Three shows and two Emmys later, the executive producers of "Frasier," "Wings" and the new NBC sitcom "The Pursuit of Happiness" have earned the liberty to do just about anything they want for their next project--from the most conventional family sitcom to something crazily original.
After winning their second Emmy in two years for "Frasier" last month, David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee now have the clout to turn their Grub Street Productions into a "sitcom factory," continually throwing a bunch of casts, concepts and comics against the wall to see what sticks.
"If they come to us with a show, we want it," said Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, who has scheduled all three Grub Street shows on Tuesday night. "When you have people with their track record, you have to believe in them and let them take chances."
But these three soft-spoken gentlemen in their 40s, seemingly untainted by the successes that have propelled them to the top of the cutthroat TV comedy heap, are waiting, maybe not for Godot, but for something--for Thalia, for inspiration, for an idea that will be worth working through dinners for months to come.
Until then, they are, as Casey said, "taking better vacations" and getting out of the office to have dinners with their families, at least on some nights. After years of concocting situations and jokes until they were punch drunk with giddiness and fatigue, the trio seems content to bask in the spoils of all that hard work. Casey speaks of "the excitement of walking down the street here at Paramount on a Tuesday night and seeing three red lights on three different stages going at the same time and knowing those are all our shows being shot. That's a real thrill."
They insist that they don't feel pressure to churn out another hit yet.
"We have nowhere to go but down," Casey jokes, but he knows there's probably more than a half-truth in his quip. And so, at the apex of their careers, with a future that is both bright and dangerous, they pause, for at least a few months, to remember how it came to be that they arrived in their immaculate bungalow offices and three huge sound stages on the Paramount lot, knowing that only when they are moved by the passion and determination that they have thrown into their past series will they be able to score big again.
"I think right now there is no one better than them in the comedy business in terms of turning a phrase and creating characters and situations that are not only intelligent but that people find belly-laugh funny," said Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Television, which bankrolls their shows. "So of course we or the networks are going to give them wider latitude if they want to stretch the form, but these are not the kind of guys who are going to abuse that just for the sake of doing something wild. . . . I really can't wait for them to tell me they've found an idea that are passionate about again."
Angell, Casey and Lee formed their partnership as writers on "Cheers," having arrived there by very different paths.
Angell grew up in Rhode Island and served in the Army, at the Pentagon and as a methods analyst at engineering and insurance companies before moving to Los Angeles in 1977. He struggled for several years before selling a script to "Archie Bunker's Place" and then making the staff of "Cheers."
Casey is from San Francisco, Lee from Claremont; they teamed up in 1975 after meeting as grunt workers at a script-mimeographing company. They wrote for "The Jeffersons" for six years before moving to "Cheers" in 1985, where they joined forces with Angell. The three eventually became executive producers, earning an Emmy for best comedy in 1989.
They left to create "Wings" the following year. That series has never been much of a critical darling, having premiered about the same time as "The Simpsons" and "Twin Peaks," innovative shows that seemed to eclipse all else. But "Wings," now in its sixth season (not bad, Lee said, for a sitcom that initially was sneered at by some critics as " 'Cheers' in an airport"), nonetheless has been a commercial success both on NBC and in reruns on USA cable.
Then came the "Cheers" spinoff. Spinoffs rarely succeed, and those that do rarely get respect. But "Frasier," starring Kelsey Grammer as that same boorish, big-brained psychiatrist he played on "Cheers," has been a ratings hit as well as a critical success. In addition to winning Emmys as best comedy series in each of its first two seasons, it also won Emmys last month for Grammer, David Hyde Pierce (who plays Frasier's brother, Niles), writing and directing. It has also captured a Peabody Award, more often bestowed on news or cultural programs.
A fter the heady success of "Frasier," Angell, Casey and Lee were too embroiled in the day-to-day production of their prized show to divine new inspiration of their own, so they sold NBC "Pursuit of Happiness," a series created by one of their proteges from "Wings," Dave Hackel.
They acknowledge that it's not the innovative show that they themselves would eventually like to use their clout to get on the air; probably the most original element of this sitcom about the incessant travails of a married couple is a gay character who is a cheating, obnoxious lawyer rather than a politically correct paragon of virtue. But the series, which has received mixed reviews from critics, is Hackel's baby, and Angell, Casey and Lee support him. Just as they remember erring on the side of caution to make "Wings" commercially viable, the new series is a similar pursuit for Hackel.
"Maybe it's true that you can't reinvent the wheel the first time out," he said. "There's a certain responsibility you feel to the people who hired me, and who hired them back then at that time, to give them something they understand and are familiar with. Then as you succeed, you probably do gain the confidence to do something really different. I've heard them talk about that."
Hackel has nothing but praise for the Grub Street trio: "I don't think there is another team in the business who could produce a show with the kind of intelligence and class as they do with 'Frasier.' There were a lot of people who would have liked to put a show around Kelsey Grammer, but [Angell, Casey and Lee] were true to the literateness of his character. You have to sit there with a thesaurus when you are watching that show."
And for now, finding just the right combination of big words and some of the broadest physical comedy ever performed by men in tightly tailored Armanis is where Angell, Casey and Lee devote much of their time. Howard Gewirtz and Mark Reisman run "Wings" for them. Hackel handles "Pursuit."
