“Smoking” is one of my favorite episodes of NewsRadio, because for purposes of this episode, I am Dave Nelson. For me it was Mountain Dew instead of coffee, but I was a serious caffeine addict who tried to quit, and it was pretty much just like this episode. Humor is so much funnier if you’ve actually experienced whatever it is you’re supposed to be laughing at.
There’s a new state law which officially makes WNYX a non-smoking office, much to Matthew’s delight and Bill’s annoyance. In an effort to get Bill to comply with the law, Dave agrees to give up his own vice of coffee and suffer along with him. Meanwhile, Lisa becomes paranoid that Joe spotted her and Dave while they were out on a date at the movies the night before, making her worried that their relationship will be exposed.
By the day after their agreement, both Bill and Dave are beginning to feel the side effects of withdrawal. “I have a pounding headache and my arms feel like they’re about twelve feet long,” Dave confides. I can vouch for that one from personal experience; when I started getting massive headaches if I didn’t have a soda, I knew it was time to quit, and the withdrawal headaches over the first few days were as bad as a migraine. Both men insist they’re not cracking, but when Matthew walks into Dave’s office with an innocuous request, Dave and Bill both unload their frustrations on him. “I don’t think that qualifies as cracking, do you?” Bill asks in the aftermath.
Jimmy is not impressed with Bill’s resulting lethargic job performance, and thwarts Dave’s plan by giving Bill a cigarette while he’s in the booth. Dave confiscates it, and eventually goes to his doctor to get anti-smoking patches for Bill, much to Lisa’s confusion.
Dave: I had him prescribe them for me.
Lisa: You don’t smoke.
Dave: No, but I told him I was thinking about starting. You know, I don’t think he’s a very good doctor.
Everything seems to be fine, until Bill ends up in an ambulance, which Dave naturally blames on the patch and therefore himself. As it turns out, it wasn’t his fault. When Bill arrives at work the next day, he confides in Dave that he had no idea that he was only supposed to be wearing one patch at a time; instead, he was wearing “fifteen [or] sixteen” of them. Whoops. Yet it’s only been thirtysomething hours since his last cigarette. He cracks a few minutes later.
At the end of the episode, Lisa needles Joe to the point where he admits that he was out with a gay friend and embarrassed to be seen with him. All he knows about Lisa’s date was that he was “some dork with a stupid hat.” Crisis averted. Meanwhile, Joe has completely sealed the booth, which is now filled with Bill’s cigarette smoke to the point where no one can see anything inside.
Anyone who’s ever had any kind of addiction, or knows someone who does, can see the humor in “Smoking” because it really is just like that, down to the personality shifts and sometimes warped logic. A lot of us are probably caffeine addicts even if we don’t know it, with how mainstream coffee consumption has become. In that sense it’s impossible not to relate to and laugh at the struggles of Bill and Dave in this episode.
Phil Hartman really was the star of NewsRadio and it’s episodes like this which show why; he can make the most mundane thing hilarious and the most absurd seem somehow interesting just with how he presents each line. Pairing him with Dave Foley, who turned being the straight man into an art with this show, is twenty-two-plus minutes of comic genius. All the other characters are fairly marginalized, but it doesn’t matter because Hartman and Foley have the audience snickering in relatable laughter. Therein was the beauty of NewsRadio: not only was it funny, but you understood it on some level, which only made it funnier.