Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part V: Waiting on Frasier
by Travis Hedge Coke
“Six months ago, I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me, which was excruciating.”
– Frasier Crane in the first episode of Frasier, The Good Son
Script by David Angell, Peter Casey, David Lee
“If by Godot I had meant God, I would have said God and not Godot.”
– Samuel Becket, apocryphal
If I had meant Frasier when I said, God, I would have said, Frasier. But, there, by the grace of God, Frasier goes.
“I didn’t know Mae West had any children.”
– Niles Crane in Dad Loves Sherry, the Boys Just Whine
Script by Joe Keenan
From Cheers to Wings to Frasier we followed Dr Frasier Crane and they built a moral order around him. Not a moral order to approve of him, but to sustain him and the narratives to which he had become accustomed.
There is no narrative reason for Cheers, Wings, or Frasier to be whiter than Barney Miller or Living Single.
The most sustained nonwhite presence on Cheers as a show and in Cheers, the bar, is a picture of Geronimo they hung on a wall to tribute one of the actors when they passed early into the run.
There are anti-Asian jokes throughout all three series, and Sam Tanaka, a one episode publisher, is the only East Asian actor I can think of to appear onscreen. I would have to use a search engine to find any others.
Frasier’s Seattle has approximately one Black woman, the not-a-doctor Doctor Mary, a radio personality Frasier Crane despises for her unfounded, folksy advice and loud gregarious personality. Frasier is, of course, a character predicated on his faults and inability to read a room, but his impersonation of loud, brash Black women is a low point, societally, for Frasier and his immediate world, as it goes unquestioned by anyone else, as do repeated racist jokes told by his immediate family, both in-family and in public.
A barista at Cafe Nervosa, played by Lucky Hari, is the most commonly reoccurring nonwhite person in the entire run Frasier, serving drinks from 1994-97 without ever contributing significantly to a plot or gaining a name, unlike multiple white characters who work at the cafe and receive names.
Is Antonio Scarpacci, the cab driver in Wings, of Lebanese-descent and Italian birth and ancestry? Is he mixed? Played by Tony Shalhoub, the complexity of white-read nonwhite performers and play-acted ethnicity rooted in accent and reference to a few foods makes it more complex than it needs to be. It is without a stretch to ask, here, if in this world, Italian is a nonwhite ethnicity, and the same in Cheers. Which draws, for worse or better, on the regressive social politics all three shows and their shared world draws upon in an attempt to be seen as classy, literary, and in a PG Wodehouse and Noel Coward tradition. Just as Frasier liked a good Dorothy L Sayers reference or , no one in this world can quote Toni Morrison or invoke Wesley Snipes. If someone from this Seattle or this Nantucket were to reference a Black celebrity, they would probably need to be non-American.
Like Scarpacci, many in the audience were taken by unnecessary surprise at the character Cam Winston being Black, considering he was played by a Black (a Black, white, and Native mixed) actor, Brian Stokes Mitchell. For some, it was the appearance of Cam’s mother, played by Emily Yancy, for others, wiki entries, articles, stumbling on it as trivia. Which, is a thing. We are prepared by this world to read certain tones of voice, certain behavior or styles, as white. This flaw exists in our world, as well, and it is as every bit ridiculous, complicated, and too often greeted with, “well you don’t seem it,” and “you could pass.”
While Dr Mary inspires anxiety in Frasier because he is afraid to publicly malign a Black woman – how will that look?! – he has no concern over Cam’s Blackness because, as far as we can tell, he does not see it.
When Bulldog does a racist radio commercial, Roz is worried the station will be sued, but that is what bothers her and the laugh track is arranged to remind us that it is all in good fun. No harm.
Diane goes from a teaching aid to waitress during the first episode of Cheers, but she is treated, consistently, as money. She works the same job, for the same wages, as Carla, but Carla is not money.
Diane’s old friend from college, also money, also educated, wants a “night of unbridled passion,” with a man who has to be “peasant stock.”
And, as we see in Frasier and, in Wings, Joe and Brian Hackett, who own a small airline on Nantucket, it is not coming from money that makes you money, either. Nor, education. Joe is money because he acts money. His father was institutionalized, his mother died early, they had very little, but he acts money, so he is, in the moral order of this universe, money.
Diane’s old friend from college, also money, also educated, wants a “night of unbridled passion,” with a man who has to be “peasant stock.”
Because, it comes back to who is and who is not money.
Most of the money is men, possibly simply by most of each of the casts being men. Outside of very special episodes, women are impediments. They do not motivate narrative by what they want, they impede male narratives by what they do.
Cam’s mother, on Frasier exists to bolster Frasier’s father, Marty, and to be a thorn in the side of her son and Frasier, who are in a feud.
Lilith, Frasier’s ex-wife, only appears on his show to befuddle and upbraid him. Her appearance on Wings was much the same. Her appearances in Cheers were an intrusion on everyone’s day.
Yet, from scene one, Lilith Sternin was almost completely in the performance of Lilith Sternin.
Note, when I say that women characters are written to a lower standard than male, I do not mean they fail to get good jokes. They get that.
