By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andrew Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson
Noel: Why don’t we start with just some general reactions to what we’ve read and we can dive in to some of the grit of the book. I’m not crazy about the oral history format, which I feel like is an interesting IMDb-sort of thing, but a bit of me is longing for a more memoir approach, with Littlefield dropping truth bombs all over the place. The entire thing, apart from Chapter 5, feels a bit… sanitized.
Andy: True. There’s something a little unseemly about Ohlmeyer being the only one to come in for substantial criticism, seeing as how he’s the only one unavailable to defend himself.
Cory: Hold on guys, I think I need to tell you a story about that time Kelsey Grammer slept in his car on the Paramount lot.
Andy: I don’t think the book is under any delusion that it’s a “tell-all.” From the outset its mission statement is clearly: “Hey, remember how awesome we were? Here’s how we got to be that awesome!”
Les: Agreed. It’s not like it’s completely devoid of negative points—they discuss what Shelley Long leaving Cheers did to the show, and offer a couple lines about how she was difficult to work with. But it doesn’t ask Long to tell her story, and moves to “Oh yeah, Kirstie Alley was perfect! Let’s reboot the show!”
I wouldn’t say it’s a whitewash of history given how provably successful these shows were, and I’m not asking for a tell-all, but it does come across as boilerplate in some areas.
Noel: But no one says anything bad about Whoopi Goldberg, who comes off as the Yoko Ono to Ted Danson’s John Lennon.
Cory: The oral history format does make for an easy read, that’s for sure. I plowed through this book in a sitting-and-a-half. And certainly, the format is REALLY HOT RIGHT NOW. But aside from the moderate whitewashing, I found that the flow was a bit choppy. It was as if the main thrust of the exchanges were a film playing on DVD, and then Littlefield provided a commentary track amounting mostly to “OH SNAP.”
Andy: Yeah, the blurbs could have been stitched together a bit more smoothly. Even for an oral history the transitions were rough. Sometimes it seemed to double back, and other times it lost the thread entirely.
Cory: Noel, I know you really disliked the format. Have you read oral histories before?
Noel: I must admit that I haven’t, so I only have this to go on. I’m not making any value judgements on the format, but how it’s deployed here is kind of mind-numbing for me. Andy’s mention of the blurbs being poorly strung together is a real issue for me.
Les: I think the decision to go with centering it around shows, rather than chronologically, contributed to that. Shows bleed together in places, and one story is told that doesn’t have a lot to do with the one that came before.
Andy: It’s the pitfall of the Q&A format. People don’t tend to speak in coherent paragraphs, and you have limited ability to edit quotes together without providing context. Jim Burrows, in particular, doesn’t seem like a great interview—but you can hardly minimize his role in this story.
Les: Reading over a couple parts of it again, it occurs to me what it reads like: the transcription of a documentary. Some of the various details everyone mentions seem like they’re waiting for a clip of the show/tryout in question to start.
Andy: Yep. It’s a book best read with the shows in question queued up as B-roll. Let’s be honest, does anyone really want to read a long string of short quotes preceded by the speakers’ names? Wait.
Les: Oh God. We’ve become everything we hate. But I’ve been everything I hate for years, so I’m okay with that.
Les: So, the format doesn’t work very well for any of us, it seems. Were any of you at least interested in the story he was telling?
Cory: Well, I’m OK with the format. I think my problem is that the content itself, what people are actually saying, isn’t that new or original to me. Which gets to the next big question I had: How familiar were you guys with this era of NBC or even TV history?
Andy: Overall I tended to enjoy the book. Partly because it was a fast read, and partly out of powerful nostalgia for the first era of TV I grew up truly appreciating. And nostalgia, of course, is the book’s entire raison d’etre.
Les: I wasn’t spectacularly familiar with it starting out. I knew NBC had been on top for years before they became the NBC we all love to mock, but I didn’t know too much about how they got there. I was actually quite surprised to read how
the NBC of 1980 bore more than a passing resemblance to the NBC of 2012.
Noel: I was passingly familiar with the general progression of shows, especially the ones highlighted in the section we’re discussing here—Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Seinfeld‘s inception. Oh, and, of course, those brief, wonderful sections on Law & Order.
Andy: I knew a bit of the history from having read The Late Shift, which zooms in on the crux of the Must-See Era, albeit with a focus on late night. But most of my background is as a fan. Cheers and Cosby are two of the first “grown-up” shows I can remember watching. Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier, and Law & Order were formative shows in my junior high and high school years.
