asking him deep questions about life.  In a tragic situation, a kid was shot in part because of judicial decision Judge Stone had to make.  Of all people it was Dan who cunningly compared Harry to Jesus and asked him to turn some water into wine and cure a few blind men.  Dan was not being sacrilegious but he was telling Harry that none of us are God and that bad things will happen that are beyond our control.  Dan, who often disagreed with Harry told him, “You were impartial, you were fair…and I admired you.” Harry returned to the bench.

While many religious leaders in the 1980’s and even today would have balked at the idea that Night Court had a religious bent to it, it is also worth noting that no episode like “Death of a Bailiff” would be seen on any of today’s sitcoms.  Such a contrast shows the intelligence of Night Court creator Reinhold Weege and also how Hollywood has changed, and not for the better.

Night Court was not an overtly religious show but it certainly was not anti-Christian in the way shows increasingly are today.  Even the playboy Dan refused to do the worst things that tempted him on Night Court and came through, like Archie Bunker, when it really counted.  Night Court was not the most popular show on television but it certainly is among the most well intelligently written series ever.  Humor is too serious a thing to be forgotten in a sitcom.  So is God.

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