Frasier forgets the words in one of the funniest sitcom episodes of the 1990s
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Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The next eight installments focus on episodes with musical sequences.
“Look Before You Leap” (Frasier, season three, episode 16; originally aired February 27, 1996)
In which Dr. Crane fails to follow his own advice, to operatically tragic (and comedic) ends…
Noel Murray: When people talk about the Norman Lear era of the TV sitcom, they usually talk about how All In The Family, Maude, and Good Times all grappled with important social issues. Personally, I’ve always liked the way Lear’s shows in the early ’70s brought back the look and feel of ’50s live television, making TV more like theater. The Cheers spin-off Frasier wasn’t a Lear show, and didn’t have anywhere near the same tone or subject matter as All In The Family, but it was as overtly theatrical as any of those ’70s sitcoms. The performances, the staging, and the writing were all more in the mode of classic farce than most shows of its era. A major part of Frasier’s appeal involved watching a cast of talented comic actors hit their marks and deliver their lines with crack timing.
“Look Before You Leap,” in my opinion, is one of the funniest, most masterfully written, directed, and acted sitcom episodes in the history of the genre, and a major reason why it works is because it plays against the audience’s expectations of the show’s own slick professionalism. It’s most-remembered—and rightly so—for its big finish, in which radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) backs out of singing a complicated aria as part of a PBS pledge drive, and instead sings the charming old ditty “Buttons And Bows,” which he proceeds to botch beyond belief, by forgetting the words and ad-libbing gibberish like “let’s all go to a taco show” and “my bones denounce the fearful trounce.”
But what’s so great about that moment are the insert shots of Frasier’s producer Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin), who doesn’t immediately understand what she’s watching. The twist here was supposed to be Frasier weaseling out of a promise, after pushing his friends, family, and listeners to “take a leap” and do something bold and unexpected in honor of February 29th. The disaster that befalls Frasier when he plays it safe is completely unexpected, and all the funnier because of the way Frasier keeps grinning and gesturing, relying on the kabuki of showbiz to disguise his sudden incompetence.
The rest of “Look Before You Leap” follows a fairly common Frasier structure of parallel plotlines headed toward the same point. In Frasier’s enthusiasm for Leap Day, he encourages Roz to take to the airwaves to find a handsome man she met that morning on the bus. He also advises his father Martin (John Mahoney) to take a last-minute flight to Montana for a friend’s birthday party, his dad’s physical therapist Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) to get a new hairdo, and his brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce) not to have sex with his estranged wife. With the exception of Niles—who ignores Frasier’s advice—everyone else has a lousy day. Daphne’s haircut is hideous, Martin’s plane almost crashes, and Roz finds out that her Prince Charming is married. Credited writers Chuck Ranberg and Anne Flett-Giordano use the premise to generate pithy one-liners and physical gags, which director James Burrows stages like the pro he is.
I’ll save a rundown of the best lines and moments for the stray observations, or for you guys to kick around. Before I cede the floor, though, I want to say something briefly about why I chose the theme of “musical numbers” for this round of the Roundtable, and I want to praise one on-point non-musical scene in this episode. Personally, I love musicals, but I know many people don’t, either because the kind of music in musicals isn’t to their taste, or just because they can’t abide the inherent phoniness of characters singing and dancing as part of a story. Me, I’ve always loved how the artificial can be used to express something deeply real and meaningful, often in a more direct way than mere realism could. I’m looking forward to kicking that idea around with you guys in the weeks to come, because dammit, I love watching skilled craftspeople perform for me, making an effort to be entertaining.
That’s why I love the part in “Look Before You Leap” where Roz finds out that her crush-object only intends to have a sleazy affair with her. Most of the action in that scene takes place behind glass, outside the radio booth’s window to the hallway, while Frasier keeps talking to his audience in the foreground. It’s a classic piece of farcical staging: something happening in the back of the frame, unseen and unheard by the hero. But it’s also of a piece with how this show presents its characters: as larger-than-life personalities, always putting themselves on display even when no one’s really paying attention to them. And in “Look Before You Leap,” the glare of that spotlight makes them sweat, copiously and hilariously.
