Saturday, March 01, 2014

The inside story of the Niles silent scene

A few years ago I ran a couple of Comedy Tests.  I would show classic sitcom scenes and get your reaction.   One was the classic David Hyde Pierce silent scene from FRASIER.  David Lee, the co-creator of FRASIER was nice enough to share the whole backstory of the DHP scene used as Comedy Test Part 2. For those who don't read the comments, I thought I'd repost it so everyone can see.

Thanks much, David.

Several thoughts from David Lee.

Prize goes to the poster who said it reminded him/her of Mr. Bean. I had recently been introduced to his work and loved a lot of it. I told DHP that I would like to do something like that for him on the show. Couldn't really come up with anything for a while (we didn't want to crib the "turkey on the head" bit,though that wasn't a concern of another sit-com on the air at the time. I do remember in the room having trouble breaking a Valentine story and hitting upon the idea of doing three short stories instead. Two of them involved every character except Niles, so the idea of something for him alone came up. Then the Mr. Bean thought, and then the fire idea. I remember distinctly that once we hit upon that, the details of it came together very, very quickly in the room.

Because of safety concerns, the scene was filmed without the usual studio audience. ( It was played to a studio audience later, and those are the laughs you hear). It also had to be done in bits and pieces. The problem is, when there is only one person on stage, what do you cut to? That's where the dog came in--not out of an attempt to be cutsie--but rather to be able to piece it all together.

And of course, as many have said, none of it would have worked without the brilliance of DHP. A wonder he is.

And to the poster who wondered who would make all those mistakes with an iron, fire extinguisher and cleaning materials: how about someone who never or seldom uses them?
A side note now that my memory has been shaken: This was the episode that caused a showdown with the network. We had been complaining that they were giving away plot points and great jokes in their promos for quite awhile, and we knew that every promo would for this episode would be nothing but flames galore. So we did not deliver this piece of it until the day of broadcast. Apoplectic, they were. Lawsuits threatened, even. But they finally came up with a better promo that said something like "The producers of Frasier think this episode is so special, they won't even let us see it."

Now back to my couch.

Once again, thanks to David Lee for posting this originally in the comments section. Check out the comments, folks. They're often times better than the posts.


John said...

Friday question based on this: On varying levels of irksomeness, what's more annoying -- the network executives who fancy themselves as creative types and try to micro-manage everything, or the network promo departments that reveal a show's best gags in previews before the episode runs (and sometimes write copy around those gags that gives them a completely different context than how they're actually used in the episode)?

James Prichard said...

The scene is one of my favorites of all the Frasier episodes. I always wondered whether it took place on the actual set or a replica, since so much damage was done to it with the fire and the smoke and the extinguisher shooting all over the place. What a mess it must have been to clean up.

Question Mark said...

While I enjoy all three of the vignettes in this episode, I can't help but wonder if it would've been a better move to switch the order. The Niles bit was just so brilliant that it made the other two stories seem like afterthoughts.

Maybe have the Frasier/Roz story go first, and then Daphne/Martin and then save Niles for the big finish? Or maybe Niles' story in the middle and then Daphne/Martin as the cute, low-key closer?

Anonymous said...

I went back and watched the video you posted in 2010, and you asked if this will be funny in 2030 or 2040. Frankly, I don't think it's funny in 2014.

Obviously, I've never seen a Ken Levine-penned episode, but I'm nearly positive I have never laughed once at a Frasier joke. It boggled my mind back in the 90s that the show could win Emmy after Emmy. It was one of the least likable shows on television.

Frankly, I'd take 2 Broke Girls over Frasier any day. Of course, all high-minded Frasier fans will say that's my lack of taste. And that's why Frasier wasn't funny.

Stephen Robinson said...

And to the poster who wondered who would make all those mistakes with an iron, fire extinguisher and cleaning materials: how about someone who never or seldom uses them?


SER: I have noticed this in my writing group when members will question something a character has done. Someone shows up at a birthday party with a hastily wrapped gift and the reader response is, "Who doesn't know how to wrap a gift or can't just pay to have it wrapped?" Well, this person doesn't and that's what the scene tells us about him.

I know it can go too far, when characters serve the jokes and situations, but I think that fails only when it's out of character.

The Niles scene works perfectly, I think, for that reason. It's all in character. I think it holds up because the events and how he handles him demonstrates his character. I suppose I don't understand the objection that you'd have to know Niles was a hypochrondiac to find it funny that he passes out at the sight of his own blood or is so fastidious that the entire crisis starts because he can't bear a barely noticeable crease in his pants. The scene makes all those traits very clear, especially thanks to DHP's stellar performance.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Stephen: agreed. I thought it was obvious that everything Niles was trying to do was normally done for him by a maid. Similarly, I have a friend who cannot wrap gifts at all elegantly to save his life. It's the thought that counts...


