In what dimension, Pajiba writer Dustin Rowles, is it okay to scoff at “Stark Raving Mad”?
I mean, I liked your list, The 10 Least Must-See NBC Thursday Night TV Sitcoms, mostly. Maybe I am a sitcom junkie, but I appreciate your righteous indignation at televised farts like “Boston Common” and the rehash of “Coupling.” Even your jab at “The Single Guy” might be justified—although, as a young teen, I looo-oooo-ooooved Jonathan Silverman with an ardor that nearly matched my affection for Tom Cavanagh on “Ed.”
Perhaps all these cold TV dinner leftovers are best forgotten: fine. But you leave “Stark Raving Mad” out of it.
The year? was 1999. Young talent Neil Patrick Harris, fresh from a slew of lamentable made-for-TV movies, was still trying to shake off his Doogie curse (I remember watching The Christmas Wish with bewildered pity). In a more recent interview with the A.V. Club, Harris indicates those years of his life as plangent with mountain-climbing and introspection.
Meanwhile, Tony Shalhoub had established himself as a pretty good character actor on the big screen, even as he juggled a role as lovable cabbie Antonio Scarpacci on “Wings.” But “Wings” was over now, and Shalhoub, underloved as ever.
“Stark Raving Mad” paired the two actors as yet another Odd Couple, with Shalhoub as horror novelist Ian Stark and young Harris as his beleaguered editor and keeper, Henry McNeely. The characters, together, were two kinds of crazy, with obsessive-compulsive McNeely quietly rivaling Ian Stark for lunacy. A sloppier creator might have cast a woman as Stark’s editor instead, which could well have given the series a will-they-won’t-they frisson and longevity.
But as with any of the best-received sitcoms (“Black Books,” “Big Bang Theory”), the premise’s very triteness permitted the actors to shine:
“Tony Shalhoub is hysterical—I didn’t even think he could be so funny,” one IMDb user wrote in 1999. “Who would have thought Neil Patrick Harris had a flair for comedy?” another typed in 2000.
Of course the show was hamstrung by sitcom cheesiness—puns, tracked laughter, obnoxious jazzy interstitials with establishing shots of architecture and city traffic—but fine performances elevated “Stark Raving Mad” from banal to sublime.
Audiences were pleasantly surprised, too, by the network television show’s unusually grim humor; paid critics were not so kind. In its September 1999 review, Variety warned that “Stark Raving Mad” simply couldn’t compete with television shows like “Charmed” (ugh) and “Action.” (Remember “Action”? The only FOX sitcom with tons of bleeping? It was also wonderful, more authentically edgy, but its life was sadly cut short, too.)
From the end of the pilot episode of “Stark Raving Mad,” here is a bit about the writing process (beginning at 1:40 or so):
Soon after “Stark Raving Mad” won its People’s Choice Award for Best New Comedy, NBC canceled the series. Several episodes never aired.