Ryan McGee: The theatricality Noel correctly highlights makes Frasier what it is, and what it served as for years on end: the finest farce on television. Farce is silly, but it’s also incredibly precise, relying on a combination of wordplay, physicality, and actor energy to truly sell the proceedings. A limp rendition of a farce is akin to tragedy: With the frantic pace removed, things no longer seem on the verge of flying off the handle. Gravity is farce’s worst enemy, and the Leap Day plot sends Frasier’s characters into a veritable tornado of mayhem, with everyone struggling to maintain a toehold on sanity.
The best example of this mixture of silliness and precision lies with David Hyde Pierce’s performance, which is so good that it’s incredibly easy to take it for granted. His combination of buttoned-up repression and barely contained lust gave Frasier some of its biggest belly-laughs, and his ability in this installment to turn any subject into something sexual, including the horrors that befell his father and Daphne, is a sure-fire laugh-getter. I especially like the wordless coda that ends the episode, with Niles casually assuring Frasier that he didn’t go through with sex with Maris. Then he finds and tastes the last remnants of his food-filled tryst with her—a bit of whipped cream behind his ear.
But it all comes back to the show treating the set like a proscenium, dropping naturalism and heightening the performative aspects. Multi-camera shows these days primarily use the form to deploy as many setup/punchline combinations as possible, offering up bright, loud, fast chunks of comedy. But Frasier is content to deliver consistent comedy while also being patient in building elements, which will pay off in later acts. The cumulative effect rewards viewers in the moment, but truly pays off in the final movements of the episode. By the time Daphne and Marty are convulsing with laughter watching Frasier’s bomb of a performance, so are we.
My question to the rest of the roundtable: Have we seen the end of this type of multi-cam show? Or is it right in our midst, and I’m too blind to see it?
Todd VanDerWerff: It’s taken me a while to come around on Frasier. The show was so dominant at 1990s awards shows—sort of the Modern Family of its era, only even more so—that I soured against it, particularly when it kept beating other, better shows. (NewsRadio, my favorite show of the era, couldn’t even get nominated.) I was the kind of kid who cared about those things, and Frasier’s long, unchecked dominance greatly irritated me, even though I always had to admit the show was well done, given how it came up with the sorts of intricately constructed sitcom plots that are enormously hard to pull off. But now that it’s been a while, I’ve realized that this is a terrific little show, particularly in its first five seasons (and its last one). It’s easier to let those things go once you get a little distance, and while I’ll never love this show as much as other shows of its era, I’m happy to admit that it perfected a kind of sitcom storytelling few other shows even tried.
Watching Frasier now, I’m mostly impressed by how much it fits into the evolutionary middle ground occupied by the era’s NBC sitcoms. It’s still a multi-camera sitcom, for sure, but it’s trying camera setups that would be more likely on a single-camera show. I’m thinking, in particular, of when Frasier is announcing his plans to sing the aria from Rigoletto instead of “Buttons And Bows,” and the scene cuts behind his booth, to where Roz is greeting Gary, then finding out he’s married. It breaks one of those unstated rules of the multi-camera sitcom, because we should be able to see the audience (or, at least, the camera that was filming Frasier just a few seconds ago), but we can’t. It’s a touch jarring, but it’s the sort of thing NBC’s shows were doing as they pushed at the constraints of the format in the ’90s.
