All In Their Family

Bruce Newman writes regularly for Calendar

They are the Cartwrights of the Me Generation--Ben, Hoss and Little Joe on their blond-wood, urban Ponderosa--Oedipal cowboys for a nervous age. They are sophisticated and intelligent, pompous and snooty, highbrow, low-cal, nonfat, half-caf stuffed shirts. Custom-made shirts.

“They are exactly the kind of people we all like to make fun of,” says co-star Peri Gilpin, referring to the edgy, eponymous hero of “Frasier” and his brother, Niles, who saddle up NBC’s forever Jung comedy every Tuesday night. “But they always come back to what’s really important. They can see right through themselves.”

That latter quality is also evident on the show’s set, and in the writers’ quarters, where egos--alter and super--coexist in the manner of a slightly eccentric family in which each member secretly believes it is the others who are truly crazy. By turns, they are gracious and prone to issuing “dummy up” warnings to each other in pig Latin when things get too frothy in front of a reporter on the set for the week. “Ix-nay on the Irstie-kay Alley-kay,”remonstrated one of the show’s stars, using his fiendishly clever patois to halt a funny story that was being told during rehearsal for this Tuesday’s episode, which was produced in mid-January.


When “Seinfeld” goes off the air at the end of this season, the four-time Emmy-winning “Frasier” will become NBC’s comedy standard-bearer, and already there are nervous murmurings about it being too smart for its own good, too wonky to ever draw huge Middle American numbers. “I sometimes think ‘Frasier’ gets a bad rap for being an intellectual show,” says David Hyde Pierce, who plays the neurasthenic younger brother, Niles Crane.

It seems unlikely, however, that “Frasier” will be dumbing down any time soon. “I am solidly convinced, and I always will be, that the audience is hungry for us to play up to it,” says Kelsey Grammer, the show’s star. “They are engaged by language that is not commonplace. I think they find intelligence fascinating. Most people do. The most interesting thing people do, after all, is think.”


Stage 25 on the Paramount lot has remained the one fixed star in Grammer’s universe, a firmament distinguished by the recurring big bangs of his personal life. “They basically took the ‘Cheers’ set down and sent it to the Smithsonian,” says Gilpin, who plays producer Roz Doyle, “built the ‘Frasier’ set and brought in the four of us to surround Kelsey. It was like joining an existing entity that was part family and part well-oiled machine.”

Grammer is nearing the end of his 14th season playing the same character--he completed the front nine on “Cheers”--which is longer than the life spans of such television icons as Archie Bunker, Hawkeye Pierce, Sheriff Andy Taylor, Uncle Miltie and practically anybody else you might care to name, short of the many incarnations of Lucy, whose Paramount sound stage “Frasier” now occupies. And though Grammer has occasionally sought diversion during this marathon run in liniments and powders that slowed him to a 12-step crawl, he has never sleepwalked his way through a performance.

Unlike most TV actors, Grammer doesn’t try to distance himself from his long-running character. “I’ve been given the opportunity to play what is arguably one of the greatest characters in television [history],” Grammer says, “through which I get to let go of all my juju. And I don’t get bored with him because I, frankly, am not bored with who I am. Frasier goes on his journey of self-discovery, I go on mine, and I loan all of mine to him. All his madness, all his principles, everything about him, I pretty much give that blood. I’m in there.”

And he’s listening. Early last season, the show was forced to shut down production for a month after Grammer concluded a long downward spiral into alcoholism with a short downward spiral into a ditch in his $66,000 sports car. “We shouldn’t sugarcoat it,” says Peter Casey, one of the show’s creators and executive producers. “The last week or two before that were awful, just awful. Everybody was worried, from the studio to the network to us. We were thinking, ‘This should be the greatest opportunity of all our lives, and it looks like it’s about to get washed away.’ ”


Grammer was removed easily from the wreckage of his car, but it wasn’t until later, when members of the show’s cast and production team confronted him, that he was removed from the wreckage of his life. That intervention persuaded Grammer to check himself into the Betty Ford Center.

“It was evident to us that he was going through something,” says Christopher Lloyd, the show’s head writer. “He was late, he would be a little bit grouchier. Never to the point where you’d use the word ‘unprofessional.’ I could put on a tape from the week before he went into Betty Ford and a tape from the week after he got out, and you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. But it was starting to make things a little tenser on the set.”

