One True Passion: Kismet, Alchemy & @TopOfTheRock_WL

by Matthew Stollak on Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I had the time and opportunity to read Warren Littlefield's new missive "Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV."  As the title suggests, it details through interviews with many of the major players, the phenomenal success NBC had on Thursday nights with such TV shows as Friends, Frasier, ER, Cheers, Will & Grace, Mad About You, & Seinfeld.

Reading it, William Goldman's famous rule about Hollywood came to mind - NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. 

A telling quote in the book was from John Wells, executive producer and showrunner for ER, about the show:

The camera caught the camaraderie and the sense that they were in the trenches together.  There's a lot of kismet that happens in these things. The cast just jelled. (emphasis mine).
Kismet is right.  Littlefield highlights many decisions that would have radically changed the trajectory of the shows America came to love.  For example, look at casting:
  • Imagine Fred Dryer and Julia Duffy, or William Devane and Lisa Eichhorn, instead of Ted Danson and Shelly, playing Sam and Diane on Cheers
  • Imagine Steve Vinovich as Kramer, Larry Miller as George, and Megan Mullally as Elaine, instead of Michael Richards, Jason Alexander, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld
  • Imagine Teri Hatcher instead of Helen Hunt on Mad About You
  • Imagine Lisa Kudrow as Roz instead of Peri Gilpin on Frasier
  • Imagine Eric McCormack as Ross instead of David Schwimmer on Friends
  • Imagine Nicollette Sheridan as Grace instead of Debra Messing on Will & Grace
Similarly, would you have watched a show called Six of One, instead of Friends? How about The Paul Reiser Show instead of Mad About You?

Littlefield often called Thursday night, "the Night of Bests."  The phrase "Must See TV" was coined at random from a guy who worked at NBC named Dan Holm.  No research.  No focus groups.

Over 100 artists were invited to create a version of the NBC peacock.  John Miller, advertising and promotion czar of NBC, opined, "You have to end with the correct peacock.  How you get there, we don't care."  Similarly, he changed the credit format from full-frame to the side to not block the action on the screen.

Lots of decisions that could have had disastrous consequences if they went in a different direction.

John Wells was also quoted as saying, "There's an alchemy to TV, like anything else."  Three examples from ER, Friends, & Will & Grace  highlight the magic that happens when the right group of people are brought together.

Anthony Edwards notes,
Because the material was so good, we had to keep our game up.  All of us.  The writers, the actors, the art department, all of us. 
 Similar, Noah Wyle said
I got spoiled on ER.  I think all of us have gone in our careers and walked onto sets and said, "This is grossly inefficient, or this is very unprofessional, or I can't believe nobody has the esprit de corps like we had on ER," but the world doesn't work that way.
From the top on down, the crews don't really hustle like they did on ER, the writers don;t push the envelope, and they don't have the support from the executives and the network to take those risks and those chances anymore.
David Schwimmer on the miracle of casting:
Having been on the other side of it now in terms of directing and producing, to find one magical actor who is just right for the role is difficult enough, but to find six and then to have them actually have chemistry with each other is just kind of a miracle.  I think we were just lucky.  I looked at the five of them (the rest of the cast of Friends), I watched their work, and I thought, "Everyone is just so talented and perfect for their character."  And they grew into their characters and enriched them and deepened them.
Will & Grace
Debra Messing recalls:
I remember the cast going over to Max (Mutchnick)'s house to do the very first reading of the script, and we were crying we were laughing so hard.  I remember just looking around the table, looking at this Sean Hayes.  It was like, "Who is this Sean Hayes guy?  He is a genius."
To this day, I think Sean might be the most talented person I have ever worked with in my entire career.  He is really touched with magic.  And then Megan (Mullally).  She literally can't say anything without making me laugh.  Then the warmth between Eric (McCormack) and me.  It felt like this best friendship had been in place for years.  We didn't have to put any effort into it.
We may write the best job descriptions, put together the best recruiting ad, and place it in the best locales, but nobody knows anything.  Our recruiting pool is subject to the whims of those who see it and apply.  The choice we make at the end of who to hire is a crapshoot.  We hope to get Debra Messing and not Nicollette Sheridan or Ted Danson instead of Fred Dryer.  We hope that the hire(s) we make can find he chemistry to those felt by the casts of ER, Friends, & Will & Grace.

Nobody Knows Anything!


He was awesome on Stern last week. Did you happen to catch the interview?

by John Nykolaiszyn on May 29, 2012 at 9:46 AM. #

I did...compelling interview. I was going to buy the book anyway, but the interview hastened my purchase.

by Matthew Stollak on May 29, 2012 at 9:50 AM. #

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