8:00-8:30PM · FOX · Starts September 19 · EW pick
He bangs his head against the office door in frustration” reads a line of stage direction in Kelsey Grammer’s script. As the cast of his new sitcom Back to You rehearse their third episode on an L.A. soundstage, Grammer, clad in white cargo shorts and a red souvenir T-shirt from Santa Fe, first knocks his head against the doorframe of his anchorman character’s office, then shrugs it away: not a good angle for the cameras. He tries a wall: not acoustically funny. He tries other spots but quickly dismisses them, and before the scene’s next run-through he announces that he’s ignoring the script’s directive. ”I’m not banging,” he says calmly. ”I can’t find a place to bang.” This minor bit of business has been tested and dismissed so effortlessly that the decision seems to come not from a human mind but rather from some sitcom supercomputer that can instantly calculate the funniest possible permutation of any situation. If you cracked open Grammer’s massive forehead, you might find this digital readout:
OPTION FOR BANGED HEAD
(1) BANG ON DOOR
(2) BANG ON WALL
(3) NOT FUNNY. ABORT… ABORT… ABORT…
Kelsey Grammer is the sitcom Terminator.
When presented with this metaphor, the actor laughingly concedes that 20 years on Cheers and Frasier (and four Emmys for the latter) just may have turned him into a comedy android. ”It’s like you get an upgrade from year to year, in how many things your mainframe can handle,” he says. ”After a while, you can pretty much drink in the whole experience and be in touch with every aspect of it.”
Three years after Frasier‘s end, Grammer is returning to sitcoms flanked by an army of comedy T-800s. As Chuck Darling, an arrogant anchorman who returns to his old Pittsburgh station after his career takes a dive in L.A., the actor plays against an equally expert sitcom vet (and two-time Emmy winner), Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Patricia Heaton. The farcical half hour also costars the Master of the Oblivious Blowhard, Fred Willard (as an oblivious sports-reporter blowhard); was co-created by Frasier mainstay writer Christopher Lloyd and Just Shoot Me creator Steven Levitan; and is directed by James Burrows, veteran of practically every hall-of-fame sitcom from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Cheers to Will & Grace. This is an all-star multi-camera cavalry, here not only to give Fox a hit but also charged with rescuing the fading format, and proving to the networks and media that TV’s seven dirty words are not ”was filmed before a live studio audience.” ”It’s not enough that our show is going to have to be compared to comedy classics that have come before us,” says Lloyd, ”but we also have the burden of saving the entire art form.”
Grammer, 52, who was reveling in his quiet, post-Frasier family life, wasn’t looking for a new sitcom. But when Lloyd and Levitan (also a Frasier alum) visited him with a list of concepts in November, he was so intrigued by the newsroom idea — their first pitch — that he never heard the rest. A month later, after reading the new pilot script, Grammer instantly suggested Heaton to play opposite him as Kelly Carr, the prickly old flame Chuck left behind, with whom he now has to share an office and anchor desk. ”I said, ‘You’ve gotta get Patricia for this, because she’s the right girl,”’ remembers Grammer. ”She’s attractive, she’s intelligent, she’s funny, she comes with a built-in audience, but we don’t know everything about her. I always knew there was more to her than what we saw on Raymond.”
Heaton, 49, had seen many scripts with housewife roles and was thrilled to be offered a working single mom. ”Kelly is very driven, organized, anal, and controlling,” says Heaton. ”It’s something we didn’t see that much in [Raymond‘s] Debra, but it’s a natural fit for my personality.” After spending years as a beloved TV character, introducing a new one can be a tricky balance for actors. The next part has to be different, but not so different as to turn off old fans. (It should be noted that Kelly does share Debra’s — and possibly Heaton’s — talent for withering ”You’re an idiot” glares.) Grammer’s Chuck, meanwhile, is a woman-chasing man’s man, a trait completely alien to the fey Frasier. He does, however, share the shrink’s arrogance. ”This character isn’t as smart as Frasier was, but he’s also not as tortured,” says Grammer. ”Frasier was a mess, although that made him fun to watch. This guy is gonna be fun because you’re gonna watch him grow up.”
