Top 10 Comedies: #10 Frasier

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And I thought ranking dramas was tough. To be honest, it was very difficult and I still look back and wonder if I should have slotted something higher or if I somehow missed a very important show, for example Buffy (which I feel bad about, at least in the 11-20 ranks), but I’m pleased overall with the finished product.

While drama certainly dominates my viewing in 2014, that hasn’t always been the case. As a 35-year-old, drama is the prime focus, but I really liked to laugh as a kid and grew up during a so-called golden era of comedy. So when I sat down this past week and tried to brainstorm a top ten in comedy over the past 25 years, boy did I run into trouble. I would forget classics and while I never actually went and looked at any kind of website for show names, I might as well have the way my brain worked. It was a sectional conglomeration that required several reshufflings and even more “almost made its.”

Let me say this before we kick this shindig off. I cheated. I changed my own criteria. This is in no way a grouping that encompasses 25 years. Instead, it’s the past 20 years, and the reason why is fairly obvious. I want to place Cheers and The Cosby Show and even the end of All in the Family (among others) in some kind of museum but because of their end date, I can leave them off this project’s rankings and focus on more recent material and shows that have had less written about them. It’s really just an excuse and I know that, so forgive me. Those three shows are icons, as are Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, I Love Lucy, and the Honeymooners. I use this disclaimer to avoid the “how could you leave off Lucy” emails and tweets. Believe me, I know how good that stuff was, I really do.

So with that in mind, let’s try this comedy thing and see how it goes. I will say one final thing before moving to number ten on the list. My top two, potentially three, wouldn’t move, regardless of what the criteria was. They are special to me either because I grew up with them and they still hold up or, in the case of number two, it’s just something I adore. Everybody will have his or her own list. No one will like every selection I make. I don’t anticipate these pieces being quite the length of their drama brothers and sisters, but I’ve said that before and been undeniably and astonishingly wrong.

Now without further ado…

10. FRASIER (NBC – 1993-2004)

How’s this for rationalizing? I say Cheers is ineligible but immediately go for the closest thing I would find to the story of the Boston bar, it’s staff, and occasionally its patrons. Actually, that’s untrue. I’d have had to go with Wings to pull that feat off, and while I love Sandpiper Air, it wasn’t quite strong enough to make the top ten.

Frasier started higher on my list before adding new shows but even then, it couldn’t be bumped off. It is unequivocally one of the finest efforts of the past half-century. How do you spin off one of the most successful programs in history? How do you have not just the talent, but also the balls to actually attempt such a thing? Well, you start with Kelsey Grammer, which gets you in the door and then some, and then you add in brilliant creative minds like David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee. The trio is responsible for writing and later executive producing Cheers and also creating Wings, which is impressive to say the least. In many respects, Frasier may well be their finest achievement.

Psychiatrist Frasier Crane moves to his hometown of Seattle, leaving both Boston and private practice behind, and decides to become a radio talk show host. At its crux, that’s the pitch. His elderly father, Martin, has difficulty living alone and moves in with him. His eccentric and refined brother, Niles, reenters his life as a friend and confidant. Finally, he hires a physical therapist, Daphne, who also moves into the house. His producer, Roz, is a bit of a sex addict, is quick witted and talented, and that’s basically the show. Somehow, with that simple premise and small cast of important characters, Frasier was good from the first thirty seconds of the pilot episode. It was written beautifully, was just as sharp as Cheers, but with a fresh coat of paint on it, and the already exceptional Frasier Crane character lost nothing in the new setting.

So many spinoffs fail miserably, spectacularly, embarrassingly, but Frasier wasn’t just good, for the first nine years, it was great and often truly special. Grammer is an immense talent, despite his personal issues, and has always been outstanding, thus the show was in good position from the outset. The reason Frasier makes the list though, is simple, and if you read the drama pieces, you may see something familiar in the way this comes across. Here’s why Frasier makes the list, in addition to Kelsey Grammer.

David Hyde Pierce (Niles Crane)

Jane Leeves (Daphne Moon)

John Mahoney (Martin Crane)

Peri Gilpin (Roz Doyle)

Boom. It’s that simple. Martin’s relationship with his sons was a highlight. David Hyde Pierce and by proxy Niles Crane’s comedic timing and natural chemistry with Jane Leeves was magic. Frasier and Roz at times acted like brother and sister, but on occasion hinted at more. The early years of Daphne and Frasier, two polar opposites, was exceptional. Frasier and Niles, both as antagonists and best friends and confidantes was as good a one-two punch as we’ve ever seen in a sitcom. Frasier’s leading five were so good that the writers could put any pair or any grouping of them in a scene and it would work. It wouldn’t just work. It would work every single time.

This was a show about Frasier Crane, but following Niles’ divorce and in response to Pierce’s sudden stardom, it increasingly became about the budding Niles-Daphne relationship. Frasier’s own forays into his personal life ended disastrously for nearly the entire run of the show. His father would have a stable girlfriend for a third of a season and then it would flame out. Frasier would say something ridiculous on air or would either be courting a secondary job or dealing with a co-worker, usually sports show nut Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe (Dan Butler).

