An Oral History Of Late-'90s NBC Time Slot Hits
In the fall of 1994, NBC debuted their six-singles-in-Manhattan sitcom Friends, and TV would never be the same. Initially sandwiched between Mad About You at 8 PM and Seinfeld at 9, the breakout success of Friends meant that it was most certainly going to be able to move up to 8 PM for Season 2 and serve as lead-in for what would, executives hoped, be the next Friends-sized success. Even better for NBC, the also-huge ratings success of ER at 10 PM meant that the post-Seinfeld slot at 9:30 was also a prime launching ground. With two half-hours of primo real estate, NBC embarked upon the most indestructible run of ratings success in recent memory. Those Teflon time slots made hits out of every piece of half-assed comedy that crossed through them, only to die on the vine once they moved to other nights. It was a magical period for television, and for NBC in particular. The Friends format was tweaked in all sorts of ways (five friends? A bookstore setting? Seven friends?), the nation's brightest comedic talents were plucked, and the TV-watching public passively consumed more mediocre sitcoms than they were ever prepared for.
So what was it about these shows that made them such massive temporary hits? And what were the behind-the-scenes stories that made them into the good-enough-to-air success stories they became? We sat down with a staggering array of writers, critics, and executive and put together a complete* history of this proud moment in time.
The Single Guy (1995-1997)
In NBC executives' early attempts to find programming to complement their Thursday night ratings juggernauts, the natural inclination was to target stars. Particularly stars with experience in hit comedies. Naturally, they immediately approached Weekend At Bernie's wunderkind Jonathan Silverman with the hopes of building a sitcom around him. He was no stranger to the network grind, having come through the famed Gimme A Break child-star boot camp that produced Joey and Matthew Lawrence as well as the great Lara Jill Miller. As for plot, the friendship boom of the 1990s provided much fodder for a group of twentysomething pals (Silverman, Jessica Hecht, Mark Moses, Ming-Na Wen, Joey Slotnick) and their older elevator-operator friend (Ernest Borgnine) to find plenty of interesting things to do.
Andy Pennington (Writer, Seasons 1-2): You have to understand the culture of the mid-'90s, after Friends and Seinfeld became such huge hits. Hip, urbanite friendships were the zeitgeist and we were all chasing it. The inspiration for The Single Guy was Stephen Sondheim's Company, and I think those early episodes really nailed the existential angst we were going for.
Jonathan Silverman (Actor, "Jonathan"): Joey Slotnick could deliver a joke about the ambivalence of loving your partner and chafing against the shackles of institutionalized marriage that would have us gasping for air on set.
Andrea Wolchowicz (TV Critic, Portland Union Leader): The replacement of Jessica Hecht by Olivia d'Abo at the start of Season 2 really divided the fan base and created two factions, really. There were the Hechtians, who believed the show's first twenty-two episodes were canon, and then the d'Abolitionists, who accepted the cast changes as a necessary step to keep the show afloat. That kind of fractured fan base is tough to overcome.
Jimmy Delgado (Writer, Season 2): We got the cancellation notice on February 27, 1997. Enough time to wrap up our current storylines, but it wasn't the ending we wanted. In our original vision, Jonathan and Joey's characters went to Las Vegas, where Jonathan woke up married and Joey woke up divorced. Season 3 would have been a whole different single guy. Hard not to wonder how that might've shaken things up.
Boston Common (1996-1997)
With Boston Common, NBC was attempting to revive Boston as a Must See TV locale for the first time since Cheers went off the air. Instead of a bar, a college campus would be the locale for humorous interactions between a hilarious set of misfits. Jerry Seinfeld's success on TV had convinced network brass that literally any standup comedian could be successful on Thursdays. And in Anthony Clark, they had found their anyone.
Warren Littlefield (President, NBC Entertainment 1991-98): We'd wanted to be in the Max Mutchnick and David Kohan business for a long time. They came to us with an idea for a show about a straight woman and her gay best friend and how their relationship seemed to mirror a romantic relationship. We loved it, though obviously it needed a bit of tinkering. We had scrambled to attach Anthony Clark to the project, because he was the hottest unsigned talent in the country that year, but he wasn't working as the gay guy. At the same time, someone suggested that the push/pull of a gay-guy/straight-girl relationship could be better conveyed by a Virginia hick coming to live on a college campus in New England. Sometimes, a light just flicks on over your head, you know?
