In the mid-1980s, Night Court was part of NBC’s illustrious Thursday night comedy block, which also included Cheers and, for a time, Family Ties. Ratings lagged in the first couple of seasons, then it became a top 10 show … until NBC started shuffling it around to new nights.
The workplace sitcom followed a group of misfits working at a Manhattan night court: Judge Harry T. Stone (the late Harry Anderson), a judge/magician who presided over the court; Christine Sullivan (Markie Post), a public defender and do-gooder (a few other women played a similar role before Post committed to Sullivan during the third season); womanizer/prosecutor Dan Fielding (John Larroquette); the sarcastic bailiff Roz Russell (Marsha Warfield); Mac Robinson, a moral court clerk (Charles Robinson); and Bull (Richard Moll), a bald, slightly dim bailiff.
Barney Miller alumnus Reinhold Weege created the show, which aired for nine seasons, from January 4, 1984 to May 31, 1992. Unlike a lot of sitcoms, the characters didn’t change much, and the show didn’t push heavy-handed issues onto its audience. It was simply a show filled with idiosyncratic characters and big laughs. Take a look behind-the-scenes of the award-winning sitcom.
1. Real New York City judges inspired the series.
Night Court creator Reinhold Weege—who passed away in 2012—sat on the bench with a group of New York City night court judges and developed a story around them. “I was moved by the craziness of New York Manhattan night court,” he said in E!’s 2002 documentary TV Tales: Night Court. “There were stories in the newspaper at the time of judges with serious emotional problems who the state had a hard time getting rid of. I thought, gosh, it would be terrific if we could get a judge through the system who was a little off center, a little wacky.” On the show, Judge Stone’s a bit wacky, and is also the youngest judge in state history.
2. Saturday Night Live played a part in Harry Anderson's casting.
In real life, Harry Anderson—who passed away in April 2018—was a magician, and at the time of the show’s casting, he had a stint on Saturday Night Live (he’d also been on Cheers). One of Night Court’s producers, Jeff Melman, and his wife were watching Anderson stick a needle through his arm on SNL and thought he’d be good for the part.
“The name Harry and the fact that he did magic was a coincidence,” Weege said on TV Tales. “Harry said he was the guy, and I’ll be damned, he turned out to be the guy.”
3. Dan Fielding started out as a conservative character.
In the first couple of seasons, Dan Fielding’s not an arrogant womanizer like he is in later seasons. “If you look at the early episodes, my character was this sort of tight-lipped, vested, pipe-smoking, conservative fellow,” John Larroquette told The A.V. Club, “and of course I was putting garden hoses down my pants by the end of the series. I think what happens on a television series like that is that the creator of the show gets used to the characters and the actors playing them. They learn to write toward their strengths, which a good writer does. And Reinhold [Weege] saw that I was this maverick, crazy—that sounds self-inflating, but I have a rather acerbic sense of humor. Reinhold starting writing toward that and creating the character that everybody knows.”
4. The show didn't tackle heavy issues, and that was intentional.
Despite the judicial nature of the show, the point of Night Court was to make people laugh. “The show may not be in any way intellectual and we don’t make any pretense of dealing with issues that are impossible to address or solve in the sitcom format,” said Larroquette. “But if you just want to forget it all for a minute and laugh at pies in the face and pants around the ankles, that’s what we do very well.”
“We were so politically incorrect we would have had a cigarette sponsor if we came back next year,” executive producer Stu Kreisman told the Los Angeles Times.
5. Marsha Warfield broke the 'bailiff curse.'
For the first two seasons (36 episodes), Selma Diamond played Bailiff Selma Hacker. In 1985, at the age of 64, Diamond died of lung cancer. Florence Halop replaced Diamond and played Bailiff Florence Kleiner for 22 episodes, but she passed away in 1986 at age 63, also from lung cancer. Actress Marsha Warfield was in her early 30s when she was cast as Roz Russell, the next bailiff. “There’s no way to say this without sounding callous, but if the two women before me had been 33-year-old black women, I would have been really nervous about taking the part,” Warfield told People.
6. After winning four Emmy Awards in a row, John Larroquette took himself out of contention.
Larroquette’s hilarious portrayal of Fielding resulted in the actor winning four straight Emmys, from 1985 to 1988. But after the fourth win, Larroquette asked the Television Academy not to consider him for more awards as Fielding. “It was a combination of two things,” Larroquette told The A.V. Club on why he removed himself. “Quite frankly and honestly, I didn’t think that the work that I had done was as good as it was, only partially because Reinhold had left by then, and new producers had come in. And more selfishly, quite honestly, I knew that the character had made a really deep impression on the American public, and on studios and producers and directors and writers, but it was going to end someday. I wanted to fade into the background with this guy a little bit, so that there would be a possibility of eventually doing something else.”
