Great TV: Frasier

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♪♫♬Hey baby, I hear the blues a-callin’, tossed salad and scrambled eggs ♪♫♬. But of course everyone that’s seen Frasier would recognize this familiar line, which plays over the closing credits and is sung by star Kelsey Grammer. But the lyrics hold a key to the entire show’s premise. If you would indulge, let’s finish the song’s lyrics and decode its lyrics:

Quite stylish

And maybe I seem a bit confused,

Yeah maybe, but I got you pegged!

Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha!

But I don’t know what to do with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs.

They’re callin’ again.

Scrambled eggs all over my face–what is a boy to do?

Goodnight, everybody!

This lyric reveals the pattern most episodes of Frasier follow: as a psychologist, the main character, the titular Frasier, detects a point of depression or weakness or psychological block (“Hey baby I hear the blues a-callin’”) in a situation or character, and then finds himself embroiled in the mixed-up difficulties of sussing out these problems (“tossed salad and scrambled eggs–Mercy/Quite stylish!”). As the show is largely a farce, Frasier is usually mixed-up about the cause and central issue being addressed (“And maybe I seem a bit confused”) but soldiers on, over-confident of his primary diagnosis (“Yeah maybe, but I got you pegged!”) and is smug about said certainty (“Ha, ha, ha, ha!”). Meanwhile, Frasier finds himself out of his depth due to his often incorrect, presumptuous prognosis and is deeper in trouble than when the farce began, having confused the basic elements of the situation, largely due to his own inability to understand the actual major conflict occurring (“But I don’t know what to with those tossed salads and scrambled eggs”). So he’s stuck in the end to try and sort out the problems that largely he’s caused (“They’re callin’ again”). And no matter his efforts in fixing the problem, ultimately Frasier is left not only cleaning up the mess but is often hoisted by his own petard (“Scrambled eggs all over the place–what is a boy to do?”). And then the episode ends (“Goodnight, everybody!”).

The structure of a Frasier episode was familiar to anybody who’s watched enough sitcoms–a 3-act structure that followed setting up the premise, misunderstandings that drive the crisis through its rising action until its climax, followed by falling action and denouement. After a while, any media-savvy person is able to predict the conclusion of a piece of fiction after the setup, within the first 5 minutes of nearly any show or movie. That’s what makes so many movies–and especially so many television shows–so derivative or boring to someone that’s already picked up on the three-act story structure’s patterns and tropes. As a result most sitcoms, especially standard three-camera sitcoms filmed in front of a live studio audience, are hacky and hokey to watch. After all, if you know your central protagonist is there to function as a punching bag subject to the cruel twists of fate and karma of any situation that arises, very little that happens comes as novel or surprising to the experienced media consumer.

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However, Frasier subverted this hackneyed formula by delivering outstanding farce in every episode with sparkling, witty dialogue from its mixture of erudite and street-smart characters and how these characters interacted with each other. Although it was a standard three-camera sitcom, often its setting was Dr. Frasier Crane’s well-appointed apartment, an urbane setting for a sitcom, distinguishing itself from a format that normally sets itself in the milieu of familiar domestic settings of middle-class homes and generic public arenas like bars or workplaces. Even its settings outside of the domestic setting were refined–a small, preppy coffee shop and a radio station were the common spaces the characters of Frasier interacted in, a far cry from the run-down diners, working class bars, and office spaces many sitcoms use as secondary locations.

But no matter the setting, Frasier worked so well because its characters and the dialogue they spoke were a cut above the commonplace: Dr. Frasier Crane is a self-aggrandizing intellectual who works in a rarefied field and whose pretenses often put him at odds with the people around him. The built-in comedic device is that his highfalutin attitude and cerebral approach to the issues he finds himself confronting are often his undoing and that his smug egocentrism is dinged in the process. Along the way, the audience realizes that despite all of the airs he puts on, Frasier is just as vulnerable and weak to base temptations and wants that everyone else is, whether it be money or vanity or ego. Although not a bad man, he is an arrogant one, and watching him being taken down a peg or two every episode is enjoyable because it’s largely justified.

