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Tales From the Must-See-TV Graveyard: Stark Raving Mad

Before Modern Family, Steve Levitan brought Tony Shalhoub and Neil Patrick Harris together as a lunatic horror author and his incredibly nervous editor. It didn't last.
  • Eddie McClintock, Tony Shalhoub, Neil Patrick Harris, and Heather Paige Kent in Stark Raving Mad. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp/Everett Collection)
    Eddie McClintock, Tony Shalhoub, Neil Patrick Harris, and Heather Paige Kent in Stark Raving Mad. (Photo: 20th Century Fox Film Corp/Everett Collection)

    The golden age of NBC’s Must See TV television lineup featured some of the greatest and most popular TV series of all time: Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, ER. It marked perhaps the peak of a communal, shared “appointment television” where, just like the slogan said, you had to watch these shows in order to know the jokes or the storylines people would be talking about the next day.

    But in between the big hits of the Must-See TV era were the time-slot shows that filled in the cracks and crevices of the Thursday night lineup. NBC learned early on that whatever shows played in between Friends and Seinfeld and ER could score big numbers and then hopefully be able to move to other nights of the week and anchor programming there. (The most successful of these shows included Frasier, Just Shoot Me, and Will & Grace.) But other shows more infamously served as the less admired ballast among the legendary shows on either side of them.

    One such show was Stark Raving Mad, which premiered in the fall of 1999. Although it barely lasted one season, it provides a curious data point in the careers of its stars — Tony Shalhoub and Neil Patrick Harris — as well as its creator, Steve Levitan.

    Must-See-TV Lineup: Fall 1999
    8:00 PM: Friends
    8:30 PM: Jesse
    9:00 PM: Frasier
    9:30 PM: Stark Raving Mad
    10:00 PM: ER

    It’s fascinating to track the evolution of the mainstream sitcom over the years, and taken in that context, Stark Raving Mad is exemplative of the the late-’90s/early ’00s version of the format. In the wake of Friends and Seinfeld, networks greenlit a boatload of “hangout” comedies where a handful of friends or co-workers would get into funny/dumb/ribald situations. The workplace sitcom never really went away; instead it asserted itself into the Must-See-TV universe via shows like Suddenly Susan and Veronica’s Closet.

    These shows then evolved in two different directions, either by hyper-focusing on a working relationship between two people (the Sharon Lawrence/Leah Remini sitcom Fired Up) or by making the working environment very high-concept. Stark Raving Mad attempted to do both, setting up a working relationship between horror novelist Ian Stark (Tony Shalhoub) and his skittish, germaphobic young editor, Henry (Neil Patrick Harris), all within the heightened world of Stark’s eccentricities.

    Halfway between Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe, Shalhoub’s Stark existed in a macabre, hyper-aggressive world where he pulled pranks like pretending to hang himself and setting Henry up to find his decapitated head on the couch. Nothing about the show was scary, but it leaned heavily into the “horror” part of horror writer as it sketched the relationship between the two characters.

    Revisiting the pilot today, Harris and Shalhoub play off each other well. Ian Stark (Shalhoub) is incredibly overbearing as a character, while Henry (Harris) is an already wilted flower, and you can see why the Sitcom Gods would have dictated that this odd couple should function as a hilarious duo. They sometimes do, thanks to Shalhoub’s energy combined with some rather heroic moments of physical comedy from Harris, who is at Van Dyke levels of throwing his body across the room for a bit.

    The live studio audience for the pilot is red-hot — there is a moment where Stark’s dog aggressively humps Henry’s leg that had them screaming — which is sometimes infectious and sometimes suspicious. It’s not a good show, but you can see passing the time with it for 30 minutes between Phoebe Buffay and Frasier Crane, even if we end up yearning for much more from TV character actress Harriet Sansom Harris, who plays Henry’s boss as a kind of less-psychotic cousin of her Frasier character, Bebe.

    The show came at an interesting time for its two lead actors. Wings, the NBC Thursday night show in which Shalhoub played taxi driver Antonio Scarpacci, had ended two seasons prior, and in the interim he worked as a character actor in films like The Siege, Primary Colors and A Civil Action. Stark Raving Mad was a failed attempt to get him headlining a TV show, but the next one would be far more successful, as obsessive-compulsive detective Adrian Monk on Monk, a role for which Shalhoub would win three Emmy Awards for Best Actor.

    In the fall of 1999, Neil Patrick Harris was still only six years removed from Doogie Howser, M.D., and Stark Raving Mad is a reminder of how boyish Harris still was at the time. Henry is defined by his nervousness, his germaphobia, his aversion ro risk or surprise and… anything, really. But he’s also incredibly young, still giving off that aura of the boy wonder who’s in over his head professionally. If Shalhoub was playing fully against the type of his Wings character, Harris felt like he was still retaining some of Doogie’s attributes (even if Doogie was more confident at work). After Stark Raving Mad was canceled, Harris did some TV guest spots and a lot of Broadway, including notable runs in Cabaret, Proof, and Assassins, before landing the role of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother that would redefine his career going forward.

    Before creating Stark Raving Mad, Steve Levitan got his start as a writer and producer on Frasier and The Larry Sanders Show. He went on to create Just Shoot Me for NBC in 1997, and while the show was merely a mid-season replacement that March, it became a surprise hit and ended up running for seven seasons. So it’s no surprise that NBC turned to him to create another hit comedy for their Thursday lineup. Stark Raving Mad was not it.

    Though it did win the People’s Choice Award for Favorite New TV Comedy, critics were decidedly unkind to it, and it bled audience from its lead-in, Frasier. It also had the misfortune of going up against Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? at the very height of its popularity, all of which led to NBC dropping the axe in the spring of 2000, just before that year’s upfronts. It was pulled from NBC’s lineup in March, replaced by the incredibly short-lived Elizabeth Perkins cop comedy Battery Park for four weeks, which was itself then canceled. One final episode of Stark Raving Mad was burned off in July, with four episodes left unaired.

    Don’t cry for Steve Levitan, though. After co-creating the cult comedy Greg the Bunny in 2002, he hit big in 2009 with the ABC comedy Modern Family. An instant hit and immediate Emmy magnet, Levitan had the monster success that would define his career. He’s back this week with the new Hulu series Reboot, a sharp and very funny comedy about the attempt to resurrect a cheesy ’90s comedy in the current reboot-obsessed TV environment.

    Reboot boasts performances from Rachel Bloom, Paul Reiser, Judy Greer, Keegan-Michael Key, and Johnny Knoxville, and it’s likely that Levitan brought his considerable TV-making expertise to bear on the series. Is he drawing anything specifically from his Stark Raving Mad experience? Who’s to say. But in operating under NBC’s Must-See umbrella during its golden age, he certainly brings a unique perspective.

    Episodes of Stark Raving Mad can be viewed on YouTube. Reboot premieres on Hulu Tuesday September 20, 2022.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Steven Levitan, NBC, Stark Raving Mad, Neil Patrick Harris, Tony Shalhoub, Must See TV