David Kohan (Writer/Producer): Casting was more of a struggle than we anticipated. There was a whole rigamarole about how we'd originally wanted Paul Rudd, who was hot off of Clueless at the time, but ended up with David Paymer's less-famous brother Steve. Paul was a real sweetheart about it afterwards, but it was a sign of things to come.
Littlefield: We'd learned our lesson with The Single Guy that cross-promotion with Friends was the key to Thursday success. We wanted Boston to share as much DNA with Friends as possible.
Max Mutchnick (Writer/Producer): The network called a meeting one day where the executives sat David and me down at a conference table facing a wall, and on that wall was a floor-to-ceiling photo of Vincent Ventresca, with the words "Fun Bobby = Fun Boston."
Wesley Montero (TV critic, TheGrid.com): I think...wasn't "Fun Bobby" the guy who dated Rachel before she realized Ross loved her? ["Fun Bobby" was an on-again off-again boyfriend of MONICA'S. The joke was that after he quit drinking, he wasn't much fun. A child would know this. - Ed.]
Mutchnick: We ended up casting Vincent like the network wanted, but we had to fight very hard to make him his own character.
Littlefield: Sometimes TV writers battle against their own success. It's vexing truth about this business, but there it is.
Caroline In The City (1995-1999)
White people in urban environments were what viewers wanted, and white people in urban environments was what NBC was determined to deliver. Such was the genesis for Caroline In The City, which starred Lea Thompson as a real-life Cathy, living and loving in the Big Apple. Featuring all the hallmarks of a Must See TV time-slot hit -- white people, a love triangle, a hilariously large apartment -- Caroline would remain on audiences' TV sets while they folded laundry and packed the kids' lunches for ninety-seven episodes.
Randall Everett (NBC Programming Department, 1991-97): Why didn't we just give it three more episodes so it could reach 100? That was Sam Waterston's idea. He was in the NBC building on the day we had that meeting and popped his head in to say hi to some of the execs. He thought it'd be funny. And you know, it WAS. That's why he's Sam Waterston and I'm just a guy.
Lily Westinghouse (TV Critic, Couchsitters.com): The story we were told was that Caroline's apartment was a converted showroom for Pan Am airlines. Critics at the time really harped on how unrealistically huge it was, so at the upfronts before Season 2, NBC included in their packets some photos of Garry Trudeau's 28-room palace with a caption that read: "Sunday morning cartoon money."
Caroline's odds-defying multi-season existence allowed their writers to take some real chances, especially in the weeks after Friends was able to sneak something slightly risqué onto air.
Skip Calhoun (Staff Writer): You have no idea how sexually explicit the early drafts of those Caroline scripts were. Just raunchy. She was this boring cartoonist by day, writing second-rate Cathy comic strips. You're telling me she's NOT booking it down to the Meatpacking District directly after work and working her shit out? Let's all be adults, you know?
Lea Thompson (Actor, "Caroline"): The Standards & Practices department's nickname for our show wasn't "Caroline On My Titties" for nothing.
Alex Leach (TV Critic, TV.com): You could say that the most important character on Caroline was the City itself. Caroline really struggled as a single woman battling against an often unforgiving environment. Her struggles really resonated for that generation of women comic-strip writers living in a vaguely-defined Manhattan neighborhood. I don't think you'd have a Girls today if Caroline In The City hadn't paved the way.
Lena Dunham (Creator/Star, Girls): Oh, Caroline! Yeah, I loved that show. Brooke Shields, right?
Suddenly Susan (1996-2000)
After her Super Bowl-night guest appearance on Friends set CompuServe chat rooms ablaze, it was only a matter of time before Brooke Shields got her own Thursday-night series. Trying things out in a new city locale (the strange, foreign-sounding "San Francisco") was a risk NBC was more than willing to take with a proven comedic talent like Shields carrying things. Susan's will-they-or-won't-they courtship with Judd Nelson's Jack kept fans riveted for four seasons and provided hope for a nation that had begun to accept the reality that Ross and Rachel were more than just "on a break."
Littlefield: The success story of Suddenly Susan is one of my favorites in the business. It was a four-quadrant show, which back then meant it satisfied the four elements we found most integral to success: it starred someone who was on Friends once; it featured a drawn-out unrequited love storyline; there was a sassy female sidekick [Kathy Griffin, and later Sherri Shepherd]; and a character with an ethnic accent was played by an actor who had no such accent [Nestor Carbonell].
