Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How FRASIER came to be

Aloha, while I’m in Hawaii, I have a guest blogger. Be nice to the substitute teacher, kids.

A number of readers have asked about the creation of FRASIER. Instead of giving my version, which has ME responsible for the whole thing, I asked Peter Casey, one of the show’s creators if he wouldn’t mind telling you the real story. Not only was he gracious enough to say yes but he filed a wonderfully detailed and comprehensive account. There’s even stuff that I didn’t know… and I was there.  For you long time readers, yes, this is a re-post... from four years ago.  Since very few people read the archives, and the surf's up, I thought it was worth re-sharing.  Enjoy!


Hello, everybody from beautiful Los Angeles, California. Peter Casey here, co-creator of FRASIER. I want to thank Ken Levine for offering me this space on his blog and I especially want to thank those of you who showed such interest in the creation of FRASIER.

As best I can recall, and these days that’s a real iffy proposition, we (David Lee, David Angell, and myself) were approached by Kelsey Grammer in the spring or summer of 1993. He wanted to know if we would be interested in creating a new tv series in which he would star. He felt that CHEERS was coming to an end and it was time for him to have his own show. At the time, the three of us were working on our first creation, WINGS. The previous season on WINGS, Kelsey and Bebe Neuwirth had been guest stars on a very funny episode written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs. We had worked for a number of years with Kels on CHEERS, and he apparently enjoyed the WINGS experience and hoped that we could re-unite.

David, David, and I had always felt that the Frasier character was the most interesting and complex on CHEERS. However, we were skittish about doing a spin off of one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. When we had created WINGS, most of the reviews were favorable, but the phrase, “CHEERS in an airport” was mentioned a few times and not in a favorable fashion. We frankly feared that anything we created for Frasier would pale in comparison to CHEERS. Kelsey wasn’t particularly interested in continuing the character of Frasier either, so we came up with a new concept. Kelsey would play this very high-brow, eccentric multi-millionaire publisher (think Malcom Forbes) in New York who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident. He would run his publishing empire from his bed in his fabulous Manhattan penthouse. His live-in nurse would be a very street smart, dedicated Hispanic woman (we pictured Rosie Perez) who would be a thorn in his side, but bring out the humanity in him.

Kelsey liked it, Paramount hated it. They said we were crazy if we didn’t capitalize on the popularity of CHEERS and the huge audience that would tune in to the finale. They ultimately persuaded Kelsey they were right and when he told us he was willing to do the CHEERS spin-off, we reluctantly agreed.

Okay, we’d do a CHEERS spin-off, but there was no way it was going to stay in Boston. NBC was enamored of this scheduling stunt called the crossover. A crossover is when a character from one series “crosses over” and appears as that character on another series. We did it on WINGS with Norm and Cliff and also with Frasier and Lillith. It was logical because Nantucket is not that far from Boston and we were struggling some in the ratings. It gives the show a temporary bump in the numbers, but you frankly don’t feel good about yourself. You’d like your show to succeed on its own merits and not need a boost from another show. We only did those two on WINGS, but we felt if Frasier stayed in Boston, NBC would be demanding guest appearances from all the CHEERS cast throughout the first season. How could we form our own identity and make people forget we were offspring of CHEERS if those characters were constantly visiting Frasier? So, we decided to move Frasier out west.

Our original city was Denver, but soon after that decision the state of Colorado voted in a law, with which we disagreed, that was very unfavorable toward gays. So we decided to move Frasier even farther west. Kids, it doesn’t get much farther west than Seattle. Ultimately, it was a much better choice. Seattle was pretty cutting edge at that time. It was the center of the grunge scene, the coffee revolution was taking off, it had a great arts community, and their restaurants were exploring new and exciting cuisines. All in all, it was fertile ground for Frasier and an inconvenient schlep across the country for the CHEERS gang. We didn’t have a problem having Lilith visit because she was his ex-wife and they shared a son. It was organic. The other characters would take some fancy footwork, but after the show established itself that first season, we didn’t have a problem doing one CHEERS character a season.

The original concept was for Frasier to work in the radio station surrounded by a group of wacky, yet loveable characters. (The term “wacky, yet loveable” is music to the ears of the network execs. “Stern, yet despicable” gets you shown the door) This idea came from a story idea at CHEERS which we were never able to make work where Frasier sat in for a local Boston radio host. We didn’t want to have Frasier in a private practice because we felt like it would look too much like the BOB NEWHART SHOW. Yet, the more we worked on the radio station concept, it sounded like WKRP IN CINCINNATI. What to do? Well, like a lot of writers we went to our own lives for material. David Lee’s father had recently had a stroke and David, being an only child, was helping his mother by taking on a lot of the responsibility of arranging the care for his disabled dad.

