On the one hand, there’s quite a few tasty tidbits of gossip included in this book; celebrity gossip is my vice. On the other hand, there’s also a lot of pompous self-promoting mixed with some super sour grapes. I think I liked the book, but I’m not sure I liked the people involved.
Top of the Rock is a history of NBC in the 90s, written in the oral tradition. Many people involved on NBC’s breakout shows – Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier – have their say, from the writers to the actors themselves. The loudest and most prolific voice is that of the author, Warren Littlefield. Littlefield was the President of Entertainment in the halcyon days of the network, when the network was THE place to be if you wanted to be in TV. I do wonder just how much work Littlefield put into the book, though. Reading between the lines, he seems to take a lot of credit for things at NBC that I’m not entirely certain were 100% the product of his labors.
There is credit to give to Littlefield, to be sure. NBC was the toilet network until he took over in the 80s. They had Cheers and The Cosby Show and that was pretty much it. Once he was in charge, he took risks on shows that paid off. Pitching a show about nothing would probably get you laughed off the lot at most networks. Littlefield, instead, green-lit them. He kept shows from premature cancellation, which is something just not done in today’s world. If it wasn’t for reruns, there probably wouldn’t have been more than four episodes of Friends or Seinfeld. Littlefield does give due credit to what he calls “the talent” that he fostered, the writers and actors of those top shows. However, there’s still undercurrents of gloating and ownership when he talks about those shows.
Littlefield eventually got the boot because his boss was an ass. This seems to be a mostly agreed upon fact, but with reading any history, remember that everyone has a certain perspective, even if they are trying to be objective (and Littlefield is very far from objective). There still a lot of resentment there. Littlefield basically got fired like a scene from Office Space, his dickish boss gave some vague threats that Littlefield’s job should have a term limit and then he gets a phone call saying he’s out. A few months later, some of the higher ups that did the firing take him to lunch to smooth over any hard feelings. (Does anyone else think rich white men do business weirdly? Who the hell takes an ex-employee to lunch after an ungracious firing and who the hell accepts that lunch invitation?) Littlefield and company then go on a finger pointing rant about how Littelfield’s firing ruined NBC.
And there’s the rub. While I do agree that Littlefield’s replacements ran NBC into the ground in a spectacular fashion, I also think that some of the seeds of that downfall were planted by Littlefield himself. Ad time on Seinfeld became such a cash cow that they ended up cutting minutes off of show. Already profits were starting to muscle out the quality entertainment goal. Also, the book was written in 2011, just as NBC was experiencing a Thursday night comedy block resurgence. Littlefield neglects to make any mention of the network’s turnaround, with The Office, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock and Community. I don’t know if he truly didn’t see merit in those shows or if they were left out purposefully because they didn’t fit the NBC-without-Littlefield-is-garbage narrative. And I really don’t think the person that saw Seinfeld’s future could not see the same groundbreaking comedy that was present in Community.