Will Van Patten (TV Critic, Des Moines Register): Groundbreaking series. Simple as that. Susan may have been the title character, but the show was about how everyone in that office became her surrogate family. Does that make sense? I don't know how else to describe it. In lieu of an actual family, Susan's co-workers assumed the roles of parents, siblings, even the odd wacky cousin. It was a thrilling way to depict the American workplace at a time when Clinton-era notions of "family" were as elastic as they'd ever been.
Wolchowicz: Beyond the chances it took with the structure of situation comedy, Suddenly Susan was just so fearless when it came to subject matter. No show on television would capture the decline of the publishing industry with such clear-eyed conviction until the fifth season of The Wire.
Ed Tomlinson (TV Critic, NewsThatYouCanAlsoUse.com): Absolutely, I believe Nestor Carbonell's character was Richard Alpert from Lost. Absolutely. Lost clearly established that Richard could travel through time. He acquired the accent as part of a mission he was undertaking for Jacob. I'm not sure how much more obvious the show needed to be about it.
The Naked Truth (1996-1998)
As the top comedic talent of the 1990s, Tea Léoni proved to be a natural fit for Must See TV. Taking on the world of Hollywood via a single white woman working at a trashy gossip magazine, The Naked Truth inspired a fiercely loyal audience that stood with the show through character tweaks, time-slot changes, and ultimately a move to a new network. Fortunately, Léoni's reputation as a peerless comedienne remained as sterling as it ever was.
Gilly Webster (Staff Writer, Seasons 1-3): Tea Léoni could have played any one of the female leads on Friends better than the actresses who played them. And that's just a fact.
Kim Schmidt-Wilder (Writer, Season 1): Tea Léoni is the reason I can no longer grow hair on my eyebrows nor own a pet in the state of California. [The terms of Ms. Schmidt-Wilder's settlement dictate that she can make no further comment. - Ed.]
Barry Townshend (NBC Talent Development, 1996-2001): Natural comedic talent is such a rare gift. I'm talking about effortlessness. Effortless comedy. Comedy produced without working at it even a little bit. Everybody involved in the production of The Naked Truth displayed true effortlessness. It was a special time to be working in television.
Holland Taylor (Actor, "Camilla"): No, that is, in fact, not the show I won my Emmy for. I could slap you.
Leonard K. Welsh (TV Critic, The Batavia Bee): The scuttlebutt at the time was that the network didn't want Léoni at first. They were grooming the show as a Seinfeld spinoff, with Estelle Costanza and Mulva starting their own tabloid newspaper.
Dale Esterhaus (Staff Writer): We had a character named Slow Dave. He was mentally challenged and worked at the newspaper. In the second season, we changed his name to just Dave, but he was still mentally challenged. In the third season, he was no longer mentally challenged. [No, seriously. That all actually happened. - Ed.]
Fired Up (1997-1998)
By this point, the reputation of the time-slot comedies had begun to take a hit, and NBC needed a home run. Fresh off of groundbreaking work on NYPD Blue and the Saved By The Bell season that took place at the beach club, respectively, Sharon Lawrence and Leah Remini were a dream team and a casting coup for the network.
Willie Pomeranz (Writer, Season 1): The complaint about Fired Up was always that the mythology episodes were never as good as the standalone -- or "client of the week" -- episodes. We tried to streamline the mythology as the series went on, letting some of the conspiracy theories and supernatural elements fall by the wayside. Ultimately, this was a story about two women who got fired from their jobs and then got fired UP to start a business together. But we still got complaints that the bigger arcs were too hard to follow.
TV CRITIC SLOTH (TVCriticSloth.tumblr.com): The behind-the-scenes chatter began to overshadow the show, unfortunately. Tensions were high. Leah Remini called Sharon Lawrence the "f"-word. Mark Feuerstein publicly called for Remini to be fired during a press conference at the Golden Globes viewing party at Teri Polo's house. Lawrence once called the show "stupid" while being interviewed by anchor Conrad Bloom on the local program Good Morning Miami. The controversy spawned two future series for NBC, but it would end up sinking Fired Up.
Leah Remini's Statement: I have been advised not to comment on the events surrounding the production of the former NBC series Fired Up! except to say that [The remainder of this statement has been redacted. - Ed.].