One day David came into the office and pitched the idea of Frasier having to care for an ailing, aging parent, something many people Frasier’s age were facing. We could keep the radio station, but now add a home life. David Angell and I both liked this idea immediately. We had seen very little of Frasier’s home life in CHEERS so this seemed to open up the possibility for lots of stories. Frasier didn’t have much of a family history so we pretty much had free rein to create what we wanted. (It was only after we were in rehearsals for the pilot that Kelsey mentioned that he had said his father was a research scientist in a episode of CHEERS which was produced after the three of us had left the show. At that point we pretty much said, “Screw it. We’re not changing our concept . We’re moving on”)

To create Frasier’s father we wanted to have someone very different than Frasier. Those differences create conflict; conflict creates humor, so we came up with Martin, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense ex-policeman. (We took Martin’s career out of my life. Both my father and grandfather were San Francisco policemen) Initially, some people said how do two such sophisticates as Frasier and Niles come from a guy like Martin? We told them the truth…David Lee is every bit as different from his father as the Cranes.

Niles wasn’t in the initial concept for the show. He came about through one of the greatest strokes of luck in tv history. Our assistant casting director at the time, Sheila Guthrie, came into our office one day with and 8x10 headshot of David Hyde Pierce and said, “Have you guys thought of Frasier having a brother because this actor really looks like he could be related to Kelsey.” We said we hadn’t thought of that (because we had just done a show, WINGS, about brothers), but was David any good as an actor? She said he was wonderful and left us some tapes of a failed series DHP had been a regular on called THE POWERS THAT BE. We watched the tapes and were blown away so we began creating the character who became Niles. After we had a good outline of the character we arranged to meet David at our offices. We pitched him the character and the series concept (what we had at the time) and asked if he was interested. He said he was so we had the studio set about making a deal with him.

Shortly thereafter, we felt we had a good enough concept to pitch to NBC so a meeting was set up with Warren Littlefield who was president of the network at that time. We went to his office in Burbank. In the meeting were the three of us and John Pike and John Symes representing Paramount Studios, and Warren, Perry Simon, and Jamie Tarses representing NBC. This was immediately encouraging to us because quite often the network will populate these pitch meetings with lots of lower level executives who tend to clog up the room and they frankly never laugh at anything unless the boss does. This was actually a small, influential group for us to pitch to. For years we had told NBC we would never do a family comedy situated in a living room. It wasn’t our style. We were more into the “gang” workplace comedy style of a CHEERS, or TAXI, so when David Lee started the meeting by saying, “You’re not going to believe this, but from the guys who said they’d never do a family comedy…” Perry Simon literally fell off the couch onto the floor. Funny reaction, the ice was broken. We proceeded with our pitch and something amazing happened. The network people never interrupted us. Usually they are constantly butting in with questions or their own suggestions to make it better, but they just listened to us. It was the best pitch I’ve ever been a part of. Each time we’d introduce a new character, we’d reference it with an actor we used as a template. So when we pitched Niles, we said think of David Hyde Pierce. That’s when something else amazing happened. At the mention of DHP’s name, Warren said, “We love him. If you can get him, he’s pre-approved.” This was huge. It meant we didn’t have to go through the tedious process of reading dozens of actors for the part, then bring a couple of them to the network to read for their approval. If the network rejected them, we would read dozens more. With this, if a deal could be struck with DHP, he was in. When we pitched the character of Martin, we said to picture John Mahoney. Warren said if we could get John, he was also pre-approved. Awesome. Martin’s home care worker was based on the therapist from our other idea for Kelsey, so we said to picture Rosie Perez. Warren asked if we ever pictured her as English because NBC loved Jane Leeves. If we went that way, Jane would be pre-approved. Whoa. That’s darn near the whole cast without having to jump through the network casting hoops. The only character we were vague about was Roz because quite frankly we didn’t have a handle on her yet.

When we finished the pitch, there was silence in the room for about a minute as Warren, Perry and Jamie let it sink in. Then they looked at each other and nodded and Warren said, “Go do it”. Incredible. Not a single network note. No changes. They loved it.