Noel: I will say I’m a bit more interested in how Littlefield presents himself and those working around him at the time than I am necessarily in the history he’s presenting. He’s very clear on emphasizing how very hands-off they were, letting “creatives” do their thing, and getting out of the way.
Andy: Often he’ll hit on an interesting nugget, but not develop it. On page 57, he says NBC had a philosophy rather than a strategy, but doesn’t elaborate on the difference, or the pros and cons of either. That’s the sort of thing I would’ve sunk my teeth into.
Noel: Right. Exactly. That’s what I was looking for.
Andy: There is some strong detail in the discussion of Seinfeld, though. For instance, how it initially came up through the variety department, which allowed it to bypass the normal notes of the comedy development process.
Les: The Seinfeld chapters are definitely the most coherent of the bunch, and more creatively interesting I think—they get into exactly why it was different than other shows, how some of the more controversial plot points came about (the mastubation arc in “The Contest,” Susan’s death) and the gambles they made to actually turn it into a hit. It’s more about making a show than about a show being a hit, which I appreciated. I’d've loved to see Larry David chiming in as well.
Cory: Yeah, I’ve spent a good deal of time recently researching network history, particularly NBC, so I was aware of most of this information, even the tidbits presented as “insider-y.” Todd Gitlin’s Inside Prime Time, a pretty old book, handles a lot of this stuff, as does The Late Shift. Knowing most of these stories and details didn’t keep me from enjoying the book per se, but I do wish that everyone, even Littlefield himself, would have gone into more detail. The Cheers chapter was really thin—Les pointed out the quick fashion in which they handled Long’s departure—and even the discussion about and from Jack Welch didn’t amount to much other than something out of a less zany 30 Rock episode.
But you are all correct about Chapter 3 and 4. The Seinfeld portions featured the most detail, seemed to illicit the most compelling discussion and frankly, had the greatest number of people related to the project talking about it. Those bits were informative and not laudatory in an exhausting fashion (although, I continue to believe that Seinfeld is an insufferable egomaniac). You could actually see where the work was done, and how the business can work out when smart people make smart decisions, risks be damned.
Les: The variety is key here. I don’t think a single person from the cast of Cheers or The Cosby Show appeared in those chapters. It was all about the writers and the directors, and just how lucky they were to have such talented people. With the exception of Kelsey Grammer, but most of the Grammer-related discussion was about his messed-up personal life.
Noel: I did appreciate the brief mention of how things with Grammer didn’t go “Charlie Sheen-sideways.”
Andy: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Cheers belongs more to the Tartikoff era. There’s a subtle sense of taking some of the air out of the Tartikoff mystique in the early chapters.
Cory: It’s really only fair that the Seinfeld chapters are the strongest, considering without it, the rest of NBC’s decade of success might not have existed. And I think Littlefield really recognizes that — even though it’s convenient that he also nurtured the heck out of it and therefore gets major credit.
Andy: Honestly, I’m amazed there wasn’t a deeper discussion of Seinfeld‘s season four arc, built around Jerry and George pitching their “show about nothing” to NBC. Not only is it perfect grist for this mill, it’s really a long-form ancestor of the type of meta-humor so prevalent today.
Noel: That’s true, Andy, but I think we’ll see more about how these shows built NBC, not necessarily their impacts in the types of shows NBC started to develop specifically. I mean, I’m not expecting a nuanced discussion of Caroline in the City pitch meetings.
Cory: Was there any individual that you guys thought stood out, for whatever reason? I already mentioned my disdain for Seinfeld.
Les: The introduction of Jack Welch
was interesting. For a book so centered on creatives to bring in a very business-minded guy made for a change of pace after all this talk of how many creative changes they were making, and it made for a bit of an injection of reality. I enjoyed his mention that he thought The Tortellis was a hit and ALF was a flop.
Andy: God bless him, Burrows is a genius, but man does he speak in koans throughout this book. There’s a bunch of insight in what he says, but you have to sort of mentally fill in some of the blanks he leaves to get there.
Les: Someone mentions he can see the world as if through four cameras, and maybe one or two of those was missing.
Noel: Yeah, I’m with Andy. As much as I enjoyed Burrows, and the rest of the interviewers seem quick to endorse his mystical nature, he’s a bit tricky to grasp. Reminded me of that showrunners piece with Milch, Weiner, and Gilligan in GQ recently—with Burrows being Milch, obviously.
Littlefield himself is a bit of a weird presence in his own book. You get the sense that he, again, is trying to get out of the way for more creative voices to speak—still!—but then he dips in and out for some quick jabs at the current establishment.
