Night Court, according to the first season DVD, was created without comedian/magician Harry Anderson in mind; but Anderson auditioned with the claim that he was Harry Stone. Anderson had developed a following with his performances on Saturday Night Live and made several successful appearances as con man "Harry the Hat" on another NBC sitcom, Cheers. (For the first several years of its run, Night Court aired on NBC Thursday nights after Cheers, which had moved to the time slot before Night Court to accommodate the new series, which started as a mid-season replacement in January 1984.) In later seasons, while Anderson remained the key figure, John Larroquette became the breakout personality, winning a number of awards and many fans for his performance as the lecherous Dan Fielding.
The comedy style on Night Court changed as the series progressed. During its initial seasons, the show was often compared to Barney Miller. In addition to being created by a writer of that show, Night Court (like Barney Miller) was set in New York City, featured quirky, often dry, humor and dealt with a staff who tried to cope with a parade of eccentric, often neurotic criminals and complainants. Furthering this comparison, these characters were routinely played by character actors who had made frequent guest appearances on Barney Miller, including Stanley Brock, Philip Sterling, Peggy Pope, and Alex Henteloff. But, while the characters appearing in the courtroom (and the nature of their transgressions) were often whimsical, bizarre or humorously inept, the show initially took place in the "real world". In an early review of the show, Time magazine called Night Court, with its emphasis on non-glamorous, non-violent petty crime, the most realistic law show on the air.
Gradually, however, Night Court abandoned its initial "real world" setting, and changed to what could best be described as broad, almost slapstick comedy. Logic and realism were frequently sidelined for more surreal humor, such as having the cartoon character, Wile E. Coyote, as a defendant and convicting him for harassment of The Road Runner with an admonition to find a meal by some other means (this was done as a joke because Night Court was videotaped at Warner Brothers, who owned the rights to the Road Runner and Coyote cartoons). In the opening episode of Season 4, a ventriloquist dummy talks on his own without the ventriloquist to Dan, only to freak him out and make him shout and back away slowly down the hall.
The show featured several defendants who appeared before the court again and again—notably the Wheelers, June and Bob (Brent Spiner), who initially pretended to be stereotypical hicks from West Virginia; but they were later revealed as Yugoslavians and at one point even ran a concession stand in the courthouse. When asked by Harry why they claimed West Virginia at first, Bob replies, "I dunno. It was just the first exotic place that popped into my head." The Wheelers were notoriously unlucky and were usually brought in on hilariously pathetic circumstances. Other Star Trek-actors-to-be that had guest spots on Night Court included Robin Curtis from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (which incidentally, John Larroquette also co-starred in as a Klingon) and Nana Visitor of Deep Space 9.
The following cast members appeared in the opening credits:
Harry Anderson as Judge Harold "Harry" T. Stone, a young, good-humored jurist and an amateur magician whose parents were former mental patients. His zany antics and goofball sense of humor was tempered by infinite compassion and sincere belief that everyone has good in them. Harry could be a little self-righteous at times, but more often than not was the moral compass of the show. Harry loved movies and fashions from the 1940s, was vocal in his disdain for modern music (especially Barry Manilow), and idolized croonerMel Tormé.
Paula Kelly as Liz Williams (Season 1, after the pilot). Prior to the addition of Mac to the show, she was the more "normal" character on the show.
Ellen Foley as Billie Young (Season 2). A romantic interest for Harry Stone during Season 2. Goodhearted but feisty.
Markie Post as Christine Sullivan (Seasons 3–9). Her first appearance on the show was an early second-season episode ("Daddy for the Defense", originally aired October 4, 1984); she didn't become a regular until the third season (Post was starring on The Fall Guy at the time). She had been Reinhold Weege's first choice for the part but due to her other part on ABC's show, she could not take it. The Sullivan character was attractive, honest to a fault, and somewhat naïve. She was the primary romantic interest for Harry Stone and a regular target for Dan Fielding's lechery throughout the series' run. She also had various Princess Diana memorabilia collections such as a set of porcelain thimbles. (Harry Anderson said on the E! documentary special "she WAS Christine Sullivan. She even apologized to a garbage can for bumping it!")