There is frequently an emptiness to the writing and directing of women’s roles on all three programs, which aired overlapping, connected by Cheers characters doing guest appearances on Wings and then Dr Frasier and his wife/ex-wife, Lilith, appearing on Frasier’s self-named show, which ran for the better part of eleven years. Lilith only makes guest appearances on Frasier, and the only consistent women characters are Frasier’s producer, Roz Doyle, who is – despite being the producer of his show – relegated to being his de facto assistant – and the live-in physical therapist for Frasier’s disabled father, who ends up also cooking many of their meals, doing all of their laundry, cleaning their apartment and running errands for Frasier, his father, and his brother on a routine basis.
But, how could two shows about bosses and a show about a mid-level talk radio host who is inexplicably wealthy have class or sexism issues? I feel like Jeeves stories predicted this.
A popular game amongst Frasier writers was to concoct something odious for Frasier to say, followed by his love interest of the moment being more fascinated, more sold on him. The commitment of these women to Frasier, even for as long as it lasts, is not a matter of plausibility, but how much it can be strained against plausibility.
That we never see Niles’ wife, Maris, but hear outlandish descriptions of her, is funny, but it can only occur with a woman. Likewise, the never-seen but lesbian-coded wife of the queer-coded radio gourmet Frasier works with can only work because she is a woman. If he had a husband or if he was a woman and describing his husband, the gag would not sustain.
Dr Mary is a good example of a woman is in-world seems to have success or a place, but narratively is going to be discarded. This is a perpetual, and thus metaphysical state for women in this universe. They are discarded. Wings shifted women in and out of the cast routinely, except for the harmless nostalgia of safe Helen and old Fay Cochran. The two who challenge men least. Frasier positions most women as romantic objects of pursuit and with that run its course, they fade from the program. Cheers is much the same, with Carla fluctuating as a woman and one of the boys and Diane replaced by Rebecca so hollowly even the show’s writers and producers admit they had no actual idea what to do with the Rebecca character. She is there to fill a woman spot, debuting in a season where Woody Harrelson’s Woody has much more forward dynamism and radiant character, while Rebecca, a caricature, cries in fits of fakey crying and chases rich men because women do.
“You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You want to be where everybody knows your name,” says the theme song of Cheers, and it becomes increasingly apparent that, while we can all watch and enjoy the world as voyeurs from ours, it is a question if we would be accepted into Cheers, the bar, or into the KACL radio station in Seattle, if we could even fly into or out of Tom Nevers Field, without being cisgender, heterosexual, white(-read), and male. We could go once, but again and again?
A season one episode of Cheers does more to connect two women than any other episode set in this entire world. Coach Returns to Action highlights the quality missing many times throughout the next two decades, and it only does so to concretize a dynamic that spreads through those two decades: the women do not talk.
In the episode, Diane and Carla, the two waitstaff, stay after work to drink and hash out their differences, because their bickering and pranking is affecting the enjoyment of the male regulars and their male boss. While drunk, Carla confesses a brutal secret to Diane because it is untrue, it is maliciously untrue, and she is sure Diane will blab it by the next afternoon. A scene set up to make us feel these women will find some connection, instead serves to affirm the eternal divide.
By the time of Frasier, Frasier himself sometimes occupies the narrative woman role, while his producer and his father’s therapist can shift into being part of the boys club. They can play poker and talk about sexy women (from decades earlier, because anything too recent would be crass in a way that Frasier, as a universe, cannot have). Between Cheers and Frasier, Frasier – possibly due to competing with the brother who also lives in the city he moves to – loses all of his boys club membership. He can be an effete elite, but he cannot be a guy.
Frasier cannot be a woman, though, even when the actor portraying him vamps intentionally in riffs on famous women performers, and Carla cannot be an actual man. Roz can be a man in a poker game, but she has to be a straight cishet woman. She can be horny all the time and horny for everything, but when it comes to whether or not she would sleep with Angie Dickinson, it is a case of, “If I had to.”
Frasier accidentally dates his gay boss. Frasier pretends to be gay to impress someone. Frasier advises a bar-friend to pretend to be homosexual for work opportunities.
It has to be play. Misunderstandings. Jokes. Social climbing.
Cheers opens with tonal acknowledgment that class divides are absurd, but a natural order. The bar, the Cheers for which the show is named, is open to anyone, but it is a sports bar, and if we see women alone, they are usually waiting for someone or work there, while men come in alone because they want a drink or it is their hang out or any reason that serves their pleasure first and not someone who will be along shortly or needing a paycheck. An early episode turns on the two dimes and nickel of what could happen if gay men came to Cheers and stayed two, even three hours out of the week. The gag is that the patrons, even the regulars, cannot be certain who is or is not gay, which ultimately is just a message of not standing out if you do not want to be hammered down by heterosexual accountants and mail carriers. But, the episode ends while also closing out even the hint of a queer presence in the bar, or on the show, for years.