Andy: There’s a strong recurring motif of ”you couldn’t do that these days!” or “that’s not how it’s done anymore!”—with a universal implication that things have changed for the worse. In some cases it’s probably true. Several of the monster hits discussed here didn’t get noticed by audiences until summer reruns, which is a totally obsolete model. Hell, if this were 1993, Bent might become a huge hit over the summer and come charging back on Thursday nights in September.
Les: From that respect, it’s interesting to compare the NBC he describes here to the NBC of today. NBC’s current state of affairs would love to have a Cosby Show to shoot them back to the top of the ratings, but everything’s so fragmented now (a development Littlefield comments on), there’s no way to get that kind of success.
Which begs the question—why hasn’t NBC tried to drag Bill Cosby back to TV? Lord knows they’ve tried everything else.
Cory: Stop it.
Andy: This fall on NBC—I SPY: THE GOLDEN YEARS.
Noel: Starring those old people from Betty White’s Off Their Rockers as agents of Fulcrum. (You know. From Chuck.)
Cory: What’s Chuck?
Les: Is there any evidence Chuck ever aired on the NBC network?
Andy: You want to talk about a show due for a reboot? Cop Rock. The story of Cop Rock is well-trod TV lore, but it still inspires one of the most entertaining digressions in the book, in chapter two. In today’s all-singing, all-dancing era, wouldn’t that show stand a decent shot with a 13-episode midseason order?
Les: I just want them to revive Nasty Boys. Ninja cops in Las Vegas!
Cory: This is rapidly devolving. Like NBC’s schedule after Littlefield left!
Les: You expected otherwise?
Andy: Copy Rock was 20 years ahead of its time. [ed note: This discussion came out of a transcribed gchat. Typos happen. We decided to leave this one in, apparently.]
Cory: Copy Rock!
Andy: I meant Cop Rock. Not the show about Stringer Bell’s musical dreams.
Noel: Oy vey.
Cory: The story of Kinkos employees, singing the day away in 1993.
More seriously though. It’s not surprising that Littlefield and the book itself both have an air of nostalgia and supremacy about them. NBC was a monster in the late 1980s and 1990s, and the world television has changed.
Les: Television certainly has changed (what is our site if not a tool for exploring that?) but as I said before, I found myself interested in how the first couple chapters where he lays out the state of affairs pre-Cheers sounds a lot like the NBC of today. Referring to it as a “fourth-place network” when there were only three networks at the time is even funnier given that NBC barely deserves to call itself a fourth-place network these days.
Andy: Perhaps it’s not surprising that the head of programming at the time, Paul Klein, advocated a “Least Objectionable Programming” strategy. That, and an emphasis on “big events,” which, I guess, means stuff like “The Rockefeller Center Salute to Fireworks“?
Les: Or that Jack Welch brought a ruthless attitude to the business of TV, screaming at John Agoglia about making their quarter.
Noel: That was another instance of things I kind of wished we had some…juicier insight into. (That and the actual “frictions” with Ohlmeyer, as opposed to his alcoholism.)
Cory: On that note, how strongly do we buy into Littlefield’s suggestion that NBC had so much success simply because they got into business with quality creatives and then let them do their thing? (And perhaps if that is true, maybe that’s why the book isn’t that compelling after all: Creatives did what they wanted, it worked, the end?)
Andy: I think it’s an important point. Let’s face it, NBC’s success wasn’t an anomaly — it was predicated on a slew of absolutely killer programs that still hold up 20 and 30 years later. But it’s not the whole story. You can trust creatives who wind up failing, too.
There are points where Littlefield and his subjects skip over a few steps in the decision-making process—the ol’ “yada yada yada,” if you will. Like when he’s discussing how the 1984 Thursday night schedule was put together, as though it just fell into place because of course it was supposed to happen that way. People have a tendency, when viewing past success in hindsight, to take it as a foregone conclusion. The result is more teleological than analytical. There’s not much attention paid to exactly what went right, or to the hundreds of things that could’ve gone wrong.
Noel: Well, I think it’s important to keep in mind that Littlefield is talking about a single programming day and building out from it. He doesn’t talk about any shows on other days, really, and how they helped (if at all). He doesn’t really talk about failures.
Les: And to be fair, that’s not really his goal here. The book’s designed as a rags-to-riches sort of story, or at least it seems that way in the early chapters. The problem is it’s somewhat vague about how that success actually happened beyond “right place, right person, right time.”
Noel: Exactly. “Hey, remember Nothing In Common? Yeah, we don’t either. Let’s not talk about it.” He doesn’t talk about anything he might’ve learned from failures.
