Watching reruns of Frasier a few nights ago, we started to use, between bursts of laughter, descriptor words like ‘genius’ and ‘brilliant’ and ‘hysterical’ to describe the action unfolding before us on the small screen. Frasier is – or was – completely different from anything that has appeared on television before or since.
Frasier is in a class of its own. It’s a sophisticated and hilarious comedy, a masterclass in acting genius and writing brilliance.
‘Cast’ Your Eyes On These Characters
Let’s reprise its principal protagonists: Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) is a radio psychiatrist, somewhat neurotic and pathologically self-absorbed. Niles (David Hyde Pierce) is his brother, equally screwed-up but harmless—an acutely intelligent emotional ditherer who is also a psychiatrist.
The brothers share responsibility for their crotchety, decidedly more down-to-earth father, Martin (John Mahoney), and an English physical therapist named Daphne (Jane Leeves). And then there’s also Eddie, their dad’s dog.
This manic quartet (plus dog) constituted the dramatic and comedic centrepiece of a show that eventually earned 16 Emmy awards, plus numerous Peabody, BANFF Television,
Television Critics and Golden Globes awards.
The show, which fundamentally appeals to urban sophisticates, delivered a desirable demographic. This is code for a target group that advertisers want to sell to.
But Frasier does more than that. It successfully orchestrates that elusive meeting point where art and commerce touch fingers and meet. How?
The answer is surprisingly simple, yet awesomely complicated to achieve. What the show has done is to magically fuse two separate strains of theatrical tradition – ironically enough, both British.
Tossed Salad & Scrambled Eggs
Frasier represents a superb display of basic British bedroom farce – people running in and out of rooms, slamming doors, identities confused and mistaken – fused with the ribald comedy of British restoration comedy – with perhaps a touch of Moliere thrown in.
Frasier is totally theatrical. It owes its phenomenal success less to the tired traditions of American situation comedy, than to the high-class, disciplined comedic rigour of Congreve and, more recently, Oscar Wilde. And no wonder.
Grammer, Hyde Pierce and Mahoney are all accomplished theatrical actors, equally at home on Broadway as on the manufactured sets of an American sit-com. We’re not in Leave it to Beaver or Father Knows Best territory here. We’re on the stage, where the stakes are high and every gesture counts.
Without in any way diminishing the role of Roz (Frasier’s producer, played by Peri Gilpin in the series) it has to be said that, show after show, the tortured relationship between Frasier and Niles is what holds the whole thing together.
The dynamic between the two brothers is magical and utterly compelling. They are competitive with one another, sometimes even disdainful, but their underlying co-dependency is both touching and hilarious.
Both characters are known and loved for their signature style of sarcastic humour, but early in the series’ run, the jokes they make at each other’s expense are occasionally verging on cruel—but still downright hilarious.
In the iconic first season episode “Author, Author,” Frasier and Niles get into one of their signature spats while on the radio.
Frasier tells Niles that, as a show of brotherly love, “I would shave my head for you.”
Niles is quick to point out the meaninglessness of that gesture—Frasier’s hairline is quickly receding, after all. And so, Niles replies with devastating accuracy: “A gesture which becomes less significant with every passing year.”
This is brilliant stuff. And it doesn’t matter what age range you occupy to enjoy it!