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Why Kelsey Grammer Didn't Want to Do Television Again

By Joel Keller | Indiewire September 1, 2014 at 10:40AM

When FX announced that they would be debuting a sitcom starring Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence, the first reaction from pretty much everyone was "Whaaaa?" It was a strange arrangement, to be sure; pairing the erstwhile Frasier Crane with the manic energy that made "Martin" one of FOX's early hits seemed odd.
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Kelsey Grammer as Allen Braddock in "Partners."
Byron Cohen/FX Kelsey Grammer as Allen Braddock in "Partners."

But, according to Grammer, if anything was going to get him back to working on television, especially after the cancellation of his last three series, it was the prospects of working with Lawrence. The result is "Partners," a multi-camera sitcom about two unlikely law partners; the final two episodes of its initial 10-episode order will air tonight, September 1, at 9pm EST on FX.

In a candid conversation with Indiewire, Grammer talked about the show and its prospects, why he didn't want to go back to TV, why "Boss" should still be on TV and why "Hank" was such a bad show. He also discussed the advantages to working on a show where, if the ratings for the first ten reach a certain level, he'll have to work on 90 more in the next two years.

How do you think things are going with "Partners" so far? Has FX given you any indication that they might pick up the second 90 episodes?

Well, I’m not really keeping track of it because I don’t like to get my head wrapped up in the numbers and things. I do know that the demo we have negotiated with them in terms of having it kick into the next 90, we have not met that. That’s all I know. So maybe it’ll go somewhere else. Obviously some people seem to really like it. A lot of women are responding to it. Maybe the demographic is not what they had in mind, but it’s doing better than any of the other shows on that night.

Did the show really stem from you and Martin just meeting each other somewhere and saying, "Hey, let’s work together?"

It was about two years ago, maybe it’s almost two-and-a-half at this point. The folks over at Lionsgate said, we’ve got this thing possibly. Why don’t you sit around with Martin and kick it around. So we did. That’s really how it happened. We spent about an hour together just talking and giggling and kind of thinking this could work and that’s where we ended up and then we started talking to writers.

When I first heard about it was that it was Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence and there really wasn’t any more details about it than that.

That’s all we knew at first too. It was another year-and-a-half of pitching around different things. One writing couple came in and pitched us an idea about being brothers from another mother. We couldn’t quite put our finger on that. We thought maybe that’s a movie idea that we could do at some point. But we like working together, and it's fun. We responded to the idea that lawyers together would work because it’ll put them in a work environment and also have a personal interaction. So they have to be together. 

Obviously, the two of you have different comic sensibilities. What do you think worked with the two of you that you said, "Let’s do something together?" Were you a fan of Martin’s sitcom 20 years ago?

"I don’t know ['Martin'] that well because honestly I was busy working on my own at the same time. Your head gets pretty far up your ass when you’re actually making one of these things. You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about other shows." -- Kelsey Grammer

Well, I mostly knew him from his films, from the film work he’s done. "Big Momma's House," and from "Bad Boys" and his other films, I’ve always liked him. I thought he was funny. I don’t know ["Martin"] that well because honestly I was busy working on my own at the same time. Your head gets pretty far up your ass when you’re actually making one of these things. You don’t spend a lot of time worrying about other shows. But I like him and I liked him when we sat down together. He had a great pedigree and I thought this on many levels makes good sense. So that’s what got us going.

So it was just kind of a gut feeling for you at the time and for Martin too I would imagine.

Yeah, I think so. Yeah. We both came with a long track record and thought why don’t we put these two things together and have fun.

Was the idea to kind of make it, because his character is more family-oriented, to concentrate on his family being upstairs? 

It just seemed like that would feed more story. We may see more of my domestic life. But I made a deliberate choice and a very conscious choice about not making out with a lot of girls and getting to first base with a ton of girls because we saw Frasier do that a million times. Honestly, I never wanted to see it again.

The truth is, I wouldn’t have come back to television if it weren’t for Martin. I know some people said, "Oh, he’s just doing Frasier again." Well, it’s not Frasier, but it is the same actor so there’s always going to be some confusion for people with very limited minds. The truth is I thought I just want [my character Allen] to be married happily to a sexy girl that he really likes being with and the needle in his life, the aggravation in his life comes from the fact that his wife has a daughter. I thought we can know the wife through the daughter. Maybe we’ll never see her, maybe we will see her but whatever it is, he’s happy at home.

