Just Shoot Me and the Deep Comfort of Mediocre Sitcoms

The purest form of pop-cultural love I've ever felt was toward a show whose jokes I didn't even understand.
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NBC

One pressing, humid evening in July, 2005, my family—my father, mother, little sister (seventh grade), and I (10th)—sat in our suburban Kansas City living room. Outside, cicadas hummed. Inside, my mom, laid up and exhausted from surgeries following a rotator-cuff injury, sighed and fiddled with the Velcro on her foam brace. Then my dad turned on the TV.

After some flipping, he landed on an episode of Just Shoot Me!, an NBC sitcom (by then syndicated elsewhere) and household favorite. We had almost certainly seen the episode before—we had seen nearly every one—but we laughed along, maybe harder than we had the first time, preempting lines and miming physical gags. All of us, that is, except for my mom, who, we noticed during the first commercial break, had fallen asleep.

* * *

Just Shoot Me! ran for seven seasons, from 1997 to 2003, totaling 148 episodes. It centered on the staff of Blush Magazine, a fashion glossy, and it usually gave roughly 19 of its 22 minutes to A- and B-plot hijinks and the final three to major-network heartstring-tugging. It traded in pranks, euphemisms, snappy retorts, and ill-planned deceit. It was set in that place that every child of my generation knows intimately: the ‘90s TV office, with its heavy elevator doors and patterned carpet, populated with pastel shirts and shoulderpadded suits.

Not a critical darling—it piled secondary nominations but never won a Golden Globe or Emmy—Just Shoot Me! traipsed on as a workhorse in an era of NBC’s mass appeal. It started Seinfeld was winding down, spent its prime in Frasier’s shadow, and ended as ER and Will & Grace were ascending. It hit its marks and pulled solid ratings. It has, by now, fallen out of syndication, and only three seasons have been made available on DVD. Full episodes, split into three parts, can be found on YouTube, NBC evidently having elected not to waste its lawyers’ time defending this particular bit of copyright.

In my childhood household, though, Just Shoot Me! was an undeniable hit. Its ubiquitous presence on our two television screens started with my dad—my mom watched little TV save for “The News Hour” and Masterpiece Theater—but I, mimicking him at first, quickly became hooked. When I started watching, at around nine or ten years old, most of grownup media was foreign to me, but the show’s steady presence in our home allowed reassurance to substitute for the comedy I didn’t fully comprehend.

I watched at dusk, my butt on the kitchen table and my feet on a seat, staring fixedly at our small white kitchen TV with gray buttons and a convex screen, a screen that gave a thick, glassy ring if I rapped it with my knuckles. I didn’t get the joke when the character Nina, whose underdeveloped vocabulary proved a steady source to the show, said of an upcoming dinner date, “…and for dessert we’ll be having coitus, whatever that is!” but I smiled anyway and the laugh track sounded good against the rain pinging the window. By the time I had seen 20 episodes, I was the leader of the fan club, my dad proudly in second place, my mom and sister tied for acquiescing third.

Here were the show’s principals:

  • Jack Gallo, owner/publisher. Wealthy, and possessing the precise type of happiness we might hope wealth would bring. Relentlessly cheery and frivolous. Promiscuous, especially for a man of his age. Gray hair, significant gut. Pursued diversion with a child’s singlemindedness. Office lined on one wall with an expensive bar. Capable of efficient soul-searching, when the script called for it.
  • Maya Gallo, Jack’s daughter, writer. Politically liberal, a trait at odds with her father’s gleeful capitalistic tendencies and the magazine’s perpetuation of an unrealistic feminine ideal. Estranged from her father for the years predating the show’s first season. A dork—as indicated by turtleneck sweaters, frizzy hair, a gap between the front teeth, and occasional glasses—but conventionally attractive, albeit purposely less so than the models that roamed Blush’s office.
  • Dennis Finch, secretary. Played by David Spade, the biggest name involved with the series. Slight, sarcastic, and sexually frustrated. Pestered models. Thought of himself as an essential partner to Jack, and thought of Jack as a father. Decidedly did not think of Maya as a sister. The snappiest of the snappy retorters. Called Finch by everyone but Jack, who called him Dennis.
  • Nina Van Horn, former model, fashion correspondent. Vapid, projected immense confidence. Misspoke often and to hilarious effect. Drank to excess, came to the office hungover, left for liquid lunches. Provided the final emotional flourish to some episodes, about one in every five or six, by showing self-doubt and vulnerability stemming from a fear of aging and losing her beauty.
  • Elliot DiMauro, photographer. Bald but suave. Considered himself an artist, sometimes wore a beret. A lothario and occasional courter (and brief fiancé) of Maya. Teamed up with Finch in office pranks. Had a sensitive side mined less often than Nina’s, about every eight or nine episodes. Spectacular, heaving cryer.
The cast in 2001 (Jim Ruymen/Reuters)

I delighted in seeing repeat episodes and knowing what was coming and, later, in understanding the nuance of the humor. At 12 years old, I sat with my family for our usual appointment and watched an episode centering on Finch’s and Jack’s bridge partnership. At the outset, Finch had substituted for Jack’s sick wife, Allie, in their couples game. Boss and secretary played brilliantly together, we learned, and Jack elected to continue playing with Finch even after Allie got well, lying about working late. The episode’s climax was a scene in which Jack, feeling guilty, tried to end the partnership and Finch tried to keep it going, reminding him of the good times and flowing cards. The conversation took an increasingly adulterous tone. When the crescendo came—“Dammit, Dennis, you’ve got me thinking with my deck!”—I let out a huge laugh, and my dad did the same, and I felt glad to have access to the world of adults at 8:30.

The show became my favorite at an age when a favorite was something not to be scrutinized or publicly defended but to be enjoyed. I could parrot whole soliloquies of Jack’s at the dinner table; a regular routine of mine involved his idea, presented to Maya, that penguins were ground-bound not because of any physiological deficiency but because they lacked “the belief that they can fly,” a go-get-‘em speech woefully misaimed at his B.S.-detecting daughter.

I did not work to memorize scenes like these; the memorization just happened. I knew no other kids who watched the show, didn’t talk about it at school, and could forget about it for days at a time, but when I returned I was entranced by the easy, casual hilarity of sitcom adulthood.

* * *

In the past few decades, sitcoms’ sitcom-ness and critical reputation have been, almost always, inversely proportional. Seinfeld, considered by many the format’s highest achievement, used the genre’s conventions only as springboards to lofty aims. It was cleverer than other sitcoms, more carefully built, featuring intricate wordplay and sly asides, and pointedly less reliant on the romantic matching of its main characters. The Simpsons, too, built its success on the skeleton of the form; its jokes always work best if one part of your mind reminds you what the normal TV family would do or say in this situation.

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Robert O'Connell

Robert O’Connell is a writer based in San Francisco. He has written for The Classical.

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