As for the musical moment itself: It’s wonderful. Frasier was so good at building to moments that had to be the biggest joke in the episode, then pulling those jokes off. And though this one is simple, it’s saved by both the perfect ridiculousness of Frasier’s faux lyrics and Kelsey Grammer’s game spirit within the scene. I was listening to the audience during this episode, as I often do, and their laughs were often eruptions. That’s the sort of thing a show like Big Bang Theory (which I would argue comes closest to replicating this kind of success, though it’s much, much looser than Frasier) gets raked over the coals by those who dislike the program, but it’s hard to say the same about Frasier. It earns those big laughs, and it makes sure people see just how hard it’s working to earn them. It’s relentlessly entertaining, and modern TV could use more of that.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I have a love-hate thing for stories about people changing their lives by abandoning their comfort zones and taking a leap into the unknown. They can be naïve and ridiculous and even smug, but one of my all-time favorite movies is Jonathan Demme and E. Max Frye’s Something Wild, which captures the thrill of liberation, but also makes the process dangerous enough to remind you why people have comfort zones in the first place. “Look Before You Leap” doesn’t go that far, but I do like the way it plays the idea for laughs by having Frasier’s life advice backfire, while having Frasier brought down a peg when he fails to take it himself.
I also have a love-hate thing for Kelsey Grammer. He’s such a strange presence: a big, beefy guy who built a career on his mastery of comic prissiness, who, as the cherry on top, drags around this outsized tabloid reputation worthy of Evel Knievel. (And when he tries to stretch himself as an actor and play someone menacing who doesn’t have a problem being crude, as in Boss, part of the fascination of the performance comes from the errant signs that the delicate, prissy guy is in there someplace.) So he makes an excellent frontman for this kind of farce. I wouldn’t wish half his real-life travails on the guy, but God help me, I do enjoy seeing him humiliated.
I never thought it before now, but I guess I think of Frasier as one of those shows that blurred the lines between multi-camera and single-camera sitcoms. It’s theatrical, but in a completely different way than the neo-Playhouse 90 vibe of those old Norman Lear shows, which were so heavy on shouting and speechifying and scenes where the performers’ animal energy came through to heat up the static camera setups. With the little chapter headings and the jazzy, minimalist title card and the unannounced celebrity-guest drop-ins when people would phone into Frasier’s radio show, it gently set itself apart from everything else on TV. I think that when it was on, I bracketed it in my head, not with other sitcoms that were shot in front of a studio audience, but with things like the movies of Whit Stillman. The work of Stillman and his independent-film contemporaries was seen as anti-Hollywood, partly because it was so visually un-flashy and narratively uneventful that it served as a rebuke to movies full of actors slowly walking away from the block that was exploding in slow motion behind them. The style feels right because it feels like the style of the Crane brothers. (It’s also a neat fit for the style of novelist and playwright Joe Keenan, who served as story editor or producer for most of the show’s glory years, and who deserves to be regarded as one of Frasier’s auteurs, even though he wasn’t present at the creation.) It’s a style that parodies Frasier and Niles’ genteel cultural pretensions, but that partakes of them, too. It feels like an in-joke when Frasier yells, “Who watches PBS!?” because the answer ought to be, “Anybody who works on this show.”
I don’t have any strong aesthetic or philosophical objection—or attraction—to the multi-cam, live-studio-audience sitcom as a form. I think it’s now regarded by a lot of people as uncool, and there’s no shortage of examples you could point to that would appear to make the case. (Personally, my problem with The Big Bang Theory—which would be the first example that comes to mind even if Todd hadn’t brought it up—is that, for all the talent in front of the camera, it’s just a hacky show.) But there are also plenty of single-camera shows that have no idea how to forge a personal style appropriate to their material, that make it feel as if they have their own style of humor that you can’t get anyplace else. Frasier (and NewsRadio, too) were able to do that, as surely as later, single-camera shows like 30 Rock (R.I.P.) and Community. (What do you think—R.I.P.?) I have a feeling that if multi-camera sitcoms were to disappear from the face of the Earth, within 20 years, some future Dan Harmon would emerge from his lair with the announcement that he’s been looking at prehistoric files of The Honeymooners and The Bob Newhart Show and has discovered this thrilling way for young, anti-network maverick creators to do highly personal TV comedies in a way that’s fast, cheap, and dirty. And if he’s got something to say and can figure out a way to say it with that format, it might be great.