Instead of being in constant turmoil, that kind of thing?

Constantly harpooning himself and putting himself in a tizzy because he can’t tell this woman the truth. I mean Frasier was funny that way but it was like I just didn’t want to play that note again.

You’re coming into his world. Was that the appealing part?

I think that’s where the most conflict comes from. I mean Felix moves into Oscar’s house [on "The Odd Couple"]. In this case, it’s just Oscar moving to Felix’s apartment or into Felix’s office. So honestly, we’re flipped. I mean Martin’s more Felix. I’m Oscar. [Laughs]

Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence in FX's "Partners."
Byron Cohen/FX Kelsey Grammer and Martin Lawrence in FX's "Partners."

Do you like the fact that you’re playing someone who’s not...he’s got his own snobby ways here and there but it’s not like he’s... he’s not like Frasier. He’s not a complete snob, he’s more down to earth?

Oh, it’s great. He’s a manipulative, fairly smart guy that’s skated a little bit. He’s aware of that and he’s just always looking for an opportunity to get ahead, make something good happen for himself in his life. He bumps into this guy with morals and a little bit of an ethical approach to things and maybe they’ll learn something from each other. That’s the whole idea that they kind of together are better than being apart.

The cast includes veterans like Martin and Telma Hopkins. What’s it like when you’re going on a set and you know that there are people who’ve been through something similar than you have and you can work together that way? 

Right. It’s lovely. Let me tell you, that’s a great bunch to work with actually. I like the young people on the show. I like the people that are sort of new to it, and of course working with Martin’s been great. The writers honestly... I mean I know some people take potshots at people who’ve been working a long time. They seem to like to do that. Familiarity breeds contempt, I guess.

But these guys, [executive producers Robert L.] Boyett and [Robert] Horn are really wonderful to work with. You have to hit the ground running. You want seasoned, experienced guys to be able to go "This is funny -- that isn’t." If I’m in the middle of a scene and Martin says something and I think this is just crap, I’ll turn to those guys and say, "This sucks. What are we doing?" They say, "You’re right. Let’s think of something else." In five minutes we’ve got something else. If this [show] goes, we’re going to be doing two of these a week. You do not have time to have a lot of ego in the room.

The episode where Martin’s character takes a sleeping pill was the funniest episode, because it was Martin doing the physical stuff that everybody loved him for on Martin and in his movies. What is the process of feeling your way like that? At what point does Martin say, "I’m going to throw myself around the set?"

That is the funniest one. Honestly, it’s all scripted right now. We have a couple of other physical bits coming up but we give the script the best shot we can. Like I said, if we don’t think it’s working we’ll do something else. We’ll work out something else. This was always designed to kind of earn that kind of big behavior from Martin. You can’t set it in some sort of weird improv land where Martin just starts to just jump around the room. I mean you couldn’t get 100 episodes out of that. We might not get 100 anyway.


Martin’s very subdued in those first few. I think like you said they’re trying to establish the relationship so I’m like, "Where’s the Martin that I remember?"

I thought the first episode got us in the room well. The second episode, I think we did a bit of a wrong turn with [Martin's character's] daughter and the mother. That seemed like it should have been done at number 45, once they’re in love with all these people. It takes a little while for an audience to fall in love with people but that’s all they need is time to fall in love with them.

We’re not going to tell a new story, there isn’t one. There’s not a new sitcom that’s going to do it really differently. There’s not a whole bunch of human interaction that can take place that’s original. So what you have to allow the audience to do is just fall in love with this group of people. That takes a little time. Once they have that opportunity then they’re onboard and they’re like, "Right this is how people react in this situation and then they love them and they watch the people they love." That’s what keeps a show on the air.

Even if all the situations are, like you said, ones you’ve seen a million times, the characters are what attracts the audience?

In "Frasier," once you got to show number 20, the audience knew where that show was going to go. Frasier was going to fuck up and seeing how he got in or out of it was what the fun was going to be. So taking the ride with us is what the fun was going to be. Hopefully that’s what happens with this show.

What was your reaction to doing the 10/100 model?

