Thursday, April 05, 2012

Who is the real Frasier Crane?

Shows change over time and characters evolve. This generally begins happening when the original showrunners either leave to pursue other opportunities or back off their day-to-day involvement. New writers come on and although they try to be faithful to the series, elements of their sensibilities begin to seep in. It’s only natural. And by the way, sometimes this can be a good thing. Occasionally show improve as a result of the new blood. Many DR. WHO fans feel that way about Steven Moffat’s arrival to that series.

My writing partner, David Isaacs and I once found ourselves in a quandary about how to write FRASIER.

We had been writing the Frasier Crane character since he first joined CHEERS in the third season. We continued to write him for the first few years of his own show. Then we went off to do ALMOST PERFECT for two years.

When that show was unceremoniously dumped by CBS we were invited back on FRASIER. By then Casey, Lee & Angell were less involved than the first few years. Christopher Lloyd and Joe Keenan were essentially running the show... and continuing to win Emmys year after year.  

We met with them and beat out the story for what eventually became the “Room Service” episode. This was season six. Since we had been away from the show for a couple of years we asked to screen some recent episodes. What we discovered was that Frasier Crane had changed. His dialogue became much more florid. His speeches were filled with little ornamentations and curly-cues. Not exactly the Frasier we remembered.

So we were left with a choice. We could either write the “new” Frasier or the character that we were used to.

We decided to write him the way we always had. Instead of trying to out-guess Chris & Joe, we thought “let’s write him our way and they can always rewrite us and add the curly-cues.” So that’s what we did.

To our happy surprise, they didn’t change our Frasier dialogue at all. And when we watched the episode, we were very pleased. First of all, David Lee did a fantastic job of directing it, but beyond that it just felt like the character as we knew him.

We wrote several more episodes of FRASIER over the next few years and it was the same pattern – we went back to our version and they kept it.

Proud to say that David Isaacs and I and David Lloyd are the only writers to have written Frasier Crane from his first year at CHEERS to his last year on FRASIER. And David Isaacs and I are also the only writers to write Frasier Crane in three separate series. We wrote the episode of WINGS in which he appeared. So far this distinction has not resulted in jack shit.  No perks whatsoever.

But the point is you have to write what works for you. And I know that can be tough, especially if you’re on an assignment. Obviously, when writing someone else’s show you have to be as faithful to those characters as you can, but it’s an almost impossible task to out-guess someone. When you’re thinking, “What words would (showrunner’s name here) use in this speech?” you’re digging yourself into a hole. You’re not that person. You’re can’t be in his head. Don’t let him get into yours. Take your shot. You might be surprised. He might even like your take better than his own.


Ronny Bergman said...

And isn't that how you,sometimes by default,may actually be able to maintain a well-loved fictional character's lease of life?.Of course they should evolve but as in real life,to evolve you occasionally have to take two steps back.

By Ken Levine said...

There was a hitch that is now corrected. So comments are again welcome.

By Ken Levine said...

There was a hitch that is now corrected. So comments are again welcome.

Brian Phillips said...

Sometimes you can see a style change when writers/showrunners change. "Mad About You" had its style, for better or worse and then Larry Charles came on board and the episode I saw was fine ("The Recital"), but you could have actually done some swapping here and there and you have been watching a "Seinfeld" episode.

Ronny Bergman said...

Was it me?.. I should have stayed in bed..

Ronny Bergman said... last comment was about the "hitch",not about mr. Phillips' post.

Mike Schryver said...

This explains a lot. I'd wondered why Frasier became much, much more prissy and pretentious as his series moved along.
Several years into the Frasier series, he was almost unrecognizable from the guy who had gone on the snipe hunt. But I guess we all change over 15 years.

Michael said...

Glad to read today that Peri Gilpin is joining CSI in a recurring role as Ted Danson's wife.

An (is my actual name) said...

One of my favorite episodes of Frasier (The Show Where Diane Comes Back) showed a remarkable continuity between Cheers' Frasier and Frasier's Frasier. I had felt I'd lost the thread on Cheers' Frasier for a while, though I still enjoyed the new incarnation, but when Diane turned up, the Frasier of old came rushing back, with hilarious and very touching results. It was wonderful to get more Frasier POV on the whole Diane thing too. I think Christopher Lloyd wrote that one-- just beautifully done and a very satisfying reunion of characters.

