EW spills the beans about the addiction that stokes such prime-time shows as ''Friends,'' ''Gilmore Girls,'' and ''NYPD Blue''

By Ken Tucker
Updated June 18, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Credit: Coffee Illustration by John Cuneo
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  • TV Show
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  • NBC

Ever marvel at the way those troubled heroic docs manage to stay alert when dealing with a sudden influx of patients on ”ER”? Ever notice how those sharp-witted Crane brothers on ”Frasier” drink bottles of vintage wine at night and yet rarely seem groggy the next morning?

How do they do it? Simple. They all glug gallons of coffee. Have you noted the bowl-size cups of java that ”Gilmore Girls”’ diner owner Luke (Scott Patterson) serves Lauren Graham’s Lorelai (no wonder her wisecracks are so rapid-fire) and her teen daughter, Rory, played with saucer-eyed attentiveness by Alexis Bledel? Why, one of those ceramic craters could house a decent-size trout. In the past TV season, we spent so much time engrossed in reality-show deviousness and game-show prize money that we missed a different kind of bean counting: an increase in coffee consumption.

In his terrific book ”Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine,” author Stephen Braun quotes an anonymous poem first published in 1674 that I can practically hear tripping from the latte-foamed lips of David Hyde Pierce’s Niles Crane as he and Kelsey Grammer exchange withering bon mots on ”Frasier”:

Coffee arrives, that grave
and wholesome Liquor
That heals the stomach,
makes the genius quicker,
Relieves the memory,
revives the sad,
And cheers the Spirits,
without making mad.

Braun quotes a statistic that in the U.S., between cups o’ joe and soft drinks, ”roughly 80% of adults consume caffeine in one form or another every day.” Braun cites Balzac on the powers the brown liquid bestows on any writer: ”Coffee falls into your stomach and straightaway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield.” Surely no clever staffer on Jon Stewart’s ”Daily Show” (where the mighty host keeps mere water in his mug) could put it better. Indeed, on the few occasions I’ve been among TV writers concocting prime-time dreamscapes, coffee and soda abound. Caffeine stokes creativity, or at least productivity.

On the other hand, it was recently reported that over at Jay Leno’s ”Tonight Show,” where the gag writers must mainline coffee in order to — you’ll excuse the expression — grind out the host’s extra-long monologues, guests have backstage access to alcohol, apparently in hopes of loosening their tongues and enlivening the talk. As for Leno’s competition, any doubt we had that the ”refreshing beverage” that David Letterman regularly refers to on the ”Late Show” is coffee was put to (un)rest some months ago, when the host began raging about how, post-heart operation, he’d been put on a diet of decaf. ”It ain’t the real stuff, Paul!” Letterman would moan to his bandleader, sipping the caffeine-extracted brew with a disgusted grimace.

The most famous coffee shop in America is undoubtedly Monk’s Café, the site of many a manic ”Seinfeld” conversation. The second-best-known is the yupscale bean house on ”Friends,” where the brooding barista Gunther (James Michael Tyler) presides behind the counter, dispensing hefty cups while nursing a crush on Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel. In old movies, stars deployed cigarettes to convey sexy worldliness, taking dramatic drags to signal a thoughtful pause or a suspenseful prelude to a plot revelation. Similarly, TV coffee consumers gesture with mugs to make a point, to bring to one’s mouth during a dramatic (or comedic) pause.

If I have one pet peeve about TV coffee, it’s the way some characters wave around their cardboard, take-out cups. I often yelp, ”That is a patently empty cup! Surely, after all those warnings about the scalding effects of hot coffee, no one would fling that thing around willy-nilly!” (It’s at this point — when I start using words like willy-nilly — that my wife tells me to head out for a good, lengthy walk.)

While the book ”Buzz” quotes another pre-20th-century wag averring that coffee ”intoxicates without inviting the police,” the police on TV invite coffee into their veins all the time. Not only do the cops on ”NYPD Blue” guzzle the stuff and offer it to potential perps, coffee is also the beverage of choice for recovering alcoholics like Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz (the vanished Showtime sitcom ”Rude Awakening,” about addicts on the mend, also lubricated its creaky jokes with gallons of coffee from AA-meeting urns).

Oh, sure, the occasional report surfaces about the possible ill effects of caffeine, but like Tony Danza’s projects, a new, different one comes along to erase the memory of the previous one with regularity. And as I said when I started this jittery meditation, we’re talking about fictional characters anyway. We are, aren’t we? Honestly, I feel as if I haven’t slept in a week. Is there enough for another cup in that pot over there?

Frasier

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  • Off Air
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  • NBC

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