Cory: I hate to be the question guy, but everything you guys say just makes me want to ask more. I’m the facilitator here. I am the Warren Littlefield of this chat. So…
Andy: You do look a helluva lot like Bob Balaban, Cory.
Cory: The biggest thing I took away from the early chapters, and really the whole book, is how it just fuels the overpowering narrative about NBC: The (perhaps over-inflated) importance of Thursday night, of the 10 p.m. drama, of its various “eras.” Television journalists and critics are obsessed with talking about NBC, mostly in a negative context. Here, Littlefield celebrates the past, implicitly discrediting the present (and he event explicitly does so at times). And I think this book has been selling fairly well, so apparently enough people out there care.
But why? Why do we care so much about NBC? I couldn’t help but thinking how this book could never be written about the last 15 years of CBS, although their successes were perhaps just as large, if not larger, given the contemporary context. That book would just be chapter after chapter of Les Moonves saying, “and then I cashed another check.” The infatuation with NBC is…interesting.
Andy: Let’s not underestimate the power of branding. “Must-See TV” still resonates with people. In part that’s an accident of timing; you can argue that the 90s were the last decade when the ubiquity of network television made anything plausibly “must see.” NCIS may be a comparative ratings juggernaut, but it’s not a watercooler show the way Seinfeld was in its heyday.
Noel: It’s the cultural heft of those shows, how much they connected, influenced TV (or, at the very least, NBC) and audiences for a number of years. I think that’s where the fascination/obsession comes from.
Andy: Right, nostalgia plays a huge role. Who knows, maybe Moonves will write a bestselling history of CSI: and Two and A Half Men come 2025.
Les: And also quite bluntly, NBC’s more interesting than the other networks. When they succeed, they do so with shows that are not only institutional, but are unique in some way. Even when they fail (as they have been for years) it’s done in an interesting way. Cheers, Cosby, and Seinfeld were all shows that had very long runs, and were also shows that drove a lot of emulation from the other networks.
Cory: I’m not sure I agree with this. I get what you guys are saying. I certainly see the value and power of branding, considering I wrote my thesis on it. And all these other things, nostalgia, the quality of the shows, whatever, yeah, that’s true in a sense.
Cory: NBC is interesting, yes. But what makes them so much more interesting today that they deserve the coverage they get, positive or negative? I’m all for schadenfraude, and have certainly dedicated at least 14 percent of my tweets to NBC-related trolling. But I want to read a book about CBS. I want to read a book about ABC. Or FX. Or whomever. But think of the big TV-related books of recent memory: This, the SNL books, Bill Carter’s late night-related books: All NBC.
Noel: Is it too late to point out that you perpetuated that, in a way, by doing your thesis on USA, an NBC-owned channel? (I’m kidding, I’m kidding.)
Les: Part of the problem.
Andy: BOOM. Thesis’d.
Noel: I’m not sure what makes them more interesting than anyone else. I think some of this may hinge on ownership issues? Disney, as a whole, way more interesting than ABC, so ABC seems more caught up in the struggles of its corporate overlord than as an individual entity?
Les: I think what’s made NBC so interesting (to me at least) is the way it ebbs and flows. Down at the bottom, then on a steady rise, then the No. 1 network, and now to a point where I take bets on whether it’ll lose to the CW on Thursday nights. NBC’s a network that doesn’t allow for middle ground, which by extension makes the stories around it more impressive in the telling.
Noel: I like that idea as well, Les. They’ve created a compelling narrative out of their ups and downs, however inadvertently.
Les: Say what you will about them, they know how to tell their story. And they know how to make it worth listening to.
Cory: The ebbs and flows are there, but every network has had them. I don’t disagree with anything any being said right now, I just sort of feel like we’ve all bought into this NBC story. This book perpetuates it. We’re perpetuating it with this discussion. Maybe I’m just really angry that I can’t read a book about CBS. I need to know how the CSI: producers decided on the different color schemes, okay?!
Noel: You know that there’s a CSI: book, right?
Cory: I do!
Les: So what you’re saying is in the CBS history, there’s not enough [takes sunglasses off] shading? (YEAHHHHHHHH)
Cory: Clearly there are literally other books about other networks. Because I don’t think we can deny the saturation of NBC books, or NBC stories.
Andy: I am surprised there wasn’t a big Fox history timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary, actually.
Les: That is weird.
Cory: But let’s put in a pin in that big question for the moment. We have many more chapters to go, and there’s a whole lot of time to craft a referendum on the referendum about NBC’s decisions. We’ll consider it further next week when we talk about Chapters 6 through 9, which explore Friends, Frasier, Mad About You, and more. Until next week!