*tarazza said...

Love any post about Frasier.

Kirk said...

Frazier became more prissy on his own show? To me, it seemed the opposite. Or maybe he just seemed more of a characture on Cheers and a more complex (and likable) individual on Frazier. I actually thought Niles seemed more like the Cheers version of Frazier.

Janice said...

"Many DR. WHO fans feel that way about Steven Moffat’s arrival to that series."

And many (perhaps even more) Doctor Who fans don't. It was a show for everybody before; now it's back to being a show for little and big boys. Russell T. Davies was very good at writing female characters; his successor, not so much.

Steven Moffat is better suited, I think, to his other series Sherlock, which is flat out brilliant because it lends itself to the puzzles and plot twists Moffat seems to like so much.

Jim McGrath said...

leave some kudos for the actor who played him :) I'd think that Kelsey Grammer was a true professional for not arguing (assumption) about the series of writing changes. Instead, he went ahead and portrayed the character as written... for 20 years and 2 (three) series!

Anonymous said...

My very mOST fav Frasier is the one with everyone in Cyrano noses!

Michael Hagerty said...

Ken: Speaking of CHEERS...something I've always wanted to ask. There was a before-the-credits bit in one episode that I thought was brilliant because it totally explained the character of Coach.

The show opens in the bar with (and I'm fuzzy on the order) Carla kind of absently humming "On The Sunny Side Of The Street"...she passes by Sam, who's behind the bar, and he, again absently, picks up the song from where Carla leaves off as she walks out of frame. Diane walks by, and absently begins humming it, picking it up from where Sam left off.

Diane passes by Coach, theres a beat, and Coach sings:

"I've got spurs that jingle jangle jingle...."

I gotta know...was that one you and David?

Dave Arnott said...

"And David Isaacs and I are also the only writers to write Frasier Crane in three separate series. We wrote the episode of WINGS in which he appeared. So far this distinction has not resulted in jack shit."

For you, maybe, but...

"He [Kelsey Grammer] was the first American actor ever to be nominated for multiple Emmy awards for portraying the same character on three different television shows (Cheers, Frasier, and Wings)."

I think you can take some credit for that... if you want to.

Dan Tedson said...

Great article. I always loved the darker Frasier from Cheers but wasn't too keen on the titular Frasier, pardon my French. Then recently I went back and watched all the Frasier eps that had Cheers characters on them. (Even Nanny G. I'm hardcore.) I was surprised because most of them seemed like the old Frasier I knew and loved. Makes sense now since a lot of them were written by you and David.

Johnny Walker said...

I'm on Season 9 at the moment, and the ornimentations have reached an all-time high. Still enjoying the show, though.

Someone once posted here that they'd heard Frasier had a huge show bible, apparently keeping track of all the details about each of the characters (as show bibles are want to do, I guess).

Well, with that in mind, here's some things I've noticed:

Having watched the show every day for a few month, from Season 1 to 9, I can definitely say that the characters have changed a lot. Martin was introduced as being very conservative. At one point he severely chastises his sons for talking about sex in a "modern" fashion.

In later seasons he loved having a bawdy girlfriend, and always laughs when someone says something risque.

Likewise Daphne started off as more of a kook character, and although that still rears its head from time to time, she's become a lot more normal. (Also, she was undoubtedly psychic in the early seasons -- she was proven correct everytime, much to the annoyance of Frasier.)

Niles has become less OCD.

Roz started off the series having a perfect relationship with her mother (juxtaposing Frasier's difficult relationship with his Dad), but that changed to the complete opposite in later seasons.

I'd love to know what was going on behind the scenes in Season 8 -- the show got horrendously serious at times. Almost to the point where I didn't want to watch it any more. The Lorna/Lana character was incredibly annoying, and it was depressing to spend time with her. Some of the storylines didn't feature any comedy at all (like Martin going to the parole hearing of the person who shot him), but as much as I love drama, it didn't work. It was just miserable.

