Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield with T. R. Pearson
After this year’s Saturday Night Live finale, I fell in love with the show. When I discovered it was on Netflix, my world blew up—I determined to watch Saturday Night Live from 2001 on, in order to track the careers of several performers who have been on the show. (I’m picking up the backlog with the A. V. Club’s coverage of classic Saturday Night Live.) I’ve also determined that, once I’m done, I’ll catch up with the rest of the world and watch 30 Rock, as well as Parks and Recreation. Considering my newfound love for NBC comedies and my established love for oral histories, I snatched up Top of the Rock while browsing at the library without a second thought.
Top of the Rock tells the story of NBC’s success from 1993 to 1998 through the eyes of those were there—particularly Warren Littlefield, then NBC’s President of Entertainment. The third big network was struggling in the eighties, but, with the success of Cheers and The Cosby Show, they started to learn how to construct shows that could not only attract accolades, but viewers. With Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, Law & Order, ER, and Will & Grace under its belt, NBC was able to construct “Must See TV”, a Thursday night block that allowed to promote not only their shows, but their network. But keeping the network on the right track can be difficult, with creative differences and alcoholism lurking behind the scenes. Contributors include Jerry Seinfeld, Debra Messing, Dick Wolf, Jack Welch, and a number of other people whose contributions both in front of and behind the camera made NBC the network it was in the nineties.
Like any medium, oral histories have their pluses and minuses. The particular model of oral history that Top of the Rock utilizes focuses on chapters where quotes taken from interviews are spliced together to create a three-dimensional picture of a certain point of time. Contrast this against, say, Hard Times, where oral history pioneer Studs Terkel simply lets his subjects tell their stories, with little to no prompting. I adore both models of oral history, but the former is particularly well-suited when the subject is entertainment. Big personalities with clear, distinct voices fill the pages of I Want My MTV and We Killed, making it an engaging read.
Perhaps the biggest problem of Top of the Rock is that its main perspective is that of executives, Littlefield in particular. Oddly, he formats his own voice the same way he formats others, stripping the book of any authorial authority. There’s nothing wrong with executives; the problem, rather, is that very few of them express themselves as well as, say, Lisa Kudrow. Actors and other entertainers are well-suited to oral history because their craft involves developing a distinctive voice. Most of the NBC brass quoted here lack that quality, although there are a few welcome exceptions. While the first chapter, which focuses on Cheers, maintains a good balance, the ratio of performer to executive becomes more unstable as the book wears on. At a certain point, when that balance vanishes, it can feel like getting trapped at a particularly dry business function by older white men convinced of their genius, not a giddy tell-all about NBC in the nineties.
Plus, there’s something mean about Top of the Rock. There’s plenty of good here—Lisa Kudrow’s work ethic, which boils down to “If it’s not porn, do it”, is a particular delight—but the view most of the contributors take towards the modern NBC is mean. There’s an awful quote from Dick Wolf where he mentions contacting an executive and tells him he’s sorry that his legacy is “fat people” (referring to The Biggest Loser). Littlefield and his circle clearly view modern NBC as a cesspool of reality television and pandering sitcoms lacking any core identity. Given the rise of 30 Rock, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, and even the recently renewed Hannibal, NBC’s scripted television definitely has an aesthetic. Littlefield and company seem to be confusing the changing landscape of television, including the public’s appetite for reality television, for deliberate choices on the part of NBC. As someone in the process of appreciating the modern NBC, this is wildly off-putting.
Thankfully, Dan Harrison, current senior vice president of strategic development at CBS, adds a sane voice to the crowd when he calmly explains how Must See TV was really the last gasp of astonishing ratings before the rise of the Internet: “The shows that are hits today would have been canceled after a week in the nineties” (311). Given Harrison’s calm reason, I really hope he was involved in approving Elementary to go forward. I’d like to think that.
Bottom line: Top of the Rock is a distracted oral history of NBC in the nineties. It starts off with a good balance between entertainers and executives, but soon abandons that ratio to hear Littlefield and his circle trash talk contemporary NBC. Not worth it.
I rented this book from the public library.