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Of course, there are so many other elements of the show that make it enjoyable: an accompanying supporting character that’s analogous to Frasier for him to commiserate with, relate to, and sometimes battle in his even more pretentious brother Niles; down-to-earth characters that call out Frasier’s pretensions and act as grounding lines to keep him humble and connected to reality in his father Martin and producer Roz; a cloud cuckoolander that serves as a versatile grounding character for the Crane family and potential love interest for Niles in the live-in housekeeper and physical therapist Daphne; and of course the incredibly witty dialogue that vacillates between high art and common comedy, often mixing both, to create a fantastic mix of esoteric references, elegant puns and wordplay, excellent farce, slapstick, and character-based humor. For these reasons and more, Frasier is imperishable and great TV.

“As we speak, hordes of viral Visigoths are hurling themselves over the battlements of my immune system, laying waste to my…Oh, dear God, you see how weak I am? I can’t even finish a simple Visigoth metaphor.”

Frasier was a spin-off of one of the most popular sitcoms of all times, Cheers. Following the ups and downs of Dr. Frasier Crane, a psychologist who has moved back to his hometown of Seattle for a career as a radio psychologist, Frasier introduced audiences to his extended family: his retired police officer father Martin, who’s a blue-collar straight shooter that moves in with Frasier after finding himself unable to take care of himself after being shot in the hip on-duty and frequently conflicts with his elitist son’s attitude; Niles, Frasier’s younger brother who’s also a psychiatrist and just as mannered and privileged in behavior as his brother; Daphne Moon, Frasier’s live-in housekeeper who also works as a physical therapist for his father, a kooky young woman from Manchester, England who thinks she’s psychic and becomes the object of unrequited affection for Niles; and Roz, Frasier’s brassy radio producer whose promiscuity is the butt of many jokes and no-nonsense manner often conflicts with Frasier.

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Living in a spacious and stylish upper-class apartment, which is the familiar setting that most episodes  feature, Frasier is a cultured sophisticate who covets adoration from the masses and schemes to become part of high society. His arrogant and grandiose personality is often the engine that drives many plots of the show, where his outsized ambitions become farce as situations fall apart around him, either from his own arrogant presumptions that lead to misunderstanding or from his own bullheaded determination. Although a kind man who genuinely loves and cares about his family and friends, Frasier is also blinded by his ambition and self-regard, which is usually the reason so many of his schemes fall apart.

Although a three-camera sitcom filmed in front of a live audience, Frasier was never interested in the commonplace and ordinary: instead, plots rotated around Frasier’s grandiose ambitions that include opening a high-end restaurant, putting on an old-fashioned radio play, trying to write a self-help book with his brother, and attempting to break into high society by throwing galas and attending opera openings. Many episodes focus on Frasier either dealing with his own neurosis or the psychological problems of others–which often reflect his own insecurities and shortcomings.

From this description, Frasier sounds like a pretentious show, but therein lies its accessibility and likability: although the subject matter and activities Frasier engages in are seemingly esoteric and snobbish, both he and these esoteric events are portrayed as hypocritical, silly, and empty pursuits. Although Frasier likes to think of himself as above the “common man,” it’s the common man’s perspective the show is filtered through. It’s little wonder that the more realistic, middle-class supporting characters (Martin, Roz, and Daphne) are so heavily involved in the plot: they’re there to put the attitudes both Frasier and Niles hold into perspective and to deflate their pretension. As a result, it’s a joy to watch Frasier as his presumptuous assertions are dismantled over the course of an episode.

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The mechanics of the humor are fine-tuned, as well: blending encyclopedic references of art, culture, history, and psychiatry that contribute to top-notch wordplay and puns with the inherent comedy of farce and a mixture of slapstick and humiliation that the characters endure, Frasier was a dynamic sitcom with every tightly scripted and plotted episode unfolding like an intricate array of dominoes falling.