“They came and let me know that they were affected by what was affecting me,” Grammer says. “I had spent about a decade wrestling with it, going in and out, some days more focused, but then others considerably out. The fact that it could have jeopardized what I do best is a sadness. The fact that we took care of it is a triumph. It sounds overly simplistic to say that I got it finally, but I did.”


Grammer’s demons have either been exorcised, or they have simply been stunned into a state of stupefaction by his life-is-a-banquet approach to rehearsal: an ursine Auntie Mame, suggestively eyeing a platter of pigs in a blanket. Let other actors dig into their characters, Grammer is digging into fresh supplies of sushi, mustard, nachos and onion dip from craft services. “The burger patties and pickles, that’s like every morning,” says Pierce. “I have to say, there were several years when I couldn’t even look at that. And now I’ve started ordering them.”

While rehearsing this week’s episode--titled “Room Service”--with guest star Bebe Neuwirth, Grammer walks into a bedroom scene still munching on something. The script calls for Frasier to embrace his ex-wife Lilith passionately, so Grammer does this, methodically sucking his teeth one by one throughout the clinch. “I just ate some tuna,” he explains to Neuwirth. “I’m sorry.”

“He is a man of strong appetites,” affirms Lloyd. “I’ve traveled in a limousine with Kelsey in New York, and his driver knows to stock the car with peppers and capers. So if capers are standard issue in his limo. . . .” Do the math.


Grammer affects something he calls “requisite disrespect” for rehearsal, a stripping away of all the process’s artifice that bears a striking resemblance to the “think system” used by Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” and has the collateral benefit of holding Grammer’s workweek down to about 15 hours. Though it can lengthen out to a 40-hour week when Grammer starts to discourse on his acting method. “I first started to theorize about requisite disrespect in the late ‘70s . . . ,” he begins.

“Kelsey likes to come in and rehearse a scene once,” Lloyd says. “Other shows, they’re going to rehearse it six times, and six more times the next day. By the time you get around to shooting it, it’s been rehearsed to death.”

Grammer doesn’t actually learn his lines until moments before each scene is shot in front of an audience on Tuesday nights. “In the early days, that used to terrify me,” says director and executive producer David Lee. “But he thinks it makes it more real. And you do get the feeling the words are just occurring to him as he says them.”

It’s more than a feeling. While the show is being filmed, he runs lines between scenes with script supervisor Gabrielle James. “He likes that feeling of near panic,” says James. “When he doesn’t know what he’s going to say, he’ll look at me and say, ‘Damn you!’ ” To calm himself, Grammer inhales deeply. A burrito, say, or a bucket of chicken wings. “I think part of what keeps it fun for him is that he skates on the edge,” Lloyd says. “That’s probably thrilling for him, those two hours.”

Despite the periodic havoc this wreaks (“The poor guest stars always completely freak out,” snickers Gilpin), Grammer demands his requisite disrespect. “So what if I like the act of slipping and sliding a little bit?” he says. “I can be just as focused as a son of a bitch when I have to be. I also know that it makes the show more interesting, actually gives it energy, so that people can spend a decade working on something and have it not get stale.”


One of the running jokes in the episode being rehearsed is a recurring case of narcolepsy from which Niles is suffering. At one point, he nods off with his head in Frasier’s refrigerator. “In real life, [narcolepsy] looks like a sitcom,” observes Grammer. “David’s acting is so good, it looks fake.”

“It’s my gift,” replies Pierce.

After rehearsing a scene in Lilith’s hotel room, Grammer, Pierce and Neuwirth lounge on the furniture and discuss the ways in which the story affects the lives of their characters. This discussion has the ring of group therapy, which may be what you are asking for when you put three psychiatrists in a bedroom farce, except that it is an everyday occurrence at “Frasier.” It is creative democracy in the guise of anarchy, actors challenging the sacred text. On most shows, this is not permitted; the stars simply huddle silently with an executive producer, followed by massive revisions.

“People always talk about what a happy set it is, and I think that goes back to those discussions,” Lee says. “No one feels disenfranchised; everyone feels like part of the process. The only rule we have is that everybody has to say everything out loud and in front of everybody else.”

There is a plot twist in this episode that--despite the obvious humor in it--is troubling to some of the actors. “I feel it’s a shocking violation of our relationship,” Pierce is saying now.

“It’s a wound, no doubt,” Grammer agrees.

On this occasion, nothing in the script is changed as a result of the actors’ remarks. “Those ideas get treated the same way ideas get treated in the writers’ room,” Lloyd says. “They’re lofted out there, and they’re probably not going to work. We’ve got like a 90% failure rate going in our room.”


