I’m surprised to find myself writing about Frasier, because Friends was the great behemoth of my teenage years, winkling its speech patterns and preoccupations deep into my subconscious, and I date the end of my youth to the day I met Real Live Matthew Perry.
But what was the theme of Friends – what wisdom did it have to impart? Only that . . . it’s nice to have friends in your twenties? And a nice apartment. (And Ross is a monster.) By contrast, Frasier has a proper emotional core, woven through the story from the beginning. It is about what happens when you move social classes. What you gain, and what you lose.
That message is clear from the pilot episode, which begins with Frasier Crane returning from the Boston of Cheers to his hometown of Seattle. The episode is structured quite simply, introducing each of the other characters in turn.
First: Niles, who is fastidious – wiping his seat down with a handkerchief in Cafe Nervosa – and trapped in an obviously loveless, sexless marriage with Maris. (Frasier: “Maris is like the sun. Except without the warmth.”)
He tells his older brother that it’s time to consider putting their father in a retirement home; after being shot in the hip, Martin isn’t recovering well, and was recently found in the floor of his bathroom. The episode is called “The Good Son”, and that’s what Frasier struggles to be.
So he invites Martin to live with him, and it’s particularly tough because this iteration of his dad is far grumpier than later ones – sitcom characters are not really supposed to change, but Martin grows into an adorable grump. But at the start, he’s unhappy with where life has taken him. He doesn’t want to be dependent, and that makes him mean.
Martin: Let’s cut the “Welcome To Camp Crane” speech. We all know why I’m here. Your old man can’t be left alone for ten minutes without falling on his ass, and Frasier got stuck with me. Isn’t that right?
Martin arrives trailing two horrors – his battered, vomit-green striped armchair and Eddie the Dog, who spends most of the first season staring balefully at Frasier. (Sad fact: Moose the Dog had to retire from the show on health grounds in the eighth season; his role was taken by his son Enzo.)
That armchair is the single most meaningful object in the whole of 1990s comedy. The producers had spent a fortune decorating the apartment (around $500,000) and there are several references to an Eames chair which Frasier loves, which you can see on the landing to Frasier’s right in the picture below. What gets pride of place in his living room instead, however, is the nastiest chair ever designed. It’s so hideous because it was specially made by the props department, using an offcut of original 1970s fabric.
But here’s the thing: doesn’t that chair look more comfortable to sit on than the expensive suede couch – “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? This is a metaphor for how family relationships are battered, worn and cosy rather than beautifully best-china pristine, and it’s a damn sight more subtle than Ross getting a monkey as a baby-substitute.
In the next segment, we meet Daphne. Frasier and Martin have spent all day seeing physical therapists, but Martin doesn’t like any of them. Frasier suspects he’s just being difficult.
Then Daphne walks in, with a “Manchester” accent that everyone involved must have known was ludicrous, surely? (John Mahoney, who plays Martin, was born and grew up in Lancashire.) But what gets her the job is her praise for the chair.
Frasier: Er, have a seat, Miss Moon.
Daphne: Daphne. Thank you. Oh, will you look at that. What a comfy chair! It’s like I always say, start with a good piece and replace the rest when you can afford it.
Martin beams, Frasier is horrified. But there is now balance in the force of Frasierworld: him and Niles, the chair-haters, versus Marty and Daphne, the chair-lovers. (As far as I can tell, Roz is agnostic on the chair.) The chair is a test of your values: do you value substance over appearance?
In the next segment, the resentment which has been bubbling between Martin and his son boils over. They both confess that their lives haven’t turned out how they wanted: Marty didn’t want to be disabled; Frasier didn’t want to have his dream of a contemplative life interrupted by an obsessive dog and hours of sports broadcasting.
Frasier: I don’t want to adjust! I’ve done enough adjusting! I’m in a new city, I’ve got a new job, I’m separated from my little boy, which in itself is enough to drive me nuts. And now my father and his dog are living with me! Well, that’s enough on my plate, thank you. The whole idea of getting somebody in here was to help ease my burden, not to add to it!
As in any real family, Marty immediately picks up on the key word here – burden. The argument escalates, with Frasier saying that all he wants is a thank you. Martin hesitates, but won’t give him one. Instead, he storms off.
The next day, Roz tells Frasier the story of Lupe Velez, a starlet who tried to have a “lavish suicide” and ended up falling over and braining herself on a toilet. She delivers the line which becomes Frasier‘s mission statement: “Even though things may not happen like we planned, they can work out anyway.” The episode ends with Martin calling in to the radio show, apologising – and then shouting again: “Did you hear what I said? I said THANK YOU.”
This is an incredible – and award-winning – pilot episode (read the full script here) in terms of setting up the characters, the conflict and the central theme. One of the things I find most jaw-dropping about Frasier is that a typical episode lasts 23 minutes – a half-hour minus the absurdity of American ad breaks. But that’s also a lesson in what good writers do, which is look at the formal limitations they have to work with, and make those conventions work for them instead.