John Larroquette as Reinhold Daniel Fielding Elmore, who used the name Daniel R. "Dan" Fielding, (although in the Season 2 Episode "Harry on Trial", he is referred to as Daniel K. Fielding) a sex-obsessed narcissisticprosecutor who would do almost anything to get a woman to sleep with him. It was also hinted that he frequented dominatrices. He is the source of many witty and sometimes cruel remarks regarding almost every other character, although he occasionally shows a decent sized streak of compassion on critical occasions. When his homeless lackey Phil dies, the ever greedy Dan is excited to discover that Phil was in fact wealthy and expects to be the beneficiary of his millions, only to be hugely disappointed to find that Phil did leave him his wealth, but only as manager of a charitable foundation to be named for him. Dan reveals near the end of the third season episode #22 "Hurricane (Part 2)" that his real first name is Reinhold (an obvious joke about the show's writer and producer of the same name), and that he began using the name Dan out of embarrassment when he started school. The other characters do not discover Dan's true name until the fifth season episode #12 "Dan, The Walking Time Bomb". It is earlier discovered, in the second season episode #13 "Dan's Parents", from Dan's parents Daddy-Bob (John McIntire) and Mucette (Jeanette Nolan), that he began using the last name Fielding when he went to college because he thought it sounded better for a lawyer. In the eighth season, it is revealed that he has a successful younger sister named Donna whose morals and life goals are similar to his own.
Richard Moll as Nostradamus "Bull" Shannon, a (seemingly) dim-witted hulk of a figure who was actually gentle and often childlike. He was fiercely protective of Harry. Bull would also choose a series of words every month from the dictionary and try to put them in a sentence. Bull was known for his catchphrase, "Ohh-kay," and clapping a hand loudly to his forehead when he realized he had made a mistake. His other trademark trait was when he would become upset he would moan a low pitch whine that became a loud wail as he stormed of in anger or sadness.
The various female bailiffs, who were acerbic and comically gruff:
Selma Diamond as Selma Hacker (Seasons 1 and 2), a chain smoking, elderly bailiff. In one episode she admitted to having married up to six times, one of whom was a contortionist. Diamond died shortly after Season 2.
Florence Halop as Florence Kleiner (Season 3), Selma's replacement. She was similar in age and personality to Selma, but despite her age, loved things like motorcycles and heavy metal music. Halop died shortly after Season 3.
Marsha Warfield as Roz Russell (Seasons 4–9), The third bailiff. Roz was considerably younger than her two previous counterparts, but had a similar relationship with the characters, especially Bull. While outwardly antisocial and unfriendly, she was inwardly shy and self-conscious, and used a surly facade to keep people from getting close. In time she became close to her coworkers, including an unlikely friendship with Dan. Warfield stayed on the show for the rest of its run.
The court clerks:
Karen Austin as Lana Wagner (Season 1). The original romantic interest for Harry Stone. Though Austin left the show after 10 episodes, she was seen in the opening credits of all 13 first season episodes.
Charles Robinson as Macintosh "Mac" Robinson (Seasons 2–9), a Vietnam War veteran. Easy going and pragmatic, he was probably the most "normal" character. He had a good sense of humor (frequently having the last laugh at Dan), and was a loyal friend to his coworkers. He always wore a cardigan, plaid shirt, and a knit tie (Dan stated in his will that Mac would get all his suits, so "he would stop wearing those God-awful sweaters"). His catchphrase was the lament "It was my favorite sweater!" after one of his garish cardigans got ruined. If he witnessed a problem, his usual first words were "Oh, my dear Lord!"
Martin Garner as Bernie (Seasons 1–3), the operator of the concession stand in the cafeteria who had a crush on Selma and was often seen trying to persuade her to give up smoking. After Selma died, he tried to court Flo. (When Bernie was not at the stand various extras could be seen running it, including Al Rosen, best known as "Al" on Cheers.)
Terry Kiser as Al Craven (Seasons 1 and 2), an obnoxious, pushy tabloid reporter who sometimes would hang around the courtroom in hopes of discovering a scandalous story.
Jason Bernard as Judge Willard (Seasons 1 and 2), an arrogant, humorless Judge who doesn't approve of Harry's antics and tries to have him removed from the bench.
Rita Taggart as Carla Bouvier (Seasons 1 and 2), a prostitute who frequently appeared as a defendant, and who had a crush on Harry.
