By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andrew Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson
Andy: So, when we last left off, I believe Cory was telling us how much he adores talking about NBC in exhaustive detail.
Cory: I want to talk about NBC forever and ever.
Andy: Well you’re in luck! Because we’re just getting into the meat of what would become Must-See TV. Starting with Mad About You, which is not often thought of as part of those iconic line-ups, in part because NBC used it as a “utility infielder.” Mad About You was probably the most ‘adult’ of these shows. Did you guys ever watch it as kids, even in the background?
Noel: It’s true, Mad About You isn’t thought of of as Must See TV, even though I know it was popular in the Kirkpatrick household, no matter what day it was on.
Les: I definitely watched it as background—I have some very clear memories of a few episodes I watched with my mom, such as the episode where Helen Hunt’s character reveals she’s pregnant. Which I recall mostly for a hilarious running gag where they ask a friend of theirs to get recommendations on a gynecologist, and he gets beaten up because his strategy to do so is ask random women.
Noel: Or the Thanksgiving episode, with all the turkeys. I love that one. I recall thinking that, even then, it was different. I mean, they spent an entire episode in a bathroom. And it was funny and kind of mean, but there was a realness to it.
Andy: It’s hilarious and depressing how Preston Beckman says the network was terrified of depicting sex—between a married couple, no less—at 8 p.m.
Les: Yeah, that’s the thing about it – while it was a utility player for the network as Littlefield says, it’s not thought of as revolutionary or lasting in the way Cheers, Seinfeld or Friends are.
Cory: As the youngest member of this crew—wah wah—I’ll say that I don’t remember much about Mad About You. I was too young when it debuted, and apparently my mom didn’t like it enough. And I guess it’s telling that I had no desire to go back and watch episodes of it, like I did other NBC shows from this era that I missed.
Noel: You should!
Les: It’s not a bad show by any means, but when you remember it, first impression is it was just kind of there.
Andy: It’s one of the more traditional of the Must-See TV sitcoms, marital coitus notwithstanding. The stories are very small, the focus tight. It always fit oddly alongside the tone-shifting Seinfeld and Friends. And yet, its place in the history is reflected in how comparatively short a chapter it gets. Nearly a page of which focuses on Lisa Kudrow, who imported her minor character here into a minor character on her far more successful show a couple years later.
Les: Yet it’s also the one that manages to get its two leads to talk in detail about the full process.
Andy: True. Which is fitting, since the chemistry between Reiser and Hunt forms the entire core of that show.
Cory: Mad About You reminds me a bit of Taxi. Not in tone or really content, but how it’s been forgotten by time. It didn’t really fit with Cheers or Cosby, but nor did it reach the laugh-out-loud-funny heights of Friends or Seinfeld. It was more interested in the small things.
Noel: I can see that, though I do think it is as funny as either Friends or Seinfeld. And it was interested in small things, which both Friends and Seinfeld were, but it was just…differently so. It was more focused on how these two people (and eventually their friends and families) dealt with such things.
But it also was more mature, more willing to deal with big moments in a person life. Compare and contrast how Mad About You handles an affair and how Friends kind of handles it. Yes, marriages makes a huge difference, but there’s a maturity about Mad About You that Friends (or any many of these sitcoms) didn’t have. Ever.
Andy: Reiser mentions how thirtysomething was a reference point for the pitch. I think that’s telling.
Les: I do like the context they put the show in, the fact that they wanted it to be very relationship-centric. Jamie Tarses’ summary is, “It’s the car ride home,” showing things that were familiar to many people and showing why they were funny. This wasn’t an ambitious show, it knew what it wanted to be. (Funniest part of this section to me though? Paul Reiser’s agent wanted to call it The Paul Reiser Show originally. As recent history proved, that would have been a very, very bad call.)
And they also cite a quote from Bill Cosby that they took to heart: “The smaller you make it, the more universal it is.” Which I think speaks to the success of a lot of the shows we talked about last week: Cheers had its bar, The Cosby Show had its household, Seinfeld had those four people. And in there, they found a lot of very familiar shadings.
Cory: That’s fair. But why then do you guys think Cosby, Cheers, and Seinfeld‘s “universals” appealed to mass audiences more?
Les: I think possibly it could be that it was too universal: that in its focus on the mundane, it never had the spark that people found in those other shows.