About halfway through writing the pilot script, Kerry McCluggage, the new President of Paramount Television, told us that he had spoken with John Mahoney regarding playing Frasier’s father. Kerry had a relationship with John dating back to Kerry’s days at Universal Studios where John had done a dramatic series called “The Human Factor.” John said he would like to meet with us and discuss FRASIER. We said that was great and could Kerry set up a meeting. He told us he had, but there was a catch. John wasn’t coming to meet us. We were going to meet John and that meant the three of us were flying to Chicago because that’s where John lived. The plan was we’d fly in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, have dinner with John, then return to LA the next morning. We were on a roll with the script so we weren’t thrilled about having to break our momentum. On the other hand, dinner in Chicago with John Mahoney sounded pretty cool so we went. It was late January or early February, cold, with snow on the ground, but what did we care? Paramount put us up at The Four Seasons and had provided us with a car and driver. We met John and Kerry at a restaurant called Shaw’s Crab House. Being a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, John was quite a local celebrity, so restaurant patrons were constantly stopping by the table or waving across the room. John was absolutely charming with everyone. Over dinner we pitched John the series concept, went into the character of Martin and his relationship with Frasier, and outlined the plot of the pilot episode. John was definitely interested, but he wouldn’t commit until he had read the pilot. Fair enough. We returned to LA the next morning and resumed writing with renewed enthusiasm picturing John Mahoney as Martin Crane.

It took us another week to finish the script, so two weeks total. I have to say it was one of the easiest scripts I’ve ever written. Everything seemed to flow naturally. This gave us a very good feeling about the project, but of course you never know how others are going to react to it. We sent it over to the Paramount executive offices and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Kerry McCluggage immediately FedEx’d it to John Mahoney. The next day we received an enthusiastic “yes” from John. Months later in LA, John told me he’d read through a two foot stack of pilots before the FRASIER script arrived and our script was so superior that it was the only project he wanted to do. So we had the main male roles cast and we felt great about them. Now it was time to cast our female leads.

As I said earlier, Warren Littlefield had endorsed Jane Leeves for the part of the home care worker. While we were writing the script we still hadn’t made up our minds whether she should be Hispanic or English. We didn’t make that decision until we literally reached the point in the script where Frasier hears the doorbell ring and goes to answer it. At that point there was no more stalling. Our first instinct was to try English so that’s what we did. Daphne turned out to be quite a quirky fun character and we really enjoyed writing her in the pilot. When Kelsey read the script he wasn’t as enthused and was evasive about his reasons. We had Jane come in and read for us and she was fantastic. We loved her immediately and called Kelsey to see if he could come over and read with her. He was kind of grumpy about the whole idea and he arrived at our offices in a bit of a dark mood. We pulled him aside and asked what the problem was and after some hemming and hawing he said that he worried that having an English housekeeper with Frasier would look like the old sitcom “Nanny and the Professor” which he was not a fan of. We felt the Frasier/Daphne relationship was nothing like that and pleaded with him to read with Jane. Finally, he begrudgingly agreed, but said it would be just the two of them in the room. David, David and I would have to wait outside. He went in, closed the door, and we were left in the outer office sweating. About one minute later the door flew open, Kelsey strode past us saying, “She’s in,” and left. We talked to him later and he told us his worries about “Nanny and the Professor” dissolved immediately when they started reading together and that Jane was really funny. Yahoo! We had almost our whole cast and hadn’t been required to take a single network casting meeting. That was going to end in a big way when we tried to cast the character of Roz.

Tomorrow, the concluding chapter of Peter Casey’s look back at the creation of FRASIER.


*tarazza said...

I'm pretty sure I read this sometime back in the day, but I'm loving it again. I wish I could hear backstories like this on all my favorite shows.

Anonymous said...

tomorrow really? come on! now i have to check the archive... Sometimes I hate u Levine! haha

Max Clarke said...

Good re-post, I must have scanned right through it last time. More detail today.

It's impressive just how many stars lined up. David Hyde Pierce? Pre-approved. John Mahoney? Pre-approved. Interruptions during the pitch? None. Notes? None.

It's easy to fault studio execs for killing good shows, but these guys got it early and helped make sure the show took off.

Simon H. said...

Tomorrow should tell the tale of Lisa Kudrow's initial casting as Roz. Fortunately, things eventually worked out for her from what I heard.

Pixie said...

Ditto what tarazza says! I LOVE hearing the beginnings of shows and Frasier is one of my favorites. Other than Modern Family, I can't think of another I like as much! Thanks for sharing, Ken (and Peter)

Dave Williams said...

Fascinating! Thanks, Ken. Aloha.

William said...

Personally I don't mind reading reposts... and this one is great! However, I also want to point out that you might get more people reading the archives if you put some effort into organizing them. Most bloggers have something like a "best of" or "top 10" in the sidebar. Another possibility is to make some posts with links to all your posts on a certain theme, and then put these new posts in a sidebar.

If you only have time to learn one thing, you should learn how to create links. "Use more links" is a basic rule of blogging for anyone over the age of forty. One or two links in each post pointing back to related material would be perfect.

Sorry for the criticism. I love your blog. But the current archive interface is very frustrating (dates, no titles, difficult to go through sequentially).

William said...