D.D. Howard as Charly Tracy. Clerk for the last two episodes of the first season after Karen Austin's departure from the show.
Denice Kumagai as Quon Le Duc Robinson (Seasons 2–9), Mac's wife, a refugee from Vietnam (where she met Mac during his service in the Vietnam War and her family let Mac stay at their home while injured) who was somewhat naive about America and its customs, but was loving and very devoted to him. Mac originally married her to keep her in the country, claiming he was not in love with her, but that quickly changed. She didn't understand the concept of 'buy now, PAY later', very well, but became more financially responsible after opening a restaurant in Season 3. In Season 4, moments after being sworn in as an American citizen, Quon Le gave birth to her and Mac's daughter, Renee Flicka Robinson.
Mike Finneran as Art Fensterman, a bumbling "fix-it man" attached to the courthouse. His attempts to fix the courthouse often disrupts Harry's proceedings in the courtroom.
John Astin as Buddy Ryan (Seasons 3–9), Harry's eccentric stepfather and a former patient in a psychiatric hospital. His catchphrase was the capper to stories involving his hospital stay or past strange behavior: "...but I'm feeling much better now" accompanied by a huge leering grin. He was later revealed to be Harry's biological father, admitting he'd kept it a secret for fear that the truth would bring Harry's judicial ability into question.
Mel Tormé played himself in several appearances. In the first episode, it is revealed that Harry is a fanatic admirer of Mel's (as was Harry Anderson; because of Anderson being a fan, this trait was added to the Stone character); this was alluded to in many, many later episodes.
William Utay as Phil Sanders, Dan's homeless lackey. Utay also later played Phil's evil twin brother Will. Later in the series, Phil is killed in an accident involving a large musical instrument. (Due to his fear of musical instruments, he had a special clause in his substantial life insurance policy providing additional benefit in the event of accidental death caused by a musical instrument.) Just before his death, it was revealed that Phil was actually an extremely wealthy individual who chose to live life among the poor (a former stockbroker suffering from Howard Hughes syndrome)—in fact, the show cleverly suggested the New York Harmonic Orchestra was known as the "PHILharmonic Orchestra" because Phil was one of its greatest patrons.
Brent Spiner as Bob Wheeler, a down-on-his-luck urban hillbilly (later revealed to be from Yugoslavia) who was a frequent defendant in Harry's courtroom, usually as the result of a series of freak disasters befalling him and his destitute family. Spiner later gained greater fame as Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Leslie Bevis as Sheila, an exotic nymphomaniac who often appeared to entice Dan into a sexual liaison during or after court to his detriment. Sheila places him in a coma in one episode and in her final appearance rejects Dan for a man with the fictional disorder Tortoise Nervosa, due to the man's ability to move very slowly. In total Sheila appeared in four episodes.
Yakov Smirnoff as Russian immigrant Yakov Korolenko, another frequent visitor to the courtroom. In the first season Harry saved a distraught Yakov from a suicide attempt, and they have been good friends ever since. Yakov eventually tried to bring his brother to America, succeeded in getting his wife Sonja and kids out of the Soviet Union, and got his father to immigrate after the Cold War's end. A running joke on the show was when Judge Stone would mention jail, which had a completely different import to the Soviet immigrant, who would respond with obvious fear: "Jay-ul? Oh, noooo! No jay-ul!"
Eugene Roche as Jack Sullivan, Christine's overbearing father. He refers to Harry as "that Nut".
Daniel Frishman played Dan's boss, District Attorney Vincent Daniels, in several episodes. Though initially underestimated because he is a little person, he has an extremely tough personality, and often has it out for Dan.
Joleen Lutz as Lisette Hocheiser (Seasons 8 and 9), a ditzy court stenographer.
Gilbert Gottfried as Oscar Brown (Season 9), an attorney who filled in for Dan Fielding when he was missing.
Florence Stanley as Judge Margaret Wilbur, an abusive stuffed shirt of a judge who occasionally filled in for Harry, tolerating no eccentricity from the rest of the staff. She later was written into the NBC sitcom My Two Dads, on which Bull once made a cameo.