It’s a tough room. “In any given week, there are so many little deaths that you go through,” says Suzanne Martin, the lone woman on the writing staff. Worst of all is a week in which the script being worked over has your name on it. “Oh, it’s horrible. It’s awful,” Martin says. “You sit in a room with nine people whose opinions you respect, and you just listen to them dissect your work page by page, joke by joke, word by word. They’ll go, ‘We could do better here,’ which is the nice way of saying it stinks, or, ‘I think we can cut all of Page 3,’ and you’re, like, ‘Well, there was a weekend of my life.’ ”

This is the intermittently excruciating, largely unfunny business of collective comedy writing, where every member of the writing staff is listed in the credits as some species of producer or another, except rookie Rob Hanning, who is a story editor. (It has apparently become some sort of disgrace to be known as merely a writer in television.)

At “Frasier,” the week begins on Wednesday mornings, when a freshly minted script is put before the cast and given a cold reading. Some days are colder than others. “We had a table reading once where a joke was put in, I believe it was my joke, that did so badly at the table it was like a bomb and a half,” recalls producer Rob Greenberg. “It was such a bomb that another writer actually gasped, ‘Oh my God!’ But because he was vocal, everyone assumed it was his joke. And I did not speak up.”

The veteran team of Ken Levine and David Isaacs has written “Room Service,” and they are both there to absorb the gales of laughter blowing through the room during the table reading. What they have written is essentially a four-act play, and it is such a strong episode that by the end of the week the producers are already tossing around the word “classic.”

And yet, the idea was hatched two months earlier in the writers’ room, then the scenes in the story were laboriously worked out over a period of days, culminating in a detailed outline that included many of the jokes now in the script. The outline was then handed over to freelance writers Levine and Isaacs, who produced a script in just three days, which was then refortified in the writers’ room before being brought to the table. Throughout the week, what are referred to as “room jokes” are added to the script, though Levine and Isaacs are not part of this process either.

“One of the things that scared me most about television writing was the idea of writing by committee,” says Joe Keenan, the author of two novels before he was hired to work on “Frasier” four years ago. “Sometimes I feel a great sense of authorship because the first draft was very strong and survived, well, not intact, but as close to that as ever happens in TV, which is maybe 70 or 80%.”

It is not exactly “Animal House” in the writers’ room of TV’s most sophisticated sitcom. Supervising producer Jay Kogen is the self-described “bad boy” of the staff, a state of heedless rebellion he achieves by leaving his home in Bel-Air each morning with his shirttail untucked. About as raucous as it ever gets is when they are peeking under Niles’ Freudian slip to come up with one of his foppish double-entendres to Daphne (played by Jane Leeves).

“I felt like I had to tone myself down a little when I came here,” says Martin. “Most staffs you can say anything--the most raunchy, horrible stuff.”

“They don’t go for that here,” says writer Jeffrey Richman, whispering. “It’s like you’re actually in Frasier’s house.”


If “Seinfeld” was famously about nothing, “Frasier” set out from the beginning to be about something very precise: the relationship between an aging father and the grown-up son he never understood. “It was a very prickly relationship at the start of the series,” says executive producer Casey, “purposefully so. I do remember hearing complaints from some quarters that, ‘Gee, they seem to be fighting all the time.’ But that’s what we wanted to do, explore that relationship.”

Along the way to becoming the white-face version of “Sanford & Son,” a funny thing happened. During the cast’s first rehearsal, director James Burrows suggested to Pierce, who had been brought in to play Frasier’s brother based largely on his resemblance to Grammer, that he clean off a chair with his handkerchief before sitting down. “It was a whole facet of the character that just popped out of that one piece of business,” Pierce says.

As Niles grew into what, in sitcom parlance, is known as a breakout character--”It sounds like a skin condition,” sniffs Pierce--the show’s focus shifted to the Brothers Prim. Originally, there was to have been no brother, inasmuch as Frasier had announced to the barflies on “Cheers” that he had no siblings and both his parents were dead. And however perfect the casting may have seemed of an actor who so perfectly embodied Niles that he prissily parted his name down the middle, before the show went on the air, Pierce was frantically petitioning the Screen Actors Guild to restore his name to David Pierce, which was how he had been known as a New York stage actor.

“David Hyde Pierce sounds so snooty,” he says. “Why don’t we just call me Sir David Hyde Pierce and drive a stake through the heart of any chance I have to escape being forever stereotyped as this character?”

