Wednesday, December 06, 2006

How FRASIER came to be

While I’m in New York, I have a guest blogger. Be nice to the substitute teacher, kids.

A number of readers have asked about the creation of FRASIER. Instead of giving my version, which has ME responsible for the whole thing, I asked Peter Casey, one of the show’s creators if he wouldn’t mind telling you the real story. Not only was he gracious enough to say yes but he filed a wonderfully detailed and comprehensive account. There’s even stuff that I didn’t know… and I was there. Enjoy!


Hello, everybody from beautiful Los Angeles, California. Peter Casey here, co-creator of FRASIER. I want to thank Ken Levine for offering me this space on his blog and I especially want to thank those of you who showed such interest in the creation of FRASIER.

As best I can recall, and these days that’s a real iffy proposition, we (David Lee, David Angell, and myself) were approached by Kelsey Grammer in the spring or summer of 1993. He wanted to know if we would be interested in creating a new tv series in which he would star. He felt that CHEERS was coming to an end and it was time for him to have his own show. At the time, the three of us were working on our first creation, WINGS. The previous season on WINGS, Kelsey and Bebe Neuwirth had been guest stars on a very funny episode written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs. We had worked for a number of years with Kels on CHEERS, and he apparently enjoyed the WINGS experience and hoped that we could re-unite.

David, David, and I had always felt that the Frasier character was the most interesting and complex on CHEERS. However, we were skittish about doing a spin off of one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. When we had created WINGS, most of the reviews were favorable, but the phrase, “CHEERS in an airport” was mentioned a few times and not in a favorable fashion. We frankly feared that anything we created for Frasier would pale in comparison to CHEERS. Kelsey wasn’t particularly interested in continuing the character of Frasier either, so we came up with a new concept. Kelsey would play this very high-brow, eccentric multi-millionaire publisher (think Malcom Forbes) in New York who was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident. He would run his publishing empire from his bed in his fabulous Manhattan penthouse. His live-in nurse would be a very street smart, dedicated Hispanic woman (we pictured Rosie Perez) who would be a thorn in his side, but bring out the humanity in him.

Kelsey liked it, Paramount hated it. They said we were crazy if we didn’t capitalize on the popularity of CHEERS and the huge audience that would tune in to the finale. They ultimately persuaded Kelsey they were right and when he told us he was willing to do the CHEERS spin-off, we reluctantly agreed.

Okay, we’d do a CHEERS spin-off, but there was no way it was going to stay in Boston. NBC was enamored of this scheduling stunt called the crossover. A crossover is when a character from one series “crosses over” and appears as that character on another series. We did it on WINGS with Norm and Cliff and also with Frasier and Lillith. It was logical because Nantucket is not that far from Boston and we were struggling some in the ratings. It gives the show a temporary bump in the numbers, but you frankly don’t feel good about yourself. You’d like your show to succeed on its own merits and not need a boost from another show. We only did those two on WINGS, but we felt if Frasier stayed in Boston, NBC would be demanding guest appearances from all the CHEERS cast throughout the first season. How could we form our own identity and make people forget we were offspring of CHEERS if those characters were constantly visiting Frasier? So, we decided to move Frasier out west.

Our original city was Denver, but soon after that decision the state of Colorado voted in a law, with which we disagreed, that was very unfavorable toward gays. So we decided to move Frasier even farther west. Kids, it doesn’t get much farther west than Seattle. Ultimately, it was a much better choice. Seattle was pretty cutting edge at that time. It was the center of the grunge scene, the coffee revolution was taking off, it had a great arts community, and their restaurants were exploring new and exciting cuisines. All in all, it was fertile ground for Frasier and an inconvenient schlep across the country for the CHEERS gang. We didn’t have a problem having Lilith visit because she was his ex-wife and they shared a son. It was organic. The other characters would take some fancy footwork, but after the show established itself that first season, we didn’t have a problem doing one CHEERS character a season.

