Grammer and Heaton Are 'Back'
Following "Anchorwoman," the very short-lived series about a model turned newscaster, the network introduces a television-news sitcom that pairs two Emmy-winning stars of home-screen humor.
Premiering Wednesday, Sept. 19, "Back to You" casts Kelsey Grammer ("Frasier") and Patricia Heaton ("Everybody Loves Raymond") as a former Pittsburgh anchor team unexpectedly reunited.
An on-air debacle that becomes an Internet spectacle sends self-impressed Chuck Darling's (Grammer) career on the downslide, placing him back beside conservative Kelly Carr (Heaton). She has mixed feelings about being partnered with him again, but by the end of the first episode, it's clear they share a connection beyond work.
Also in the regular cast: comedy staple Fred Willard ("Best in Show") as the station's sports anchor; Ty Burrell ("Out of Practice") as a reporter; Ayda Field ("Days of our Lives") as a weathercaster hired more for looks than meteorological expertise; Josh Gad, of the Broadway staging of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," as the new news director; and Laura Marano ("Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?") as the Heaton character's young daughter.
"Based upon my knowledge of most television newscasting now, it has nothing to do with the news anyway," Grammer says of playing the subject for laughs.
"Frasier was trying to be a psychiatrist who happened to be on the air, so it's a little different. Although Frasier was equally self-obsessed as this guy, he was trying to do the world some good. This fellow is trying to do himself some good, and I think what makes him funny is that he has a kind of arrogance and a comfort in his own ego.
"In terms of being interested in playing another character, I'm an actor," adds Grammer, who now has a series-star daughter, Spencer Grammer of ABC Family's "Greek." "I played Frasier as long as I did only because he remained interesting to play. This guy has a whole new set of difficulties that are equally interesting."
Heaton has a similar rationale in following up her "Raymond" part, Debra Barone. She recalls when the idea of working with Grammer -- who has the same agent -- was first proposed.
"I thought, 'Kelsey and me together would be a lot of fun,'" she says. "What could we do? We were thinking 'college professors,' maybe that should be it. And I didn't hear anything about it.
"Then I was doing this play in New York for 600 bucks a week, and they said, 'There's this sitcom ... .' I said, 'Yes! Whatever it is!' It was not only the funniest script I had been offered, but the only one I had been offered. That was a really winning combination for me."
The lure of Grammer plus Heaton interested several networks in "Back to You." Even Gary Newman, the co-president of 20th Century Fox Television (which is making the series), has admitted CBS would have been a likelier home than FOX for the relatively traditional show.
Creators and executive producers Christopher Lloyd (no relation to the same-named "Back to the Future" actor) and Steven Levitan also worked with Grammer on "Frasier." Lloyd says they "wrote the script on spec, more or less, then went to Kelsey with it. He said he wanted to do it, and probably a week later, we had Patty on board. Maybe a week after that, we had Fred; with all that packaged together, we went to the networks, and they were all interested. There was no sort of meddling, if you will, because it was a finished product."
Levitan drew upon his own background in local television news in developing "Back to You." He remembered an anchorman in Madison, Wis., the market where he worked.
"It was the night John Lennon was shot," Levitan says, "and it was very sad. They went to the footage around the Dakota, where people were crying. It was a very big moment for [the anchor], they came back to him, and he said very dramatically, 'Lennon is survived by his wife, Topo Gigio.'
"That has always stayed with me," Levitan says. "What's so funny to me about local news is that there's this great narcissism pretending to be altruism. It's just a wonderful place for a larger-than-life character to be a big fish in a small pond."
Though he already has an iconic sitcom character to his credit, Grammer maintains it's no reason not to try again.
"I am thrilled to be back doing something I'm good at," he says. "I like this. I've also been thrilled to be a father and a husband; the last few years, I've had a wonderful time. Life deals us different challenges, and this is a new one. What would be wrong with doing three of the greatest television shows in history?"
For Heaton, as she explains, "What it boils down to is, is this character interesting to you, and do you see five to seven years' worth of stories? We have a scene at the end of the pilot, sort of a pivotal scene. I went into that mode where half your brain is doing the acting, and the other half is watching you do it and thinking about it. Even now when I think about it, I get chills. What's going to happen with these characters? There's so many ways we can go.
"That's really what it's about," Heaton says. "It's not the format as much as it is, do you want to explore these people's lives? It's got to be fun. And funny."