Seinfeld's Producer: Listen to Your Gut, Then Fight For What it Tells You
Warren W. Littlefield is an American former television executive. A protégé of Brandon Tartikoff, Littlefield developed Cheers, The Cosby Show, and The Golden Girls as senior and executive vice president of NBC Entertainment under Tartikoff. During his time as president of NBC, Littlefield created hit shows for the network throughout the 1990s such as Seinfeld, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Wings, Blossom, Law & Order, Mad About You, Sisters, Frasier, Friends, ER, Homicide: Life on the Street, Caroline in the City, NewsRadio, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Suddenly Susan, Just Shoot Me!, Will & Grace and The West Wing.
Warren Littlefield: What I would say to graduates today is find your passion. It’s tough out there. It’s far more difficult than when I tried to get into the entertainment business and I had to navigate. I don't know if I could get hired at NBC today, and I spent 20 years there. But find your passion. Find the thing that gets you excited, that makes you stay up at night and says, “This is what I want to do,” and then go for it. You must be the squeaky wheel, break a sweat and fight for what you believe in. Finding that passion may take a lot of trial and error, and I’m not naïve about what that's like, but when it gets you excited, when you feel the blood flow in your body, you know it.
You know, when I used to listen to pitches, I would imagine that a scalpel had just been sliced down through my core and I was just open and visceral. And if the idea made me want to just shutdown and pull back, I felt, you know, that's not where I want to be. That's not the idea of the world I want to play in. But when I felt my body going "yes" and wanting more and leaning forward, I had to listen to that. And more often than not, that was a good message.
When we developed the Seinfeld show, we took a bet on Jerry Seinfeld, who was not a household name. But Jerry had a voice. And we read the script, and it was without the normal story drive of most comedies. It meandered and yet it was funny. And we thought, we’ve got to give it a shot. And it screened well. When we screened that pilot, we said, "Hey, we might be on to something here." Then the research came in. . . . a disaster. Absolute, unmitigated disaster. You know, a number of people knew Jerry Seinfeld, they just didn't like the show. They thought if we did anything, keep going with Jerry just doing stand-up. That research report was so negative that it scared us, and we asked ourselves, "Should we let this get away?"
So we ordered a grand total of four half-hours of Seinfeld, and Jerry and Larry went to work. We did give them one note: add a girl. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus was added to the show. There was something about those episodes, as crazy as they were, “The Chinese Restaurant, “Parking Garage,” not a lot happened, but you kind of loved those characters, and they were funny.
We started to think about, what were the things that we wanted to watch? We stopped thinking that the audience was some alien robotic someone out there and we were guessing how to make them happy and said, “How do we make ourselves happy? That was the key to our success. We listened to our gut, we ignored the research and then a vision, in this case Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, where they were going, no one had ever gone before. And yet, rather than say no, we took a deep breath and said, “I don't know if it’ll work, but if this is what you believe in, go ahead and take a shot.”
So what I say is, listen. Listen to what your body is telling you. Go in the directions that you’re being pulled, and caffeinate because it’s a really competitive environment. But you cannot say no, and talent and good ideas time and again win out.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
Warren Littlefield, former NBC president, advises young people entering any field to trust in their instincts even when they run counter to common sense in the industry, then to fight passionately for the projects and ideas they believe in.
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