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History of TV: We listened (and laughed) to Dr. 'Frasier' Crane for 11 years of comedy gold

January 13, 2022
5 min read time

One of television’s longest-running comedies is NBC’s Cheers spin-off, Frasier.

The early-'90s sitcom, which debuted as part of the quintessential network fall lineup in 1993, may have even outshone its predecessor by being one of that decade’s first comedies to feature season (and in the case of Niles and Daphne, practically the whole series)-long arcs that paid off with humor, heart and wit. 

It was an era when shows were given the time to develop and grow, aging into their iconic rhythms. One hundred and seven Primetime Emmy® nominations agree, along with wins for Outstanding Comedy Series five years running.

Time capsule

Frasier is also of an era when the general slate of prime time programming wasn’t as diverse. I mean, let’s call it out right now: Frasier is a show about old (and older) white men. And here I defer to the words of Dan O’Shannon, one of the show’s writers, as he put it to Liz Thompson for Final Draft:

“Learn from these things; take what you can and use it to create your content. And years from now, after you’ve won your awards and had a terrific career, there’s going to be a group of people that come to you and say, ‘We can’t watch your stuff.’ And you’ll ask, ‘Why?’ And they’ll say, ‘Because there’s that scene that happens at a barbecue.’ Or, ‘There’s that scene where someone’s eating a chicken leg, and we don’t do that now. We don’t kill living animals for food.’ And you’ll be in a position to say exactly what I’m saying: that is who we were then.

Instead of trying to erase the past, we can use these things in the past as benchmarks to measure how far we’ve come. Because everything we ever write and put out is a report that we’re sending to the future saying ‘this is who we were.’ And those people in the future will have to make the same choices you are about looking at the past. Can we take these lessons and make something better? I hope that’s the choice they make.”

For more writerly tips and quips from O’Shannon, check out Thompson’s column.

Family dynamics

While one of the other longest-running shows of the ‘90s was primarily about Friends, Frasier delved into familial bonds.

Kelsey Grammer as Frasier and the late John Mahoney as his father, Martin, were the perfect comedic pairing of crotchety father goes to live with uppity son after he’s injured in the line of duty and is too old to live safely on his own. Theatre-trained Tony® Award winner Mahoney was perhaps therefore best equipped to deal with Grammer’s propensity for only reading the script once before filming in front of a live studio audience. Yes, that’s right — he’d skip rehearsing with the cast to ensure a layer of reality in the reactions within a scene. Despite Grammer employing what was undoubtedly a stressful method for the rest of the cast and crew, the synergy among the cast is palpable. Their comedic timing was repeatedly on-point in jokes that were often delayed in the payoff.

A foil to the opposites attract (though mostly made for great comedic friction) between Frasier and his father is the relationship between Frasier and his brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce). Also stage trained, Pierce won four Primetime Emmys for portraying Niles, the equally educated, arrogant and snobby brother. Their character likenesses made them extremely competitive, to comedic results. But mostly, I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of the time we were laughing at just how out of touch with reality Frasier and Niles seemed, despite and also because of their privileged upbringing and down-to-earth father.

The trio, plus Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves), were as eclectic as the decorating style in Frasier’s apartment — the show’s main set — and why the show worked so well.

They had to grow up, sometime

The majority of the jokes were rooted in that upper-class privilege and involved a lot of witty puns, spot-on delivery, and that delayed payoff. Yet the show managed to be heartwarming as well, thanks to its family-centric premise and the main characters’ journeys. We wanted to see Frasier and Martin get along. We wanted Daphne and Niles to get together. We wanted Roz to find her happy ending. We cared about the characters because the writing went beyond the jokes to evolve their storylines — they all grew up, despite their already-adult status. Niles, especially, goes from an insufferable know-it-all who’s simultaneously terrified of the world to someone who’s grounded and even, dare I say, brave. Life didn’t get the better of him; he made it what he wanted.

Then there was Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), Frasier’s producer, who, as a single woman in search of love, found it in her daughter — as a single mom. She always felt more “grown-up” than the guys, or at the very least, more “life smart.”

Overall, the show dealt with adulting and the loneliness that can permeate those responsibilities in a way that spoke to audiences. And to the industry: Frasier won 37 Primetime Emmys during its run, a record only broken by Game of Thrones.

In retrospect

Can you imagine Lisa Kudrow as Roz? Me neither. But she was approached, and thankfully it didn’t come together because then the world would never have gotten the Phoebe Buffay we know.

For what it was at that time, Frasier gave us plenty of scrambled eggs to think about (and if you know, you know) from his perch at Cafe Nervosa and behind the desk of his radio show... before radio essentially died its slow death.

While Grammer went on to act in plenty more and took on more and more producing, including the likes of Medium and Girlfriends, Dr. Frasier Crane said, “Good night, Seattle” for the final time in 2004, marking two decades of Grammer as the infamous psychologist (psychiatrist? Jury’s still out on that one). Though it seems he’ll be making a return in a Paramount+ reboot, Deadline announced last year.

Time will tell what the next chapter of Frasier will illustrate for audiences two decades from now.

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