It’s been thirteen years since Frasier Crane bid goodnight to Seattle, and the comedy landscape, the TV landscape and, indeed, the world, have transformed completely since then. To re-watch Frasier now is to return to a world of checking the answerphone after going out, hunting down irreplaceable cassette tapes, and making a connection with people you’re attracted to by giving them your landline number. But none of this makes the show any less warm, compelling or, most importantly, absolutely hilarious – it is as much a joy to watch now as it was then.
Frasier existed before the days of binge-watching and box sets, but it works remarkably well in that format. The show is full of running gags, in-jokes and call-backs, from Niles’ unfortunate patients with ironic conditions in season one, Roz and Niles’ mutual dislike that eventually becomes a friendship based on mutual snark, and of course the increasingly elaborate physical descriptions of Niles’ wife Maris, to the point she could never be revealed because no human actress could play her. The show was well known for being unafraid to make a joke that only a fraction of the audience would get, and that goes for treats for long-time fans as well as obscure jokes about La Traviata or the Aeneid.
The show also provided occasional treats for fans of its parent show, Cheers. Frasier is well known as one of the greatest ever TV spin-offs (we were going to say, ‘TV’s greatest ever spin-off’, but our deep love for and loyalty to the Star Trek franchise prevented us). The way the series dealt with its history was with a mix of respect, but without being tied to it. The series was unafraid to do what was best for the current show, for example by making Frasier’s father Martin a (living) former police officer very different from his son, despite the fact that, on Cheers, Frasier had claimed he was a (deceased) psychiatrist. However, the show was also willing to deal with that, explaining in season two that Frasier had just had a fight with Martin and made it up out of spite.
Not all the Cheers call-backs the show did entirely worked, with season nine’s Cheerful Goodbyes being particularly strained, but most did. The most impressive Cheers call-back was surely Rita Wilson’s deft performance as Hester Crane in Don Juan In Hell (Part 2). The character of Hester had appeared once on Cheers, where she was a formidable presence who threatened to kill Diane. For Frasier, she was killed off to create the forced, tense situation in which Frasier and Martin would be forced to live together despite not getting on very well, and she was subsequently spoken of with great warmth by all three Cranes, who clearly considered her the glue that had held their family together. Wilson was initially cast as an entirely different character who happened to look like Hester in Momma Mia, as well as briefly playing Mrs Crane in an old family video as the warm character the other three remembered. In Don Juan In Hell, when Frasier talks to imagined visions of the four most significant women in his life, Wilson plays Hester in a way much more similar to original actress Nancy Marchand’s performance on Cheers, but still with an undercurrent of warmth, in a pitch perfect performance.
Still, the real key to the success of Frasier was not obscure jokes or call-backs. Sure, Frasier and Niles’ witticisms are mildly amusing, but whether the viewer understands what they’re saying or not, what we’re all really doing is laughing at them, not with them. It’s not mean laughter – as an audience, we love these characters, that’s why we want to spend so much time with them. But there are many comical aspects to Frasier and Niles’ personalities, and these are only amplified when they are put together and contrasted with the much more down-to-earth Martin and Roz, and so it’s often the case that it’s not the joke itself we’re laughing at, so much as Frasier and/or Niles’ delight in making the joke.
Of course, Frasier was also famous for its use of humour that doesn’t require any prior knowledge to ‘get’ it – farce. Whether it was Frasier and Niles attempting to cover up a dead seal, an escalating series of lies that starts out in trying to get rid of Daphne’s ex-fiancée and ends up with Daphne and Roz both claiming to be Mrs Crane and Martin insisting he’s an astronaut, or the epic disaster that was Frasier and Niles opening up a new restaurant together, the series excelled at elaborately set up situations spiralling out of control. The undisputed classic in this regard was surely season six’s The Ski Lodge, a perfectly constructed disaster that memorably ends with Frasier lamenting that with all the lust flying around the titular lodge, no one was lusting after him.
All the cast were also highly skilled at physical comedy, but the stand-out in that respect was clearly David Hyde Pierce, whose ability to use his whole body to emote was consistently used to great effect. Another season six episode, Three Valentines, showcased this skill in a particularly memorable almost silent scene in which we watch Niles, accompanied only by Eddie the dog, try to get his trousers perfectly ironed for a date – a task which somehow ends in blood, fainting and setting Frasier’s apartment on fire.