The original concept was for Frasier to work in the radio station surrounded by a group of wacky, yet loveable characters. (The term “wacky, yet loveable” is music to the ears of the network execs. “Stern, yet despicable” gets you shown the door) This idea came from a story idea at CHEERS which we were never able to make work where Frasier sat in for a local Boston radio host. We didn’t want to have Frasier in a private practice because we felt like it would look too much like the BOB NEWHART SHOW. Yet, the more we worked on the radio station concept, it sounded like WKRP IN CINCINNATI. What to do? Well, like a lot of writers we went to our own lives for material. David Lee’s father had recently had a stroke and David, being an only child, was helping his mother by taking on a lot of the responsibility of arranging the care for his disabled dad.

One day David came into the office and pitched the idea of Frasier having to care for an ailing, aging parent, something many people Frasier’s age were facing. We could keep the radio station, but now add a home life. David Angell and I both liked this idea immediately. We had seen very little of Frasier’s home life in CHEERS so this seemed to open up the possibility for lots of stories. Frasier didn’t have much of a family history so we pretty much had free rein to create what we wanted. (It was only after we were in rehearsals for the pilot that Kelsey mentioned that he had said his father was a research scientist in a episode of CHEERS which was produced after the three of us had left the show. At that point we pretty much said, “Screw it. We’re not changing our concept . We’re moving on”)

To create Frasier’s father we wanted to have someone very different than Frasier. Those differences create conflict; conflict creates humor, so we came up with Martin, a down-to-earth, no-nonsense ex-policeman. (We took Martin’s career out of my life. Both my father and grandfather were San Francisco policemen) Initially, some people said how do two such sophisticates as Frasier and Niles come from a guy like Martin? We told them the truth…David Lee is every bit as different from his father as the Cranes.


Tomorrow, the story behind Niles.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for the origin of Frasier. The show was instantly an extension of Cheers, and yet not CHEERS II. Always good to see how an excellent series emerges after all the cooks pour their recipes into the soup. I used to live in Denver, by the way, and Seattle is a better place to use for the series.

Anonymous said...

Talk about your the Boston station that carries FRASIER is airing the "Cheerful Goodbyes" episode, where Dr. Crane returns to Beantown and runs into Carla, Norm and Cliff.

Anonymous said...

logic and geography were enough to keep 'crossover' requests at bay?

live and learn!

doggans said...

An enjoyable and informative post, Mr. Casey. I don't know if you will read any of these replies, but I would like to thank you for your hand in creating one of the funniest, smartest, all-around greatest TV shows of all time, even if I have to stay up so late to catch the reruns that I usually oversleep for class the next morning.

Anonymous said...

Cool. You make it seem so simple.

I'm waiting for Niles.

Mr. McBastard said...

what do you think would have happened had George Wendt, not Kelsey Grammer, approached Peter Casey et al about a Cheers spinoff?

maven said...

This is such a treat! It's so fascinating to see how the show evolved. "Frazier" is definitely a stand alone classic! Can't wait to read the next installment!

Anonymous said...

And as I type this, Lifetime is running the Levine/Isaacs classic "Room Service" episode...following on of my other faves, "The Ski Lodge" farce.

Thank you one and all for "Frasier"

Mapeel said...

Yup. "Room Service" is one of those AMAZING full-length, 3-act plays in 22 minutes. One of my favorites. Can't wait for the Niles installment.

Mike Barer said...

I think that some of that was featured on E True Hollywood stories. I remember meeting David Hyde Pierce when they did the Seattle on location shoot. He seemed exactly like his character. I think it was an excellent ensemble cast.

Anonymous said...

Back when Cheers was in production I knew people who knew people working on Cheers. I remember someone telling me at the time that Kelsey Grammer was originally hired for a small story arc on Cheers and that one reason the producers made him a regular character is because Shelly Long didn't like him and, by then, the producers weren't too thrilled with her.

Of course it all worked out for the best... well at least for Kelsey Grammer and Kirstie Alley.

Anonymous said...

Ken, great idea for a blog "substitute hitter", these entries on Frasier just fit perfectly alongside your own. I am looking forward to read about Niles.

