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“Not Necessarily The News”: HBO’s ’80s news satire paved the way for “The Daily Show” & other TV parodies
Years before Comedy Central’s beloved “The Daily Show“ premiered on July 22, 1996 — in the evening time slot previously occupied by Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” (which had been snapped up by the ABC network), and originally hosted by Craig Kilborn — there were other satiric evening news parody shows on TV, including one of the best ever, HBO’s “Not Necessarily the News,” which debuted in September 1982 as a one-hour special before re-appearing as a half-hour series in 1983, airing just three times a month until it was canceled in 1990.
News satire — which to be clear really isn’t the same as what many on TV and elsewhere are now calling “fake news,” a mostly over-used and entirely unrelated term which surged into the headlines in 2016 — has been a staple of TV comedy since the 1960s, at least.
It may have originally started during the late 1950’s so-called “satire boom,” a term often applied to a gaggle of British writers (among them Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, David Frost and others) who lampooned what was happening all around them in skits and sketches, faked debates and satirically punched-up monologues.
The British comedy show “That Was the Week that Was,”, for instance, ran for just over a year, from November 24, 1962 to December 28, 1963 (an American version of the show aired under the same name on NBC in 1964) and was a product of its time, just as all topical news satire shows essentially must be.
These clever, wry satirists parodied the dry seriousness of mainstream TV journalism by presenting fictionalized news stories from similarly mocked-up studio sets, where deadpan TV anchors, usually seated behind a desk, would either comment on “real” or otherwise fake current events and human interest-type stories, often before they introduced typically brief filmed segments where fake street reporters (typically with microphone in hand), sometimes elaborating on the doctored news footage, overdubbed comically, which we were seeing onscreen.
These topical news parody shows caught fire so quickly that before very soon writers were adding similar segments to their sketch comedy programs, including popular shows like NBC’s “Laugh-In,” or “Saturday Night Live,” (their “Weekend Update” segment of the show still provides some of the biggest laughs).
“NNTN” main players, top row: Mitchell Laurence, Lucy Webb, Danny Breen. Bottom row: Stuart Pankin, Anne Bloom. Not pictured: Rich Hall.
One of the first cable networks to give it a go, however, was the Home Box Office channel, better known today as HBO, with their “Not Necessarily the News,” a show which was actually based on the format of a mostly-forgotten 1979 BBC news parody show, “Not the Nine O’ Clock News.”
In our opinion, if it weren’t for shows like “NNTN” breaking comedic ground first, it likely we wouldn’t have ever had shows like Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.”
The show was created by executive producer/writer John Moffitt for Moffitt-Lee Productions, a production company run by Moffitt and executive producer Pat Tourk Lee.
The Emmy Award-winning Moffitt started off as a production assistant on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” before becoming an assistant director on the show during the mid-to-late ’60s.
He has also produced and directed TV specials like “Good Vibrations from Central Park” and “Tribute to Monty Python”, the wonderful comedy-variety series “The Richard Pryor Show,” and the late night comedy sketch series “Fridays” (with guest star Andy Kaufman).
Moffitt also produced and directed “Mr. Show with Bob and David” for HBO, “Comic Relief” specials and and lots of stand-up comedy specials for them too (Ricky Gervais, Dana Carvey, Jim Jefferies, Bill Maher) and the “Talking Funny” HBO special.
“Not Necessarily the News” — which we’ll sometimes abbreviate hereafter as “NNTN” — launched the careers of some of its ensemble cast members, who used recurring names for their anchor/reporter alter-egos, including Stuart Pankin (as “Bob Charles”), Anne Bloom (as “Frosty Kimelman,” who, deciding that her name sounds too much like the name of an airhead, changes it to “Fawn Kimelman,” and eventually, to “Walter Cronkite”), Mitchell Laurance (as “Pete Kimelman”), Lucy Webb (as “Helen St. Thomas”), Danny Breen (as “Steve Casper”), Audrie Neenan (as “Jacqueline Pennel”), and last but certainly not least, stand-up comic Rich Hall, who appeared under his own name (after left the show he returned for occasional “guest appearances”).
Matt Groening has described Rich Hall as the inspiration for Moe Szyslak from “The Simpsons.” Before joining “NNTN” as both a writer and on-screen talent, Hall was a writer and performer on the original “David Letterman Show” (1980), and the sketch comedy TV series “Fridays” (1980-82).
After “NNTN”, also a regular on “Saturday Night Live” for the show’s tenth season (1984–’85), thus becoming the only “Fridays” cast member to also be an “SNL” cast member (Larry David, while also on “Fridays” also worked for “SNL” as writer and only appeared onscreen as an extra).
A full list of the cast and crew members for “NNTN” can be found on IMDB, where you’ll see familiar names listed among the guest stars, including Jan Hooks (in multiple roles, 1983-1984), Matthew Perry, Tim Roth, Traci Lords, Bob Costas, Harry Shearer and Steve Buscemi, among dozens more.
Initially, NNTN” was written by a handful of the best TV writers at the time, namely head writer Matt Neuman and also including Lane Sarasohn (of The Groove Tube fame), Al Jean, Conan O’Brien and Greg Daniels (“NNTN” was his first professional television writing gig).
The latter three writers names listed above would also end up writing for shows like “The Simpsons, “ with O’Brien and Daniels also both moving on to join the writing staffs at “SNL,” in 1987, before both created their own TV shows and going on to becoming hugely successful in the comedy world.
