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‘Frasier’ and the Comedy of Humility
We're all tossed salads and scrambled eggs.
We’re all ridiculous, and a good sitcom shows us that. We recognize ourselves in a relatable main cast, and as we laugh at them, we laugh at some part of ourselves.
We can’t just point and laugh at other people; it needs to flow in all directions. Feeling superior isn’t funny. Comedy, done right, keeps us all humble.
For an example of how to do it right, let’s turn our attention to Frasier. Though I’ve always had a soft spot for Cheers, its spinoff is the funnier show overall. The best episodes elevate innocent misunderstandings into humorous farces, but even the routine episodes are amusing. And they amuse because the comedy stems from the flaws of the main cast, primarily Frasier and Niles, but also Martin, Daphne, and Roz.
Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) can be pompous, pretentious, and overly concerned with what others think of him. His ego frequently requires deflating. He’s usually the one who screws up his romantic relationships. He could avoid so many problems simply by getting out of his own way.
But he’s not just a blowhard. The show occasionally reminds us that he is a competent psychiatrist who cares about helping people, and that balance is key. Frasier is neither a great man nor an idiot—he’s just a proud man who tends to overreach and would benefit from more self-awareness.
Niles (David Hyde Pierce) is even fussier, more neurotic, and more insecure. Frasier and Niles sometimes serve as the voice of reason for each other, and sometimes they’re both screwing up.
Their father, Martin (John Mahoney), provides a working-class, common-sense perspective, which keeps things grounded but also brings him into conflict with his sons. Roz (Peri Gilpin), much like Sam Malone before her, is perpetually drawn to the opposite sex, but she can’t seem to make a long-term relationship work. Daphne (Jane Leeves) supplies the quirkiness, occasionally drifting into rambling monologues that snowball into absurdity.
These five form a well-developed cast of distinct characters who complement each other. The typical viewer probably isn’t a perfect match for any of them, but the viewer will likely have something in common with at least one character, even if those traits are exaggerated on the screen. Maybe we tend to fly too close to the sun like Frasier. Maybe we’re a little odd like Daphne. Maybe we struggle with jealousy like Niles. If nothing else, Frasier reminds us to get over ourselves.
The show can get repetitive, as any sitcom would over the course of 12 seasons. Frasier and Niles descend into petty competitions with each other a lot. And how many ways can Niles pine for Daphne while she remains oblivious? Surprisingly many, though the running gag is stretched to nearly the breaking point before actual progress is made.
But Frasier isn’t designed for binge-watching. It’s the sort of show where you can put on any random episode and be entertained. And certain episodes are especially entertaining.
Here are some highlights—not necessarily all the greatest hits, just a handful of episodes that encapsulate the series:
“The Matchmaker” (season 2, 1994)
A classic farce. Frasier tries to set Daphne up with his new boss, Tom, not realizing he’s gay. Tom, naturally, assumes Frasier is also gay and is coming on to him. The misunderstanding adds subtext to the scenes and escalates the comedy.
Roz could have prevented the whole thing, but Frasier inadvertently insults her, so she decides to have some fun by letting him remain ignorant. At the apartment, Niles is the first to eventually figure things out, in a well-timed moment that releases some tension while also pushing the plot along.
The show never makes fun of Tom or anyone for being gay. It’s not pointing and laughing at anyone for being different. It’s a comedy about miscommunication, which can happen to anyone.
“Dark Victory” (season 2, 1995)
This episode provides a much-needed reminder that for all his pomposity, Frasier actually is an experienced and caring psychiatrist who wants to help people. After a tough week of focusing on other people’s problems, Frasier just needs some time to himself, but Niles, Martin, Daphne, and Roz all wind up needing his advice. An occasional episode like this gives a sitcom its soul.
“Ham Radio” (season 4, 1997)
An offbeat episode with a familiar theme: Frasier’s hubris leads to his undoing. He’s directing an old-time radio drama for his station, but of course his perfectionism and intrusive directing style get on everyone’s nerves, leading to disaster for him and excellent comedy for us.
Generally, the series is stronger outside the radio station than within it, because the station is where the show gets closest to pointing-and-laughing territory, particularly with the kooky callers. But this episode puts the workplace setting to its best use.
“Frasier’s Imaginary Girlfriend” (season 5, 1997)
Another instance of Frasier’s self-sabotage. He’s dating a gorgeous supermodel, but everyone thinks he’s making her up to impress them. Frasier is not content to simply enjoy dating this wonderful woman. It’s not enough that he knows he’s dating her; he needs his friends and family to know he’s dating her.
So, Frasier takes a picture of them in bed together while she’s sleeping. Guess how well that turns out for him.
“The 1000th Show” (season 5, 1997)
Ego strikes again, and so does sibling rivalry. As Frasier’s radio show hits its thousandth episode, he can’t resist making a fuss about it. The station organizes a big event at Seattle’s Space Needle, and the publicity goes to Frasier’s head, which annoys Niles to no end. But right before the event, Frasier and Niles lose track of time and have to race across the city. Frasier is late for his own celebration, and he has no one to blame but himself.
But the key moment comes at the end. Frasier finally does get a ride to the Space Needle, but it turns out the driver is going through some personal problems and starts opening up about his situation. As they arrive at the event, Frasier decides to remain in the car and help this man, ignoring his own celebration taking place right outside.
Frasier can’t just be an egomaniac. He can’t be a saint either, nor can he be the only sane one among a bunch of kooks. Any of that would have resulted in a flat show. In this one anniversary episode, we see multiple levels, from his worst to his best.
“Radio Wars” (season 7, 1999)
Not really a standout episode overall, but notable for Martin’s observation about why Frasier and Niles have often been the targets of bullies and pranksters. “People think you’re stuffy. You know, with your opera parties, and your wine parties and your seasoned crepe pans,” he tells them, later adding, “You guys could never resist putting on airs.”
If we puff ourselves up too much, someone will be tempted to poke holes and let the air out. It’s best we just go ahead and do that to ourselves.
I could review a bunch of other episodes that range from good to superb. “Halloween” and “The Ski Lodge” from season 5 are also top-notch farces. But the above examples already cover why Frasier was so successful for so long.
I don’t want to watch anyone point and laugh at other people. A quality sitcom makes fun of its own—and, indirectly, us.
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