Network presidents get deluged with gifts for the holiday season, but not many keep those presents for 25 years.
Enter Warren Littlefield — who ran NBC Entertainment during its “must-see TV” era and is now an executive producer of FX’s acclaimed series “Fargo” — and his treasured memento received several decades ago.
To begin the Hollywood Radio and Television Society’s “Building a Kingdom, Then and Now: A Conversation with Dick Wolf and Chuck Lorre” on Dec. 14 at The Beverly Hilton, Littlefield proudly displayed that gift, a leather plaque emblazoned with the words “It’s the writing, stupid.”
It was given to him by Dick Wolf back in the day. (You’ll be forgiven if you don’t remember Wolf from those days of the early ’90s, and his short-lived shows “Nasty Boys” and “Mann & Machine,” before he went on to create “New York Undercover,” “Arrest & Trial, “Crime & Punishment” and, oh, a little show called “Law & Order.”)
The display of the memento, whose sentiments Wolf says clearly hold true today, touched off a wide-ranging discussion among Littlefield and two of television’s most successful, prolific and enduring creators.
“Between them, they’ve created 2,000 hours of programming, enough to fill out the day parts of five networks,” said Littlefield. “They’re both at the top of their games.”
He then reeled off some stats between then and now. In 1990, the average number of channels received by the average American home was 33. (Now, it’s 189.) “The Cosby Show” and “Roseanne” each averaged about a 23 rating. “Simpsons,” the 30th most watched show of the time, got a 14.1.
While those hefty numbers are relegated to the past, Lorre’s and Wolf’s careers are stronger than ever, after a number of setbacks in those days.
Both men got fired, Lorre by Cybill Shepherd and Wolf by Don Johnson. For Lorre (“Mom,” “The Big Bang Theory,” ‘Mike & Molly,” “Two and a Half Men”), a turning point came during the early days of “Dharma and Greg,” which premiered in 1997 and ran through 2002.
“I had a transformative epiphany,” Lorre said. “No one at ‘Dharma and Greg’ was mad at me. It was a safe and warm place.”
“It was a huge favor,” Wolf said of getting canned by Johnson. “It meant moving into my own shoes. Funny enough, I had a big Christmas party [this past] Saturday night and Don was there. No, he’s never apologized — kind of like Donald Trump.”
Perhaps a bigger revelation was Wolf’s remark that the TV business has changed more in the last six months than it has in the last six years.
Still, underlying the evolution of the medium — good writing, both men agreed.
“We write for ourselves, not for critics,” Lorre said. “Another good barometer is the guys running camera.”
“Strange that broadcast and cable are such different spheres,” Wolf said. “We write mass entertainment. Network dramas are equivalent to big studio movies. Cable is like independent film. To do 50 episodes in five years — that’s a hobby. We have 64 hours on just the ‘Chicago’ shows,” he said, referring to “P.D.,” “Fire” and “Med.”
“Your high volume is underappreciated,” Littlefield noted.
When the discussion turned to syndication, Lorre bristled. “I’m not in the business of creating value. All you have is the moment. The job isn’t to understand where this is going. As Marcy Carsey told me, ‘We put this stuff in the trucks.’ Whatever [platform] it’s on — or anything to be discovered — it’s out of my control.”
Wolf had a more positive attitude, saying, “It’s been very good for me. ‘Law & Order’ is coming off of TNT two years. It’s been a very positive relationship but no one knows the future.”
“When a show is in syndication or on cable and on the network [concurrently], the show does better. It’s not cannibalistic, but synergistic,” he added.
Littlefield asked about character development. “I have to care about them, like Dharma, or Danny DeVito in ‘Taxi,” Lorre said. “That’s the first hurdle on the page, and then to find an actor who causes the audience to give a damn — then the story has impact. If you care, there is a reason to return to a show the second week and see if the characters will overcome obstacles. You can’t dramatically change characters over time but they have to grow incrementally, like in ‘Big Bang Theory.’ Wow — in year nine you’re having an intimate relationship with a woman and that makes it interesting as a writer to have the character change a bit.”
Lorre also discussed the challenges of shows set in front of live audiences — and making them laugh. “Try it,” he admonished. “Even with a crowd of fans who waited years to get tickets to be in an audience, sometimes you can hear the 134 in the background,” referring to the freeway near the Burbank studios, and the silence within — although that likely doesn’t happen very often.
“It feels so good when it’s good,” Wolf said when Littlefield asked what he loved most about his work. “Especially on a new show, it’s a high. I’m sure filmmakers would say the same thing.”
“Making people laugh is a great and nice thing,” Lorre said. “If the show survives, a family happens, unlike after a movie and then everybody is gone. This is an ongoing ensemble and a village. There are marriages, divorces, kids — and German cars purchased at a great clip. It’s like working with family.”