Antonio, on Wings, is consistently attracted to men and women. He is enthralled with men and women, but like Karen Walker later, on Will & Grace (both times, as that show had a reboot), Antonio must be reaffirmed as actually straight. He can be bisexual for jokes. He can be trans for jokes. Same, Karen. They both show what seems like genuine and semi-obsessive attraction to the same sex and the other sexes. They both have crossdressing or trans-coded elements in their youth and maybe their present. But, they have to come out straight.
You can act queer. You can feel queer. But, being queer? Only if you want to leave the city by next week.
And, women have to be women and men, men. And, by women, I mean that subsection of this world who exist for the men to make jabs at them being too horny or not horny enough, a slut, not a slut, putting out, not putting out, or crapping on Sharon Stone for no particular reason.
Once someone goes queer aloud and open, each show is over. Diane and Carla as a power couple? Cheers is erased and dominated by that. Wings after Helen comes out or Antonio lives his truth? The Brothers Hacket no longer matter. On Frasier, Frasier always had greater resonance and energy with the men who thought he was gay or for whom he pretended to be. Those relationships could last more than an episode, more than half a season. The beloved farce episode in the ski lodge? If the women were sapphic, Niles hooked up with the ski instructor, and Frasier just stayed in his room, the show could end right there and happy.
This is a world which tries to push pull into centrism, to hit the sweet center demographic and grab a little from both sides. Children and pets are treated special. Woody can have success and happiness with Kelly, because they are grown children. When a parrot dies, on Frasier, the parrot has to come back to life by the end of the episode. When adult human people die, they stay dead.
When the show got political it only demonstrated too clearly that centrism is a fake out. Centrism is a lie
It is a push-pull universe, a universe of balancing tensions. The moral dynamics have to pull the audiences back in any time they distance them.
The eminently singable theme song of Cheers began with much harsher, sharper lyrics than were ultimately after the cold open of every episode. But, they have to prime us. Our entry into the world is cold open with easy gag, cue credits. Credits are charming, warm, inviting, and the play over old-timey paintings because this is a classy program, it’s not just a city bar, it’s got character, it has familiarity, warmth, a seat for you.
Wings distances this into briskness, focusing on the employees and owners of businesses in a small island airport in New England, offering us less of a seat at the bar but also safer jokes, less adult risks. Wings forgoes comforting words in their theme song, for an interpolation of a Franz Schubert sonata. Classy. But, not too.
Class has to beget farce. Stuffiness has to be a way of opening up and making it easier to laugh. Stuffiness is a cloud, a puffed soufflé on which the dessert topping can sit.
Frasier, over its decade and change, tightens the routines and heightens the distance to the degree where the most beloved, best-remembered episodes limit themselves to long stretches in a single set, which Cheers did, but also without pausing the exchanges and interactions between characters to set up new or other jokes. Simultaneity.
That tightening and speeding up, however, means that by the time of the final seasons of Frasier the whim of this world’s prime movers mean that you, as not a central player, will be spun around once – maximum three times – center of the room, shown the door twice, get a funny line, and your life is ended. Or, at least, you never show up again, and what you amounted to was bringing a latte or leaving a brie.
Great for entertainment as a viewer, but would you want to live there?
In a Seattle so far from a cultural hub they have Frasier Crane Day?
Frasier does not abandon its waving to progressives while standing for the conservative, though. That stays from the Cheers days, where liberal is good, acceptance and progress is alright, but deep down we know the left wing politician thinks there are little green men in whooptywoo UFOs and the right wing politician is going to win. Psychiatrists and artsy types are alright, but beat cops know what is what.
The humor is in the tension, but we are supposed to root for Sam Malone, owner of Cheers, when he says he likes fast women, gameshows, and hot dogs – and that rat parts are the favored part of hot dogs. The tension, then, is artificial. Frasier and his brother, Niles, are not actual psychiatrists. They are not dealing with real psychiatry. Sam is a working class former pro baseball player who owns a bar. But, he can’t be money. He is salt of the Earth.
Many many sitcoms utilize a multi-beat excuse for off-color jokes. They create a world that can be devil’s advocated into a kindness, by following a bigoted joke with a snappy response. The bigoted joke, be it racist, homophobic, sexist, always has the longer pause after, the more raucous (canned or sweetened) laugh.
The trick is creating a world which simultaneously reminds audiences of a live stage performance, a traditional situation comedy serial, and increasingly distancing from a seat at the bar to a formalist farce. Artifice. Speed. Warm it.
It is the briskness that allows for jokes to build on jokes and enough warm moments to float us over the deep drops into cruelty or bigotry, but those are because we do not live in the circumstances. We visit for twenty minutes punctuated by commercial breaks or spend an evening with the world running on streaming or disc, but Sam Tanaka lives in that place. Mary Thomas is fully aware she works, shops, and hails cabs in a Frasier Crane world.
It is never, ever, a man taking up for women, a white person saying they are offended by a racist jibe, but always, “Hello! Chinese embassy on line one!” They are still, implicitly, in for the joke, they just know it should not be said where someone like that could hear.
And, that’s a world we have to know how to negotiate.
Waiting on Frasier
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