Farce plays heavily into both the comedy and overall structure of Frasier. A typical episode of Frasier depends on key misunderstandings that lead to characters behaving one way towards a person or situation, which leads to misunderstanding as to what Frasier et al. are saying or doing to be taken in a completely different way, leading to duel meanings for every line of dialogue or action within.

American television has rarely done farce well as it’s a complex and difficult form of humor to pull off, but since the characterization and tone of Frasier sets its protagonist as a snobbish, erudite intellectual, the farce plays out brilliantly as we witness a character who thinks he knows better than everyone else is put through the ringer as he confidently sallies forth into situations that we know as the viewer he is gravely mistaken about. After all, farce wouldn’t work for a character in difficult, lesser circumstances–it would come across as cruel. But witnessing an arrogant upper-class egoist blunder his way through situations with the confidence that he’s correct in his behavior and speech at the moment, only to have the rug pulled out from under him and only after it’s too late, is comedic and satisfying.

“That’s a good slogan for his radio show – “Dr. Frasier Crane: when he gets going, you have to tune him out.”

The brilliant balance of characters that comprised Frasier was one of its strongest suits: while some sitcoms depend upon the one-joke “type” that is the premise of all of the jokes (a la Big Bang Theory) or a strong single protagonist of which every plot centers around (like Roseanne), Frasier represented the best an ensemble cast has to offer.

Frasier Crane is the central character and almost all of the plots revolve around him. He’s presented to the audience as an egotistical, arrogant snob that only appreciates high culture and holds in contempt common culture that doesn’t involve esoteric references to the classics and history. He’s witty but cerebral; he’s likable but his attitude makes him obnoxious; and he largely holds most people in contempt while also serving his fellow man through his public psychiatric radio show. As a character, he’s amusing to watch because he’s blinded by his arrogance and snobbery, which is often depicted as his downfall. While never humble, he’s humiliated so often that the audience can feel sympathetic to his plight; the audience understands that his heart’s in the right place but, ironically, seems to constantly make himself a buffoon despite his high intellect and cultured perspective.

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Niles, his brother, is another intellectual snob who plays as a balance and equal to Frasier. After all, it wouldn’t be nearly as funny to watch a hifalutin character constantly being brought down a peg without another similarly snobby character to observe and join in on the proceedings. Niles plays a similar part as Frasier as an intellectual with his nose in the air, often finding himself brought down by his own prejudices. However, Niles is played more for pathos, as a man who is first depicted in an unhappy marriage with a blue-blood member of high society (the infamously never-seen Maris) and harboring an unrequited love for Daphne. Often the emotional heart of Frasier, Niles goes through a divorce, loneliness, a disastrous relationship with a cold, calculating woman afterwards, and even a heart attack in later seasons. The long-running storyline of his secret love for Daphne is finally fulfilled later in the series, and the two go on to marry and have a child together. This happy ending is made more satisfying by having watched the strife and difficulties Niles suffers throughout the series, which highlights further how well-crafted Frasier as a series was structured: unlike the protagonist, a supporting character becomes the emotional core of the series, which leads to a coherent conclusion for two of the show’s characters and further cements the relationships between the characters by the series’ end.

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Martin, Frasier and Niles’ father, is one of the more brilliant placements of a character in a television series. An extreme opposite of his sons, and the main foil of Frasier, Martin is a blue-collar cop who enjoys the common distractions in life: having a dog, drinking domestic beer, sitting on his beat-up recliner, and watching broadcast TV. Although not as cultured or well-educated as his sons, Martin is still smart and often provides incisive observations about Frasier and Niles’s difficulties, of which they lose sight of when overthinking their problems. Always ready to drop in with a humorous retort or providing the show with a grounded character, Martin serves as the normal, everyday character that makes Frasier a sitcom that everyone can enjoy and relate to.

