Once upon a time in a television set far away, Thursday nights on NBC were considered the epitome of appointment viewing. Friday morning water cooler chit-chat was dominated by the zany misadventures of Sam Malone, Jerry Seinfeld, or Chandler Bing; miss an episode and you were relegated to conversing with Carl from accounting about the weather, and heads up, Carl is the worst.
Warren Littlefield’s Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV is an expansive oral history about the highs (The Cosby Show, ER), the lows (Rhythm & Blues, Veronica’s Closet), and the somewhere in-betweens (Wings) of this wildly successful era in modern television. It’s also full of surprises. Here are 7 things we didn’t know about our favorite shows—as told by the people who made them.
1. The Seinfeld writers were “spoiled, indulged, and overpaid.”
Jerry Seinfeld: I started to feel isolated from the world, and as a comedian that’s a horrible feeling. I remember going into the deli on the Upper West Side and seeing phone cards. I said, “What’s that? I don’t even know what that is.”
Howard West (Jerry Seinfeld’s manager): Jack Welch writes on a piece of paper and gives it to Jerry. He writes $5 million a show. That’s for twenty-two shows. A hundred and ten million dollars.
Jerry Seinfeld: I felt the giant wheel slowing. A big part of that was the writing staff, the engine that supports the show. The writers had all set up deals all over town for their own shows and their own production companies—not a one them panned out–and they weren’t giving me the support I needed. I probably should have fired them all and brought in fifteen new kids who were excited.
Howard West: Jerry said he would have gone back if the writers had come to him and said, “Jerry, one more. Let’s do it together.” But those writers were spoiled, indulged, and overpaid.
If there had been just one more season we could have finally found out what the deallll was with those airplane peanuts.
2. George Clooney had to beg for his part on ER.
John Wells (writer/producer, ER): George Clooney begged me for a part. George was the first person to audition. He came after me for it. I knew him from around the lot. He was always smart about knowing all of the assistants on the lot, so he knew what the material was. He’d give them flowers and candy and come around and flirt with them. Our second day in the office, George showed up and wouldn’t leave until I’d let him audition.
Noah Wyle: On the pilot episode, George pulled us into his trailer. He said, “Okay, guys, this is going to be different this time around. I’ve done a lot of shows, and what’s killed all of them in one way or another is lack of cohesion. This is the show that’s going to do it differently. We’re going to be nice to everybody. We’re going to know our lines. We’re going to be on time. We’re not going to have any division between cast and crew. This is going to be a family.”
Quick show of hands, who here would be surprised if George Clooney possessed the “Zack Morris-esque” ability to pause life with a devilish smirk and a well placed, “Time Out.”?
3. “I’ll Be There For You” wasn’t the original Friends theme song.
David Crane (co-creator of Friends): We were the last pilot to deliver, and we got one note from Don Ohlmeyer: “The opening is too slow.” The word came down that Don said if we didn’t trim it we weren’t on the air. We loved the beginning. It’s right. We don’t want to change it. We cut a ninety-second opening title sequence to REM’s “Shiny Happy People.” We didn’t cut anything, but it started with energy. Don said, “Now it’s right.”
4. NBC executives referred to Wings as “Cheers Lite.”
Warren Littlefield: Looking at Frasier, we knew what he had. It wasn’t Wings. It was a self-starter. A hit show.
Jamie Tarses (former NBC VP of Comedy Development): Wings never did that well, and nobody particularly liked it.
David Lee: The next show would be the show we wanted to do. Wings was like middle school.
Jim Burrows (Comedy Director): “This is my Wings” has become an expression in the business for start out shows.
David Lee: Wings was not the Zeitgeist express.
If we’re reading between the lines, it also appears that Wings was the last one picked for dodgeball and had to eat lunch alone in the NBC cafeteria.
5. Mad About You almost starred Teri Hatcher.
Paul Reiser (Mad About You): When we went into final casting, it was Helen Hunt and Teri Hatcher. I remember getting a phone call from the network- thirteen on the air if you use Valerie Bertinelli. She wasn’t right. She was just coming off a sitcom, and I wanted something fresh.
Lori Openden (Head of NBC Casting): Teri Hatcher tested the last day before Helen Hunt came in. She was good, but she wasn’t magical like Helen.
5a. …and Seinfeld almost starred Megan Mullally.
Megan Mullally: I auditioned for Elaine. I was testing with two other girls, and then I got a call that day that they’d cast Julia, who I went to college with. My first boyfriend broke up with me to go out with her, and then they got married, and they’re still together. Extremely happily married for thirty-some-odd years, with two sons, and the whole thing. So anyway, I knew Julia.
Turns out it was a blessing in disguise for everyone involved. Megan Mullally eventually married small-town steak enthusiast Ron Swanson, while Teri Hatcher transitioned from bantering with Paul Reiser to literally MARRYING Superman. Upgrade.
6. Thomas Haden Church wanted out of his Wings contract after 7 episodes.
Peter Casey (co-creator Frasier and Wings): Thomas Haden Church came in to read for Brian. We thought he was wrong for the part, but we knew we had to get him on the show. So we created the Lowell character for him. I think he never got over the idea that he came in to read for Brian, but he was his Lowell guy. We were seven episodes in, and Tom said he wanted to leave the show.
David Lee: He left the minute he could. It was never acrimonious, and Tom had done quite well and has the career he wanted.
Thomas Haden Church would appear in 123 episodes of Wings as Lowell Mather and would eventually receive an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as a womanizing merlot sympathizer in the movie Sideways.
7. Kelsey Grammer wasn’t initially interested in a Frasier Crane spinoff.
In an attempt to capitalize off the success of Cheers, NBC wanted to be in the Frajer Crane, excuse me, Frasier Crane business.
John Pike (Paramount): The one thing we knew for sure was we weren’t going to do The Frasier Crane Show. Kelsey didn’t want to play the character again, and Casey/Angell/Lee didn’t want to be the spin-off guys.
Kelsey Grammer: I talked to Casey/Angell/Lee, and they hatched this idea about a guy who’d been in a terrible motorcycle accident and runs his empire from his bed.
David Lee (co-creator Frasier and Wings): Kelsey was going to play a Malcolm Forbes type of guy. Big motorcycle. Really rich guy. He becomes paralyzed, and the relationship would be between him and his physical therapist.
John Pike: It was the worst idea I’d ever heard in my life.
Kelsey Grammer: John Pike invited me to dinner at Toscana in Brentwood. He looked at me and said, “Kelsey, I think a sitcom should be funny. This isn’t funny.” He said, “I do have an idea. Why don’t we go with Frasier?”
Frasier went on earn a record 5 consecutive Emmy awards for “Outstanding Comedy Series” as well as the “Lifetime Brunch Achievement” award for its inventive combination of “tossed salad and scrambled eggs.”
This oral history is a comprehensive look at how a television series goes from, “Hey, that’s not a bad idea” to “10-year dinner date for two in your living room.” If you’re a fan of television, gossip, or Matt LeBlanc trivia, I highly recommend Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV.