A New A-Team at NBC

Robert Strauss is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The view from the seventh-floor windows of the otherwise nondescript high-rise office building in Burbank is awe-inspiring. At near eye-level is the Warner Bros. water tower, emblazoned with the famous "WB" logo. Down below is the Warner lot, where people come in reverence to see the backdrops of legendary Westerns; the animation buildings that produced hundreds of immortal cartoons; the set of the most popular drama of the 1990s, "ER," and the set of the seminal Gen-X comedy, "Friends."

Behind those seventh-floor windows are the amazingly spare offices of Bright/Kauffman/Crane, the company that produces "Friends." The show has made the names on the company letterhead among the hottest--and most well-compensated--in the TV producing pantheon.

Marta Kauffman and David Crane, college buddies just a few years away from producing librettos for obscure children's musicals, and their partner, Kevin Bright, made the recent Forbes Magazine list of the 40 top-paid entertainers in 1996-97, with an estimated $39 million in income among them.

And now NBC has entrusted its most valuable launching pad--the 9:30 p.m. slot on Thursdays, between "Seinfeld" and "ER"--to the new Bright/Kauffman/Crane sitcom, "Veronica's Closet." Unlike some other recent denizens of that high-priced prime-time real estate, "Veronica's Closet," which stars Kirstie Alley in her first TV role since "Cheers," has gotten some sterling reviews and a lot of positive press.

The influential guide for advertising buyers from Zenith Media called "Veronica's Closet" the closest thing to a sure hit among the new 1997-98 series. "Kirstie is at her most adorable," it said. "The supporting cast is great, and we think viewers will not only buy it, but make it more than a time-period hit."

And viewers have responded as predicted. On a night when "Seinfeld" and "ER" got their highest ratings ever, "Veronica's Closet" premiered Sept. 25 with an audience of 35.1 million and ranked No. 3 for the week, with "Friends" close behind at No. 4.

"These folks will be running two series this year and have two shows in the top five in network television," said NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield. "As it has been said, that ain't chopped liver."

And yet it may not be enough for the producers. Actually, it may be too much, for Kauffman, Crane and Bright are looking down the road toward a little bit less of the Hollywood success climb.

Kauffman and Crane sit on a stage at a ritzy ballroom in the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton Hotel with Alley and the rest of the cast of "Veronica's Closet." Arrayed at tables before them are 150 of the nation's usually jaundiced TV critics, here at their annual summer press tour of the coming television season.

Kauffman, 41, and Crane, 40, first faced the nation's TV press seven years ago when HBO was launching a rather randy sitcom they created called "Dream On." "Dream On" told the story of New York book editor Martin Tupper, a somewhat hip version of a loser, whose daydreams were interspersed into the show in the form of black-and-white clips from the Universal Studios film and TV library. While this was a clever conceit, the press was focused on another aspect of "Dream On": its copious use of female nudity, something rather unprecedented in series TV, even on cable. Reporters condemned them as the handbasket-carriers leading the viewing public to an even lower level of televised hell.

Three years later, they were savaged again when they appeared at the press tour to promote another of their sitcoms, "Family Album." The CBS show starred Peter Scolari and Pamela Reed as a married couple who moved back to Philadelphia from California to be closer to their high-strung parents. One critic after another lambasted Kauffman and Crane for demeaning family life by having the sitcom's characters constantly criticizing and bickering with each other.

But the critics at the "Veronica's Closet" session at the Ritz-Carlton are subdued, even reverential. Kauffman is solicited for her views about content ratings for prime-time shows ("Obviously, my feeling about this is that the responsibility of monitoring our children's television watching belongs in the hands of parents, not to be dictated by the government"); Crane is praised for including a character unsure about how to cope with his homosexuality.

"Friends" has changed everything.

Whatever the critics thought about its content--and the aging national press crew was decidedly mixed in its reviews of the sex-filled young-adult show when it premiered in 1994--they knew Kauffman and Crane had produced a hit. Now, they were climbing into the category of producers like Steven Bochco who, after creating the seminal gritty cop drama "Hill Street Blues," is given some latitude by critics when he isn't quite up to snuff (see last year's disaster "Public Morals") because he has succeeded in reading the public's taste in the past.

Executives now give them similar leeway.

"There is a tendency in TV to believe that lightning will strike twice," Bright, 43, who handles the business affairs of Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions, while Kauffman and Crane attend to the creative aspects, says later. "It is obviously a lot easier to get in any front door, to be thought of well everywhere, once you've had a successful show."

