Night Court’s Dan Fielding Was the Patron Saint of the 1980s Male Slut

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Night Court’s Dan Fielding Was the Patron Saint of the 1980s Male Slut

Comedy tropes come and go. The schlubby husband and the way-too-beautiful wife. The wacky neighbor. The super-smart, possibly evil kid. And in the 1980s, a popular sitcom staple was the horndog dude who could never get enough tail. The most famous example, of course, was Sam Malone. The second-most-beloved returns to television tonight.

It’s been more than 30 years since audiences have seen Dan Fielding, the scheming, slimy prosecutor who ran roughshod over Night Court, part of NBC’s lineup of hit Thursday-night sitcoms. And he’s back as the network launches the revival of the Emmy-winning series. Night Court wasn’t an all-time classic, but Dan is certainly a time capsule of its era. Other sitcom characters loved getting laid, but none of them were as wonderfully scummy and smug as Dan. He was the king of the sitcom male sluts.

The man who brought Dan to life was John Larroquette, a former DJ who started acting professionally in the 1970s. (Famously, his first movie role was doing the narration for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, for which he was paid in weed.) He’d been part of the 1970s series Baa Baa Black Sheep, as well as movies like Stripes. But he was simultaneously battling alcoholism, and even pondered killing himself. “I sat down one night, put a pistol on the table and wrote a suicide note,” Larroquette once said. “But I realized that I didn’t consider any of the notes funny enough. I thought, ‘You can’t do it until you figure out the perfect exit line. It seems you want to have some sort of effect on this world.’ So I talked myself out of it.”

Not long after, he was cast to play Dan on Night Court, a show that looked at the shenanigans that go on during the night shift of a New York court. (Or, as Cracked’s JM McNab put it, “it was a comedy about one city’s nocturnal war on small-time drug dealers and sex workers who are just trying to make a living during the cruel economy of the 1980s.”) Night Court was built around the late Harry Anderson, a comic and magician who’d been on Saturday Night Live and Cheers, as the irreverent Judge Harry T. Stone. But the sitcom’s wild card was Dan, who felt superior to all the lowlifes, losers and bleeding hearts around him. A precursor of sorts to the out-there zaniness of Kramer — but with a super-charged libido and a cutting sarcasm — Dan was Night Court’s scoundrel, albeit a scoundrel who deep down had a good heart.

“(T)he character went through quite a metamorphosis,” Larroquette said in 2008. “If you look at the early episodes, my character was this sort of tight-lipped, vested, pipe-smoking, conservative fellow. 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 (Night Court creator) Reinhold (Weege) saw that I was this maverick, crazy — that sounds self-inflating, but I have a rather acerbic sense of humor. Reinhold (started) writing toward that and creating the character that everybody knows.”

If you’ve never seen Night Court, this clip encapsulates Dan’s essence fairly well. It’s from an episode in which, after finding out he’s been rejected from a sperm bank for a low sperm count, he gives up sex for two weeks to build up his reserves, so to speak. Because this is a sitcom and not real life, this news astonishes his cohorts: How could a guy like Dan be abstinent for an entire fortnight?!? (The reason why he wants to donate to the sperm bank, by the way, is that he hears it pays really well and wants to buy a new Porsche.) Anyway, there’s a twist waiting for Dan after the two weeks is up:

The scene’s dopey portrayal of sexual desire was pretty typical for the show, but also very much in keeping with how horiness was depicted in 1980s sitcoms. Look no further than Cheers’ Sam, who with his good looks, killer charisma and athletic background was catnip to the ladies. But Sam was basically a decent dude, a fairly wholesome lothario, whereas Dan seemed kinkier and nastier — not to mention way prouder of how smart he was. 

Funny enough, Larroquette actually auditioned for that lead Cheers role, although it sounds like he didn’t get very far in the process. (In a recent Parade interview, he said, “Oh, I just walked in and did a cold reading along with every other 32-year-old actor at the time.”) Nonetheless, it’s interesting that Larroquette had a connection to two characters who were both so very 1980s. Both sex-crazed, both materialistic, both overconfident in their mastery of women, Dan and Sam were, to different degrees, representative of an old-school chauvinism that was considered hilarious back then. Sometimes these guys were taught lessons, but not always: In an era before the AIDS epidemic became horrifyingly real to people in “mainstream” society, being a horny, single man on TV was automatically funny.