Before we go further into the broad strokes, let’s talk a bit more about David Hyde Pierce, who I remembered from his time on Norman Lear’s short-lived The Powers That Be prior to his work as Niles Crane. Pierce wasn’t great on Frasier. Pierce was actually some adjective or superlative that hasn’t been invented yet on Frasier. He was nominated for eleven consecutive Best Supporting Actor Emmy Awards. He won four. The eleven nominations remains an all-time record. Every single season, like clockwork, there he was on the Emmy ballot. What’s even more remarkable is the incontrovertible fact that had there been 20 seasons of Frasier, he’d have been nominated for the other nine years as well and not one of them would have drawn ire from anyone. The character, how it developed, and how he played it, all of it was just amazing. Simply put, Pierce and Niles Crane could arguably be called the best “supporting” role ever conceived and certainly ever executed in a situation comedy. I would suggest George Costanza is the only one that might supplant him, but if you chose to argue for Niles, you wouldn’t be wrong.

Frasier was a sitcom about relationships and sex and work and life. It was also a show about common, sensible individuals like Martin and Roz and the kind of aristocratic, almost comically uppity wine, food, music, and art aficionados most of the world despises. As annoying as they could be, they were hilarious and because it was necessary, the writers ensured they had heart. Frasier and Niles cared about their father, their families, those special to them, and it showed in some of the show’s biggest moments.

Another unique quality of Frasier was in its attitude. This was a show that didn’t go for the easy laugh or the obvious punch line. Grammer mentioned in interviews a general rule that the program would never treat its audience like idiots and would write intelligently and know its fans would never feel lost. It wasn’t a political show, even though it touched on social issues, and when it felt serious or heavy, a joke was just a few seconds away. The balance of the mundane, the melancholy, and the insane was handled adeptly and the results were palpable.

So why is it ten and not five? Well, it’s because after the initial few years, Frasier began to follow a formula that recurred so often it became somewhat tedious. When your main narrative concept is compared most often to Three’s Company, it’s rather dubious. Frasier became a show defined by misunderstanding. The characters would hear something and think it meant something else or would overhear something out of context and hilarity would ensue. The episodes became a bit too busy and I actually felt fatigue from it at times. Don’t get me wrong, the misunderstandings were funny, clever, and they were extremely well done, but it became a crutch and was overused.

Also, it’s quite possible Frasier ran longer than it needed to and, as a result, the quality dropped. Very few shows can handle a decade. Correction: very few shows can handle half a decade. For Frasier, it was eleven seasons, including several years of “almost” with Niles and Daphne. The latter years focused on their marriage and trying to find some closure or something solid for the rest of the cast relative to a significant other. Even when it was past its prime, it was still well written and it was still hilarious, but the difference between Season 2 or 3 and Season 10 was noticeable.

Those caveats aside, Frasier was a monumental achievement. Many die-hard Cheers fans wrote it off before it started and many critics felt it was a cash-in that wouldn’t work. It lasted eleven seasons, none of which could be considered bad television. It rated well, in the Nielsen top 20 for nine years, and quickly found its way into pop culture. The reruns still do well in syndication even today and deservedly so.

Through it’s eleven seasons, Frasier won a then-record five Emmys (now tied with Modern Family), and both Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce won four times. Ironically Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan were associated with Frasier in key roles and now executive produce Modern Family, so clearly those gentlemen know what they’re doing. Kelsey Grammer was nominated for the first nine seasons of Frasier and as we mentioned, Pierce was nominated a record eleven times. The show itself won 37 Primetime Emmy Awards and TV Guide ranked it number 34 on its Top 50 Television Programs of All Time list, which was released in 2002.

Frasier also holds up in 2014. If you watch it today, the jokes still play and my guess is, they will in 2114 as well, because they weren’t about technology or fads, they were about people and situations. The only issue the show could run into in the next century would be the increasing problem of individuals actually holding conversations with words. Talking through a screen would seem positively crude to Frasier Crane. Another awesome, yet obscure thing is the short, simple, but catchy opening music and Seattle skyline intro. Maybe it’s just me, but especially in syndication or rewatches, I wish I could skip the intro to almost every program. I enjoy Frasier’s every time. So many shows, particularly from that time, had longer credit sequences that slow down a good binge watch. Frasier is the Lost of sitcoms in that respect, and that’s a major compliment.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear the blues a callin, and I damn sure need some tossed salad and scrambled eggs. By the way, if you’ve ever wondered what the heck that song means and why it closed every episode of Frasier, here’s your answer.

Goodnight Seattle (read OKTC) we love you!

 

All eleven seasons of Frasier are available on NETFLIX and on DVD. The show still airs regionally and nationally in syndication.

Follow me and troll a brother on the tweets @GuyNamedJason

  

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