"Friends" was originally supposed to be just a nice New York-based comedy to complement "Seinfeld," reaching for a slightly younger audience. But the incredibly good-looking characters, hanging together through various crises, struck a chord with the young-adult audience that networks covet and had seemed to be losing. It rocketed in the ratings and spawned countless imitations.

"The phenomenon of 'Friends' was something we never anticipated," said Kauffman, sitting in the two writers' aerie of a corner office. It has only a sampling of the detritus that covers the walls and bookshelves of most Hollywood writers' lairs. It is a place for working, not luxuriating in kudos.

"We were just so thrilled to have a show stay on the air on network television and feel as good about it as we did," she said. "To have it turn into the kind of cultural thing that it did, well, that was just strange."

Crane's father, Gene, is the longest-tenured on-air television personality in Philadelphia, holding virtually every news and public-affairs job at the local NBC affiliate over the last four decades. Naturally, young David got plenty of opportunities to go to work with Dad at Channel 10. Sometimes, he got to go on "Cartoon Corners General Store" show, a daily local kiddie hit in the 1960s.

"When I was 10 or 11, I got to play some parts," said Crane. "[Host Gene London] did a couple of shows where he did mini-biographies of famous people, so I played them as kids. So I was young Wilbur Wright. And young Galileo. I just remember doing it and thinking it was really cool--and at the same time there was a part of me going, 'I don't think I'm very good at this.' "

Kauffman blanched in her seat across from Crane when she heard this, but understood. Though she grew up less than 10 miles away from Crane in the western Philadelphia suburbs, they didn't meet until college. But Kauffman was intimate with "Cartoon Corners General Store."

"First play I ever wrote was when I had mononucleosis when I was in sixth grade, and because of Quigley Mansion [a staple of the London show], all the characters were named Quigley," Kauffman said reverentially.

A decade out of her Quigley phase, Kauffman was paired with Crane, one year behind her at Brandeis University, to direct a play in 1977 as part of a class. She graduated and moved to New York, but kept in touch with Crane, who shared her interest in writing and musical theater. Soon he moved there and they started trying to write together. Gene Crane got them their first paying job, writing questions for a game show he was doing.

"It sounded like a really good gig until we had to actually turn out thousands and thousands of math questions and science questions," said the younger Crane. "Suddenly, I'm at the library looking up things about the Spanish Revolution."

"We're pulling out our old high school books," Kauffman added.

"Yeah, math books," Crane said.

"There was one night we had to pull an all-nighter. It was awful," said Kauffman.

It was about at that time that they started this habit of adding on to each other's sentences, matching each other's phrasing--the near-Nichols-and-May stream-of-consciousness banter that now flows naturally in every conversation with them.

"David gets annoyed with I say this, but I think there was something beshert or fated about us," Kauffman said.

"I don't get annoyed. I just get mocking," Crane said dryly.

"Yes, you mock," she agreed. "But on some level we are soul mates. It's a kind of marriage. It's been a long time. So many things happened in a way it shouldn't have. It feels like there was something meant to be."

What was meant to be, however, was not something romantic. Crane is gay and Kauffman is straight, facts that, they say, have never gotten in the way. Kauffman, in fact, has been married for the last 13 years to one of Crane's former New York roommates, Michael Skloff. Skloff, a composer, had come to live with Crane only because Crane's former roommate married Kauffman's roommate.

"It is cloyingly cute," said Crane.

"And so we got married and had two children. It's so random. I love it," Kauffman said. She has a 9-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. Crane has had a long-standing relationship with Jeffrey Klarik, another TV writer.

Meanwhile, Crane and Kauffman busied themselves writing for children's theater and small revues, Skloff often contributing the music. A musical they and others started at Brandeis about people meeting through personal ads became "Personals" and had a run off-Broadway. Still, money was not exactly piling up in the Kauffman and Crane vaults. An agent saw their work and said they should come out to California to write television.

"It hadn't occurred to us," Crane said, "and we were reluctant to move west." They wrote three pilots from New York and began gyrating back and forth to L.A. for development meetings. The traveling eventually wore them down and they moved here in 1988.

They finally got on the air in 1990 with their risque HBO comedy "Dream On." Executive producer John Landis let Kauffman and Crane run the day-to-day creative operations, an unheard-of move for novice writers, but brought Bright in to take care of the business end. He had produced several HBO comedy specials and had just come off a year with "In Living Color." His strength was handling technical and business aspects of shows: making them come in on budget; knowing which directors and crews and equipment to use; even sometimes directing himself. It was a partnership that not only clicked for them but also has served as a model for other producing teams.

