Monday, December 02, 2013

Frasier's Obsession

Obsessive personalities always seem to make the best comedic characters, and Frasier was one of the most obsessive characters TV has ever seen.

Twenty years ago tonight, in a first–season Frasier episode, Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) obsessed about something that most of us probably have obsessed about at one time or another — death.

It began with a little misdirection. Frasier's father (John Mahoney) skipped his doctor's appointment because he didn't like his doctor, and Frasier found out about it so he insisted on taking his father to another doctor, and Niles recommended one in his building. After they got there, the doctor was a no–show, and they were about to leave when they found out that the doctor had dropped dead.

From that point, Frasier was obsessing. The doctor was roughly his age, and Frasier simply couldn't get that out of his mind. He did all kinds of research and generally made a nuisance of himself. He gathered the family together to go over things that would be important only in the event of his death — like the distribution of his possessions, his funeral and burial plans and the discovery of the body.

To ensure that there would be no unseemly quarrels over his belongings, Frasier wanted each member of the family to put their names on sticky notes and attach them to the objects they wanted.

Martin (John Mahoney): This is crazy. I'm not going to start putting my name on your stuff.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Dad, what happens if I die tomorrow, you and Niles end up in an argument about ... well, that African mask, for instance?

Martin: It'll never happen. Niles, you can have it.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): I don't want it.

Daphne (Jane Leeves): Well, don't look at me. I throw a towel over that thing when you're not home.

He had a heart–to–heart conversation about his fears with his father, who told him a story from his experience as a policeman, and Martin was helpful — up to a certain point.

Ultimately, though, Frasier found that he could only put his mind at rest by visiting the grieving widow and asking her certain questions. They might be painful questions to answer, but, damn it, he had to know!

What Frasier did not know before going to the widow's home was that the dead man had been Jewish, and his relatives were sitting shiva. In layman's terms, as one of the mourners explained it to Frasier, it was a Jewish wake.

And that set up one of my favorite dialogue exchanges in the entire run of the Frasier series.

Upon his arrival, Frasier remarked that he hadn't expected the widow to have so many guests. The mourner smile and said to Frasier, "You're not Jewish, are you? This is our version of a wake."

Frasier could understand that so he stood by the table and looked around, stopping to look under a cloth draped over a mirror. A woman approached him from behind and asked if she could help him.

Frasier told her he thought there was a painting underneath the cloth. He said he had speculated that there might be an unveiling later.

The woman smiled. "You're not Jewish, are you?"

Apparently, Frasier decided the straight–forward approach didn't work so well the first time so this time his reply was "No, no, my ex–wife is, though, and thus my son is, which makes me sort of, well, I guess you could say ... No, I'm not Jewish."

The woman smiled again. "We always cover mirrors at a shiva so those grieving don't have to be concerned with their own appearances."

Frasier eventually made his way over to the widow, whom he hoped to ask questions about her late husband's health and lifestyle. But Frasier changed his mind when he realized that she was struggling with her own issues regarding her husband's death.

She asked Frasier what he would say to a caller who said he/she couldn't get over why someone died. Frasier said his only answer was that life is not fair.

"All we can do," he said, "is live for the little joys and surprises life affords us. You can't live your life obsessing about death."

The widow smiled. "You're not Jewish, are you?"

In these times of excessive political correctness, I feel compelled to say I am not anti–Semitic.

I am a writer. I appreciate good writing.

And that is good writing.