I was introduced to the format or model, as you call it, as we started talking about this whole process, as we started cracking the idea that Martin and I might work together. The reason it appealed to me was, like I said, I wasn’t going to go back to television. Martin changed my mind about it. What was also a contributing factor was that we would get 100 episodes in two years instead of five or six. I don’t want to spend five or six more years of my life being on TV at least. You now, doing the way you have to do it week to week. I want to do some films. I want to do some theater and I would love to continue doing the show in this way.

I don’t see it as... television does not appeal to me how it used to, in terms of like a lifestyle. Working hard for a few months, banging out 20 or 30 shows -- that appealed to me. I think "Cheers" and "Frasier," we wasted a lot of time. You don’t need to take that much time to get a show shot. But you need to have a whole bunch of people that know what they’re doing and they have to do it really well and they have to be ready to work this fast. That may be part of the resistance sometimes when people say, "I don’t know. That’s going to be hard." It’s a great model as far as I’m concerned.

Are you at all afraid though if it does go to the 90 episodes and you have to do two a week that the speed is going to affect the quality of the show? 

No. Actually, I think it will be better off. What you’ll have to do is give the writers enough time to stage 10 scripts or so in advance. That can easily happen. You just have to setup the writer’s room that way and have people do the writing assignments and make sure you’ve got three or four guys on staff that you trust to have it filter through them to make it the best script it can be. Then you get it up on its feet and go. I’m very confident that can be a good process.

Honestly, I’ve seen a million shows that were working for weeks at a time and still were crap. I think the beauty of having a seasoned group that starts at the top with Martin and me and Boyett and Horn is that we kind of know what is schlocky. The sitcom formula, the multi-camera look is possibly more traditional but when you think of the funniest shows in history they were all multi-cameras.

Like "Frasier" and "Cheers."

Yeah. They are great shows. "Seinfeld." They’re all that. I don’t have a real problem. All the other shows that were single camera and stuff like that ... "Modern Family" has done pretty well. It’s a different style and not necessarily has as big an audience as a traditional sitcom does. There’s a hugely under-served multi-camera audience out there right now. Lately the ones that are on just don’t appeal to me. We’ll try. We’re going to try our best.

Kelsey Grammar

Do you sometimes think of the 10 as an oddly unfair amount of episodes? Ten episodes isn’t a very long time for a comedy to get on its feet.

Honestly, it’s okay because it’s sort of like having 10 pilots. I think we took a couple wrong turns, there were a lot of notes being given and a lot of people saying this and this and that. Honestly, I would have reshaped a couple of the episodes to give us a little more impact with just me and Martin. But you also needed to meet the rest of the people. It’s one of those things you deal with.

Now, you said you didn’t want to come back to TV and obviously the last couple of shows you were on, "Boss" and "Back to You" and "Hank," didn’t really fair all that well. Is that the reason why you didn’t want to come back or was there another reason? Was it just the lifestyle reasons?

"Boss" was something completely different. I mean that was my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I’m still mystified as to why it got canceled on us. I have no idea. Even Chris Albrecht [of Starz] said "That’s what we’re doing." They really didn’t have a reason. That was a real surprise to me because we had such great stories in place. I mean we had another three seasons pretty much mapped out, maybe four more. But that character was fantastic. I got some response for it. The performance was well-received.

"Back to You," good show, solid show, great cast. We went on a writers’ strike. By the time everybody retooled it was too expensive. They wanted us not to take as much money. They wanted us to reduce and everybody said "Let’s let it go away." "Hank" was a bad show. We’re all entitled to one or two [chuckles].

It’s weird when you think back to "Back To You" that it, top to bottom, had a great pedigree.

Great pedigree in that show. That was a good show. I guess Kevin Reilly was doing Fox at that time. He’s gone now. I’m not sure Kevin was for that show because it came from before him, before he came onboard. A lot of these guys have that issue. Conversely, Kevin was onboard when [my production company] introduced "Medium" to NBC. So he bought "Medium" and because he didn’t buy "Back to You" he didn’t really particularly have a stake in it. There may have been a couple of personal issues.

"['Boss'] was my favorite thing I’ve ever done. I’m still mystified as to why it got canceled on us." -- Kelsey Grammer

After doing "Cheers" for so many years and then after doing "Frasier" for 11 years, how disappointing was it for those next two sitcoms to just not go? 

