David Lee — part of the creative trio that launched “Wings” and “Frasier” — left television when the latter finished its run in 2004 and has scarcely looked back, finding a nifty second act in his first love, the theater.
Still, after launching an intriguing new Pasadena Playhouse revival of “Camelot” — scaling down the Lerner & Loewe musical to a mere eight performers — Lee agreed to discuss TV’s comedy landscape, which has seemingly taken several welcome turns.
What’s not to like, after all, about a once-moribund lineup that has expanded to include ABC’s “Modern Family” — a show with the same witty, farcical sensibility as “Frasier” — which was beaten out for the Golden Globe by “Glee,” a messy but vibrant Fox series that has brought the musical to primetime?
Yet while Lee expresses almost fatherly pride in “Family” (co-creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd both spent time on “Frasier”) and says “Glee” “tickles me pink that it’s encouraging a whole new generation of people to discover musical theater,” he’s hardly sanguine about the traditional sitcom’s status.
After all, the multicamera comedy still occupies a small beachhead compared to its heyday despite the conspicuous success of the Chuck Lorre-produced “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS.
“The format in which I excelled was relegated to just a handful of shows,” Lee says, explaining in part why he left TV. “The four-camera sitcom went away. I was at a point where I said, ‘I don’t want to do it just to do it.’ (And) I didn’t want to be taking jobs from people who really need it.”
Given the business’ cyclical nature, Lee said he remains hopeful for a sitcom resurgence — perhaps in cable, emulating the qualitative strides the hourlong drama has enjoyed in that medium.
For Lee, contemplating comedy’s fate is bittersweet, as he took what he describes as a “massive 25-year detour” into television, bookended by his passionate efforts in theater.
Since leaving “Frasier” he’s directed such legit fare as “Light Up the Sky” and “Can-Can,” with a new Reprise Theater version of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” due in March.
Of course, having made a fortune off “Frasier’s” syndication has provided him with the kind of latitude most toiling for the stage could hardly imagine.
“I am so fortunate that I can work in the theater without having to make my living in the theater, because that’s a hard road to hoe,” he concedes.
For his part, Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps — another TV comedy veteran, having produced “Girlfriends” and directed for numerous series, among them “Frasier” and “Friends” — is heartened by the signs of life in TV comedy after “a sad decline in both the quality and the quantity.” He’s understandably reluctant, though, to declare that a renaissance just yet.
In theater, “the stress of the times” has fed a desire from audiences to laugh, he notes, which he thinks could augur well for sitcoms. In the interim, Epps says the dearth of work for well-trained actors in television has been a boon to theaters such as his, fostering “a greater willingness for actors to do plays here and elsewhere,” and easing agents’ resistance to committing clients’ time to the more austere world of the stage.
Lee, meanwhile, recently met with former NBC Entertainment Prez Warren Littlefield, who is writing a memoir about his tenure. The chat left the director feeling somewhat nostalgic, he says, especially given the NBC-related headlines occupying the news.
Despite the enduring image of meddling network suits, Lee says, “I was lucky enough to work with businessmen who loved television, and now it seems the businessmen who run the network have disdain for it.”
Granted, even in its good old days TV wasn’t always the most congenial spot for creative liberty, just as recent breakthroughs haven’t completely repaired damage done to the sitcom. But then again, it shouldn’t be forgot that even in “Camelot,” the talk of happily-ever-after-ing was, alas, mostly a myth.