‘Frasier’ Is a Perfect Example of a Spin-Off

Frasier is one of the most successful spin-offs ever because its creators transformed an egotistical, vain, and pompous supporting character into a funny, likable leading man.

David Angell, Peter Casey, and David Lee
16 September 1993 (US)

In July 2003, The Hollywood Reporter said a Friends spin-off was in the works for Matt LeBlanc’s character, the sweet, somewhat dim actor Joey Tribianni. Television’s highest-rated sitcom is scheduled to end its ten-season run next May, so the new show won’t air until Fall 2004. Though no details are available, the word around Hollywood is that Joey, who currently appears on Days of Our Lives, will move out to Los Angeles to pursue his acting career (which is odd, as Days is shot in L.A.).

Television spin-offs, even when built on likable characters like Joey, are tricky. Although some characters can move from one show to another (The Mary Tyler Moore Show begat Rhoda, Soap, Benson, and All in the Family generated The Jeffersons and Maude), most spin-offs barely last a season; remember Happy Days leading to Joanie Loves Chachi, Alice to Flo, and, perhaps worst bad idea of all, Three’s Company spawning The Ropers?

Frasier is the perfect example of how a supporting character can spin-off. At the start of Cheers‘ third season, the Boston bar welcomed a new patron, psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), introduced as barmaid Diane Chambers’ (Shelly Long) new beau. Cultured, intelligent, snobbish, and neurotic, Frasier was a fish out of water among the “beer and nuts” crowd at Cheers but the seeming perfect soulmate for the equally pretentious Diane. But, just as the couple was about to tie the knot, Diane realized she still had the hots for bartender Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and left poor Frasier at the altar. The doctor stuck around and eventually married and had a son with another shrink, Dr. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth).

Cheers served its last beer in May 1993, but Frasier was back on NBC’s primetime fall schedule that year. In the new show’s pilot (“The Good Son”), a recently divorced Frasier returns to his hometown, Seattle, to accept a job as a call-in psychiatrist on a local radio station. Here he is reunited with his younger brother, Niles (David Hyde Pierce), a psychiatrist who is as fussy and erudite as Frasier.

Both brothers have strained relationships with their father, Martin (John Mahoney), a retired cop left disabled by a gunshot wound. Frasier’s plans to start a new life are disrupted when Martin moves into his son’s swanky high-rise bachelor pad, along with his worn-out reclining chair, a Jack Russell Terrier named Eddie (Moose), and a full-time home caregiver, Daphne (Jane Leeves). Martin is a “guy’s guy” with a big heart and little patience for his persnickety sons. Frasier is essentially the story of one man who appreciates the finer things in life yet feels trapped in what he regards as an inferior, uncultured, and unsophisticated world.

In addition to its talented writing staff and fine ensemble comprised mostly of New York stage actors (Pierce, Grammer, and Tony winner Mahoney), Frasier is one of the most successful spin-offs ever because its creators transformed an egotistical, vain, and pompous supporting character into a funny, likable leading man. His snobbish exterior is unmasked whenever he tries to maintain control of his little part of the world. Fortunately, the guy underneath is warm-hearted and smart enough to know when he’s wrong.

Paramount’s recently released DVD collection comprises the first season. In addition to the first 24 episodes, it features a tribute to the many celebrities who have supplied the voices of Frasier’s call-in patients (these include Christopher Reeve, Patti LuPone, Mary Tyler Moore, Timothy Leary, and Gary Trudeau), a tour of the set, and an amusing commentary on the pilot by executive producers and creators Peter Casey and David Lee.

In the series’ freshman season, those episodes pitting father against son are by far the most entertaining and touching. Frasier and Martin butt heads over everything from privacy (“Space Quest”) to restaurants (“Dinner at Eight”) to dad’s recliner. In “Give Him the Chair”, Frasier (with a little help from Niles) convinces himself that it would be in his father’s best interest to go behind his back to dispose of the chair. As Niles explains, the chair is like a baby’s blanket, and “There comes a time when it’s the healthy thing to do to put these security objects aside.” Frasier’s scheme not only puts him in the doghouse but also, in a truly hilarious scene, his attempt to retrieve it lands him on stage performing in a high school production of Ten Little Indians. As always, in the end, Frasier grows a little wiser and closer to his father, who explains his chair’s sentimental value: it’s where he was sitting when he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and heard the news that he was a grandfather.

Frasier knows he needs to do the right thing, but his ego or other parts of his anatomy often get in the way. In “The Crucible”, he hosts an elegant soiree in honor of artist Martha Paxton (Rachel Rosenthal). He displays one of her paintings, recently purchased from a dealer, only to be told by Paxton that it’s a fake. Niles stops him from throwing a brick through the art dealer’s window, but then, in a nice twist, Niles ends up doing his dirty work for him.

In “Call Me Irresponsible”, Frasier faces a professional challenge when he convinces a caller to dump his girlfriend (Amanda Donohoe), only to have her show up at his studio to chew him out. They find themselves attracted to one another, but when the husband calls back to reconcile, the good doctor advises him to forget about her and leave town. When the moment finally arrives to consummate their relationship on the kitchen floor, Frasier feels guilty. A walking contradiction, he believes he has great insight into human behavior, but when it comes to his own emotions, he simply can’t deal. In this way, he resembles his patients and perhaps his viewers more than he can know.