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.

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.

Now, the influence of those ‘90s mega-hits having been fully absorbed, almost every show with a shred of artistic purpose works to demonstrate how it is different. NBC’s The Office operated as a faux-documentary, the camera moving in handheld, intrusive swoops around desks and doors. Community, on the same network, built in-jokes that would have been preposterous in the late 20th century, requiring a committed, weekly following for comprehension. A slew of non-major-network shows has pushed the boundaries even further and created ever-tinier niches, obliterating old notions of universal appeal.

It is tempting, then, to think of those less adventurous shows—especially ones that showed up, as Just Shoot Me! did, after Seinfeld and The Simpsons had revolutionized things—as populist to a fault, stock pseudo-art out of step with the zeitgeist. But the very attributes keeping it from critical glory made the show wonderful to me. Here was a world void of dread, danger, and anxiety, a place in which work and play were indistinguishable, in which jobs just meant different aesthetics attached to the same basic glee. The easy tropes and practiced banter, the reliable fulfilling of a sitcom’s tasks, contributed to a sense of permanence. I would see the opening credits—rolls of film against a white background with the characters’ faces inlaid—wait for Finch’s slithery chattiness or Jack’s eager grin, that marker by which I knew this old man was somehow my peer, and feel entirely, magnificently comfortable.

* * *

Like any show, though, it could not remain static for all of its years. It had to shake things up, and went through some iterations as a result, most of these involving shifts in the Gallo family drama. At the start, Just Shoot Me! was propelled by the fish-out-of-water presence of Maya, nearly every episode featuring her struggling with whether or not she belonged with these beacons of Manhattan superficiality. Later, the show would derive momentum from the Elliot-Maya romance, from an unlikely Maya-Nina friendship, from Maya’s frustration at her father’s marrying an old high-school classmate of hers, and from Maya’s (and the whole gang’s) comforting her father during the subsequent divorce.

For all of the requisite mini-arcs, though, the single episode remained Just Shoot Me!’s basic unit. Each show shuttled viewers comfortably between plots with a mock-up Blush cover, its teasers related to that evening’s goings-on. If we did not know where things stood going into an episode—and we often didn’t, watching on WGN or some four-lettered Kansas City rerun factory—the cast’s professional thespianism clued us in early on. Jack entered in a huff, Maya looked frazzled and ducked her head around Elliot, or Finch hatched a plan, and the inciting difficulty was set.

A favorite episode centered, again, on Nina’s lexical shortcomings. We learned in the opening minutes, after elevator doors opened and shut and sunglasses guarding liquor-reddened eyes came off, that she had been tabbed to appear on an NPR show to debate a feminist scholar on the subject of body image and the fashion industry. Finch and Elliot conspired to replace her “Word of the Day” calendar with a fake one consisting of made-up words in the days before the appearance (part of the charm of the show, to a young Midwesterner: that such an idea could come to mind, and all that its completion required was a quick errand out of the office and into the possibility-laden churn of “New York”). The calendar was produced, and the resultant exchanges wrote themselves. Nina asked Maya, particularly rambunctious at that morning’s staff meeting, “Well aren’t you the perpippity one?” During the NPR taping, she charged her opponent with being persefunctant and, when asked for clarification, admonished her: “Maybe you should listen a little more and emolicate a little less.”

By the time Nina, now drunk on confidence along with whatever else, announced that she entered the fashion industry “with a dream in my heart and a driving stangle to succeed,” the camera had swooped back to the office, where Finch and Elliot listened on a radio, both doubled over. “She said stangle!” Elliot managed through the tears and clutched stomach.

In our living room, the four O’Connells matched Elliot’s pose, wiping our eyes and gasping. For years to come, whenever a dinnertime nicety was passed—a compliment of the food or a laugh at a joke—the recipient’s response would be the same as Nina’s to the fawning radio host: “You flammer me.”

* * *

At some point, I understood every joke in every episode. Just Shoot Me! no longer held that aspirational lure, that slight, great scent of the inappropriate. (“We really shouldn’t be letting you watch this,” my mom would sometimes say to a younger me after a particularly risqué episode, a comment that only enhanced the show’s effects.) But I watched it and loved it anyway all through middle school and high school, and then packed the DVDs in the college boxes whose contents would, I imagined, communicate to anyone who entered my set-up dorm room my exact and extensive cultural knowledge.

Laura San-Giacomo (R), alongside fellow cast member, George Segal in 1997 (Kevork Djansezian/ AP)

I like Just Shoot Me!, now, in a different way than I like anything else. Maybe everyone gets to like one thing this way, one piece of the world that collided with him or her at the precise right time and formed an uncomplicated connection. This like is liking distilled to its essence. I don’t like the show for its importance or cultural relevance, its ability to carry me through conversations. I don’t like it as a continuous presence; it has been a long time since I’ve seen an episode. I don’t even like it as an under-recognized classic. In high school, at the lunch table, I argued on occasion for its superiority to Seinfeld but was never serious; it has probably slipped into the mass-memory slot it deserves, where even in an era of heavy pop-culture nostalgia it doesn’t receive any Internet slide shows or 12 Things You Didn’t Know…

No, the liking comes from this: I know that, if I were to happen upon an old episode right now, away from Kansas City and my family and the bulbous white kitchen TV, it would make me laugh and feel good. It is as simple, and as rare, as that. Just Shoot Me! got to me before I understood it, a mess of allusion and innuendo just beyond my reach, and stayed around—in my living room and kitchen, in the half-hour between when I came home and split again to join friends in pursuit of illicit beer—until I understood it entirely. It is the one cultural product at which I will not and cannot direct criticism. It encoded itself on me, and an episode now leads to a laugh as plainly as a gulp of water produces an ahh.

* * *

For the rest of the summer and into the fall following my mom’s shoulder surgeries, we watched more religiously than we ever had before. We watched five nights a week, after eating the takeout my dad had picked up on his way home or some of the friend-gifted lasagna that stuffed our freezer. When we couldn’t find a rerun, we popped in a DVD—the set had been a Christmas present, purportedly from and to someone, but immediately became communal property—and watched three or four episodes in a row.

On its surface, this was an act of familial kindness and generosity, a laughter is the best medicine support group. We wanted to get her mind off things, and Just Shoot Me!, judging by the soft snores we’d detect at the first Tide or Chevy pitch, did the trick. Really, though, our aim was no different than that of any other family getting together to stare at a screen. We wanted, for a half-hour or a string of them, to get familiarity and surprise in the right proportions, to watch these miraculous people who fit perfectly into their faces, their clothes, their jobs, and themselves, who rubbed each other the wrong way, wonderfully, until they didn’t anymore, until the closing credits signaled the magical sitcom reset that would let things start over the next time. We were not as tired as my mom, but we were tired enough, and it was warm, and we wanted to spend more time with something we’d already spent too much time with, something that we already knew too well.