Andy: Which is in contrast to our first Must-See TV entrant that we can probably agree was genuine filler: Wings. I liked this series quite a bit as a kid, much less so in repeats. But Littlefield—and especially showrunners David Lee, Peter Casey, and David Angell—present it in a really intriguing way, as a both a bridge away from Cheers for the trio and a dry run them before striking gold with Frasier.
Les: I have a confession to make: I’ve probably seen more episodes of Wings than I’ve seen of Frasier or Mad About You. It was always on repeats on USA! It was easy!
Andy: I think Lee sums up Wings best when he calls it “middle school.” It was a chance for them to learn how to run a show that followed the rhythms of their last show, Cheers, but without the safety net. It let them figure out how to make a very different show next. Of course, the irony is that very different show would be a direct spin-off of Cheers.
Cory: I was a bit surprised at the lukewarm reaction to Wings in the book. And Andy, that’s a great point. It’s not that I think Wings was “good,” I guess I just didn’t expect everyone involved with it to let out a massive shrug at its existence. That was a nice, odd reminder about the business aspects of these endeavors.
Les: Yeah, not a single person who starred on that show made it into the book.
Noel: I’m largely indifferent to Wings—I think it’s just okay—but if it helped them work out kinks for Frasier, then I am happy for its existence, because Frasier‘s a brilliant show.
Andy: It truly is. I’m rewatching the series now through Netflix streaming and it’s just so sure of itself. Brash, polished, so skillful at verbal wit and high farce.
Cory: Compared to Wings, which never felt too comfortable with what it wanted to be, the kind of stories it wanted to tell, or the number of characters it had on the topline cast.
Noel: I knew a number of the bits presented here about Frasier, including the need for the interstitial cards and the Lisa Kudrow blow-ups (her journey to Friends is just fascinating).
Andy: Kudrow is one of the real bright spots throughout the book. So, for my money, is David Hyde Pierce in these chapters.
Les: The actor anecdotes are great, but I think the showrunner ones also do a lot to sell it. You can tell that David Lee and Peter Casey were in the same room together when they were interviewed, as there’s a tremendous conversational feeling to it. Less self-promotion and more “That’s how it went.” I definitely enjoyed this chapter more than the others, partly for my admiration for Frasier and partly because there’s some terrific stories behind this show.
Andy: For whatever reason, the actors have some of the most engaging and enlightening anecdotes of anyone. And I agree, Les, the rapport of their conversation is apparent in the flow.
Cory: Yeah, this chapter is very, very strong. I’ve seen less than three hours of Fraiser ever and I was still fairly enthralled by the way Grammer, Lee, Casey, Burrows and company describe the process of trying to make a spin-off work. Like the Seinfeld chapters, the Fraiser chapter gives us new information about the development process, which although maybe shaded by certain perspectives, is one of the more valuable things a book like this can provide.
Andy: Including those lessons from Wings. Like you said Cory, they developed a much tighter focus on a small cast and a distinct brand of storytelling.
Cory: One of the things I think this book does well is trace out the relationships between certain shows, or certain creative types. The early chapters discuss Cheers and then we follow the writers onto Wings and then see them come back together with Grammer to make Fraiser. The narrative style of the oral history actually benefits the book in this regard. Although, obviously, certain portions are left out, and all the failed projects by Cheers folks (or anyone else, really) aren’t mentioned.
Noel: I do think that that’s very true, but I feel it’s only true for this chapter on Frasier, which the chapter kind of positions (somewhat) as something of a rushed, happy accident that just all happened to work. But, for me, and I know we talked about this last time a bit, it’s those failed projects that I miss a discussion of and how those factored in.
Les: Well, you’ll get plenty of those with our next show, because there’s a legion of projects that had to fail for Friends to come into being.
Noel: Now, just to check, everyone has seen more then three hours of Friends, right?
Cory: I’ve seen every episode at least twice!
Les: There’s no middle ground with you, is there Cory? All in or not at all. I haven’t gone as far, but I’ve watched a hell of a lot of episodes in syndication—I watched parts of it live, but never regularly.
Andy: You’ve never read Cory’s Drake Ramore fan fic?