Genevieve Koski: Phil, I feel like I’m in the position you were in last summer in our discussion of Friends: I have very little knowledge of or affection for Frasier, a show I’ve always pigeonholed in the Things My Mom Likes category. Considering the show’s run coincided with my teenage years, perhaps you can understand why I avoided it. My position on the series has softened over the years (particularly as I’ve come to realize my mom actually had pretty good taste in TV), but I’ve never felt a burning desire to catch up on it in syndication. While this isn’t the first episode of Frasier I’ve seen, it is probably the first I’ve gone into with an open mind, and it was… okay? I guess?
Look, I get the farce thing, and I have no problem with three-camera shows. (Put me in the camp that acknowledges The Big Bang Theory is not The Worst Thing Ever.) And I didn’t dislike this episode. But what I liked most about it—the climactic botched performance—is informed by the element that keeps me from really loving Frasier, which is the title character himself. Grammer’s go-to prissy-blowhard character works fine for me when it’s an accent, as on Cheers or especially as Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons—or when it’s slightly mutated and put into a supporting role, as with David Hyde Pierce’s character. But it isn’t a character I’m able to attach much affection to. (Then again, I initially felt the same way about Michael Scott, who grew significantly in that regard over The Office’s run, so it’s entirely possible this impression is due to my admittedly tiny sample set.) Seeing Frasier humiliate himself is satisfying because he’s such an insufferable pest throughout this episode, but schadenfreude only goes so far.
Of course, there’s more driving that sequence than just comeuppance. The silliness of Frasier babbling “I love you in buckskin, la da da da da” in front of a PBS audience works because he’s such a studiously un-silly character, a self-styled aesthete whose every utterance invites fate to take him down a couple pegs. (The same thing, not coincidentally, drives the character of Sideshow Bob.) And the previously mentioned performative feel of this heightened style of sitcom is given another layer in this episode’s setup, which has Frasier actually performing. This is built into the show’s overall premise as well, via Frasier’s radio show, which lends another level of remove: We see the way the character actually acts in his world vs. how he acts behind a microphone or in front of a camera, and what he changes or obscures for the sake of his audience can be played for laughs. Frasier botching the song is only funny because people other than the show’s main characters are watching. Humiliation requires an audience to truly sting.
Donna Bowman: Frasier Crane represents one of the most monumental accomplishments in all of sitcom history. He’s a recurring character on Cheers, defined by his pretention, created as a romantic foil for Diane, but expanded into a series regular, due to his unique comic potential and the unusual empathy Grammer is able to elicit for such an insufferable blowhard. Then when Cheers ends, the miracle happens. This character is able to hold center stage in his own sitcom without losing the prickliness and snobbery that made him a breakout character in the first place. He gets surrounded by furniture from the central sitcom warehouse, like an equally prissy brother; a fish-out-of-water, salt-of-the-earth dad; a Cockney housekeeper; and a cute dog, for God’s sake, and it doesn’t feel like comedy by committee or lowest common denominator. Instead, it’s like Frasier was always headed for this: holding forth in his own milieu, bemoaning the compromises he has to make for mass media, not-so-secretly enamored of the fame he pretends is a necessary evil, with a sliver of sweetness well concealed under his contempt for his fellow man.
Sitcoms get built around assholes all the time, because assholes can say and do things decent people can’t, and such outrageousness can be funny and bracing. (Exhibit A: Archie Bunker.) But frequently, the asshole can’t elicit empathy or identification from the audience; he becomes a defanged foil in his own show (Becker) or abandons the comedy part in order to use the asshole persona to do a little truth-telling (M*A*S*H, The John Larroquette Show). The magic of Frasier is how there’s no discernible line between laughing at his self-inflicted ridiculousness and feeling deeply and painfully for what it does to him.
