"I watched 'Night Court' with my grandmother": Melissa Rauch on reviving the comforting '80s comedy

The "Big Bang Theory" alum tells "Salon Talks" about breathing new life into a show that "felt like friendship"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 7, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Melissa Rauch (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Robert Trachtenberg/NBC/Warner Bros. Television)
Melissa Rauch (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Robert Trachtenberg/NBC/Warner Bros. Television)

Landing a part on a popular sitcom that lasts for 12 seasons and 279 episodes is a stroke of luck most actors will never experience. Following that by starring in a new comedy that becomes its network's biggest premiere in a half decade  is a feat that "Night Court" star Melissa Rauch says she can't get over.

"In this business, I feel like I've set myself up after some years of rejection to just expect the worst and hope for the best," Rauch told Salon a week after the ratings came in for NBC's revival of the beloved '80s classic, just days before its no-brainer second season renewal. "We were just all very, very pleasantly, pleasantly surprised."

Success shouldn't necessarily be a strange feeling to Rauch, who had a career in stand-up comedy before she stepped into the role for which she's still best remembered: Bernadette Rostenkowski-Wolowitz on "The Big Bang Theory."

"The Big Bang Theory" ended its run as the most popular comedy on TV, reigning as the top-rated show in its 11th season. People loved each character – especially Bernadette, who joined in the third season and spent later episodes balancing being a wife to her "Howie" (Simon Helberg) and mother of two children with enjoying a fulfilling career.

Bernadette might have enjoyed "Night Court" Judge Abby Stone, the daughter of the Honorable Harold T. Stone, the late Harry Anderson's character on the original Reinhold Weege-created series that aired from 1984 through 1992. Like her father, Abby is an optimist who believes in fairness, although she struggles in ways her father didn't. She's determined to honor her father's name and reputation by taking up his old job.

Otherwise, there aren't many familiar faces or names on the Manhattan court's graveyard shift aside from John Larroquette's return as Dan Fielding, who has switched from the prosecution's side to the defense.

In a recent Television Critics Association press conference, Rauch and her fellow executive producers Winston Rauch, her husband, and Dan Rubin did not rule out future cameo appearances by Larroquette's co-stars Marsha Warfield and Richard Moll. (Sadly both Markie Post, who played public defender Christine Sullivan, and Charles Robinson, known to audiences as court clerk Mac Robinson, died in 2021.)

Rauch is part of the generation that grew up watching Larroquette on the original show and has a profound love for the classic multi-camera sitcom's timeless ability to bring people together. In our "Salon Talks" conversation, we also discuss the changes the revival has rolled into the "Night Court" formula to ensure its relevance in 2023.

Watch the "Salon Talks" episode here or read a transcript of our conversation below:

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

You came from "Big Bang Theory," which was the No. 1 comedy for a really long time. To follow that up with a strong premiere on another comedy is pretty rare, isn't it?

You know what? I think it is. I think what makes me happy is that there seems to be an appetite for the multi-camera sitcom . . . I'm such a fan of an old-school sitcom, and to see that there's an appetite for that just makes me so, so incredibly happy.

"Big Bang" was filmed in front of a live studio audience. That was one of those studios that whenever you were there, you could feel the energy even coming from the crowd and then going back and forth during production during a taping. Was that important for "Night Court" to make sure that there was a live studio audience during each production?

Absolutely. I didn't know if we were going to be able to have it because we started developing it during COVID lockdown. When we were talking about it, everything was very theoretical. If we get to do this, that would be our hope. That was something that was very exciting to all of us involved with John Larroquette and Dan Rubin, our executive producer, and Winston Rauch, my husband is also an executive producer. Like you were saying, that energy from the audience is so important and it really informs so much of the rhythm of comedy when you're doing a multi-camera sitcom. 

"I was a kid who really felt other than a lot growing up. Comedy and these shows, it felt like friendship."

Of course, doing this continuation of "Night Court," the OG, that was very built into the DNA of the show is this live studio audience. I really feel like you can't do "Night Court" without that live audience aspect. It's doing a multi-cam. It's very much like doing a play every week, and having an audience when you do theater is so important. When we did the pilot, we had half an audience, because it was still in the height of the pandemic. Everyone was socially distanced and masked up. We didn't even have risers. Everyone was on the ground floor. In many ways, it sort of felt like a hospital waiting room. But then by the time we got to series, we had the full stands. It was just really wonderful to have that experience and that connection with them.

There's an aura of comfort about this revivalist continuation of "Night Court," because this isn't the previous format with all new characters. This is a continuation of the story mainly through John Larroquette's Dan, but also through Abby. I think we're seeing a few of these sitcoms that people loved from 20, 30, even 40 years ago coming back. "Frasier" and "That '90s Show" are back now. What do you think it is about these revivals that has such appeal?

There's a few different things. I know personally, as a fan of the original, even if I had nothing to do with this, I would be so interested to see where this character of Dan Fielding ended up all these years later. I think there's just an interest in the same way that you sometimes will look on Facebook and be like, "What happened to that person that I knew at the time? What are they doing now?" I think there's just that genuine curiosity to see this beloved character that you spent a lot of time with and see what they're up to now.

