It’s easy to forget how good an actor Kelsey Grammer is. How can somebody who acts with such gravitas be such a joke in real life? With the cocaine, the DUI, the insane right-wing pronouncements, the bimbo wives, and the sex tape (!) – it all sounds like a life that should more be lived by Sylvester Stallone than a Great American Actor. And yet this is the same guy who could play Frasier Crane for twenty years. Lest anybody condescend to Frasier and think it’s wrong to put such an accolade on Grammer, allow me to differ. Frasier was an extremely hard part to play, and only a truly great actor could have played him well. For two decades, this actor embodied America’s image of the two things all Americans hate most: pomposity and pretension. And yet he made the character not only hilariously funny, but also regularly brought a level of pathos and caring to the character. While so many other comedies of Cheers and Frasier’s vintage had pathos that felt like utter sap (Friends anyone?), Frasier’s problems felt real. For all his pretensions, he was not unlike the rest of us.
Other comedies of Frasier’s time have held up much better. Frasier was far from perfect show, and like so many 90’s comedies, it feels utterly ridiculous compared to the later sitcoms; the laugh track, the redundant plots and jokes, the idea that Frasier could continuously court stunning women, the ridiculous caricatures of intellectuals; it was all a product of its time. Later comedies like The Office, How I Met Your Mother, and Everybody Loves Raymond, all did the pathos thing too – and each of them felt more earned than Frasier. Later comedies like Arrested Development, Community, and South Park featured actual intellectual concerns instead of caricatures of them. But what is amazing is how in spite of so many faults, Frasier still holds up so well.
The success of Frasier boils down to two matters. One was that at its best, the writing was amazingly sharp. Frasier at its best was not satire, nor was there anything truly tragicomic about it. Frasier is farce, and amazingly well-executed farce. The other factor is the acting. Not all the stars of Frasier were equally good – the women on Frasier were not particularly distinguished, and the writers never figured out how to write to the actresses’ strengths. And John Mahoney felt a little wasted as Frasier’s father. What made Frasier unforgettable was the chemistry between the two brothers – Frasier and Niles Crane. Whichever writer came up with the idea to give Frasier a brother more foppish, more pretentious, more ridiculous than him should get an Emmy just for that. Thanks to Niles, Frasier seemed human and in touch with reality.
But what ultimately made Frasier work was the unbelievable chemistry between Grammer and his newfound acting partner, David Hyde Pierce. I suppose what the right-wing, womanizing Grammer and the monogamously gay same-sex-marriage activist Pierce actually thought of each other was anybody’s guess. But there was more in common than first met the eye: both dropped out of piano study at high-level institutions (Grammer at Julliard, Pierce at Yale), and both had mid-level theater careers that didn’t go much of anywhere before they came to television. But whatever their dynamic off-camera, the onstage result was amazing. They looked and sounded almost exactly alike and they seemed to play on the same wavelength every time they shared scenes.
After Frasier, Grammer had a number of failed sitcoms – none of which I’ve ever seen and I’d venture no one else has either. Their failures were not surprising. It was frankly amazing that a heavy like Kelsey Grammer ever succeeded in comedy. He’s a larger-than-life actor who arrived a generation too late for his acting style. Had he been born twenty years earlier, he might have become one of the greats in the last generation for whom stage was more important than film along with George C. Scott, Jason Robards, James Earl Jones, Hume Cronyn, Hal Holbrook, Sidney Poitier, Zero Mostel, Stacy Keach, John Lithgow, Frank Langella and Raul Julia. His acting style is far less natural than most actors we see today. It’s acting of a different time; an old English style, the classically trained style of acting that dominated before the world became in thrall to Marlon Brando’s naturalism. It may strike us as overacting, but it ensures that the stage is dominated and never dull. It’s acting for theater, not film. For outsize drama, it’s usually preferable.
This is why Boss is the perfect show for an actor like Kelsey Grammer.