Happy to see that Season 9 is more of a return to form, even if it doesn't reach the lofty heights of previous seasons.

I actually saw your and David's Season 9 episode last night. Is it just me, or did it take some cues from the classic Bar Wars episode where Gary dies?

Chris O'Connor said...

I have no insight to offer but just want to say that the "Room Service" episode was one of the finest ever up to and including the guy playing the waiter delivering the cart. It is still one of the go to episodes when I think of classic comedy.

Thank you for that

A. Homer said...

I always enjoy your posts on Frasier and Cheers, thanks. Two thoughts to add: one - I thought Frasier always had a consistent DNA, but there was a tuning of characteristics at times, that leads to the different over-manneristic sides, which allowed the series to more easily slip back and forth into farce, which it did so well.
The other thought I had was what you describe about character in sitcom, is even more an issue with well-known, long running cartoon series. The Simpsons stays more consistent even though it could offer many examples, but more quickly to the point is Spongebob as an easy example. Depending on writing, he swings from more normal, mostly adjusted adult-like figure to pure child playing with toys, or gaining ridiculously over the top giggling and fey manners, or more calm, responding by quoting a Jack Benny reference, crossed arms with one hand under elbow and other resting his cheek starehand under elbow, and the worst, where he stands and clears his throat for a while, like Letterman sometimes does on stage. What makes it doubly odd, is that there are different styles in drawing, so you have practically different facial constructions as well. Luckily with Frasier and sitcoms, that stayed more consistent.

Johnny Walker said...

It's interesting. I checked out Spongebob in case it was the new Ren & Stimpy. It wasn't, but I couldn't put my finger on what irked me about the show. You're absolutely right: The titular character didn't have a well defined personality.

I always think that the best characters are those where I can imagine how they'd react in any given situation.

A. Homer said...

"It's interesting. I checked out Spongebob in case it was the new Ren & Stimpy. It wasn't,"

Ren and Stimpy of course, having quite a range of stretchy drawing styles, scales and settings to be classifed as practically a dream. But throughout, their characters are surprisingly consistent.

Michael said...

A thought about the Frasier episodes. Not to diminish the Levine & Isaacs touch, because I'm not, but I wonder if part of it could be easily justified or argued as being like studies of behavior at school reunions. When these happen, the nerd returns to being the nerd, the cheerleader acts like the cheerleader, etc. Frasier would be different on his home turf in Seattle among his family members, but he might act a certain way around old friends from Boston. I suspect that had absolutely nothing to do with what Ken and David were doing, but it's a thought to ponder, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me if you've answered this before but was there ever any thought about Frazier ending up with Roz?

Thomas M. said...

This is very interesting and I love frasier on both Cheers and Frasier. And I do notice the difference between them in general.

But, and I may be the only one who needs this, I would have loved some examples in the post. How they would write a Frasier line vs how you and Isaacs would do it.

That episode is a series highlight for me btw.

Simon said...

Another fascinating entry regarding Frasier, thank you. I remember watching "Room Service" for the first time here in the UK and was blown away by how it managed to be so funny and compelling.

paul said...

I love both shows, but i feel like there was some big changes to frasier's character. Were you invovled with the writing of the series of Frasier in its first few years or did they ask you back and what season because i want to see if there was a difference? I kind of got confused about that part. Like i know frasier changed a lot. Like in cheers he would eat fast food and drink beers, but in frasier all he ate was fancy food. Could one explanation be he spent a good time with niles who was all fancy and stuff and got into the fancy business?

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this!
However, "Room Service" was season five, not six. One of my absolute favourite episodes.

roddy said...

I've been watching Frasier reruns lately and cannot believe how Daphne changed overnight after marrying Niles. She lost her zip, humour and quirkiness completely and became a dreary, angry, slouching haus frau! I did watch the series when it first ran, and must have missed those later shows. What gives? Why was Daphne more or less "killed off", and why on earth were Daphne's and Roz's hair lengths and styles almost identical? Just wondering.
Robin Hardy
toronto, canada