“NNTN”‘s focus was always on the humor, though, and despite airing on HBO, there was hardly any full-frontal nudity or anything too raunchy, mostly choosing to stay well within the bounds of good taste, and only occasionally did the writers stray from that path to show that this wasn’t standard network TV fare.
If it were on the air today, it might not even get an “R” rating.
Most of the jokes weren’t too concerned with what would later come to be called being “politically correct,” often sharply mocking political stories in the news that made fun of what was happening on both sides of the political aisle (both left and right wing), which in the early 80s was still considered more underground and part of the counterculture and not as mainstream and common as it is today.
There were especially a lot of hysterically funny bits — and quite a few comedic misfires — that clearly lampooned what was happening inside the White House at the time (and during all eight years of Ronald Reagan’s administration, the President was the gift that kept on giving when it came to providing clever comedy fodder).
Since the show was titled “Not Necessarily the News,” you might expect there to be something more than the news, and you’d be right, because the show (much like “SNL” does today) also created clever faked-up TV commercials — like one for a hearing aid which drowned out yelling wives and grandchildren — which were inserted between the news segments to break up the monotony (we sure could use a bunch of these on the network news every night instead of all of seemingly-endless commercials for boner pills and what-not).
Happily for us, one IMDB reviewer named “FeverDog” (who apparently still has the VHS tapes he taped off HBO when the show aired), has typed up a list of them as examples:
An aspirin spot, with the shaky-cam, zoom-crazy, A.D.D.-edited style of early MTV; a travelogue promoting Middle East tourism, featuring bombed-out cities and a jingle called “Come to Lebanon”; a promo for a Lifetime-esqe domestic drama about some way-obscure illness (poly-malabsorption?), with Anne Bloom and Mitchell Laurance reciting banal, melodramatic dialogue (“Dammit, Brad! You know I can’t eat butter!”); a PSA featuring Webb as a mother so frustrated with the risks inherent with seemingly healthy foods that she goes back to the basics (“Lard: It’s what’s for dinner”) and concoctions she’s read nothing negative about (like marshmallows soaked in blue food coloring); and one poking fun at the countless, minutely different types of sanitary napkins flooding the market (“Here’s an Ultra-Regular-Thin-Maxi-Thin-Lite-Lite, for jury duty”).
One risqué skit hawked a condom carrying case to eliminate telltale “Ring Around the Rubber” from a man’s wallet, and another ad recommended one pharmaceutical after another to curb the side effects of the drug you were taking to curb the side effects of another. (“Doesn’t Stamforex cause night blindness and fever blisters?” “Of course it does, that’s why you need Glycane D…”), and so on. (Don’t forget to use Washital to swallow all those pills.) Then there was Backseat Driving School, which needs no explanation.
There was “Crosstalk,” a parody of a “Crossfire”-type show hosted by a couple of loudmouth political talk show hosts (from the left and the right) who were so busy lambasting each other’s opinion to allow their guest (a meek Washington insider played by Danny Breen) to get a single word in.
The writers also often used clever mock-dubbing techniques — re-editing so that political figures were saying something funny — which is an old concept that we went into more details about in our J-Men Forever post.
Some of the parodies included on the show doesn’t make any sense unless you remember other TV shows airing at the time, like the parody of Steven Spielberg’s anthology TV series “Amazing Stories,” which turns out to be an episode of “The Twilight Zone”, which then turns out to be an episode of “Albert Hitchcock Presents.” Very clever, that.
There was a sketch that imagine network executives from ABC in a pitch meeting where they ultimately decide to take existing popular TV shows being aired by rival networks and re-work them as new shows: we’re then treated to their discussion of re-working “Miami Vice” into a similar show set in other cities (each shouting out their own idea — “New York Vice!” “Calgary Vice!” “Hollywood Beat!” — before one suit says “That’s it! And nobody’ll ever know where we got the idea…”).
Another highlight of “NNTN” as the once-a-month segment of Rich Hall’s “sniglets,” a neologism coined by Hall, which he said stood for “any word that doesn’t appear in the dictionary, but should.”
Hall later expanded the concept to a series of popular paperback books.
The show — which featured the guitar bridge to the song “Motherless Children” by Eric Clapton, from his album 461 Ocean Blvd. as its theme song before switching to “Hooray For The City” by Jack Mack & The Heart Attack in 1985 — eventually ran into problems, prompted by sagging ratings among regular HBO viewers, which led to some of the writing staff being laid off and the on-screen talent being re-cast (Bloom, Breen, Pankin, and Webb were replaced with Tom Parks, Annabelle Gurwitch and other less memorable comic actors).
According to TV Tropes (which may or may not be entirely accurate), from 1982 to 1987, “NNTN” was “structured like a sketch comedy interspersed with commercial parodies and satirized news items.
Then, after a brief hiatus, the show returned in 1989 [for just one additional season] with a “Weekend Update” format, centered on the news anchors but still containing humorous takes on the news and some fake commercials.”
There were also a number of “NNTN” specials that were aired separately, such as “Not Necessarily The Movies,” “Not Necessarily Politics,” “Not Necessarily Television,” “Not Necessarily the News: Inside Washington” and a couple of specialized episodes that aired as occasional specials: Not Necessarily the Year in Review, and Not Necessarily the Sniglets.
At one point, HBO claimed that “NNTN” was being seen by an audience of 15.9 million households, which the network said put it squarely in the <em”blah” category for most viewers, and they eventually pulled the plug on the series, with the last episode airing on August 26, 1990.