Don Graf said...

Always enjoy the your blog and the comments. Friday question (based on the assumption that you watched a lot of TV shows and classic movies during your youth):
Who would be on your All-Star team of character/supporting actors from the 50's and 60's?

Bob Leszczak said...

This and the one with Niles caring for the sack of flour are his most brilliant moments. The show was ALWAYS of a quality at which I marveled. This kind of quality is missing today. FRASIER is one of my TOP FIVE all-time favorite sitcoms

Jay said...

@Question Mark: I've always had the same reaction. The other two stories, good as they are, seem too low-key and rather anti-climactic after the wildly funny opener with Niles.

Breadbaker said...

I notice that Kelsey Grammer directed the episode, but who directed Moose? As David Lee points out, you need him to have someone's reaction, but some of the things that happen to him, most dogs would have fled the place instead of looking on in curiosity. Some great dog-wrangling; who wrangled him?

P.S. The captchas on this site are harder than the ones for donations to charity. What does that say about society?

DBenson said...

I can understand the fear of promos. Some years ago I stumbled into a nice, trashy TV movie about a vampire loose in a hospital. A couple of times within every commercial break they'd ID the movie with a shot of a nurse character as a sex bomb Vampira ready for the kill. Soon I realized this was supposed to be a mystery, and the Vampira shot was meant to be the huge surprise reveal at the end. It was fun to imagine the movie's creators watching the broadcast and seeing that shot fifty times before it appeared in context.

Dbenson said...

One more favorite Niles moment:

Frasier and newly-unattached Niles are spending a weekend with two attractive women in a cabin, trying to sound out whether there will be co-ed bunking. Things are going very, very well. Niles manages to ruin it for both of them.

Episode ends with Frasier sleeping on the coach and Niles curled up on the floor. Frasier wakes up, sees Niles looking uncomfortable, and walks over with a pillow. He whacks Niles with it, and Niles wakes up in a glorious display of spastic alarm.

Pat Reeder said...

To Anonymous: If you seriously think that "Two Broke Girls" is better than "Frasier," I can readily understand why you'd want to hide your identity. My wife sort of liked "Two Broke Girls" at first, so I gave it a try for a while. The quality started out mediocre and quickly descended into painfully awful. There are no characters on that show, just walking delivery systems for set-ups to grindingly obvious sex, drug and potty jokes. For instance, anytime the guy who works in the kitchen shows his face, I know that within five seconds, he's going to made a crude reference to his genitals.

It eventually became so bad that when I'm time-shifting "How I Met Your Mother" and get even a small piece of it lodged in the memory of the DVR like a raspberry seed in a molar, I dive for the remote to fast-forward so I don't have to see even a single second of it. My wife, who actually started out thinking it had promise, now feels the same way. Apparently, so does much of America, since CBS idiotically thought it was a tentpole series and moved it to 8 pm Central, but the ratings quickly forced them to retreat.

BTW, I have no animosity toward Whitney Cummings and don't mind a little of her off-color style of humor. I actually defended her own sitcom on these boards and thought it had greatly improved when it was canceled. But "Two Broke Girls" just sank to the bottom of the barrel and starting eating through into the subterranean rocks. And to those who think the posters on here just suck up to Ken, please be assured that even if "Cheers," "MASH" and "Frasier" had never existed, "Two Broke Girls" would still be a giant, steaming pile of excrement.

Sorry if I've offended anyone who writes for that show, but you shouldn't be leaving anonymous posts on here.

Hamid said...

Anonymous, if that is your real name, your comment suggests that you watched a lot of episodes of Frasier in order to say it never once made you laugh, in which case I have to ask why you continued watching a sitcom that had never made you laugh.

Regarding promos giving away the best jokes, this is the continuing problem with movie trailers. If you go to the cinema quite frequently, as I do, you can end up seeing the same trailer dozens of times, and by the time you see the actual movie, if it's a comedy, the best jokes have already been spoiled. Trailers for thrillers tend to show every dramatic beat of the story to the extent that you know what the turning points in the plot will be. Worst example of this was the trailer for Obsessed. I haven't seen the film. I don't need to, the trailer told me everything, right down to the actual climax.

Darryl said...

Hamid, kindly stop encouraging trolls, won't you? That's a good chap. You see, any sort of response to their silly rot is the life's blood upon which they feed.