Night Court didn’t enjoy the kind of critical reputation that other 1980s hits like Cheers and The Cosby Show had, but Larroquette was showered with praise, the actor winning the Emmy four straight years. On his fourth win, he went on stage to accept the prize, describing Dan as “a character who I don’t think I would dare live with but I love living in,” which was understandable considering that Larroquette, by all accounts, was nothing like his libidinous lawyer character. He’s been married for 47 years, raised three children and savored a life away from the spotlight. “Reclusive isn’t accurate, but I’m definitely an introvert,” he told Parade. “(My wife) and I met doing the play Enter Laughing and got married in 1975. She puts up with me, and you can’t ask for much more than that. Our kids are grown. … They’re all lovely, and I love them dearly.”

Not unlike Night Court, Dan was a bit of a cartoon, but while the sitcom itself grew more formulaic — especially in its central “Will they or won’t they?” romantic storyline involving Harry and defense attorney Christine (the late Markie Post) — he at least exuded a wild, snarky energy. He was having fun, which was also a very 1980s thing. But after that run of Emmy wins, Larroquette took his name out of consideration. “Quite frankly and honestly, I didn’t think that the work that I had done was as good as it was,” he’d later say, “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.” 

The typecasting that Larroquette feared ended up keeping him from landing post-Night Court roles that weren’t just carbon copies of Dan Fielding. As Larroquette put it, “Every role was some sleazy lawyer or some sleazy this or some sleazy that.”

He’d eventually have further success with The John Larroquette Show, The Practice and Boston Legal, as Dan Fielding became more and more of a relic. Of course, horny sitcom characters remained a thing — How I Met Your Mother’s Barney, for instance — but there was a growing recognition of the trope’s underlying sexism. (Plus, in an age of increased awareness about safe sex, a character who fucked around just wasn’t as funny anymore.) The trope started to recede into the background, and Larroquette played more distinguished, complicated dramatic characters. In fact, it seemed telling that when 30 Rock brought back much of the rest of the cast of Night Court to do one final episode, Larroquette was noticeably missing. (The joke is that Anderson still talks to Larroquette, which hurts Post’s feelings because he clearly doesn’t keep in touch with her.) The impression was that Larroquette had moved past Night Court — and, maybe, Dan Fielding. (A couple years later, he did appear on another SNL alum’s show, Parks and Recreation, playing the hapless ex of Leslie’s mom.) 

All these years later, though, Dan Fielding is back in our lives — although, apparently, as a much different man. In the new Night Court, which stars Melissa Rauch as Harry’s daughter, who’s now a judge, Dan is a defense attorney and a widower. “He still thinks he’s the smartest person in the room,” Larroquette said this week, adding, “he doesn’t have the hunger a young Dan Fielding had. Whatever fantasies he had about his life at 35 are all gone. … He is an old man who has withdrawn from life considerably.”

In other words, the new Night Court probably recognizes that, while Dan Fielding was a bedrock character on the original sitcom, you probably can’t have the same kind of slutty sleazeball character in 2023 — especially one who’s presumably in his 70s. (Larroquette himself recently turned 75.) Watch old episodes of Night Court now, and it all seems pretty dated — not just the schticky jokes but the old-fashioned attitudes around sexuality and gender roles. That sort of cringiness sets in when revisiting plenty of bygone sitcoms. Still, it’s hard not to harbor a certain fondness for this scoundrel. Dan may have been sleazy, but he was always unabashedly himself. 

Recently, Larroquette explained what prompted him to return to the role after all this time: “How often does an actor get a chance to revisit some character that he played three-and-a-half decades ago? And what was the length of that journey, and what happened to him in his life?” But part of the appeal of a guy like Dan is that he doesn’t evolve or change. Sure, he’s a sexist jerk, but there’s a certain integrity to his piggishness. It’s not exactly commendable, but at least it’s consistent. The rest of us have to grow up. Dan gets to be a cad forever.  

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