Imagine this. It’s 1991. You’re Warren Littlefield. You’ve just been handed the reins of NBC. The network with perennial powerhouse “Cheers” – the show that saved NBC! The show that, back in the ‘80s brought NBC back from last place to first. The show that the only way famed director James Burrows and famed writers Les and Glen Charles would pitch to you and Brandon Tartikoff and Michael Zinberg was if you guaranteed them 13 episodes upfront. Otherwise they wouldn’t even pitch it to you. And now? It’s classic American television. The kind of show that only come along once a lifetime. Life is good, right?
So, on almost your first day as the new guy with the big office, you get a call from “Cheers” star Ted Danson, which of course, you take. And what does Ted Danson want to tell you? He wants to tell you that he’s leaving the show. For real.
And you thought you were having a bad day.
“Top of the Rock” is Littlefield’s memoir of how he – and a cast of hundreds – turned that very bad day into “Must See TV”, a programming juggernaut that featured some of the most famous – and most lucrative – television shows in American history. “Seinfeld”. “Friends”. “Frasier”. “ER”. “Law & Order”. “Will & Grace”. It’s a fascinating tale that explores creativity, business, art, high-stakes office politics and the fickle nature of public approval. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
Usually a book like this will exist firmly in what we could call “the great man” school of writing. A lot of “I did this, then I did that, then I did some other damn thing” interspersed with “this guy’s a bastard, this women tried to stop me, this other guy’s an idiot.” The kind of memoir that just settles scores, repaints pictures, and elevates the writer to, if not God-like status, certainly something high on the pantheon.
But that’s not what Littlefield does. The book is a curious series of “conversations” constructed from interviews with the celebrities who starred in the shows – like Jerry Seinfeld and Lisa Kudrow and Noah Wyle and Kelsey Grammar – and the geniuses who made the shows – like James Burrows and Marcy Carsey and David Kohan and Dick Wolf – and the suits who funded and greenlit the shows – like Jack Welch and Bob Wright and Bob Broder and Dan Harrison. (If some of these names are unknown to you, don’t worry; Littlefield provides a cast of players at the beginning of the book that is as illuminating as it is useful).
Not only does this make the book highly entertaining, it brings to life several of Littlefield’s most important points. For example, it breaks the rules of what one expects in a memoir – and time and again Littlefield cites breaking the rules as a key reason for NBC’s success. Second, it communicates a profound sense of community, of groups of people creating success together – another key to NBC’s success according to Littlefield. And lastly, let’s not dismiss the value of entertainment. It’s just more fun to hear the different voices – the suits intermingled with the stars, agents, producers and writers who all bring different perspectives to bear. The fact that Littlefield was able to manage that juggling act in the 1990s – and that he and Pearson are able to manage it in “Top of the Rock” – is to their enormous credit and the reader’s benefit.
To be sure, it’s not all sweetness and light. There is some score-settling involving West Coast President Don Ohlmeyer – though frankly one has to appreciate Littlefield’s directness; he didn’t like Ohlmeyer and he makes no bones about it.
And some things are glossed over, or completely omitted – like what happened when Johnny Carson left “The Tonight Show” and was not replaced by David Letterman but instead by Jay Leno, which sent Letterman to CBS – all of which happened on Littlefield’s watch.
And there are some things that are just plain annoying. Like the fact that there’s no index for easy reference. Or the number of times David Schwimmer mentions his Chicago Theatre Company – is he getting residuals for that or something?
But these complaints are far outweighed by the access Littlefield provides us to how television is actually made from some of the true geniuses in the business – like Seinfeld and Burrows among others. Reading this book is, in many ways, a primer for what the business once was when it was at its best. And frankly, what it could be again.
Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by Warren Littlefield with T.R. Pearson was published by Doubleday on 05/01/12 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).