Beth Ciotta said...

Ken, have a great trip. Mr. Casey, thank you for being here and sharing such a wonderful tale. I'm a great fan of Fraiser and Wings. Loved this post and very much look forward to tomorrow!

Anonymous said...

From 1978 to 1982, I was at Emerson College in Boston. The folks at the Bull & Finch pub (the one that inspired Cheers), would keep my electric typewriter in a closet and let me in before they opened so I could finish whatever paper was due that day.

I remember the early days of the show felt very much like the bar itself and I would delude myself into thinking that I had some part in inspiring the show. In hindsight, at best, I might have inspired one of the extras who regularly got told off by Rhea Pearlman.

Anonymous said...

Great read, looking forward to tomorrow's entry!

Anonymous said...

"Frasier" is quite a gem - I've grown tired of "Seinfeld" and "Simpsons" reruns, and have turned to "Frasier" lately. It is wonderful, and quite different from "Cheers". Peter, BTW, the three seasons you and your partners were running "Cheers" (Shelley Long's last two years and Kirstie Alley's first) were the peak of that terrific show. These are the seasons I own on DVD. After you left, the characters became coarser and less nuanced, and the show wasn't as witty. It was never the same.

Anonymous said...

Yowza! Need more!

Was Jane Leeves noticed from her "seinfeld" run as Marla the virgin?

How did Lisa Kudrow eventually lose out on Roz?

When did y'all come to realize that "Cheers" had also featured Frasier's mother? I know that you 'ret-conned' Niles (i.e., on "Cheers" Fraier had told the gang that he was an only child, and in "Frasier", when Sam visited, Sam told Niles this, to Frasier's chagrin.) How 'concious' were you in addressing his mother?

I really don't mean to nitpick - but I was a Cheers devotee from the moment I saw the breaking-glass promos during the final "Taxi"s. And I fully bow to you in keeping my devotion all the way through the "Frasier" run as well. You did everything right and created a show that stood proud in its own right. "AfterMASH" it ain't, to put it lightly. (Boy, that show must have haunted you during development!)

Anonymous said...

Tremendous stuff. As a long-time summer Nantucketeer I have a complex viewing relationship with 'Wings,' but 'Frasier' was catnip all the way. This guest post is as good as the recent Comedy Conversation at The M. of T. & R. with the Charles Brothers and Jimmy Burrows. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Casey – thanks for the great post…

Was hoping you might be up for fielding a question:

There’s clearly a difference in the type of humor we’re getting in shows like “The Office”, “Earl”, and “Two and a Half Men” vs. the type of humor we got in shows like “Cheers”, “Wings”, and “Frasier”.

For me, the latter type of humor is funnier and, for lack of a better term, timeless. Where as the former is a bit more graphic, gag driven, and will perhaps have a much more limited shelf-life because of it.

In your opinion, is the difference in types of humor driven by networks, show creators, audiences, some combination there of, or something completely different?

Thanks for answering it if you can. And if you can’t, I understand.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating! And I must confess, from a viewer stand-point I love the cross-overs. I've always wondered why they're not done more often. Now I know - the writers eschew it.

(I suppose I can understand why though)

Great story! Looking forward to more.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for recruiting Peter, Ken! I greatly enjoyed reading about the origins of "Frasier," and I look forward to more--Niles and beyond. The talented cast and great writing (for most of the seasons, except maybe the last couple) easily put "Frasier" in the same classic category as "Cheers", "Mary Tyler Moore", etc.

Anonymous said...

I've still got some catching up to do. Once, in maybe the third season, I sat my butt down on the couch with a sandwich in front of the t.v.

on the t.v. was a McDonalds commercial featuring Frasier (in substance) at a drive through ponitificating over his Egg McMuffin.

I haven't watched the show since. In that split second I got sick and tired of that character. now, I don't begrudge anybody a living and it's probably my loss.