Brian Fies said...

A small contribution: the YouTube link below has the scene (no doubt illegally, but nothing's perfect). I've had it bookmarked for many months because I still enjoy watching it once in a while. It's a marvel. Thanks for the insight.

DrBOP said...

I think you'd lose future viewers, if not younger people today, at the appearance of that spindly table thingy...."What's THAT thing?" "It's an ironing board" "What's THAT?" "It's what you use to iron your clothes on." "What's an iron?".....etc.

I've impressed a couple of younger female companions with my ability to whip a shirt, or one of their blouses, around an ironing board making the piece of clothing like new again. Then I ____ __ silly.

Sorry, I couldn't do it.....this is kind of a "family blog" after WAS just layin' there, but......DOH!

I'll stop now.

Cheers, and sip ahoy!

(And captcha is "oop mends and")

Barry said...

I probably read the original post 4 years ago but didn't remember it until this follow-up. My problem with the scene wasn't so much that Niles should have/shouldn't have known how to use an iron or fire extinguisher, but that the eventual disaster was telegraphed from the moment he set the iron down. Through all the string pulling and the fainting and the spot cleaning, I knew at some point that iron was going to catch the pants on fire. It's such an old gag I found myself distracted from the other bits waiting for the inevitable moment when flames started leaping up.

Now I'm no expert on slapstick comedy, and I'm sure Ken could offer more detailed analysis of what works and what doesn't, but it seems there are two ways slapstick delivers a laugh. Either it's from the character reacting to a situation out of their control (fainting at the sight of blood, cleaning up a stain, getting your face licked by a dog) or by acting with stupidity (leaving the iron face down on the pants, not being able to control a fire extinguisher like it's a giant fire hose). With Lucy, you can be constantly amused at her slapstick of chocolates or grapes or a plastic nose on fire because it's based on some hair-brained scheme that went awry due to her brain being, well, hairy. But however fussy and snobbish and high-strung Niles is, he's certainly not stupid or hair-brained. I think someone watching this 40 years in the future and not knowing his character would think him much more simple-minded a character than he actually was on the show.

Barry said...

One more short comment - I loved the discussion and breakdown of this scene in the original post. Maybe you've done this before, Ken, but maybe soon you could post what you think are the 4-5 funniest scenes in sitcom history, and let your loyal readers dissect why they do or don't succeed as long-lasting comedy bits. The three that spring to mind are the Chuckles the Clown funeral, the reveal of the true parents Rob Petrie thought switched their son at birth, and the turkey scene from WKRP.

Dale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Almost anything Ros says in Frasier is funnier than this set piece. If you've ever had a friend who loves puns and the overelaborate buildup to a a painfully unfunny payoff, then you'll understand my objection to this scene. It is the visual equivalent, lifeless and contrived, and a huge step backward from the verbal wit that was a Frasier hallmark.
It is exceptionally aware of itself and hard for a watcher to get lost in the drawn out moment.

Gary Theroux said...

"Frasier" ranks up there with "Cheers," "Fawlty Towers" and very, very few others as one of the finest TV sitcoms ever crafted. I am currently most of th way through watching every single episode and marvel at how each one is a masterwork of highly creative story and gag construction populated by brilliantly conceived characters who can not only spark knowing laughter but also, from time to time, move us immensely. The Niles and Daphne romantic subplot, is, of course, the most emotionally gripping, stirring every viewer’s heart in between the punchlines. The humor in “Fraiser” was built on timeless and universal human foibles -- as in the case of all classic comedy, from Laurel & Hardy to “The Honeymooners” and more. Now and then there’s a dated topical reference (such as mentions of the Millenium) which I would have cut from the scripts simply to render them absolutely timeless. What "Frasier" was built from will keep it ever-fresh, forever funny and endlessly engaging. I can’t think of any other TV series which, while nearly every episode unfolds, you start to think, “THIS has to be one of the very best they ever made.”

McAlvie said...

Thanks so much, Ken, for sharing that response. Such a brilliant piece! No matter how many times I've seen this bit with DHP, it doesn't get old. In fact, I might just laugh harder because I know what's coming. Frasier was proof that sitcoms can be funny and intelligent, too.

I just wish the networks would wise up and bring back sitcoms of this quality again. I remember reading a few years back that someone thought sitcoms were dead, to which I responded that it wasn't a natural death; the networks killed them. In recent years there have been few reasons to even turn my tv on. Thank goodness for the digital age - we can now go back and watch many of these shows on demand any time we want. Netflix carries Frasier!