Initially, it was the crustiness of Martin Crane (played by John Mahoney) that felt as if it were being written to type. But on a show with so many behind-the-scenes relationships between fathers and sons that at any moment you half-expect a three-legged race to break out, it was those stories that imbued the series with unmistakable heart. The character is actually based on executive producer Casey’s father, John, a 34-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department who, like Martin Crane, spent several years on mounted patrol.

The thoroughbred that “Frasier” has ridden to an unprecedented four consecutive Emmys as best comedy series is its writing, which has been presided over by Chris Lloyd since the show went on the air. His father, David, who wrote for “The Tonight Show” in New York before coming West to write countless episodes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Cheers,” now works under Chris’ supervision pitching jokes two days a week in the writers’ room at “Frasier.”

“Sometimes it’s weird,” says Chris Lloyd, “like that moment when you’re about 9 and your teacher comes over to your house for the first time, and it’s a really weird sight to see your teacher in your house. So now I have my dad in my office.” When David Lloyd was working for Johnny Carson in New York, the writer sitting next to him in the room was often Marty Kogen, whose 34-year-old son, Jay, is often the writer sitting next to him now in the conversational mosh pit at “Frasier.”

Of all the father-son relationships being played out on the show, surely the most intriguing is the one that comes closest to blurring the line between truth and fiction. Grammer grew up without a father, and Mahoney never had any children of his own. The star’s real father, Allen Grammer, was shot to death on the island of St. Thomas in 1968 at the age of 38, after having effectively abandoned his wife and children. “Yeah, he was tragically killed, but I didn’t even really know my father,” Grammer says. “So the sense of loss isn’t anything I can really come to terms with. There’s just a sort of huge hole in my life that I’m now discovering is a hole as a result of having this relationship with John.”

This creates odd--and surely not altogether accidental--resonances in the show, as in this week’s episode when Niles ends a tense scene with Frasier by noting, “We’re an odd little family, aren’t we?” Not since the cri de coeur of Laura Petrie (“Ohhhh Rob!”) has there been such weeping on the set of an American television comedy.

“Sometimes it gets very painful for both of us,” Mahoney says. “Kelsey is an emotional person, and in scenes where we’re talking about the [show’s fictional dead] mother, or about arguments we’ve had, at a table read, sometimes it takes him awhile before he can say the lines. He’ll tear up and he won’t be able to speak. Sometimes it’ll take him the whole week to be able to do it without going to pieces.”

“Oh yeah, we were all aware from the very beginning that this father-son relationship meant a lot more to Kelsey than ‘my sitcom dad,’ ” says Gilpin, whose own father was a longtime radio personality. “If you want to make Kelsey cry, all you have to do is quote Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ All of his feelings are very close to the surface. The father-son thing goes very deep into Kelsey’s core, he takes it very seriously, and it moves him honestly.”


The show has never been afraid to play provocatively with questions of sexual identity, as it did most recently in an episode in which Frasier got involved with a powerful career woman. “It was about him being the girl in the relationship,” says producer-director Lee. At one point, Frasier flounces into the kitchen exclaiming, “Oh dear God, my rosemary bread!”

There has always been talk among the show’s followers that Niles might be so deeply in the closet that even he doesn’t know he’s gay. “I hear that a lot, and usually it’s from gay people,” says Lee, who is himself gay and clearly unamused by the speculation. “I don’t quite understand it, because to me it’s buying into the worst kinds of stereotypes about gay people. ‘He’s erudite, he’s sophisticated, he likes opera and wine, and he dresses well, so he must be gay.’ That’s just tired.”

Two years ago, Joe Keenan inadvertently became the show’s uber gay when he was featured in a magazine article about the influence of prominent TV comedy writers who were also homosexual. (In the writers’ room, this is referred to with some sarcasm as “the gay agenda.”)

At about the same time, Keenan wrote an episode in which the new station manager at KACL, who is gay, thinks Frasier has asked him out. During the course of their “date,” he becomes convinced that not only Frasier but also Niles and Martin, based on their behavior, are gay. “ ‘The Matchmaker’ was all about stereotypes,” Keenan says of that show. “The assumptions made about people based on various cultural clues.”

“Everyone thinks we’re this gay hotbed,” one of the show’s producers says at an end-of-the-workweek gathering at Pinot Hollywood, a popular industry watering hole. “But we’re really just a warm bed.”

The Ponderosa was never like this.

* “Frasier” airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on NBC (Channel 4).