Focusing on Frasier
Canned laughter, gags, crass humor, disposable characters. Anyone can tell you what makes for a bad sitcom, but what makes one watchable? You ask ten people and you’ll get ten different answers. I tried to come up with a far more scientific answer by watching an episode from one of my favorite sitcoms, Frasier, and figuring out why I still find it so funny.
“The Focus Group,” Season Three, Episode 23
Let’s start with the set-up. Successful, stuck-up radio talk show host Frasier Crane watches a focus group discuss his show (behind a two-way mirror). While he at first holds that he doesn’t care about what “Joe Six Pack” says about the show, as the compliments fly, he can’t help but agree. The trouble starts when one listener (Tony Shalhoub) speaks up and says he doesn’t like the show. Despite his statements to the contrary, Frasier cares. Mere annoyance bubbles to anger, obsession, and finally action.
What I love here is the heightening. First Frasier stalks Shalhoub’s newspaper stand, then he sends his dad in as a spy. Then he comes to talk to Tony himself. Then he accidentally breaks Tony’s hand. Then he accidentally sets the stand on fire. With each mishap, the central premise, Frasier can’t let go, strengthens. It’s like a rollercoaster, each dip a little sharper than the first, each set-up a bit bigger than the last.
To extend this metaphor a little too far, the rollercoaster doesn’t work without a good engine. And that engine is character. It’s not just Frasier, either, it’s Niles, it’s Daphne, and it’s Roz. Frasier’s foibles are funny, but even funnier placed between Niles’ pokes.
Frasier: One man actually said, “I just don’t like him!”
Niles: Only one?
[Frasier gives him an angry look.]
Niles: I’m healing with humor.
Not to mention Tony Shalhoub’s an excellent straight man. He’s comfortable enough not to pander for jokes, but still quirky enough to be a great foil. You could take any of his lines from that episode, and spoken by anyone else, they wouldn’t really be funny, but in his own way, they sound so stubborn you can’t help but laugh.
It doesn’t matter that the show went off the air eight years ago, it’s still funny. Great sitcoms don’t age the way bad sitcoms do. Seinfeld doesn’t get any less funny in time. You can’t watch I Love Lucy without cracking a smile. Bad sitcoms are corny and barely watchable the first time around. Good sitcoms are timeless.