“Nightcap” is a sturdy little comedy that owes a little, if not a lot, to NBC’s “30 Rock.” “Nightcap’s” Liz Lemon is harried talent booker Staci, played by star and executive producer Ali Wentworth. The show Staci produces — also called “Nightcap” — is a talk show hosted by “racist homophobe” Jimmy, a generically named and never-seen figure that consumes all of Staci’s time and sanity.
Although there is a bit of familiarity to “Nightcap’s” premise, it’s at least a fun one to work with. And there are significant differences: While Staci, like Liz, is surrounded by a motley crew of helpers, Staci’s oddballs are a bit more worryingly damaged than those of “30 Rock.” (One, played by Don Fanelli, might in fact be a dog.) Further, while “30 Rock” made the most of its conservative corporate higher-up boss-man, “Nightcap” removes Jimmy entirely from view, turning him into the Maris of this sitcom — making all the rest of the characters together into one hapless Niles.
And instead of punch line humor, “Nightcap” runs a bit darker and meaner. (Even Jimmy’s name is an elbow to the ribs of the late-night industry, which seems dominated by men with that name.) The show is aided in delivering sketch comedy beats by a surprisingly deep bench of stars willing to show up to play (and skewer) themselves. The first episode, “Babymaker,” features Sarah Jessica Parker — who pretends to not recognize Wentworth, who she knew from Poughkeepsie summer drama camp, until things take a surprising turn in the third act. Real-life couple Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos, star as well, interviewing incompetent employee Penny (Lauren Blumenfeld) to see if she will be their surrogate. (“We’re not here to judge,” Consuelos says soothingly, when Penny discusses her sex life. Ripa turns to him in irritation. “That’s exactly what we’re here to do. We’re here to judge.”) Upcoming guests include Gwyneth Paltrow, Denis Leary, Michael J. Fox, Whoopi Goldberg, Jason Biggs, and Wendy Williams.
The talent willing to show up on “Nightcap” is a testament to Wentworth’s long career in the industry, where she is known in both performance and political spheres. For a comedian who isn’t a household name, she carries the show with the confidence of a star; Wentworth’s remarkably at ease at the center of the show about celebrity, delivering a combination of world-weary resignation and overzealous star-f–cking that are two sides of the same self-loathing coin.
“Nightcap” is surprisingly quick and sharp, with a strong sense of comedic timing and the layered humor of a sitcom episode. It’s a little fuzzy in places — there’s a slightly casual quality to the editing that would better serve a mockumentary-style comedy, and it’s hard not to miss Wentworth when she’s not on-screen. But with recognizable guest stars, commitment to madcap gags, and short-running episodes — just 20 minutes, with the credits — “Nightcap” is lightweight, rewarding, and extremely watchable comedy.