I just wanted to get that off my chest. I'm not really a writer, I'm just a guy with a butt and a couch. No Egg McMuffin commercials, that's all I'm asking.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea the ski lodge episode was Levine/Isaacs. "What arr you doeeng with zees lesbians?" Were Levine and Isaacs behind the creation of Cheers' Henri, as well? If so, they've got a thing for Frenchmen who still dress like beatniks.

It's interesting that Kelsey Grammar was more amenable to doing a spinoff than the writers considering how some actors worry about being too closely associatied to a role. On the hand, I'd bet he's happy not to have been confined to a wheelchair for 11 seasons.

By the way, the is an episode where a young Frasier and Niles are sitting in a school cafeteria and Niles says "this is the hardest roll since Hamlet". Who takes credit for that line? It's awesome.

Anonymous said...

As long as you are pinch hitting for Ken about a three-poster on 'Wings' next?

What ever happened to Farrah Forke?

Anonymous said...

I know she had silicon breast implant related health problems (according to IMDB anyway) but that's really all I've heard about her?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, Peter. Here in the UK, Channel Four are running Will and Grace followed by double Frasier each morning. Nature's anti-depressant.

Anonymous said...

Excellent account and very interesting. Nice to get the story from "the horse's mouth." Looking forward to more!

Anonymous said...

You know that individual writers rarely write their own episodes. It's mostly collaboration, and sometimes the gang of producers do rewrites on stage if a line doesn't produce a laugh from the studio audience. I'd bet the two Davids and Peter had a heavy hand in the "Ski Lodge" episode.

Dave Olden said...

"Instead of giving my version, which has ME responsible for the whole thing,"

Ken, had you have put up that posting, I would have been totally entertained with Peter's responses. I would have invited friends, made heaps of popcorn, and maybe even had a betting pool.

Sigh. That game got rained out.

But hey, Peter, your origin postings were great.

And for you and Ken, and all the gang at "Frasier," thanks for making one of the best sitcoms ever.

Do it again, please.

-- Dave O

Anonymous said...

ken, thanks...
it's been fun for all of us...

Anonymous said...

I followed a link from Mark Evanier's to see this and I'm glad I did. I loved Cheers and was a devoted Frasier viewer for its entire run.

That Wings episode felt like a Frasier-and-Lilith pilot to me when it first aired, so much so that I included it with that season's Cheers episodes, which I was taping to save at the time.

Anonymous said...

I love true stories about make believe. Not that I buy Soap Opera Digest or anything.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Casey:

Just another note of thanks -- for FRASIER.

I loved the show throughout its run and recently started TIVOing episodes to enjoy while gearing up to screenwrite.

Judy Potocki

Anonymous said...

I love this background on one of my favourite shows of all time! I want to say, however, I did stop watching the season you hooked Niles up with Daphne at her wedding, and not really because of the pairing as much as the dilema that was created after the actress had her baby and the hokey storyline that covered up for her fat state. I rolled my eyes a lot and finally stopped tuning in. Something about that didn't work for me; it was almost insulting to me on some level despite my desire never to be pregnant or be that fat. Dunno.

Despite the need to write that particular plot device/storyline on your parts, I want to say that the writing remained as rapid fire, snappish, fresh and hilarious in those final seasons as it did in the first season, and that's no minor feat. I appreciate all of the hard work that went into that show - esp. the writing and acting. I'm very much looking forward to making you even richer through my purchases of all the Frasier series on DVD in the very near future.

A fan of your work,

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Anonymous said...

As a stodgy law professor, I can safely say that Frasier is one of the few shows I actually watched and looked forward to watching on television (along with the history channel, nat-geo, Discovery, etc.) I have only felt that a handful of "sitcoms" have been worth wathcing--the two Bob Newhardt shows, Andy Griffith, Seingfeld, and Will and Grace--but I agree with British Channel 4 that Frasier was the best sit-com of all time. Although I have little use for most Hollywood writers, espeically those who write for movies produced in the lst 25 years (since the time special effects have dominated over good writing and story-telling) I have always been veryimpressed with the writing for those shows--espeically Frasier. I don't know how they do it, frankly, and would be most interested in a special of some sort describing how they do do it.