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They leave as they began: With a buzz

TelevisionFamilyTelevision IndustryNBCNew York City Police DepartmentTed Danson

Looking back, it's easy to see how Frasier and Friends became TV icons. Television has no more valuable commodity than buzz, unless it is a time slot between two popular series. Friends and Frasier, which arrived a season apart and are departing a week apart, were born with both.

In the spring of 1994, The New York Times decided to track the development of a new series, from pitch meeting, through casting, then the nail-biting wait for a pickup, to finally being assigned a time period. The proposed show the Times settled upon was known by several titles during its development: Six of One, These Friends of Mine, then just Friends. It came from Marta Kauffman, David Crane and Kevin Bright, the people responsible for the popular HBO series Dream On.

The Times series, which ran from early March through late May, created an awareness of Friends other series hopefuls didn't have. When the pilot lived up to network hopes, it was awarded the time period every new comedy coveted, the 8:30 Thursday hammock between Mad About You and Seinfeld.

Frasier, which debuted a year earlier, had built-in recognition as a spinoff of Cheers, although it wasn't the show many expected. Warren Littlefield, then president of NBC Entertainment, said his heart stopped when Ted Danson called to tell him, "I can't be Sam Malone anymore." Cheers was what Friends would become, the cornerstone of NBC's dominant Thursday lineup. As Cheers wound down, speculation centered on Norm and Cliff, played by George Wendt and John Ratzenberger, as the characters most likely to continue on their own.

The Cheers creative team of Glen Charles, Les Charles and James Burrows surprised Littlefield when they vetoed Norm and Cliff. Their choice was Dr. Frasier Crane because of what they felt was Kelsey Grammer's brilliant comedic timing. "This is the guy to bet the farm on," they told the network's top programmer.

"I would have been crazy not to listen to them," Littlefield said. He not only listened, he bet the cushy real estate between Seinfeld and ER, more valuable than any farm. If he hadn't paid heed, NBC would have missed out on a series that would win Emmys in its first five seasons, a feat not achieved before or since.

This is not to say he didn't subsequently have reasons to question his sanity. "I would call every day and they were coming up with all kinds of crazy ideas. One had Frasier doing a show from a sick bed." Finally they piqued his interest with a proposal for a family comedy. "I said, `Great, we haven't had one of those since Cosby,'" Littlefield recalls. But the family show they had in mind didn't have a father, mother and precocious kids. It was an extended adult family: Frasier, his hobbled father (John Mahoney) and his fussbudget brother, another psychiatrist (David Hyde Pierce).

Surrogate familyThe concept for Friends never deviated from the vision of its creators. Fortunately, it was exactly the type of series Littlefield had been seeking, a comedy involving young people in a big city coming together to share living expenses. This meant they also would share signal events in a memorable period of their lives, not with parents and siblings, but with new, surrogate family members.

Bringing the concept to life was another matter. "We developed a terrible bunch of scripts," Littlefield says. Then Kauffman, Crane and Bright walked in with Friends. "They so knew who their characters were," he recalls.

They also so didn't share his vision of a series that would represent Generation X and explore a new kind of tribal bonding. "Honestly, all we were trying to do was make a show we would enjoy watching," Kauffman said.

"We had to make the argument that it was not a show for one generation," Crane added. "It was for everybody." As pop psychologists prattled on over the years about the cultural impact of Friends, Crane said, the producers would laugh and say to each other, "It's only a TV show."

Indeed, the show failed to spawn any catchphrases, which is fine with the producers, Crane said. About the only cultural trend it ignited was mass imitation of Jennifer Aniston's hair style, "The Rachel."

There are no secrets in Hollywood; word got out about the favored project at NBC. "Immediately, the show had heat," Littlefield said. "We were getting calls from every agent in town. `How do I get my client in this show?'"

A true ensembleThe six who would become icons all had some familiarity to TV viewers but there was nothing resembling star power.

Courteney Cox had the highest profile as Michael J. Fox's girlfriend on Family Ties, Jim Carrey's love interest in Ace Ventura, and the fan plucked from the audience in the video for Bruce Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark.

Aniston had played Ferris Bueller's sister in a short-lived episodic knockoff of the hit movie. David Schwimmer had been a fringe character on The Wonder Years and NYPD Blue. Matthew Perry had been a secondary player in Sydney, a failed series starring Valerie Bertinelli.

Lisa Kudrow had a recurring role on Mad About You as a ditsy waitress named Ursula, who would live on as the sister of her Friends character Phoebe. Kudrow had been the first choice to play Roz on Frasier but this quickly was recognized as a bad fit. (She was replaced by Peri Gilpin.)

Matt LeBlanc played the same character in two failed Fox series, Top of the Heap and Vinnie & Bobby. So it won't be a first when he continues to play his Friends alter ego next season in the spinoff Joey.

That the stars came into the series with similarly modest credentials facilitated a significant creative choice. Friends would be a pure ensemble, with none of the six more prominent than any other. "No one had done a true ensemble," Crane said. "Cheers had Sam and Diane and Seinfeld had Jerry's name in the title."

The creators felt that utilizing six equal players, rather than emphasizing one or two, would allow for myriad story lines and give the show legs, according to Crane.

Mitch Shapiro, associate dean of the University of Miami School of Communications, said the fact that Friends never deviated from this plan played a major role in the series' success and longevity.

"I would venture that if you took a stopwatch to the show, you would find each character would have close to equal time in almost every episode," he said. "The show also had great writers who knew how to take advantage of all the possible permutations. They made the sum greater than the parts."

The all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality eliminated the petty jealousies that often plague long-running shows, famously epitomized by Suzanne Somers and Three's Company. It also fostered a feeling of camaraderie and unity, which sometimes backfired on the producers.

Once Friends became a huge hit, the six -- who lived the show's title -- negotiated sizable salary bumps several times with the threat of staying away from the set en masse. Their solidarity held every time. To the end, when each had a per-episode paycheck of $1 million, none made a dollar more than any other.

End of an eraThe departure of Friends and Frasier signals the end of an era, Shapiro feels. "I don't know that we'll see shows with this kind of legs in the future. After Everybody Loves Raymond goes" -- expectations are this will happen a year from now -- "what will be left as TV's best comedy? Will & Grace?"

John Rash, a media buyer for Campbell-Mithun, concurs. "This is more than the end of two programs. It's the end of an era of seminal sitcoms, which enjoy broad popular and advertiser support. It's low tide for network TV. But comedies and dramas can make a significant return if there's a strong investment in writing."

Shapiro is not optimistic this will happen because of the reality craze. "The longer the networks stay with reality, the longer they're out of the habit of making quality scripted shows."

The consolidation of networks and studios also mitigates against a renaissance of quality scripted programs. Networks now select most of their prime-time series from their sister studios, something they were precluded by law from doing for many years.

"Look at TV history," Shapiro said. "The great shows weren't produced by networks. They came from independent producers like Norman Lear [All in the Family], Garry Marshall [Happy Days] and Grant Tinker [The Mary Tyler Moore Show]."

Friends and Frasier fall into the same category. Peering into the future, it is not overly pessimistic to wonder if TV will ever see their likes again.

Tom Jicha can be reached at tjicha@sun-sentinel.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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TelevisionFamilyTelevision IndustryNBCNew York City Police DepartmentTed Danson
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