There is a line in “Caught in the Act,” one of the final episodes of Frasier, that gets a huge laugh from the audience. It is, perhaps, the biggest studio laugh in the history of the show, and that’s accounting for over 200 episodes of television. Frasier Crane has run into his first ex-wife, Nanette, who makes her living as a children’s singer and performer called “Nanny G.” At one point, in a fit of frustration, she exclaims, “Do you know what it is like to play the same character for 20 years?!” On its surface, and devoid of context, this is not a terribly funny line. But the hilarity stems from the fact that for 20 years, everybody in that audience had been watching Kelsey Grammer play Frasier Crane. It was a metatextual shout-out to the man who was, soon, going to be leaving behind the character that defined him (sorry, Sideshow Bob fans). Kesley Grammer is Frasier Crane. He made him into one of the most indelible sitcom characters of all time, thanks not only to his longevity, but also to the gusto with which Grammer managed to play him, even when he was well over a decade into the role.
Grammer’s twenty year-long performance set a record for one actor playing a single character on television until Richard “The Belz” Belzer bested him (and James Arness, who was tied with Grammer) with his seemingly neverending portrayal of Dr. Munch on a variety of shows. Frasier made his first appearance in the first part of the two-parter “Rebound,” the third season premiere of Cheers. The episode aired September 27, 1984. While Cheers is considered a juggernaut now, one of the most popular, beloved sitcoms of all-time, it actually took a little while for the show to find its legs, in terms of an audience. By the third season, though, Cheers began to take off, with Grammer now along for the ride as the show’s regular cast began to expand.
For the first couple of seasons, Frasier was only a recurring character. He appeared in the role of a psychiatrist to help Sam Malone, the show’s ostensible lead, or at least the first amongst equals, and also as a love interest for Diane Chambers. He ended up, naturally, jilted by Diane, but by then he was established in the world of that bar. Frasier, and Grammer, brought a new energy to the ensemble. Most of the patrons at the bar were not especially bright. Diane was fairly smart, but her role in the show was very different, and Shelley Long left the series after five seasons. Without Frasier, the bar would have consisted of nothing but lunkheads and the faux intellectual Cliff Clavin. Frasier, in his role as a psychiatrist, was there to provide insight, which included pointing out the faults of others. And of course, Frasier had a pompous air about himself that resulted in his own amusing flaws.
Grammer has made a living out of being haughty in his performance. He’s a ham, but a wonderful ham. His scenery chewing has always fit into the world of the multi-cam sitcom, or voice acting and his energy was vital to Cheers. It’s also important to consider whether or note, without Frasier, we would have Lilith. Presumably not, and a world without Lilith in it is not one worth contemplating. Bebe Neuwirth emerged as a perfect foil to Frasier, and watching the two characters snipe at each other, whilst in love or otherwise, was always a delight. Though Grammer didn’t show up on Cheers until its third season, and wasn’t a main cast member until Season Five, he still appeared in 204 episodes—as in, more episodes than anybody else, other than Sam, Carla, Norm and Cliff. Throughout his time, Grammer was nominated for two Emmys. It was a fine run that could have ended there, and Frasier Crane would have been an indelible characters, just like Norm and Cliff. His name would have always come up, during those arguments about who your favorite Cheers barfly was. The series ended in May of 1993, but the legacy of Dr. Frasier Crane was just beginning to unfold. September of that very same year, Frasier began its run.
Spinoffs were once much more prominent, at least in the world of sitcoms, but they are always a tricky proposition. Of all the Cheers characters, Frasier was the most sensible choice to try and branch out into new territory. There was a lot of complexity to his character, and his character possessed the clearest life outside the bar. Unless you really wanted to see Cliff deliver mail, it was going to have to be Frasier. But it was still a tricky proposition. Those behind the series didn’t want Frasier to play like The Bob Newhart Show, so he wasn’t going to be able to have a regular practice. Thus, he ended up at a radio station. However, because they didn’t want it to be like WKRP in Cincinnati, he had to have a home life as well. On Cheers, Frasier was married with a child, and they didn’t want Frasier playing dad with a kid around all the time. So, between Cheers and Frasier, Frasier got divorced offscreen, Lilith kept custody of Frederick, and Frasier was moved to Seattle, to get him away from Boston. This allowed Frasier to inhabit a whole new world.
Cheers is one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, but somehow, Frasier is a better show. It’s probably the best multi-cam sitcom of all time—that rare spinoff that overshadows its origin source, and that source is really impressive in its own right. There are a lot of reasons for this. The supporting cast is fantastic, with the likes of David Hyde Pierce as Frasier’s brother Niles, Peri Gilpin as his producer Roz, John Mahoney as the blue collar Crane patriarch Martin and Jane Leeves as Daphne. The writing is so sharp, and while Frasier is a very high brow show, filled with high culture references and intellectualism, it’s also a very silly farce, where stuff like exploding cherries jubilee happens. It’s a show about an upper class intellectual snob who works as a psychiatrist, and yet it’s relatable and warm and wonderful. It’s a mass of seemingly contradictory elements that come together perfectly.
But at its core, it’s Grammer’s portrayal of Frasier that makes this show so fantastic. After a while, it became hard to separate the man from the character. As previously stated, Grammer is Frasier, almost. It was the perfect role for him. He got to use his mellifluous voice perfectly. He got to yell and freak out and make strained faces. He threw himself all over the set. Grammer gave it all to play Frasier, and he was rewarded for it, winning four Emmys, out of the 37 total Emmys the series won. Frasier Crane would have been a well-known character simply from having been on Cheers, but obviously it’s Frasier that made him one of the most iconic characters in television history. The show, despite being a spinoff, ran or 11 seasons and 264 episodes, ending in 2004. On occasion, Cheers characters would appear on Frasier, and Lilith recurred infrequently, but Frasier was mostly its own thing. It did not coast on our love for Cheers. It created love for Frasier. And it miraculously allowed Grammer to play one character for 20 years, without us getting tired of it.
Longevity is always notable, but it is not always impressive. What makes Grammer and Frasier so worthy of laudations is that Frasier was great fun to watch for two decades. We were willing to follow him to a whole new world, and stay there for over 250 episodes, because of how well-crafted the character was, and because of the life he breathed into it. Perhaps Nanny G’s exclamation was, at least in part, a reflection of what Grammer felt at the time. Perhaps it was time, as far as he was concerned, to retire Frasier. Nothing lasts forever (even if, these days, The Simpsons seems to argue otherwise). When it ended, though, we were left with almost 500 episodes of television featuring Grammer in the role of a snobby psychiatrist that we grew to love. There is so much Frasier out there, and all of it serves as a reminder of the excellence of the character, and the actor who brought him to life. Grammer’s 20-year run as Dr. Frasier Crane is one of the most notable, impressive things in TV history. Goodnight, Seattle.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.