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Post-'Frasier' Cheers : The Emmy-winning brains behind Kelsey Grammer, et al., are focused on their newest show, 'Pursuit of Happiness.' But are they the Three Graces or the Three Stooges?

October 22, 1995|Steve Weinstein | Steve Weinstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

Three shows and two Emmys later, the executive producers of "Frasier," "Wings" and the new NBC sitcom "The Pursuit of Happiness" have earned the liberty to do just about anything they want for their next project--from the most conventional family sitcom to something crazily original.

After winning their second Emmy in two years for "Frasier" last month, David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee now have the clout to turn their Grub Street Productions into a "sitcom factory," continually throwing a bunch of casts, concepts and comics against the wall to see what sticks.

"If they come to us with a show, we want it," said Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, who has scheduled all three Grub Street shows on Tuesday night. "When you have people with their track record, you have to believe in them and let them take chances."

But these three soft-spoken gentlemen in their 40s, seemingly untainted by the successes that have propelled them to the top of the cutthroat TV comedy heap, are waiting, maybe not for Godot, but for something--for Thalia, for inspiration, for an idea that will be worth working through dinners for months to come.

Until then, they are, as Casey said, "taking better vacations" and getting out of the office to have dinners with their families, at least on some nights. After years of concocting situations and jokes until they were punch drunk with giddiness and fatigue, the trio seems content to bask in the spoils of all that hard work. Casey speaks of "the excitement of walking down the street here at Paramount on a Tuesday night and seeing three red lights on three different stages going at the same time and knowing those are all our shows being shot. That's a real thrill."

They insist that they don't feel pressure to churn out another hit yet.

"We have nowhere to go but down," Casey jokes, but he knows there's probably more than a half-truth in his quip. And so, at the apex of their careers, with a future that is both bright and dangerous, they pause, for at least a few months, to remember how it came to be that they arrived in their immaculate bungalow offices and three huge sound stages on the Paramount lot, knowing that only when they are moved by the passion and determination that they have thrown into their past series will they be able to score big again.

"I think right now there is no one better than them in the comedy business in terms of turning a phrase and creating characters and situations that are not only intelligent but that people find belly-laugh funny," said Kerry McCluggage, chairman of Paramount Television, which bankrolls their shows. "So of course we or the networks are going to give them wider latitude if they want to stretch the form, but these are not the kind of guys who are going to abuse that just for the sake of doing something wild. . . . I really can't wait for them to tell me they've found an idea that are passionate about again."

*

Angell, Casey and Lee formed their partnership as writers on "Cheers," having arrived there by very different paths.

Angell grew up in Rhode Island and served in the Army, at the Pentagon and as a methods analyst at engineering and insurance companies before moving to Los Angeles in 1977. He struggled for several years before selling a script to "Archie Bunker's Place" and then making the staff of "Cheers."

Casey is from San Francisco, Lee from Claremont; they teamed up in 1975 after meeting as grunt workers at a script-mimeographing company. They wrote for "The Jeffersons" for six years before moving to "Cheers" in 1985, where they joined forces with Angell. The three eventually became executive producers, earning an Emmy for best comedy in 1989.

They left to create "Wings" the following year. That series has never been much of a critical darling, having premiered about the same time as "The Simpsons" and "Twin Peaks," innovative shows that seemed to eclipse all else. But "Wings," now in its sixth season (not bad, Lee said, for a sitcom that initially was sneered at by some critics as " 'Cheers' in an airport"), nonetheless has been a commercial success both on NBC and in reruns on USA cable.

Then came the "Cheers" spinoff. Spinoffs rarely succeed, and those that do rarely get respect. But "Frasier," starring Kelsey Grammer as that same boorish, big-brained psychiatrist he played on "Cheers," has been a ratings hit as well as a critical success. In addition to winning Emmys as best comedy series in each of its first two seasons, it also won Emmys last month for Grammer, David Hyde Pierce (who plays Frasier's brother, Niles), writing and directing. It has also captured a Peabody Award, more often bestowed on news or cultural programs.

A fter the heady success of "Frasier," Angell, Casey and Lee were too embroiled in the day-to-day production of their prized show to divine new inspiration of their own, so they sold NBC "Pursuit of Happiness," a series created by one of their proteges from "Wings," Dave Hackel.

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