You know, you’re disappointed whenever an effort goes wrong. I mean I was very happy to lose "Hank" because I couldn’t help them get it over the hump. "Hank" was just one of those things... We had a lovely guy, very funny fellow, he wrote well for "Everybody Loves Raymond," He didn’t write well for WASPy people. It’s just one of those things. Sometimes you’re just not the right fit.

There was a great story about Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner talking about how to write for Dick Van Dyke. The first few shows they thought "This is terrible." Then they thought "We have to change it because he’s a different culture than we are." That helped with that. It was just really smart for them. They got it but they’re Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. They’re big guys.

"Hank" was never going to go. It just was not there. But "Back to You" was a good show. People who watch it in retrospect always call and say that was a good show. What happened to that show? Honestly, when Steve Levitan, after shooting five of them or six of them and said, "We’re going on strike. It’s the right thing to do. We’ve got to do this now," I thought these guys have lost their minds. Sure enough, the writers put us into our own economic contraction about a year before the crisis hit. We beat everybody to the punch and put ourselves out of work. It was a sad time for our industry. 

You think the show might have kept going if they didn’t have the writers’ strike?

Oh yeah, I think it would have. For sure.

Then there would be no "Modern Family." It’s weird how TV works like that sometimes.

Yeah. This is what happens.

The whole overall part of that not wanting to come back to TV, was it just more like you didn’t want to work in a 22 episode environment?

I want more time in my life, that’s what it comes down to. I like to work hard. I like to work hard for concentrated periods of time. I love doing movies. It’s been great. My life and the life I want to live now doesn’t fit into TV as well as it used to. That’s okay. I’ve got this great new family and we want to do things together and spend time not just working. So, I took this gamble based upon the idea that it would fit into my lifestyle. It can.

If something happens where we pull out a pretty good number and FX thinks we should do this... FX I think may be a little more invested in being kind of edgy rather than traditional. It’s basically a traditional show at this point and it needs to be a little funnier. I mean the funny’s in there. We’ve got a couple more coming up that are really funny. I think that’s probably why the way they did the chronology in terms of airing them. There’s some good stuff in there. It’s a good pairing. You can see the potential and if they decide to go for it that would be great.

Do you really think that if FX doesn’t pick it up you can see it going somewhere else?

It might. Obviously people that are involved in the business and handling this stuff are discussing other options. I’m not sure any of them really work but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.

What is the difference now that you want to stay home and work than it was 10 years ago, 15 years ago? Is it just age? Is it just shifting priorities? What do you think it is that makes you now want to spend as much time family-wise as possible?

Well, I like to get up and be able to go and I like to take my family with me. When you’re stuck in a show... being stuck in a show is a good thing but if you want to be able to go do a movie, it shuts down production for a month-and-a-half. I can do that with this. I could never do that before.

But did you want to do that before when you were doing "Frasier?"

Sure. All the time. You know, you love playing a certain character and I'd a fool to ever say it wasn’t. But there are restrictions to it. As an actor you want to do other stuff too. It’s hard to make that happen at least in America. In England people go TV, film, theater seamlessly all the time and the audience doesn’t seem to have a problem with it. In America they tend to like to keep you right where you are where they’re comfortable with you.

Boss 2

Any hope that "Boss" might come back, maybe with a Netflix or an Amazon or something like that?

There’s hope. I think they’re going to make one in Israel, I think they’re going to do one in Russia. It makes sense. I think they’re already doing one in Russia, his name is Putin.

That’s a reality show.

It caught on around the world. People really loved the performance. The Italians were crazy about it.

I mean I did a whole forum about television and actors and stuff when I was there a couple years back. "Boss" – we still have a great story to tell. If somebody decides they want to tell it we’ll do it. Whatever form that might take, who knows. Meanwhile, there’s other stuff we’re developing and that’s where my world it.

What do you have on the horizon besides "Partners?" 

Mostly production stuff. Stuff that my company would produce that I would maybe direct or produce and then some other film stuff. I shot comedy in England in the spring. We’re working on cutting it now. Called "Breaking the Bank." It’s kind of cute, seems like it’s a pretty funny film. Then there’s a real serious drama that we’ve been trying to get some funding for that would be a great film. And we’ve got a couple TV shows that we’re kind of putting together.

This article is related to: Boss, Kelsey Grammer, Kelsey Grammer, Partners, Cheers







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