"Kevin Bright has become part of the Hollywood vernacular. Producer-writers now say, 'I'm looking for my Kevin Bright,' " says Tony Jonas, president of Warner Bros. Television. "He provides great balance; he helps us with logistics and budgets and other things like that."

The critical success of "Dream On" established the trio. Warner Bros. signed them to a development deal and they began creating shows for the networks, striking out with "Family Album" in 1993 but scoring big time with "Friends." NBC then offered to buy whatever they came up with next, which turned out to be "Veronica's Closet," developed only after they had settled on Kirstie Alley as the star.

"They set the bar so high for themselves. They are, in the words of the broadcaster, truly in touch with the customer," said NBC's Littlefield. "Their filming process is a marathon. It can go for six, eight hours. Not because they are inefficient, but so demanding. Everyone in the audience may be laughing and having fun, but they ask whether they can do every scene better. With many other show runners, they open a bottle of wine and sit back and applaud. These guys roll up their sleeves and say, 'How good can we make this thing?' That commitment to excellence helps separate them."

With millions of dollars now pouring in as Warner Bros. goes about syndicating the reruns of "Friends," and with millions more in the offing if "Veronica's Closet" lives up to its early promise, Kauffman, Crane and Bright are contemplating the future. Unlike many others in the TV game, they are not afraid to admit that money has changed some things for them--and, with any luck, it will allow them to recede from the one-upmanship rat race that Hollywood can become.

"In terms of the money, yeah, there is something insane about the money out here," said Crane, who added that he's often uncomfortable with this subject in Hollywood. "But, yet, of course, there is something wonderful."

"We get to do things for our families. We get to help people in our families and take care of our parents," said Kauffman. "The advantage of the money is that when you do have time off, you don't have to go without. I have horses. It's my sanity. It's what keeps me in touch with the world. I ride. I would not be able to do that necessarily otherwise. We live in homes that are very comfortable, and that is a great advantage. I can go home and actually feel like I'm on a little vacation."

But the flip side is that as vacation-like as her home may be, Kauffman isn't there anywhere near as much as she'd like. Running a TV series swallows a lot of time: days starting at 9 in the morning, rarely ending earlier than 9 at night, and more like midnight, with the 4-5-6 a.m. shutdown too often a part of the job. Given that work schedule, combined with the monetary rewards, it is hardly surprising that the gossip pages are rife with divorce and other missteps. Kauffman and Crane are determined to drop out before that shoe can drop.

"Certainly at 50, that's a fair number, I'll be out of this," said Crane. "Even at 45, we won't be doing this the way we are doing it now."

"I'm hoping that at 43!" said Kauffman, as Crane laughs uneasily. "Veronica's Closet" would be only finishing its second season then. "I'm dead serious. The idea of running a show has really played itself out for me. You know, I talk about having a third child. I can't do it while I'm doing this. I think: What's more important? TV? Baby?" She looks at each hand, weighing them like scales, with the "baby" hand winning by a landslide. "There's no question. None of our relationships are worth sacrificing for a TV show."

"Even two," Crane said.

They pine for real vacations--most now are taken in Philly and the New Jersey Shore, where they visit relatives. Kauffman talks of spending a few years just tending to the kids. Crane counters with the idea of tending to his beloved garden and whipping up gourmet meals while Klarik runs his own sitcom.

Lots of TV producers have talked that game, but then when the lure of a cushy spot on the prime-time schedule and the Brinks-truckloads that go with it sing siren-like, they wilt back into the grind. Kauffman, Crane and Bright are making steps the other way. Their production company has started signing up writers to develop their own series, which Bright/Kauffman/Crane would shepherd. It's not retirement, sure, but it could be a nice 40-hour week with a lot of vacations.

"I think Aaron Spelling," said Bright, when asked for a paragon of the success-with-reasonable-hours axis in Hollywood. Spelling always looks rested, even if his company has produced more hours of dramatic television than any other. "I think you have to be more willing, like him, to take a role where you are standing back from the product rather than being as hands on as the three of us are. It's hard to believe we can stand back that far. But the way they are talking, either we have to do that or just stop and take a long break."

Kauffman is already fantasizing about that next step.

"I really do want to drive carpool," she said. But then there is a little hesitation, just the slightest of writerly pauses. "Once in a while."

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