David Hyde Pierce also somehow managed to spin what could have been a rather seedy storyline into a first hilarious, then deeply touching romance. Niles Crane develops a crush on his brother’s employee while still married, and proceeds to leer at her from afar for six years, never properly asking her out even after leaving his wife for entirely unrelated reasons. The whole thing ought to be incredibly creepy. Perhaps it’s partly because attitudes have changed over the years and audiences are more sensitive to such things, and back in the 1990s we were less worried by the implications of such a plot-line, but that’s not the whole story. The fact is, Hyde Pierce makes Niles so tentative and uncertain, while also wringing such comedy out of his endless yearning, that he remains entirely sympathetic.
It also helps, of course, that Niles admits at the end of season one that it’s not just that he’s physically attracted to Daphne, he’s in love with her – making his obsession seem more romantic and a little less seedy. What started out as a running gag, a funny way to introduce Niles to Daphne in episode three that provided a series of quick jokes that initially only Frasier was privy to, quickly became something much more human and touching. Daphne also indicates at least affection and possibly love and attraction to Niles even before she finally discovers the truth in season seven – nearly all their semi-romantic encounters before season seven happen at her instigation (she offers to cook Niles dinner for dates twice, in A Mid-Winter Night’s Dream and First Date, it’s her idea to accompany him to a ball when his date cancels in Moon Dance, and she goes out with a virtual Niles clone in Mixed Doubles). Instead of a man’s creepy obsession with his father’s therapist, this running thread becomes an epic seven-year romance culminating in one of the great season finale cliff-hangers, Something Borrowed, Someone Blue.
Part of the reason Niles and Daphne’s story became so central to the series was the mysterious lack of any serious, long-running love interests for the show’s lead character. Frasier’s most significant female partners, as featured in the aforementioned Don Juan In Hell, were all characters created during his Cheers days – his first wife Nanette, fiancée Diane, second wife Lilith and his mother. Lilith was a constant presence throughout the series, as the two raised their son and their relationship progressed from horror at the sight of each other in season one to a sincere declaration of (largely platonic) love in season eight and even a final ‘date’ of sorts in season eleven’s Guns N’ Neuroses. Frasier also slept with his agent Bebe and best friend Roz, but when the writers flirted with the idea of putting Frasier and Roz together in a more serious way late in the series, audience reaction was negative and the returning writing team for season eleven quickly nixed the idea. Frasier’s endless list of disastrous dates eventually became a running joke, and part of the bittersweet joy of the series finale is its open-ended approach to this on-going space in Frasier’s life that he is so desperately trying to fill throughout the series.
Frasier was also a show about something not covered all that often on TV; the relationships between adult parents and children, and between adult siblings. At the start of the series, the relationships between Martin Crane and his sons are rather strained, but over eleven years we see them grow much closer. With the only child in the family (Frasier’s son Frederick) thousands of miles away, we get to watch them negotiate the changing nature of the familial relationship as all three advance into middle age and beyond, tied together by their memories of the boys’ childhoods but also sharing their experiences of dating, career changes, marriages and their social lives in a way that isn’t possible until all parties are adults. It’s a relationship change that happens to many people who stay close to parents and siblings into adulthood, but is rarely explored on television (though, considering the importance of an adult sibling relationship to Friends, there was clearly something in the air in the 1990s!).
All of this is really a long-winded way of saying that there has never been another show quite like Frasier, and probably never will be again. One final example; it’s hard to imagine any other show pulling off a storyline like the one in which Niles gets a dog. The joke is that the dog is exactly like his estranged wife Maris. That’s difficult enough to pull off in the first place, since you have to find a dog that embodies the significant traits of a human character. However, in this case, it’s especially challenging because the audience have never seen Maris. This character exists only in description through dialogue and in the imagination of the audience. And yet, when David Hyde Pierce walks in with a slim, elegant dog and describes its fussy habits and delicate constitution, we all get the joke immediately. It’s not spelled out or explained until the dog was eventually written out the following year – everyone in the audience simply understands. It’s a remarkable achievement, and one that perfectly sums up just what was so special about Frasier, one of the wittiest sitcoms we’re ever likely to see.