Help from our “Friends”

I just finished the book, “Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must-See TV” by Warren Littlefield. He was the head of NBC during its incredible 80s-90s run of shows.  Inspiring, creating and buying such programs as The Cosby Show, ER, Cheers, Mad About You, Friends, Seinfeld and more, Littlefield regales the reader with insights and interviews with many of the shows producers, writers and stars. I began to notice some very interesting tidbits that relate to improv and the world of theater. Here they are:

Lisa Kudrow: I’d gotten good at auditioning, because I was taking a class where the guy was fantastic. His name was Ian Tucker and he told us, “It’s a business. All you guys want to do is act, and you finally get an audition, and all anyone is asking you to do is focus and act for two minutes, because that’s about how long an audition is, and none of you can do it. You jump into their laps and wonder if they are paying attention. Do they like it? What are thinking? Forget it. Just perform.” So I got good at doing just that.

He told us, “They are dying for you to blow them away. They’re on your side. What do you think, they want to go through hundreds of people and settle? No. Just do what you do. Either you’re right for the part or you’re not—let them decide. They’re eating lunch while you audition because they’re hungry. It’s not because they don’t like you.

Warren Littlefield: Speaking as someone who’s spent a professional lifetime watching talented people collapse at auditions, that advice is as valuable as it comes.

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David Schwimmer: I would give so much credit to David and Marta and the other writers because they really invited our ideas. They created an atmosphere in which we could play and fail and pitch stuff, and because of that it wasn’t about any individual, it was about all of us trying to come up with the funniest and the best and the most emotional material we could.

I had never experienced it outside my theater company in Chicago with people I’d known, like brothers and sisters, for twenty years. I had never experienced it, and not to that level. It even exceeded that because of the caliber of the writing and the ideas from the writers and the direction from Jimmy (James Brooks) and others. It was thrilling to be part of, and it was hands down the best creative experience I’ve had professionally as an actor. That kind of collaboration with your director, with those writers, and with the other actors—it’s a huge high, and it spoils you for life. It does.

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Warren Littlefield: My philosophy as president of entertainment at NBC was simple. I knew I didn’t have all the answers, so I kept my office door open and my colleagues were always welcome with their suggestions and ideas.

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Warren Littlefield (after the success of the ground-breaking Will & Grace): Sound familiar? Patience and risk rewarded once again.

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Jason Alexander: What’s fascinating to me is it feels like the lesson of Seinfeld wasn’t learned. On my subsequent shows, the network and the studio executives micromanaged those projects, micromanaged them into failure. With Jerry and Larry, people looked at this singular take on life and knew there was no negotiating with them. You either decided to trust them or decided you couldn’t. That lesson doesn’t seem to have been learned.

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Warren Littlefield: In deciding what got on our air and what didn’t, I went back to the guiding principles of Grant Tinker. Respect the audience, he told us, and they will come. Grant taught us to get into business with the best-quality writers and producers the industry has to offer and let them do what they do best- create and execute.

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It’s a great book and it’s fascinating to see how corporations (and the people who run them) refuse to learn from the past. They’re constantly searching for “the next Seinfeld” or the “next Friends” but refuse to create the environments that allowed them to create and flourish.

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