E ven "Frasier," which is cur rently being sold into syndica tion for the 1997 season at prices that will make all three of them fabulously wealthy, is directly supervised now by others (executive producers Christopher Lloyd, Vic Rauseo and Linda Morris). Last season, the three top dogs didn't write a single script from scratch. For Angell, who won a writing Emmy for an episode of "Cheers" in 1984, it was the first time in 15 years as a television writer that he didn't actually pound one out.
"It's interesting that we didn't write a script last season and we won five Emmys," said Casey, seemingly the wisecracker of the group to Angell's sober voice of reason and Lee's more wide-eyed philosophical take on life and TV.
So what do these guys do all day? Haul the truckloads of money to the bank?
"Well, that's the morning. Then we have lunch," Casey joked. "No, at this level, where you are running shows, you have input on every episode rather than on an entire script, and that's a different kind of skill and satisfaction."
They divide their time among a variety of tasks: working with their writers in outlining stories and punching up jokes, supervising editing and casting, hiring directors and other personnel and generally managing their company, which they intend to expand. Lee also directs episodes of all three shows; he won his own directing Emmy last month for his work on "Frasier."
Together they have a five-year, eight-figure deal with Paramount, signed last year. But none of them is sure how many shows they are supposed to come up with. (Paramount's McCluggage said he would like to have another for next fall.)
"I'm really afraid to ask that question," Angell said, half-seriously. "But I hate to think that we'll ever get to the point where we're just cranking them out, like a factory: 'OK, here's this year's Taurus coming off the line.' But we also know that it's harder to do comedy now. It's really hard to come up with something that is fresh, especially when you have to produce a new episode every week. A lot of shows on the air speak to that; they are the same old thing."
Said Lee: "I'm really looking to get passionate about something. Something that is going to get us to march right into the networks and say, 'We have to do this.' But I tell you, the thing about all this--doing so well--is that it really helps not to be desperate for a hit. To be able to say, 'I don't care if it runs forever, let's try to make it something special.' Back when we started, or when anyone started, you are maybe too willing to listen to too many opinions and to try to make it work, desperate for that big payoff.
"There was a lot of pressure with 'Frasier' in some ways because you had this known commodity and expectations, but at that point we also had freedom to make the show how we wanted it. And what happened, I think, is that it became a fresh voice screaming in a field of clones. They say this year that every show is a clone of 'Friends,' and I think, 'Why aren't they trying to imitate "Frasier"? It's got lucrative demos and high ratings.' And I guess it's because it's such an odd voice that is not easily imitable."
I t's hard for anyone to pinpoint why the inimitable "Frasier" has been knighted by Emmy voters over such other critically praised comedies as NBC's "Seinfeld" and HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show." At some point, David Hyde Pierce said, it simply comes down to the taste of the judges.
What "Frasier" has that distinguishes it is both original characters--stuffy, wildly superior ones who are always getting a comeuppance that makes them bearable--and a loving, family mushiness that prevails even over all the erudite barbs. Niles has his own family--a wife who is talked about but never seen--yet he is constantly seeking the cantankerous warmth of his brother and father's apartment. And perhaps last season's most defining episode was when Daphne (Jane Leeves), the nurse who cares for Frasier's father (John Mahoney), realized that she had abandoned her career ambitions for this bizarre but stable family unit.
Even the dog simultaneously provides both mean-spirited laughs and love.
Lee noted that "Frasier," unlike most other sitcoms, has no real format from week to week. Sometimes the scenes are quick and punchy, sometimes they go on and on, like Lee's favorite of last season, in which Frasier and Niles discussed ethics over glasses of sherry for 22 script pages. Another, by contrast, had the brothers opening a pretentious French restaurant in which they smashed live eels like hammers on a table to kill them, the cherries jubilee exploded in fire, the sprinkler system drenched everyone and a senile valet drove a car through a wall and into the dining room.
It's Noel Coward one week, the Ringling Bros. the next.
"I think of those three guys as the Three Graces, or possibly the Three Fates, or possibly the Three Stooges," actor Pierce said. "They are the most gracious, creative people you can ever meet. They have incredibly high standards week in and week out because the fate of the show depends on them. And they are the Three Stooges because they each have a healthy dose of silliness, which adds a lot to what otherwise would be a stuffy show. Getting the new scripts each week on Wednesday is like Christmas morning for me. It's always funny, and sometimes it's absolutely great right from the start."
T hings have not been great from the start for "Pursuit of Happiness," however. Mixed reviews and disappointing ratings have made it vulnerable either to a move out of its plumb time slot after "Frasier" or to cancellation. While both "Wings" and "Frasier" have fared strongly against ABC's blockbusters "Roseanne" and "Home Improvement," trailing by just a handful of share points this season, "Pursuit" has lost much of its lead-in audience and has been crushed by ABC's "Coach."
NBC executive Littlefield would not commit to the degree of improvement "Pursuit" would have to make or to how soon he would have to see it before he would ax the show. Though Angell, Casey and Lee "can't make America watch it," Hackel hopes that their backing will procure the show an extra few weeks to prove itself.
To Angell, Casey and Lee, its fate might simply be the law of the jungle.
"We've been incredibly lucky," Lee said. "We came from 'Cheers.' Then our first two shows [as a team] are genuine successes: One has run a long time, and one has all this critical acclaim and also looks to run a long time. What are we supposed to do? Just keep going until we fail miserably? But that is, I think, the nature of television."*