When I picked up Warren Littlefield’s “Top Of The Rock,” I thought it was going to be a memoir by the former NBC programming executive who steered the network through its Must See TV heyday. It turns out to be an oral history of those years with Littlefield’s memories interspersed with those of the actors, writers, directors, and business people who developed such hits as “Seinfeld,” “ER,” “Cheers,” “Friends,” “Mad About You,” “Law and Order,” “Will and Grace,” and “Frasier.” There’s lots of insight, some good stories, and a little too-much back-patting, but along the way, you get to see the process and the people behind some of the best television of the ’80s and ’90s.
There are four threads running through the book that stand out:
- The importance of casting — finding the right actors who will have the right chemistry together — and the impact that immediate stardom had on several cast members who went from having less than $200 to their name to big salaries and the loss of anonymity, unable to go anywhere without being recognized.
- How Littlefield and others had to battle the bad instincts of his boss, Don Ohlmeyer, whose snap judgments on shows and their elements were more often wrong than right.
- Vicious words from several of the players about Jeff Zucker, whose reign as top dog at NBC in the post-Must See TV era has resulted in disastrously low primetime ratings for the network.
- The incredible value of having James Burrows direct your sitcom. The list of sitcoms he’s done is probably a record, with a surprisingly large number not only getting on the air but drawing large numbers of viewers.