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Commentary: A fond adieu to 'Frasier'

Remembering a show for the ages

By Todd Leopold
CNN

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Kelsey Grammer has played Frasier Crane for 20 years: nine seasons on "Cheers" and 11 on his own show.
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(CNN) -- There's an old theater saying: Dying is easy, comedy is hard.

And if comedy is hard, farce is almost impossible. The whole form is like a precisely wrought handmade clock; it depends on timing, rhythm and that unteachable concept called chemistry.

Farce is often dismissed as slapstick and door slams, but ask any actor: It's hard work to make such a soufflé.

"Frasier" did farce better than any show on the air. It may have done farce better than any show in TV history. All its parts -- the writing, acting, directing -- were lovingly assembled to make comedy. Laugh-out-loud, how-did-they-do-that, you-can't-see-the-parts-move comedy.

But put all those parts together and you still may not get a classic. Farce also requires warmth, love, a willingness to sympathize with a character -- even as his balloon is being pricked or he's falling down the stairs.

And "Frasier" had that in abundance. The warmth -- and the pratfalls.

The sum of the parts

Think about most sitcoms. They're machines -- not so much about characters and dialogue as the rat-a-tat-tat of wisecracks and jokes. You could write many of these shows in your sleep, and rumor has it that some are.

"Frasier," however, was different. Its characters were three-dimensional. Its scenes ran longer (deliberately, said the producers, in an attempt to short-circuit short attention spans) and had a different rhythm than those of other sitcoms.

The show had perfect casting: Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane, David Hyde Pierce as his fussy brother Niles, old pro John Mahoney as father Martin Crane, effervescent Jane Leeves as Daphne Moon, sharp-tongued Peri Gilpin as co-worker Roz Doyle.

And of course, "Frasier" had terrific writing, led by Joe Keenan, Christopher and David Lloyd, Peter Casey and the late David Angell; and directing, particularly James Burrows and David Lee.

But with all that, when I think about classic moments from the series, I don't think of clever lines or great camera angles. I think about the sum of the parts.

I think of a routine in which the cast was in Frasier's kitchen, getting ready for a party, and moved food items from one side to another with the goofy precision of a Rube Goldberg device.

I think of the wonderfully escalating tension that formed when the Crane brothers took over a restaurant, or shared a ski lodge, or simply battled for attention.

I remember a delicate scene in which Niles danced with Daphne, long before the two got married.

And I think of line deliveries: Grammer's wonderful indignation, Pierce's exasperated fussiness, Mahoney and Leeves and Gilpin and the always wonderful supporting actors and guest stars.

Farewell to a true TV friend

"Frasier" wasn't a groundbreaking show.

It was a successful spinoff (from "Cheers"), but there had been successful spinoffs before.

It was a combination workplace and family comedy, but there had been shows that combined workplace and family comedies before.

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Frasier's ex-wife Lilith, played by Bebe Neuwirth, shows up periodically.

It had its faults -- some say it jumped the shark when Niles and Daphne got married -- and, as with any long-running show, it could get tiresome sometimes.

But, with all that, it shouldn't go out ignored.

Over the past few weeks, my mailbox at work has been filled with notes from publicists and media types telling me about events related to the "Friends" finale. I've seen "Friends" DVD packages at stores, ideas for "Friends" finale parties, essays on why "Friends" matters and how NBC will cope without Le Six Amis. Nothing about "Frasier."

I've never understood all the frenzy about "Friends." If it's been groundbreaking, it's for what it represents -- perhaps the first youthful ensemble show to become a huge hit -- than what it is, which is a comedy machine that filled the gap left by "Seinfeld" and happened to hit the zeitgeist jackpot.

In 10 years, there will be another hip and trendy show, and when it goes off the air, much ink will be spilled pondering what it all meant.

But when it comes time to put together an all-time list, trendiness takes a back seat to quality. In that regard, "Frasier" was a show for the ages.


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