Whenever we watch a show with anyone, with any member of our family, I know I watched "Night Court" with my grandmother, who's no longer with us, and then when you get to revisit something like that, it feels like you're laughing with that person again. I think, "Oh, she would've loved this." Or I've heard from people who've tuned into this one — by the way, I know when I say tuned in, I really date myself — When I've spoken to people who've watched this, they'll say, "I used to watch this with my father and my mother who's no longer here," and I think it's a nice connection to a time in your life where you were creating memories with someone who may no longer be here. Going back to the very first sitcoms, that's why they're invented, first and foremost, to make you laugh. I also think there was something really special about the original "Night Court."

Something that you really get to do in multi-cams, which I think is really special, but "Night Court" specifically, is you have this heightened comedy. You have almost these vaudevillian, even sometimes absurdist moments, and then you get to sandwich in these moments of heart. I really think that the best comedy comes from being able to make someone feel something alongside that laughter. That's what I'm hoping we're we're able to do with this.

"Night Court" is in a very fundamental way a workplace comedy. At the same time . . . in the past couple of years, there have been a lot of cultural interrogations of how justice is portrayed in primetime television, and particularly that has to do with policing, mainly talking about "Law and Order." I think courtroom dramas are a little bit different. But the reason I wanted to just bring this up is that as we are seeing "Night Court," this version of it, was there any discussion about what types of cases would come in front of Abby and which ones you say like, "Ooh, we're really going to avoid that?"

I think there's conversations that really date back to the very beginning of the development process . . . If you look at some of the cases from the original, I mean, there's ventriloquist dummies who are on trial. It's the nocturnal judicial system. The cases that are coming in are all pretty much left to center. First and foremost, the cases are there to make everyone laugh. What Judge Abby Stone, the character I play, does is she's going to treat every case as if they're on the Supreme Court.

Everyone who's coming through that door, no matter if they are a horse or a vampire or a female werewolf, those people are going to be treated with the utmost respect. That's really the priority is making sure that these cases are fun and everyone's having a good time. There is an episode coming up where we do delve in a little bit to the judicial system. I'm looking forward to everyone checking that out. We do lean into that a bit. There is, of course, the comedy around it, but we do spend some time talking about what's happening in today's day and age.

That's an interesting balance to take with a show like this. Because like you said, so many of the cases that come before Abby and even before Harry Stone were really focused on the absurdity. When you were discussing including that episode, what were some of the things that you wanted to focus on?

"I really think that the best comedy comes from being able to make someone feel something alongside that laughter."

Well, we have Lacretta, who's our wonderful bailiff, and it's really through her eyes and talking about why she wanted to be a part of the judicial system. It's a wonderful episode. I think our writers did a fantastic job with it. Azie Dungey was the credited writer on that and did an incredible job. It really focuses on why Gurgs, the role that Lacretta plays, wanted to be a part of the judicial system. She has a beautiful monologue, without giving too much away, that speaks to that. I think our writers did a really wonderful job with it, while also having a lot of fun throughout the episode.

There are things about "Night Court" that wouldn't necessarily fly today, particularly with Dan. John Larroquette's character Dan Fielding.  . . . Now, his character is very mature and changed. I'm wondering, in terms of the discussions about bringing John's character Dan back and in terms of what you wanted to bring to this new iteration, did that come into play when you were talking about how [to] maintain the balance, the formula of the classic "Night Court" and still make it . . . relevant to today?

Well, I think, first of all, there were definite conversations about how Dan Fielding exists today. When you look at the character in the original, there were small evolutions, very small, but seeds that were planted about who this new Dan Fielding is. There's an episode, one of my favorites, and we even spoke about it in the pitch, the "Dan Operation" episode. It's a beautiful, beautiful scene between him and Harry Stone, Harry Anderson who played him. He talks about how he's been with all these women. Even though he's had all these experiences with women, no one has ever said "I love you," and that is truly what he wanted.

You see this through all the womanizing and all the flirtations and everything that we saw Dan Fielding do; at the end of the day, he was this insecure guy who just really wanted love. What it did is anytime you then saw him strike out with a woman or do something that was inappropriate, you maybe laughed a little harder because you saw where it was coming from. And then it was important to us that that evolution really be strengthened as we were going into the series. He found love. He lost love. He's been humbled by life. I think as hopefully with anyone over time, they would mature and grow. That's truly who he is now. He's not without fault. He still thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, and he's still very much a narcissist, but I think that love and loss has just really shaped him.

For so many years, people were so attached to Bernadette from "Big Bang Theory." Very different character, same level of intelligence, I'd say, certainly emotional intelligence. But do you have any reaction with people saying, "Wow, for instance, I didn't know that wasn't your voice," or things like that?