When I surveyed Twitter for people’s favourite episodes of Frasier, the classic farces were mentioned again and again: The Ski Lodge, Ham Radio, The Seal Who Came To Dinner. But Frasier wouldn’t have been the huge critical success it was if it had just been rich white guys exchanging barbs about opera and running in and out of bedrooms.
Like Stephen’s choice of 1990s comedy this week, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it connects because it’s an old-fashioned sitcom about a family, and about class. Frasier and Niles have escaped the world their father lived in – a blue-collar job, beer in front of the football in your lazy-boy chair, a boringly happy marriage – but at a cost. Their father can’t understand their lives or their values, and both sides feel loved and judged. Frasier worries his dad thinks he’s a snob; his dad worries Frasier thinks he’s a philistine. Both of them take refuge in exaggerating these personas – which works for comic reasons, but is also believable as a gesture of defiance.
In the first series, this theme is particularly strong. In “Dinner at Eight”, Frasier and Niles want to treat their dad to something nice, but they find it hard to accept that means acknowledging he has his own tastes and isn’t content to be the passive recipient of their munificence.
Niles: Outside of our last name and abnormally well-developed calf muscles, we have nothing in common with the man.
They want to take him to the Cigale Volante, and there’s another exchange which could sum up the conflict of values at the heart of Frasier:
Niles: Oh, oh-oh-oh, the food is to die for!
Martin: Niles, your country and your family are to die for; food is to eat.
After the Cigale Volante loses their reservation, they go to Marty’s choice – the Timber Mill, a steakhouse where the waitress cuts off the boys’ ties, serves “fixins” and has “five different toppings for your baked potato”. Frasier and Niles can’t stop themselves being mean about the food, the bacon, the thousand island dressing… until Martin eventually snaps, and delivers one of the harshest take-downs in sitcom history:
Martin: Alright, that’s it. I’ve had enough of you two jack-asses. I’ve spent the whole night listening to you making cracks about the food and the help. Well, I got news for you: people like this place. I like this place. And when you insult this restaurant, you insult me. You know, I used to think you two took after your mother, liking the ballet and all that, but your mother liked a good ball game too. She even had a hot dog once in a while. She may have had fancy tastes, but she had too much class to ever make me or anybody else feel second-rate. If she saw the way you two have behaved tonight, she’d be ashamed. I know I am.
Basically, everyone in the Timber Mill who saw the Crane boys acting like this? They voted for Trump.
Ken Levine has admitted that in the later series, the writers got carried away with Frasierisms, resulting in “speeches [that] were filled with little ornamentations and curly-cues”. It’s true that there are some very wobbly episodes later on, in which archness and arcane references to classical music are stretched to their very limit. And yes, if we’re being all Guardian-thinkpiece about it, Frasier was “problematic”. It is hella white, at a time when Seattle’s population was a third black, Asian and Hispanic. Like Girls, it focuses on the lives of upper-middle class city dwellers whose problems are pretty far up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. (One way in which it is notably progressive, particularly compared with Friends, is in its treatment of homosexuality – perhaps unsurprisingly since David Hyde Pierce and one of its best writers, Joe Keenan, are gay.)
But it always had a heart, and that was usually provided by Martin Crane. At the end of season one, there’s an episode where The Chair gets thrown out by a dopey workman who is supposed to put it in storage, and Martin is unhappy with the replacement, even though Frasier puts duct tape on it and scatters peanuts around it.
Eventually, Frasier wrings out of him why he wants his old chair back:
Martin: Okay, I’ll tell you what chair I want. I want the chair I was sitting in when I watched Neil Armstrong take his first step on the moon. And when the US hockey team beat the Russians in the ’80 Olympics. I want the chair I was sitting in the night you called me to tell me I had a grandson. I want the chair I was in all those nights, when your mother used to wake me up with a kiss after I’d fallen asleep in front of the television. You know, I still fall asleep in it. And every once in a while, when I wake up, I still expect your mother to be there, ready to lead me off to bed… Oh, never mind. It’s only a chair. Come on, Eddie.
I mean, this is INCREDIBLE. Even more incredibly, it’s nestled inside an overtly theatrical sitcom where one episode culminates in a fencing master and the cast making jokes in four languages. And yet, Frasier had the emotional range to include a speech about a father telling his adult sons how much he misses their dead mother.
The subject of the chair comes up again explicitly in season 9, in a sequence about how Martin and Frasier have lived together for eight years. (The segment’s title card is “The recline and fall of Western civilisation”, which is an A* pun in anybody’s money.) The episode shows them bickering in the way another sitcom might show a married couple. Marty spills oil on the chair, and in trying to clean it up, Frasier and Niles set it on fire, then throw it off the balcony. It lands on the pavement in front of Martin and Daphne, irreparably damaged.