Veronica's Closet (1997-2000)
"Okay!" wheezed the bruised and bloodied NBC head of programming at the 1997 upfront presentation. "Is this what you fickle bastards want? Every half-hour comedy we've launched in these time slots has done gangbusters numbers and still your critics mock us, and you fail to follow them to new nights. Like Tuesday! What's so terrible about Tuesday?" The NBC exec then leaned on the podium and glared out, not at the audience but past them, into the yawning abyss of everywhere else. "How about THIS: David Crane. Marta Kauffman. Kirstie Alley. You've loved 'em ALL before, you spoiled children. We've got SEX! And JOKES! And MTV Sports! And the fat nun fron Sister Act! And you're gonna WATCH! Oh yes, you know it, too. You're all gonna watch. I hope you choke on it." The NBC executive then dropped dead. Veronica's Closet lasted sixty-six episodes and garnered Kirstie Alley an Emmy nomination.
Katee Simon-Berry (TV Critic, Tucsonist.com): Game changer. Absolute game changer. By 1997, we were already burnt out on series finales that ended with the reveal that the whole show had been a dream. But to begin a series with the full knowledge that everything that's happening is a dream -- that Rebecca Howe from Cheers had some bad oysters one night and began fever-dreaming that she was a streaky-haired fashionista running a Victoria's Secret knockoff -- only to reveal in the finale that in fact NOTHING was a dream after all? Stroke of genius.
Jeremy Morin (Staff Writer): Any time I'm asked about my time writing for Veronica's Closet -- both times, in fact -- it's just assumed that Kirstie Alley was a nightmare to work for. Not true! Absolutely not true. Wallace Langham, on the other hand...
Roz McMillain (Staff Writer): Wallace Langham and Kathy Najimy had a knife fight on set the one day.
Paula Jefferson-Wood (Writers' Assistant, Seasons 1-2): Ahhhh, Wally and Kathy's knife fights. They became a real tradition. One of those bonding experiences, you know? After a long day of shooting, you could head out to the lot, gather 'round as they circled each other, and throw some money down. I won two hundred bucks the night Kathy sliced Wally's earlobe open.
Union Square (1997-1998)
Young people. Urban setting. Young people. Urban setting. Young people? Urban setting! Young people. Urban setting. COFFEE SHOP!
A.J. Pagliacci (TV Critic, TheNoobz.com): Union Square was very similar to The Wire, in that even if Union Square DID have any black people, the ratings would have been terrible.
Josh Hartsfield (TV Critic, Men's Health): There are a lot of stories floating around about the disappearance of Union Square. One day, they were there, rehearsing for the season finale. The next day, the craft services truck shows up and...nothing. No actors. No producers. No sets. Just one piece of plywood with the phrase "hold your lead-in" scrawled on it in grease paint.
In the fall of 1998, NBC put its faith in a post-Married...with Children, pre-Anchorman Christina Applegate for a story about a single mom living with her father (George Dzundza) and working on a love-hate relationship with a sexy neighbor (Bruno Campos). In a gutsy (some would say revolutionary) departure from the Friends formula, this slice of life was set in the bustling metropolis of Buffalo, NY. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that if viewers followed Frasier Crane to Seattle, they'd follow Kelly Bundy to western New York.
Elise McGinty (NBC Programming Executive, 1998-2002): If we knew back then that we were dealing with Liza Snyder -- a bona fide future star of Yes Dear, for Christ's sake -- we absolutely would have leaned more heavily on her in the marketing.
Eric "Wally" Wallenski (Producer, Season 1): Before we finalized casting, we wanted to make sure that every actor would read as a believable resident of Buffalo. By the time we were through with David DeLuise and George Dzundza, we were all high-fiving each other so hard that Christina Applegate and Bruno Campos made it through without any of us noticing.
Fiona Masterson (TV Critic, Time Out Houston): The end of Jesse was really the end of an era. It was a time when the network finally decided that, as classic as all these sitcoms had been, what the public was really clamoring for was, like, eleven more minutes of Friends at the end of Friends.
Ann Lively (NBC Development Executive, 1995-2000): The end of the '90s was not the end of time-slot-fillers on Thursday nights. Great strides were made by Stark Raving Mad, Daddio, Inside Schwartz, Good Morning Miami, Coupling. The late-'90s time-slot hits really the way for an unprecedented run of TV shows that were absolutely on TV. I can't think of any programs that filled those time slots more than these did. Did you have a sitcom on the air between 8:30 and 9:00 PM on Thursdays? I mean, that's ultimately the question, isn't it?