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Daphne Moon offers the lilting feminine perspective that helps Frasier become more than just a show about a blowhard egoist. Serving as the domestic centerpiece in Frasier, Daphne is a humorous character, being a literal outsider in the Crane family. Living in Frasier’s apartment as a live-in housekeeper and physical therapist, Daphne’s character was able to pivot and create her own independent relationships with each character. She could chide Frasier as her employer for being cheap or pretentious; as Martin’s physical therapist, she alternated between friendly and stern with this gruff older man, one of the few characters that was able to meet him eye-to-eye; and of course, she maintained a friendly relationship with Niles, of whom she was unaware of the deep feelings he harbored for her. Analogous to Martin in her working class roots and as a somewhat loopy foreigner from Manchester, Daphne was the subtle hinge from which many domestic plots in Frasier swung.   

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Finally, there was Roz, Frasier’s radio producer with which he could have an alternately close and contentious relationship. Another grounded character, Roz was initially presented as a swinging single who was proud of her promiscuity–even if it invited mean-spirited zingers from both Frasier and Niles. As the series went on, Roz became a single mother and her character provided yet another perspective that helped round out the overall tone and presentation of the show. Another character that existed to puncture Frasier’s ego, Roz could call out his pretension but also became a close friend to both him and his family. Although there was a brief and largely unliked romantic relationship between her and Frasier, on the whole Roz was the brazen, no-nonsense character whose professional relationship with Frasier helped temper what would be an unbearable protagonist without an outsider’s counterbalance.

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“All my life I have dreamed of one thing – to walk into a library, look through the card catalog, and see my name under mental illness.”

As previously stated, sitcoms are a dime a dozen in their premise and execution: a protagonist with signature quirks and characteristics, supporting characters that exist for the protagonist to play off of, themselves filled with identifiable traits, especially if they contrast with the protagonist, and a domestic and possibly professional configuration in which the protagonist exists and offers a number of potential avenues that can generate the plot for any given episode. It’s a tale as old as time, a song as old as rhyme.

Frasier stands apart from many sitcoms because its combined elements–of top-notch writing and great chemistry between cast members–made it a cut above most three-camera sitcoms. The talent involved–led by Kelsey Grammer in (literally) a role of a lifetime as a character he ended up playing for 20 years across two different shows, and supported by David Hyde Pierce in a pitch-perfect performance as Niles, character actor John Mahoney playing the gruff ex-cop father with authenticity, Jane Leeves as the alternately charming and offbeat Daphne, and Peri Gilpin as Roz playing the character with wry, cynical wit–carried the show for 11 successful seasons.

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Wordplay, puns, zingers, farce, slapstick, and an emotional depth that the audience could connect with, and the actors provided the show, and their characters, with a real pathos. The situation this situation comedy was set in was not just adept at generating funny premises but was surprisingly elastic. An episode could center on Frasier’s radio career, his domestic life, his love life, experiences outside of either the home or work that would evolve into their own plots, his relationship with his friends and family, him navigating his social life, pursuing his ambitions professionally or personally, or bottle episodes that took place in only one setting when the show became a character study.

A sparkling sitcom that’s proven to be largely ageless thanks to many of the jokes being rooted in either interpersonal interactions or referring to classic literature, music, poetry, philosophy, or otherwise, with settings that also seem timeless–from Frasier’s well-appointed apartment to a coffee shop to a radio station–Frasier is easily one of the best sitcoms ever produced. Since it was so long-running (with 11 seasons and a remarkable 264 episode produced) and is now readily available on streaming services, volumes are widely available for audiences to enjoy again and again. Although intelligent it’s never inaccessible, it’s easy to watch, and it creates a highly enjoyable world to escape into one episode at a time.

Whenever I’m feeling the blues a-calling, I watch a few episodes of Frasier and my spirits are lifted. It’s a classy, funny, and sometimes even touching show. Anyone who enjoys comedy and is looking for a well-written sitcom that’s something different but still hits the familiar beats of a sitcom without ever becoming boring, Frasier is great TV to watch. 

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Categories: culture, television

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