Conservatives often complain that they can’t catch a break from the liberal media, especially in liberal Hollywood, and indeed I’ve often personally seen this dymanic in action. But don’t underestimate the power of a charismatic star to counteract it.
Everyone loves Kelsey Grammer, an open Bush supporter who joked last year to David Letterman that he recently came out the closet as a Republican. And it’s not just because his venerable NBC hit Frasier (which airs its series finale May 13) has been for eleven years one of the most perfectly cast and stylishly written comedies on TV. Even in his intemperate days of drunk-driving arrests and other substance abuse problems in the early ’90s, Grammer always knew how to win over the press.
“Kelsey Grammer is so cool,” remarked my friend, Hollywood Reporter columnist Ray Richmond, who’s no fan of Grammer’s politics, during a press visit to the Frasier set not long ago. “I remember when Cheers ended I wrote that the finale was disappointing. He called up my office, said ‘The cast of Cheers has a message for you,’ and then they all yelled in unison, ‘F*** YOU!’ Of course, I was a fan forever after that.”
In September, Grammer told Fox News’s Hannity & Colmes that his post-Frasier plans might include running for political office as a Republican, adding that “I would like to rid the country of the idea that it’s the rich against the poor. It never has been.”
No one asked him about that a few months later at the Frasier news conference and set visit, though. The only boilerplate political question came when someone wondered how Grammer thought corporate mergers and the rise of Big Media have affected the TV industry.
I’ve been at enough of these confabs to know that Grammer’s unapologetic response–”I believe in capitalism, and I think TV should make money, so I don’t have any real problem with the fact that it’s supposed to be profitable; I think that’s fine”–would have probably brought on at least a couple of shocked follow-ups had it come from almost anyone else. Instead, the assembled reporters just sat in perplexed silence for a few moments, then moved on.
But Grammer had gotten the crowd on his side at the beginning anyway, with a smooth joke at the expense of his network employer. When asked about the constant NBC promos hyping Friends (which ends its run May 6) as the best comedy ever, he responded, “I don’t blame them for saying that, but we all know it’s not true.” Then he sealed the deal with a crack about the New York Times, when someone mentioned an item in the paper that day about Frasier.
“I’m not sure how accurate they are anymore anyways,” Grammer joked about the Times. “I wouldn’t count on anything you read in that paper.”
Grammer never comes across as prickly, even when he’s saying (as he did last year, at the White House Correspondents dinner) that he refused to watch the Oscars because of the antiwar “crap” he knew he’d see at the podium. He likes to describe celebrities who say they’re going to leave the country if George W. Bush is reelected as having “the sublime combination of ignorance and arrogance.”
And yet no one in the media seems to hold any of this against him. Part of this may be because he doesn’t mind helping journalists do their jobs. At the Frasier final season press conference, the stars and producers mingled informally with reporters afterward, and volunteered anecdotes and specific examples of why the show lasted so long. Over at the one for Friends the next day, the press was kept several yards away at all times. Plus you could hardly get a useable quote, there was so much actory discussion of feelings–and how everyone just knew that when the final show was taped, they’d cry and cry and cry.
Not that Friends isn’t a fine and funny show. But Frasier, which centers around the relationships between an urbane and fussy psychiatrist, his even fussier brother, and their cranky retired cop dad, is remarkable not only for its longevity but for how this was managed despite flouting conventional TV wisdom.
“It’s the only sitcom on TV that has no internal score,” pointed out co-creator/executive producer David Lee. “There’s not jaunty little melody telling us it’s time to go on to the next scene.”
“And no d**k jokes,” Grammer pointed out.
The show also refused to cater to shrinking American attention spans. “We specifically said, we’re going to write longer scenes,” Lee added. “And every chance we get, we still try to make the scenes as long as possible because now [on most sitcoms] it’s like you pop in, you see the outside of a building, you hear a jaunty tune, you have two jokes, then you’re off to the next exterior of a building and another jaunty tune.”
“We tried not to write down to the audience,” Lee continued. “If there was a joke we felt was genuinely funny that a lot of people might not understand, we just went, well then, they won’t understand it.”
“I just thought, the ones that do get it will explain it to the ones that don’t,” Grammer added.
Entertaining as many other shows on the air are, you know even while watching that flesh-and-blood people don’t behave that way. The constant bed hopping on Friends, for instance, would never happen without a lot of hurt feelings on all sides. But Frasier has always tried to portray relationships responsibly.
“That came from us, and our desire to make sure that we didn’t make liars of one another,” Grammer said. “That’s probably what resonated with the audience.”
“Television is great medium,” he added. “It offers us the best avenue to explore relationships that are significant to us. And I think when you shy away from it, you’re making a mistake, and when you explore it, you’re doing something that’s creatively rewarding and also significant socially.”
In recent years, of course, the scripted comedy has been eclipsed by reality shows. Grammer takes that, as do most in the business, with a grain of salt: “Didn’t someone say sitcoms were dead before Cosby came out too?”
Still, he does see at least one unfortunate influence. “This is the first television generation that has grown up being told it is the most fascinating thing in and of itself,” Grammer said. “The arrival of the home-video camera convinced every person now watching television, at least in the important demographic, that they are the most interesting thing to watch. And I think that may be a problem.”
On the other hand, he added, there will probably always be room for a show like Frasier, just as there was for shows like Mary Tyler Moore and Andy Griffith. “It’s about the human experience–brothers and fathers and falling in love and being disappointed and heartbroken,” Grammer said. “And that actually is what fuels what’s funny in our lives. I think subsequent generations will rediscover the value of scripted comedy, so that the sitcom will not die. It will just be resurrected.”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.