The cast seems to have meshed seamlessly, which gives rehearsals the feel of a sitcom in its seventh season, not its first. ”So much of the beginning stage of a new show is finding what your actors do well and writing to that, so there’s a lot of fits and starts,” says Lloyd. ”We’re not gonna have that, because we already know what these guys do well.” Ayda Field, who plays the slutty weatherwoman, came to this show from Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. ”You had Aaron Sorkin, Matthew Perry, and the whole deal, and I was like, ‘God, anything after this is gonna suck,”’ she says. ”And then to get to work on a show like this…” Josh Gad, a TV newcomer discovered in Broadway’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, was hired to play the shlubby, nervous young news director, Ryan, two days before the pilot taped. ”It was like skipping peewee leagues and going straight to the Yankees as a starting pitcher,” he says. (Out of Practice‘s Ty Burrell completes the cast as the acerbic man-on-the-street reporter who covets the anchor spot.)
The supporting cast members weren’t the only ones awed by the show’s pedigree. When the project was announced, a bidding war broke out between ABC, CBS, and Fox. NBC, which had publicly tightened its purse strings, was conspicuously absent. Though the show looks and feels like ye olde days of Must See TV, the network has no multi-camera comedies on the air anymore. While Grammer spent 20 years on NBC, he doesn’t suffer a moment of homesickness. ”When Frasier was ending, I got a call from [then network president] Jeff Zucker, who said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna promote the final episode of Friends and we’re not gonna promote Frasier,”’ Grammer recalls. ”Any sentimentality I might have had was gone at that point.” (This is ”completely and patently untrue,” responds an NBC spokesperson.)
Fox won the show, but it’s a curious fit. Though the network has been home to some of TV’s cleverest single-camera comedies (Arrested Development, Malcolm in the Middle), its multi-camera sitcoms have traditionally been loud, void of subtlety, and packed with single entendres (The War at Home). In other words, nothing like the urbane, witty Back to You. ”We thought Fox was the last place this would end up,” confesses Levitan. He and Lloyd were surprised and impressed by the network’s enthusiasm for the project, but there were also practical considerations. Says Levitan, ”We thought we could either try to draft off of American Idol, or be crushed by it.”
Though the show’s leads may be middle-aged, Fox was convinced that the comedy would appeal to its young audience, just as House is the top-rated scripted show among teens, regardless of star Hugh Laurie being 48 years of age. ”Ultimately, Kelsey and Patty’s comedy is hip,” says Fox Entertainment chairman Peter Liguori. ”When I make these decisions, it’s not a demographic one, it’s a psychographic one. Are characters projecting a young attitude? Is it a little rebellious, a little daring? Is it willing to go way out there for the humor? On Back to You, the answer’s yes on every one of those fronts.” There’s no rebranding going on here to aim for a more adult audience: When the phrase ”old school” is used to describe Back to You, Liguori bristles, saying he would ”prefer not to use” that term. At Fox, any variation on the word ”old” is heresy.
But this sitcom is unabashedly old-school, reminiscent of multi-camera newsroom greats like Mary Tyler Moore and Murphy Brown. And over the past few years, a conventional wisdom has taken hold that the format is a dinosaur marching toward extinction. In fact, there are only eight multi-camera comedies anywhere on the fall network schedule, as opposed to nearly 60 in 1997. ”There’s never been more than a few good ones anyway, even when they dominated television,” says Grammer, dismissing the perceived comedy crisis. ”A multi-camera comedy doesn’t need to be disregarded on the basis of the format. It has to do with whether it’s funny or not.”
In fact, launching an?forgive us, Fox?old-school comedy may be a totally brilliant idea, considering everyone else is focused on high-concept dramas and ironic single-camera comedies full of awkward pauses. ”There’s an old saying that Hollywood is a thousand people running to the spot where lightning just struck,” adds Levitan. ”Let’s go the other way. Let’s do what we do best, let’s do what this cast does best, and it will work out.” All together now, sitcom Terminators: We’ll be back.