Larroquette also worried that he had been typecast. “Every role was some sleazy lawyer or some sleazy this or some sleazy that. It was sort of selfishly motivated. I loved the show, but it was time to move on.”
7. A low-budget sci-fi movie was the reasoning behind Bull's bald head.
In 1983, Richard Moll starred in an obscure B-movie called Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn, which required him to shave his head. Around the same time, Moll got called in to audition for Night Court. Weege said on E!’s TV Tales: Night Court that the 6’8” bald actor wasn’t what he’d envisioned for the character, but he liked Moll’s acting. “I remember saying to Richard, ‘I want you to keep that hair balding.’” Moll responded with, “Are you kidding? I’ll shave my legs for the part.”
8. Michael Richards appeared naked on Night Court.
In a second season episode titled “Take My Wife, Please,” a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards played Eugene Sleighbough, a man who thought he was invisible. He stood before the court, accused of robbing an apartment because he thought nobody could see him when, in fact, hundreds of people did. “They probably have some kind of heat sensing device,” Sleighbough offered. “Yes, it’s called sunlight,” Fielding retorted. At the end of the episode, Sleighbough returned to court, but this time in his birthday suit, as he thought his invisibility hadn’t worked because he'd been wearing clothes.
9. A few mash-ups and parodies of the theme song exist.
The instrumental Night Court theme song features a throbbing bass and a sax solo, and some people thought it worked well with other material. Musician Ramsey Ess mashed-up Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” with the Night Court theme song to form “Single Night Court Ladies.” A 2007 Family Guy episode called “Bill & Peter’s Bogus Journey” sees Bill Clinton playing the theme song on his sax; a YouTuber parodied Netflix’s Daredevil opening credits using Night Court’s theme.
10. The actors and producers were "screwed creatively" following a last-minute renewal.
Weege bowed out of running the show full-time at the end of the sixth season and tapped two former Night Court writers, Stuart Kreisman and Chris Cluess, to take creative control of the show. Later, NBC told them that season eight would be Night Court’s last, so they could end it any way they wanted—including writing a storyline where Christine and Judge Stone finally hook up.
“We felt like we were all done with it, and really how much more could we do?” Post said on TV Tales. “It looked like we were wrapping up, and sure enough before we ended the show, they came through with, like, jumbo buckets of money for the cast.”
NBC renewed the show for a ninth and final season, which involved untying stories. “When we found out we were going to go for another year, we were screwed creatively,” Kreisman told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “And it took us the first two or three episodes of this year to undo all the stuff we set up last year.”
11. The possibility of a syndication deal prevented a proper send-off.
NBC officially canceled the show during the ninth season, but Warner Bros., who distributed the show, was in the process of trying to sell Night Court for first-run syndication. Because there was a possibility that the show might come back on another network, the final episode was cobbled together.
“The only thing I’m angry about is that Warner Bros. wouldn’t allow us to definitively end the show,” Larroquette told the Los Angeles Times. “Because at the last minute, NBC was thinking about renewing the show. Then Warner was trying to sell it elsewhere. So they didn’t want a definitive ending. That sort of tied our hands. It was a drag. We weren’t allowed to turn to the audience, give a salute and say thanks.”
“After nine years, a memo was handed out—Friday—that we got just before the [final] taping saying, ‘Please have your dressing rooms empty by Monday,’” Anderson said on TV Tales. “That was how the show was canceled. And I thought, that’s not very classy.”
12. 30 Rock created its own ending for the show.
The Night Court series finale found Dan realizing that Christine was the love of his life instead of Christine and Harry finally admitting their feelings for each other. In 2008, 16 years after Night Court signed off, 30 Rock created what should’ve happened in Night Court’s finale in the episode entitled “The One With The Cast of Night Court.” Post, Robinson, and Anderson made appearances as their famed characters, but apparently Larroquette wasn’t asked to be on the show.
“From what I hear, when the idea came up, it was automatically dismissed, like, ‘Larroquette won’t do this, so don’t even call him,’” he told Backstage. “I was doing Boston Legal at the time, so it would have been difficult. And looking at the story they built, if my character was there, it would have been a whole different thing.”
In the episode, Kenneth is disappointed about the ending of Night Court, and he also doesn’t want to wear his new page uniform. Tracy Jordan gets Post and Anderson to come to 30 Rock and stage a Christine/Judge Stone wedding. “And the new ending is Harry and I get together but we have a big fight in the middle of rehearsals and it shatters Kenneth’s dreams,” Post told Patch.com. “Absurd, but they built the entire set exactly so when Harry and I went on, it was weird. We were right back in mode. That was fun."
An earlier version of this article appeared in 2016.