And that’s why the final botching of “Buttons And Bows” is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen on television. It’s not funny just because Frasier deserves his comeuppance, for his usual refusal to apply to himself the standards to which he holds others. It’s not just funny because it’s an unexpected topper to the basic joke of him weaseling out of a commitment in the name of giving imaginary viewers what they want. It’s funny because he tries to keep going, and we have to applaud him for it. He’s unprepared and he pays the price, but he’s a trooper and a showman. He’s not humiliated in the moment, because he remains game; he’s humiliated after the fact when he belatedly has to realize how bad it was, and we don’t see that moment. The show allows him his illusions, not just so they can lead to more comedy, but because everybody involved, from the writers to the viewers to the cast, truly likes Frasier, even at his most ridiculous and deluded. That was always the case, over a long 11 seasons of this show. I find that remarkably kind and affectionate, and unusual—maybe unprecedented—for a show centered around an unreformed asshole whose moments of self-awareness were few and far between.
Erik Adams: We’ve done a thorough job of examining this episode’s many charms and highlighting the reason for its inclusion in this installment of the roundtable—though no one mentioned the tremendous comic device of Martin and Daphne entering the apartment on the same note of the aria, maybe because it failed to register without a third beat. I’d like to close things off by returning to one of Noel’s first observations: the thrill of watching the Frasier cast earning their laughs in the moment, and with only minimal post-production assistance. The additional charge of Frasier’s botched performance comes from the fact that Grammer himself did that botching live, expertly treading that tightrope of a sequence without tipping over into an overly rehearsed “bombing” or baldly improvised gibberish. He retains his composure as an actor while Frasier is losing his, and that’s the magic of a good multi-camera sitcom. More than any other form of television, it’s dependent on solid performances—which is what saves something like The Big Bang Theory on a weekly basis—and as long as there are actors who can pull off a “Buttons And Bows”-type moment, the “filmed live before a studio audience” show will never die.
RM: My vote for the laugh generated by the most unexpected moment: Frasier giving puppy-dog eyes to Roz while trying to cajole her to share her bus anecdote. It’s so delightfully un-Frasier that I nearly spit up my drink.
PDN: Is it just me, or would Grandma In A Teddy be a great name for a band?
RM: I know it’s been said a million times before, but has there ever been better casting than Pierce as Grammer’s brother? We’ve had plenty of actors effortlessly own roles on shows without the built-in history that this one did, but in terms of the specific context here, this is one for the ages.
PDN: I’m a sucker for the theatrical trick of salvaging a groaner of a joke by having the actor react to it as if it were his character who thinks it’s hilarious, and David Hyde Pierce’s furtive snigger when he says “a dangerous aria” is a choice example.
NM: I could’ve sworn that Niles’ line about “paying women to touch me” (manicurists, etc.) was originally spoken by Frasier to Diane on Cheers after they broke up, but I couldn’t find any evidence of that on the Internet, so I guess I’ve just been misremembering the Frasier joke all these years.
PDN: Frasier could set up certain kinds of comic scenes with such precision that it would stand out a little on those rare occasions when the ball hit the dirt, and I think the scene of Roz meeting her secret admirer, while Frasier is taking credit for them on the air, stands out. It would flow better and, I think, be a lot funnier if the camera stayed on Frasier throughout and we saw Roz, through the window behind him, suddenly start whacking the guy with his flowers. Instead, there’s a disruptive cut so we can hear the man tell Roz that he’s married, a piece of information that could have been conveyed visually by having her point to his wedding ring, or even slipped in afterward. I’d like to think that this was the result of a note from some helpful network suit.
EA: Take it from Kelsey Grammer himself: It’s a good thing YouTube wasn’t around to spread Frasier’s failure worldwide.
PDN: Check out Joan Cusack and Chloë Sevigny’s love child sitting next to Roz at the phone bank!
NM: I know Frasier’s punchline-heavy scripts rub some people the wrong way, because they sound too written, like a bunch of comedy writers talking to each other instead of actual people. But damn it, the punchlines are really funny. I don’t care whether Martin really has a friend named Sharkbait O’Reilly who used to win the worst scar competition when they got together. It’s a snappy joke regardless.
Next week: Genevieve Koski takes us back to Lawndale for a “Gah-Gahdamn” Daria musical. After that, Phil Dyess-Nugent invites us all to get weepy with a Joni Mitchell-covering Robert Downey Jr. on Ally McBeal. (You can watch the former on Amazon; the latter is available from Netflix and Hulu.)