Thursday, December 16, 2010

FRASIER starring Lisa Kudrow?

Peter Casey, one of the creators of FRASIER, has been kind enough to share with us the complete story of how that classic series came to be. Part one was yesterday.  Here’s the final segment. Again, thanks Peter. GREAT stuff and it’s nice to have a couple days off.

As I mentioned earlier, Roz was the least developed of all the main characters in the pilot. We hadn’t really come up with a definitive take on her, so as a result, we told our casting director, Jeff Greenberg, to bring us the whole rainbow coalition of actresses to read for the part. We saw every age and ethnic background. We read dozens of actresses. One thing we felt pretty sure about was that we wanted the character to be ballsy and salty. She was supposed to be someone who Frasier was smarter than, more educated than, but was completely inferior to in the setting of the radio station. That was her stomping ground and she was the alpha dog there.

After all the casting sessions we had narrowed our choice to two actresses; Peri Gilpin and Lisa Kudrow. Lisa didn’t exactly fit the mold of what we were looking for in terms of a strong-willed character, but she was really funny. Her quirkiness made lines that weren’t intended as jokes hilarious. So we brought both of the ladies to NBC for the executives to see. Both read, and in the end it was decided to cast Lisa.

Shortly thereafter we had the first reading of the script. It was the first time we gathered the whole cast together. Paramount and NBC executives were there. Agents and managers were there. And apparently the guardian angel of comedy was somewhere in that room, too, because the reading was hysterical. Huge laughs. Everyone felt we were embarking on something very special. As is always the case, the script was long and there were jokes that either needed sharpening or were just plain duds so we set about re-writing. This is how each day of the pilot production went; the cast would rehearse, the writers would come to the stage in the afternoon for a run-thru, then we’d go back to the offices to re-write and cut.

By the third day of rehearsals it was becoming apparent to Jim Burrows, Kelsey, and the three of us that things weren’t going so well with Lisa as Roz. Although she remained funny in her quirky way, we found that each day we were re-writing the character less strong because Lisa just didn’t play forceful. More importantly, what Jimmy noticed was that Kelsey was pulling back in scenes with her because if he went all out like he usually did, he completely overpowered her. This was a big problem. We didn’t want the star of the show to have to compensate like that in every scene with one of the regulars, so with great regret we called Lisa and told her we were going to have to recast the part. We felt awful because she was a really, really lovely person with whom to work. And I know she was heartbroken that it had come to this, but she handled it with a lot of class. (Our consciences were assuaged the next year when she was cast in FRIENDS)

Jeff Greenberg contacted Peri, who was having lunch at a restaurant, and told her to report to Paramount the next day to play Roz. Jeff said he could hear her scream from across town without needing the phone.

So, finally our cast was set. From that point on through the rest of rehearsals things went smoothly. We re-wrote Roz back to her original character and Peri made it work wonderfully.

Our art director, Roy Christopher, had created amazing sets for us, and he would be rewarded that first year with an Emmy nomination. Frasier’s condo was stylish and contemporary with multi-levels and lots of doors and hallways to provide us with a multitude of exits and entrances. It had a piano (which both Kelsey and David could play) for a big prop and a balcony (equipped to rain when needed) and that gorgeous Seattle skyline (day and night). The radio station was modeled on the KABC radio studios in Los Angeles which we had visited while doing research. Café Nervosa was completely Roy’s creation and was designed so our character could sit and play a scene at any table in the café (after all, you rarely get the same table every time you go into your favorite haunt)

The night we filmed the pilot was magic. We’d had a dress rehearsal that afternoon with an audience (the first time we’d let the public see the show) and it had gone better than we could’ve hoped. They were laughing from the beginning to the end. And when Jimmy Burrows finally called out, “That’s our show!”, the audience rose to their feet for a standing ovation. We all said we should’ve filmed that show because that evening’s audience couldn’t be any better…but they were. Again, big laughs in all the right places and again a standing ovation. Two things about that filming have stood out over the years for me. First, Jane Leeves had invited her friend, Valerie Bertinelli, to the filming. Valerie must’ve really loved the show because you can hear her laugh all the way through the show on the soundtrack. Second, all the NBC executives were in a glassed-in booth above the back of the audience during the filming. At one point during Frasier’s first scene with his father, Martin makes a sarcastic remark about his ratty chair fitting in with Frasier’s expensive furniture because “it’s eclectic.” It’s a great callback joke from earlier in the scene and the audience just erupted. I turned around and looked up to the NBC booth to see their reactions. Not only were they all laughing, but all I could see of Warren Littlefield, the president, was the soles of his shoes because was tilted back in his chair he was laughing so hard. I nudged David Angell, pointed to Warren’s shoes and said, “We’re in.”

Our biggest struggle after filming the pilot was cutting it down to time. We were something like six minutes long, which is a lot. We cut and cut and cut some more. We cut things we liked and we cut things we loved. Still, after 6 or 7 passes at the show we were still a minute long. We felt we had cut it to the bare bones. Any more cuts could damage the show so we went to Paramount with our dilemma. Thankfully, they agreed with us and asked NBC to give us some extra time. After viewing what we hoped would be our final cut, NBC agreed to give us that extra minute which was a very big favor. So, how do they come up with that extra minute of programming time for us? Don’t think that all they have to do is cut a commercial or two. Are you crazy? That’s money. No, to give us that extra minute, they asked the three other comedies and one drama on that Thursday night to each cut 15 seconds out of their programs. It’s not something that’s done very often and it’s not something the network likes to do, but for that pilot of Frasier they felt it was worth it.

Well, that about covers the creative process that went into FRASIER. I want to thank Ken Levine, funnyman, baseball announcer, and longtime friend for inviting me as a guest on his blog. And I would also especially like to thank you, the fans of FRASIER. You’re the reason we ran for eleven wonderful years and the reason you can still see the show in syndication. I wish I could buy each of you a grande nonfat double espresso latte with caramel, but then I’d have to create another hit series.


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