In the final scene of the episode, Martin unveils a “present” to his son – a tasteful black recliner. At which point, the doorbell rings and Frasier ushers in an exact replica of the chair, which he has had made at vast expense.
Daphne: It must have cost a fortune!
Frasier: Yes – ironically, this is now the most expensive piece of furniture in the entire apartment!
Niles: It’s beautiful!
Martin: Thank you, son.
Niles: Well done, Frasier.
Martin: Oh, it feels just the same – I don’t want to get up!
Frasier: Well, that’s a shame, because I was planning on taking us both out to dinner this evening, Dad – anywhere you’d like!
Martin: Even the steakhouse?
Frasier: Even the steakhouse!
Yes, that’s right, a steakhouse – it might have taken him nine series, but Frasier has learned to love “fixins”.
Here’s a gnarly bit of Frasier lore. The same actor who brought in the chair in the first episode takes it out in the final one. The show ends with Martin marrying again, Daphne and Niles having their baby (named David, after series creator David Angell, who died in the first plane to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11) and Frasier going to a new city and leaving behind KACL. That means leaving the apartment, and Martin taking his chair to his new home.
And so, the bonds that held the characters together are broken, and you find yourself dabbing at your eyes over a goddamn hideous chair. Because really, the emotional arc of Frasier is Martin’s. He’s the child – once dependent, he is now able to leave home and make his own way, leaving Frasier as the Empty Nester.
And what is Martin’s penultimate line as they are all gathered in the apartment together?
Martin: Thank you, Frasier. For… well, you know.
Yes, it’s been eleven years and Marty is, at last, able to say a sincere thank you to his son. Only now, he doesn’t need to. They both know they love each other and what their relationship means.
Goodnight, Marty’s chair. We love you. And sorry that the actual last scene of the final episode is Frasier reciting a Tennyson poem, which is dreadful. The last shot clearly should have been you.
5 Frasier episodes to watch
The most bittersweet of all the Daphne/Niles unrequited love episodes, directed by Kelsey Grammer. Niles is sad that Maris has apparently moved on, while all their former friends think he is lonely and dejected. So when Niles’s date for the “Snow Ball” pulls out, Daphne graduates from his informal dance instructor to his partner for the evening. Martin tries to warn Niles off, saying that the booze and the dance might lead him to say something he can’t take back. “You’re sticking a fork in the toaster,” he adds. Niles shoots back: “Well, my muffin’s stuck.”
The Ski Lodge
There’s a whole oral history of this episode to feast on, so I won’t go into too much detail. It’s a perfectly tooled old-school bedroom farce, but set up so beautifully with Marty’s deafness meaning that he gives everyone the wrong idea about who’s romantically interested in them. It also demonstrates why the “situation” in “situation comedy” matters; who would have thought you could get such a big laugh from someone saying, “Really?”
The Doctor is Out
Frasier always loved guest stars (although they usually played radio-show callers), and Derek Jacobi’s turn as a wheezy old thesp ruining Hamlet is also unmissable. But Patrick Stewart’s opera director who thinks Frasier is his boyfriend takes the cake, because this episode is just so full of great lines, mostly from Niles. P-Stew’s character is such a good director that “he staged a Philip Glass opera last year and no one left”. There’s also this exchange, about Roz’s boyfriend:
Martin: You know how you can tell he’s not gay? [Leans forward.] THE MUSCLES.
Niles: Second tip-off: no poodle.
Wheels of Fortune
As recommended by Tom Hourigan, this late episode features Michael Keaton as Lilith’s grifter half-brother, who promises the Cranes that since being confined to a wheelchair, he has found Jesus and changed his ways. Like Frasier, the audience finds it hard to believe him, and the show strings out the tension like a rope of pearls.
Thanks to James Graham, who pointed out to me that the structure of this episode — where Frasier stages a live murder mystery but pisses off the cast so much that Niles has to do all the parts — is the same as Michael Frayn’s stage farce Noises Off. You see the way it should go in the first act; then watch it go wrong in the second half. The live nature of the show puts the stakes up, and it has real momentum as everything collapses.
PS. If you’ve ever wondered whether or not America secretly hates us, may I offer one piece of evidence for the prosecution?
ANTHONY LAPAGLIA WON AN EMMY FOR PLAYING DAPHNE’S BROTHER.
I mean, look at his face at the awards ceremony in 2002. No, Anthony, I can’t believe it either.
Unconvinced that Frasier is the best 90s sitcom ever? New Statesman writers on why Only Fools and Horses is the ultimate immigrant comedy, what exactly was so fresh about the Fresh Prince, the technical brilliance of Brass Eye, the unlikely feminism of Sex and the City, how Alan Partridge is actually a soothsayer, why Irish Catholics love being mocked by Father Ted and how Ab Fab recorded life before Brexit.