Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

A tale of two sitcoms II

The Cannes International Film Festival has started, and once again I am not there. Instead, I am sitting at home. Writing about… sitcoms. Sigh.

So, anyway, let’s make the best of it. Last week I suggested that Friends, which recently ended its ten-year run, was more of a kindred (if not literal) spin-off of Cheers—even more so than Frasier, which really was a spin-off of Cheers. Spin-offs have been a time-tested way of giving an edge to a new series in a cutthroat television viewer market. Networks have been known to milk a highly successful series like some kind of oversized cow. In the 1970s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show begat the single-named sitcoms Rhoda and Phyllis as well as the dramatic series Lou Grant, and All in the Family sired Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times (which was actually a spin-off of a spin-off) and a short-lived Sally Struthers vehicle. (I’m still not entirely sure if Archie Bunker’s Place was a spin-off or just a title change.) But while a series built around an already established TV character might get a proverbial foot in the door of the viewers’ living room, it is by no means a guarantee of success. A previous Cheers spin-off, inexplicably built around Carla the waitress’s loutish ex-husband and his dim family, lasted about 20 minutes. Happily, Frasier fared better.

When Cheers went off the air in 1993, it didn’t surprise me that NBC would try to continue the ratings magic with a spin-off. I didn’t particularly expect, however, that of the various members of the ensemble cast the Frasier character would be the one to carry the mantle. I would have anticipated, say, The Cliff and Norm Show or Here’s Carla! Frasier wasn’t exactly the biggest laugh-getter on the show. His function was originally as a romantic rival to Ted Danson and evolved into being more or less the audience point-of-view character. A lot of us saw the denizens of Cheers through Frasier’s eyes, i.e. feeling intellectually superior to the blue-collar types wasting their off hours warming bar stools and at the same time envying their quasi-familial closeness, their sense of belonging to a group. Like Frasier, we wanted to be “one of the guys” because maybe we lived and/or worked in a world where we couldn’t be just a guy. What can you do with a character like that except maybe put him in a different bar?

Or in a different family. Like maybe his own? As with Friends, Frasier picked up on the phenomenon of espresso bars and even put Frasier at the ground zero of lattés and cappuccinos, Seattle. The series became a devastating satire of coffee poseurs and wine snobs desperate to be seen at all the right arts events. And Seattle was the perfect location for all of this. A working class town with a left-of-center political bent that grew into a trendy city suddenly infused with a whole bunch young high-tech millionaires (thanks to local-boy-who-made-good Bill Gates), Seattle had become the epicenter of so many cool trends, from Starbucks to grunge music to internet IPOs, that it was more than ripe for skewering with social satire.

The writing was nothing short of brilliant. Still, the humor was not everybody’s cup of machiatto. I am still surprised at how many people I hear say they have never found Frasier funny at all. I can understand this. It didn’t punctuate its laugh track with a gag line at extremely regular intervals like most sitcoms, including the recently retired Friends. You often had to wait longer than three minutes for the next big comedic payoff. I myself even got bored with it a few times early on and stopped watching for a while. It was the Missus who got me definitively hooked. She has always loved the show for the simple reason that the relationship between Frasier and his father reminds her a lot of the one between her own father and her brother. The fields of the west of Ireland are figuratively a million miles from the fashionable heights of Queen Anne Hill, but some things, like family dynamics, are just universal.

In the end, Frasier harks back to two grand comedic television traditions. On one hand, it is the story of a quarreling odd couple, as exemplified by, well, The Odd Couple and other such mismatched pairs and generational feuds as All in the Family, Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man. On the other hand, it is an updated version of The Jack Benny Program. Kelsey Grammer has said that Benny was his role model, and that would be obvious merely from watching one episode of Frasier. Like Benny before him, Grammer is the consummate straight man. He has surrounded himself with truly funny people and then reacts to them. Both men played characters with huge egos yet belied those egos by allowing their second bananas to seem to get the big laughs. But the truth is that, just as we laughed as much or more at Benny’s reactions as at the wacky people who surrounded him, it is Grammer who really made us laugh with his rolling eyes and uppity put-downs. Think about it. John Mahoney was his Rochester, Peri Gilpin was his Mary Livingstone, and I guess that made David Hyde Pierce his Dennis Day. A lot of stars wouldn’t long put up with being “upstaged” by a second banana as funny as Hyde Pierce, but Grammer clearly understood, as did Benny, that it takes even more talent to be a good straight man than to be the gag man.

There were a lot of joys in the comedy of Frasier. As mentioned above, the skewering of the pompous was one. Lampooning the psychiatry profession was another. (Frasier and Niles were way more screwed up than any of their clients or radio program callers.) A special treat for us geeks was the Star Trek connection. Since Frasier and the various Star Trek series were all brought us by Paramount, there were plenty of Trek references in this sitcom. The main Trek running gag was a fellow employee at Frasier’s radio station named Noel Shempsky, who was a nerdy trekker. While clearly a caricature, at least Noel always got his Trek references right—like the time Noel wrote a speech for Frasier to deliver in Klingon. Some Trek actors also made guest appearances on Frasier. Brent Spiner, who played the android Data, was appropriately cast as a potential love interest for Frasier’s android-like ex-wife Lilith. And Capt. Jean-Luc Picard himself, Patrick Stewart, did a hilarious turn as the flaming gay director of the Seattle Opera who thought that Frasier is his boyfriend. And the Trek connection was a two-way street. Grammer once played a starship captain in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Not to get overly sentimental about it, but with the end of Frasier, we are at the end of an era of television comedy. Between them, Cheers and Frasier spanned 22 years. (You can expand the “Cheers era” four more years back to 1978, if you want to include Taxi, which involved some of the same creative people.) That’s about a quarter-century of television comedy defined by one loose family of people, kind of the way that Lucille Ball defined the field in the 1950s and early 1960s or Norman Lear did for a while in the 1970s. What lies ahead? Personally, I haven’t a clue. Before I even venture a guess, I will have to see the Friends spin-off, Joey.

-S.L., 13 May 2004


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