Yeah, I think there have been people who really did think I spoke that way, which I honestly love. The "Big Bang" fans have been just so wonderful over the years, and they're a passionate group that I'm so grateful for. I've been getting, "Oh, that's your voice? I didn't know she talked like that." Part of me was like, "Oh, I should have gradually introduced the voice on this show." As a mother, I should have known that I should have weaned everyone off of it, like just maybe started the season like [high pitched voice] "You're guilty!" And then as the season went on, just made my voice lower and lower until I spoke in this register. 

"She's actively choosing the light on a daily basis because she has no other choice. I'm excited about the layer that adds to her."

That would be kind of tough to write in, I'd say. 

It would. It would. 

Here's one aspect about Abby I wanted to talk about, and it's the episode where it's brought up that she is a recovering alcoholic. Can you talk about your decision to make that part of the character? 

In talking about who we wanted Abby to be, I love the fact that she's this eternal optimist. I love that she's adopted her father's philosophy in the courtroom, that she judges people based on who they are, not their crimes, and she really wants to get to know them. I loved all that groundwork that we laid for her in the pilot. I thought Dan Rubin, our executive producer and showrunner, who was really one of the reasons why I agreed to play this role in the first place because I loved his brilliant pilot script so much – when we were talking about where we wanted Abby to go, I think it was important to all of us that she wasn't an optimist because she's naive or she hasn't experienced life in any way.

I didn't want the optimism to come from this Pollyanna place of we can make the world better and I want to see the best in people. I think it's coming from a place of darkness. It's coming from a place of she's been through some stuff. She's been through it. She's in recovery. She's faced the dark roads of addiction, and she's learned that the alternative, the darkness isn't for her. She's actively choosing the light on a daily basis because she has no other choice. I'm excited about the layer that adds to her, because I think it informs everything. When someone is on the stand and she's trying to figure out what's the best path for them, that's informing everything. That second chance on life is informing how she weighs in on every case, even though no one knows that. And then there's also the part that she lost so much time.

When you talk about addiction and what that does, they often say that whatever time your addiction started, you can freeze at that age until you get in recovery and you lose that chunk of time. And then when you add to that the grief of losing her father and she knows that this span of time with him was lost, and she doesn't get a chance now to make that up. That's a part of her coming back to "Night Court" is to connect with him and to make him proud, as she says in that monologue, that he had faith in her that she didn't have in herself, and he was holding it for her until she had it again. This is a tribute to that. I think really when she speaks about her father with such reverence, I think it's because of that belief that he had in her.

It seems to me with this character, it's a great gateway into understanding her empathy in addition to her optimism.

Exactly. Exactly. I think you sometimes have to have been through darkness to understand darkness. When these people are coming before her, it's not just talk of her saying, "I want to give them a second chance, and I want to figure out what's underneath all this." Because I think she's often been judged by the surface and seeing like, "Oh OK, she's this young girl with big hopes and dreams," but there's more to her than that. I think she wants to make sure that everyone who comes before her is given that same opportunity.

One of the things I just wanted to circle back to the memories that you had watching the original "Night Court." I think there's something very special about watching a show when we're young. We may not remember some of the details of it, but we remember the feeling of a lot of it. Of course, sitcoms we watch when we're young teach us about comedy. You had a standup career before you came into television. What would you say that "Night Court" and shows like this may have taught you about comedy?

"I think there's just that genuine curiosity to see this beloved character that you spent a lot of time with and see what they're up to now."

I think it really was about how it made me feel. I was a kid who really felt other than a lot growing up. Comedy and these shows, it felt like friendship. There was a connection there and it's in your living room. In my case, it was in my childhood bedroom. There's a part that even though I was watching it and there was a screen in between us, I felt welcome there. There was a self-acceptance within that because everyone on "Night Court" was a bit left to center, and that's sort of how I've been. I felt there was just something very inviting about that. I think also these shows really laid the groundwork for how I feel about comedy in the sense that, as I mentioned before, the laughter, I love that that's front and center, but I love the ability to flip that comedy mask, which, of course, on the other side is tragedy, and the fact that we get to feel a bit before we flip that mask again to the laughter. To me, I remember watching those moments, the Michael J. Fox episode of "Night Court" in the first season, which I remember when it was in reruns because I wasn't old enough when it aired the first time to see it, but I would catch that when in syndication.

I remember seeing when it was going to come up in TV Guide and recording it on a VHS tape because I loved it so much and I wanted to study it, also because I love Michael J. Fox's as Alex P. Keaton my mind was blown that he was going to be on "Night Court" too. But I remember watching that scene, it's a beautiful scene between Harry Anderson and Michael J. Fox. I just remember there's this beautiful hug between them. Michael J. Fox plays this teenage runaway. I think it was this lesson of, oh, if I'm feeling something and then there's just a joke that slipped in there, that . . . Comedy, a lot of it is surprise. It lives in the unexpected. If you're having this moment of heart and then all of a sudden you're surprised with comedy, that laugh is going to be so much bigger and feel I think so good coming out of that moment of heart. It's what we're hoping to do and what Dan Rubin and I think the writers have done such a beautiful job with this season. Hopefully we'll get to do it more.

"Night Court" airs  at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on NBC.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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