Les: This is another show whose discussion benefits a lot from the fact that the showrunners—David Crane and Marta Kauffman—were clearly in the same room together, and you get a good chunk of honesty from them as they admit that, with Dream On, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Or how they tried to write a script that no one wanted in The Powers That Be. Also their script Reality Check with the classic line “Sometimes scripts feel absolutely right, and sometimes you just want to kill yourself.” A great example of the nuts and bolts of trying to get a good show together.
Andy: Friends, like Seinfeld (and we’ll see, ER) requires two chapters. And Littlefield smartly breaks it up into one that mostly examines the show’s creation and operation and one that delves into the pop culture phenomenon that Friends became in the mid-’90s. It’s a useful approach, in no small part because I think the phenom aspect—and particularly the backlash to same—made a lot of people retroactively dismiss the merits of Friends as a comedy, not just a collection of hot twentysomethings. (Much as they’re wont to do with us.)
Noel: Agreed, we hit a nice run of smart conversations about this show. And Crane and Kauffman have always been very forthcoming about the show in other discussions, so it was nice to see that continue here. For me, it was David Schwimmer’s contributions that really fascinated me. He’s tackling the notion of being an actor on the show in this very intellectual and later political perspective, which is different from how everyone else has talked so far.
Cory: Schwimmer’s a weird guy.
Noel: He’s also that. I didn’t realize it was his idea for the “collective bargaining” for the contracts. I knew they had decided it, but I didn’t know it came from him.
Les: Fascinating, and also pleasantly surprising, given he’s the one of the six whose career has been practically nonexistent in TV or films since the show ended. Not to dismiss his riveting performance as Greenzo, of course.
Cory: He’s clearly chosen to run away from fame. It’s wild to think that he was the first to get all the big rom-com gigs on the film side. Retroactively, my knowledge of Schwimmer’s career makes Ross less of a stand-out character, but he is really good in that role, and he’s really smart. That’s no question.
Andy: The stretches of Chapters 8 and 9 which focus on him, Kudrow, and Matt LeBlanc at some length are some of the more engrossing sections of the book.
Les: What I think also works a lot for this discussion—and really the book as a whole—is that there’s no real bad blood here. LeBlanc, Schwimmer, Kudrow, all of them clearly went through the trenches together on that show, and there’s a sense of unity in the discussion. (And of course, the sense of unity on that show was what made it so good.)
Cory: It’s odd: When certain people talk about “the art” of acting or whatever, it comes off as super-pretentious. But Schwimmer comes off as supremely earnest, and knowing what we know about how he’s chosen to live his post-Friends life, I think it’s “real.”
Les: Earnestness is really key in this conversation, especially given the fact that of all the shows they’ve discussed so far, they were ratings successes, but this one was a hit with a capital H-I-T. That anecdote where Jim Burrows remarks to the six of them at a casino that they’d never be able to do this again without getting swarmed—that’s like George Martin coming out of the record booth to tell the Beatles “You’ve got your first number one.”
Andy: Guys, we can’t end this installment without mentioning the saga of Fake Warren Littlefield.
Cory: Why doesn’t Fake Warren Littlefield have a Twitter feed? Or does he?
Andy: Would he just use it to pick up women?
Noel: That was just a bizarre aside from him. I dug it, but it was just bizarre.
Andy: It’s a hilarious story in its way, but it’s also very revealing. At how many points in history would someone try to trade on the name of a network TV executive? Or, I dunno, maybe this shit happens all the time in Midtown and Culver City.
Cory: I assume there are all sorts of Fake Ben Silvermans running around Santa Barbara trying to make it with teen girls. Wait, that’s just Real Ben Silverman?
Les: And Fake Jeff Zuckers running around trying to ruin the success of their local public access stations.
Andy: From the discussion so far, one would be led to believe that Must-See TV was all sitcom hijinx and Warren Littlefield impersonators. Not so! Maybe the biggest hit of the era—certainly the longest-tenured—was a juggernaut of a drama: ER.
Cory: We’ll talk about that show next week, along with the birth of the Must-See TV brand name and the question of just why NBC keeps pulling us back in. Join us then as we discuss chapters 10–12.
We’re also announcing that the next book for our TV Book Club will be Christine Becker’s It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television. Some of you may know Christine from her various Twitter and web presences, including News For TV Majors and Good TVeets, but if you don’t know her from there, she’s well worth the following. We should start discussing Christine’s book three or four weeks from now, so if you’re planning to get your hands on a copy and read along, look for our first entry around mid-July.