Whoops... scratch the part about "no titles" from my comment. They do show up in the archive.

benson said...

Totally off topic but you folks may enjoy this video from Roger Ebert's blog. The lyrics are all director's names. ('cept the left out Ken, thoughtlessly!)

benson said...

Again, off topic, but like throwing fresh meat to hungry lions...

Nikki Finke tweeted:
CBS Developing Twitter-Based Family Comedy Produced By Jessica Alba

Okay, I'll start. Do ya think she'll be hiring writers?

Mike said...

So the network lets talented, creative people do their own thing without hardly any notes and it becomes a critical and ratings success.

Hmmm, you'd hope someone would learn a lesson from this.

Funny you should repost this today. Last night, we stayed in a hotel downtown in Chicago (because we were seeing a show and didn't want to go home late and it was a partial Christmas present to ourselves); it was lovely but the only problem with the room is that we had no idea what TV channels were what. Rather than turning through them all while our dinner got cold, we settled on an episode of The Jeffersons, and though it took a little while to warm up, it was rather clever story where Florence and Mr. Bentley, though TV contrivance, end up going on a date. It goes miserably, but neither one of them wants to hurt their friend's feelings, and this is all communicated through subtitles (because they were going to see a Truffaut movie) I laughed out loud and was not at all surprised when Peter Casey & David Lee's names came up as the writers at the end.

Bob Gassel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bob Gassel said...

Coincidentally, I happened to catch the pilot just last night and, except for Daphne being a bit flakier than she became later on, it was all in place...rare for even the greatest sitcoms

Amy said...

Thanks for the re-posting this! Fraiser is one of my all time favorite shows and it's amazing how it all came together. You can really tell that from the pilot, because it's the one pilot I actually don't mind re-watching! Looking forward to reading the rest tomorrow (too lazy to sort through the archives). =)

Unknown said...

You mention that Frasier said that his father was a research scientist in Cheers but do you remember that he actually appeared on Cheers itself.... if memory serves I think Sam was thinking of advertising Cheers on the radio and John Mahoney turned up as a jingle writer and had a stint on the piano (he could actually play?).

Mary Stella said...

surrounded by a group of wacky, yet loveable characters

Not unlike the people who frequent this blog.

Do people who complain about reposts never watch reruns?

Mel said...

I can remember rolling my eyes when I first heard about Frasier. Cheers was one of my all-time favorite shows (I held a huge "Last Call" party for the finale), and I wasn't sure I was ready for JUST Frasier. I watched the pilot begrudgingly mostly because that's what you did on Thursday night -- you watched NBC comedies. I can remember just laughing non-stop. I'm a nerd who LOVES behind-the-scenes tales, so this is like manna from heaven for me!

Dave Creek said...

I felt the same way about a CHEERS spinoff with Frasier -- never thought it would work. Was glad to be proven wrong.

Of course, I thought TITANIC would never be a hit (a period piece three hours long where you know the ending? The kids will never go see that!) and thought STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP would be great (com'on, Sorkin!) and had severe doubts about 30 ROCK (Could Tina Fey act? She didn't even do skits on SNL! And could she write stories rather than skits?)

At least I know I should never be a movie or TV exec. I wish some of the real ones would admit it.

bevo said...

Terrific post and will wait for tomorrow's post.

wv - irrest: when a person turns themself in to the police.

DBC said...

Very interesting post. Enjoyable to hear how such a clever show came about. Maybe there would be a few more good shows if there wasn't so much interference.

Anonymous said...

This was awesome. As it happens, I was about to pose a question to Ken about the casting of David Hyde Pierce, who always struck me as one of the most genius pieces of casting ever, because he looked so much like Kelsey. I always wondered if that was a happy accident, and it turns out that his role in the show came about exactly the way I'd expected.

Brian said...

Thanks for the repost Ken and thanks to Mr. Casey, for writing this. This is why I read your blog.

Anonymous said...

I loved Frasier, but couldn't get past the difference between Martin and his 2 sons. I always wondered if I'd missed an episode explaining it (their mother's influence?), and the longer the show went on the more I thought about it.

Also, did Frasier and Lilith's son ever age? It seems like he never made it past around the age of 12 or 13, when he should have gotten up into his teens.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, they did explain that Niles and Frasier's mom was an intellectual into high culture, which explains how her sons turned out the same way. Later, Mrs. Crane appeared in flashback played by Rita Wilson.

dbenson said...

In the episode where Sam Malone comes to visit, Martin cheerfully suggests Sam has heard all about him. Sam uncomfortably says he was told Martin was dead. Frasier brushes by it with something about a difficult period in the relationship. It was a neat bit -- almost a wink to the audience acknowledging a continuity blip.