Monday, August 07, 2006

"No dumb jokes": Fraiser: The Complete First Season

Because Mrs. Meridian loves me a whole bunch, when she came to visit last weekend she brought along with her more surprise gifts than your correspondent is worthy to receive in an entire year, much less in one weekend. I'll be writing about a few of them in future posts, but the one you see pictured here the the subject of this post.

Below the fold, some observations about the episodes I've seen so far, along with some tidbits from the commentaries and featurettes.


Something I've always admired about Frasier and its predecessor, Cheers, is that its writers trusted its viewers to get it. One easy example of that trust is the show's jettisoning of a basic sitcom device, the establishing shot: a shot that visually informs the viewer where the coming scene is taking place. As the writers of Fraiser's pilot point out in their commentary, the view out Fraiser's apartment window, the booths and microphones of the radio studio, by themselves, should be enough to orient the viewer. Another sign of trust is the world Fraiser and Niles move about in: a culturally-sophisticated one that few of us will ever know as intimately as they do. In that regard, their father Martin is crucial for the audience: he is something of our ambassador in that world, requiring the Crane brothers to explain bits and pieces of that world and, at times (as in the episode titled "Dinner at Eight"), forcing them to confront the fact that their refinement actually masks the fact that they can behave as boorishly as the very people they presume themselves to be above.

Perhaps the most important sign of trust, though, is exemplified by the writers' pledge to themselves to write "no dumb jokes"--which I take to mean jokes that don't just get told to the audience but which the audience actually bears some responsibility for making work by filling in what doesn't get said. The audience's pleasure comes from feeling itself to be in on the joke and thus a little smarter after watching than before. Something else I noticed as Mrs. M. and I watched these episodes is that the jokes actually advance the story along--or at least they don't stop the story. If you pay attention to how jokes work in other sitcoms, often it's as though the narrative stops so that the joke can get told, and then the story resumes. But not so with Fraiser.

Have a look at this little moment from "Dinner at Eight" (the complete script is here):
Frasier: Well, you and I have to broaden dad's horizons. Show him
the world that he's only read about in TV Guide.
Niles: How about an evening of fine dining?
Frasier: Perfect... but where?
Frasier&
Niles
: [excited] Le Cigare Volant!
Frasier: [ecstatic, wrings his hands] Hah!
Niles: [suddenly calm] But can we really get in? I've been trying
for months.
Frasier: Oh, puh-leeze. Niles, you're forgetting the cache my name
carries in this town.
Niles: Actually, I'm not. If the maitre d' happens to be a
housewife, we're in.
Niles' little zinger simultaneously takes aim at Fraiser's radio psychology show and what Niles assumes to be the show's demographic, but it's also directly concerned with the issue at hand for the plot: getting into the restaurant. It's a funny moment, and because of its seamless incorporation into the requirements of the plot, it's also an elegant moment.

Now for a few tidbits that were new to me; apologies in advance if they aren't new to you:

*The initial project Kelsey Grammer discussed with Grub Street (the show's production company) was one in which he would play a bed-ridden tycoon with a Hispanic physical therapist. Thankfully, NBC found that idea horrible.

*All the actors for the principle roles in Frasier that the producers had in mind were pre-approved by NBC, with the exception of Roz. They auditioned about 300 actors for her role.

*Lisa Kudrow was almost cast to play Roz, but neither she nor the producers felt she was right for the part.

*The producers auditioned 3 dogs and an orangutan for what would become the role of Eddie.

*It wasn't known until, literally, the writing of the script for the pilot that Martin's physical therapist would be English.

Good old Wikipedia has a pretty thorough entry on the series, including lots of trivia.

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3 comments:

Winston said...

Now, let me get this straight... you and the missus are living in different cities due to the professional employment opportunities afforded each of you in said respective cities. And when you get together on weekends occasionally, you watch DVDs of TV sitcoms... Hmmm... OK... No further comment on that...

Now, aside from being my ususal smart-assed self, I am in full agreement with your analysis of Frasier. Same also applies to its precursor, Cheers, of course. For me, Cheers was a pictorial guide of how life and relationships could and should be. For one brief period in my life I knew the camaraderie exemplified by the cry in unison of "Norm" when he entered the bar. Good times. Good friends. Good life...

John B. said...

Now, let me get this straight... you and the missus are living in different cities due to the professional employment opportunities afforded each of you in said respective cities. And when you get together on weekends occasionally, you watch DVDs of TV sitcoms... Hmmm... OK... No further comment on that...

Um, let's just say that that would not be a full recounting of our time together.

Speaking of Cheers and its sense of community, its theme song is a thing of wonder. It IS about that thrill that Norm must have felt when everyone greeted him upon his arrival.

Aunty Marianne said...

I've always wondered whether men called Norm feel the need to epitomise the normal, as if they are conscious that everyone else is using them as a benchmark of average, median, modal ordinariness.

It must be a terrible burden.