Ron Ross as Dirk, a puny, easily flustered bailiff who occasionally substitutes when one of the regular bailiffs is away. He is frequently teased by Dan.
The first few seasons of Night Court had an unusually large number of cast changes for such a long-running series. The only actors to appear consistently throughout the show's run were Harry Anderson, John Larroquette, and Richard Moll.
Karen Austin appeared as court clerk Lana Wagner for only the first ten episodes, after which her character was only subsequently mentioned in the eleventh episode as "out sick" by a one-time character, and never again by regular cast members. She was kept in the titles of the remaining three episodes of the first season. Charles Robinson joined the cast in Season 2 as court clerk Mac Robinson, and stayed on until the end of the series.
After the first season, Paula Kelly, who herself had replaced Gail Strickland, who appeared in the pilot episode, was cut from the show; the public defender role was filled by Ellen Foley for the second season, after which she in turn was replaced by Markie Post, who guest starred at the beginning of season 2 as Christine Sullivan. The court clerk character of Lana Wagner had been planned to be a romantic interest for Harry Stone, but when Austin was released, that role was transferred to the new public defender characters—most notably by Markie Post. Post has been the original choice of Weege for the part as Sullivan from the start but her contract with ABC's The Fall Guy kept her from taking the part; though she did guest star as Sullivan in Season 2 to introduce her to the audience in case she wanted to do both roles. ABC cancelled The Fall Guy at season's end and Post was able to join the show full-time in Season 3. In the Season 2 episode where she guest starred, Harry makes a note "our children would be blonde", alluding to the possible romantic connection between the two planned for later.
Like the public defender role, the female bailiff role went through two cast changes as well. When Selma Diamond, the first female bailiff, died after two seasons, Florence Halop played a similar character, only to die one season later. Night Court scripts addressed the deaths of both characters, which was uncharacteristic for a sitcom. There were whispers and jokes that both actresses had fallen prey to some sort of "Night Court Curse"; this is said to be one of the reasons that the show decided not to bring in a third elderly actress and instead replaced Halop with Marsha Warfield, who was only 32 when she began playing Roz Russell. All three characters were written as mother-figures for Bull. Warfield's arrival marked the show's final cast change, and the ensemble remained intact for the remainder of the show's run.
The show was a Top 30 hit from Season 2 through Season 7.
Awards and honors
Night Court received a number of awards and nominations. Both Selma Diamond (in 1985) and John Larroquette (in 1988) earned Golden Globe nominations, but lost to Faye Dunaway and Rutger Hauer respectively. Paula Kelly was nominated for an Emmy after the first season. John Larroquette won four consecutive Emmys for best supporting actor in a comedy series from 1985 to 1988, before he withdrew his name from the ballot in 1989. Selma Diamond was nominated in 1985 and Harry Anderson received three nominations in 1985, 1986 and 1987. The show received three nominations for best comedy series in 1985, 1987, and 1988. The show also received many awards and nominations in the areas of lighting, editing, sound mixing, and technical direction. The show was nominated for thirty-one Emmys, winning seven.
After its primary run on broadcast syndication, the series aired on cable on A&E Network for many years. It was briefly seen later on TV Land in 2007–08. It began airing on Encore Classic on December 2, 2013.
Airs weekdays on Comedy Gold.
Network Ten first aired the show back in the 1980s and 1990s. 7TWO began reruns of Night Court in June 2011.
Season releasesWarner Home Video released the first three seasons on DVD in Region 1. Seasons 4–9 are Manufacture-on-Demand (MOD) releases, they are part of the Warner Archive Collection and are available exclusively through Warner's online store & Amazon.com and only in the US. The ninth and final season was released on June 11, 2013.
The Television Favorites compilation DVD included the pilot episode, "All You Need Is Love"; both parts of the fourth season finale, "Her Honor"; the fifth season episodes "Death of a Bailiff" and "Who Was That Mashed Man?"; and the sixth season episode "Fire", which marked the beginning of Harry's relationship with Christine.
Harry Anderson, Markie Post, and Charles Robinson appeared in the 30 Rock episode, "The One with the Cast of Night Court". John Larroquette is also mentioned: Harry says he had just spoken to John, which annoys Markie (who hasn't had recent contact with her absent former co-star) and begins an argument between them that lasts for most of the story.