Saturday, March 21, 2015

Brotherly Love

"All my life, I have dreamed of belonging to an exclusive club like the Empire. Even as a child, when I formed clubs with my teddy bears, there were always two or three who didn't make the cut."

Niles (David Hyde Pierce)

The Frasier series established in its first season (1993–1994) certain recurring themes that were always proving to be fertile territory for great comedy.

A good example was the sibling rivalry that the Crane brothers apparently never outgrew. In the first season, they tried to write a book together and failed miserably because of repressed sibling issues. On this night in 1995, they were in direct competition with each other for an available membership in an exclusive club called the Empire Club.

It all began when Niles was invited to a meet–and–greet at the club — where he and the other prospective members were to be sized up by the membership — and came by the radio station to invite Frasier to come along — and to boast a bit. Frasier was green with envy.

"It's eating you up inside, isn't it?" asked Roz (Peri Gilpin).

"Like a carnivorous bacteria," Frasier replied.

Roz remembered some strings she could pull to get Frasier invited to the party as well — and then the brothers began working together when it was revealed that another membership was open because of legal proceedings against a long–time member. That meant it was possible for both to be accepted. So with Daphne (Jane Leeves) on his arm posing as a trophy girlfriend, Frasier went to the party.

When they walked in, Daphne asked Frasier, "What's that smell?"

In hushed tones, Frasier replied, "That's power." At that point, Frasier and Niles both believed there were two openings in the club.

But at the party they learned that the member with the legal problems had been reinstated because he had been acquitted. Only one membership was available.

Sibling rivalry kicked in, and the brothers began bashing each other. Niles mentioned his brother's threatened suicide when Lilith left him in the waning weeks of the Cheers series, and Frasier spoke of Niles' run–in with the police during his college years when he mooned President Nixon.

When the evening was over, they both felt they had been sabotaged by the other.

After an awkward encounter at the cafe, the brothers apologized to each other. As they were doing so, Niles' cell phone rang. It was the club with the news that he had not been selected. He replied that Frasier was with him and inquired if the person at the other end wished to speak to him as well. The person on the other end did want to speak to Frasier so Nilee handed the phone to Frasier, and it turned out that Frasier had been selected.

Frasier was elated. He had long been rehearsing a special line for just such a time in his life — "If anyone wants me, I'll be at my club" — and he planned to use it frequently now that he was a member of the Empire Club, but he wasn't going to celebrate until Niles left the cafe. When Niles left, Frasier celebrated and called for a round of coffees for everyone — just when Niles returned to retrieve the overcoat he had left behind.

Frasier tried to cover by telling Niles that his victory had been robbed of its sweetness by Niles' setback — but Niles wasn't buying it.

Anyway, after some soul searching, Frasier decided to go to the club and withdraw his membership in favor of his brother. It was quite a gesture — but, before he made it, Frasier had to use the line he had been practicing all his life. He figured he had to use it while he could.

It was a gesture for naught, though.

When he arrived at the club, Frasier learned that there had been a mistake. The members actually had wanted Niles, not Frasier. Whoever called with the news had gotten their names confused.

In the meantime, though, Martin (John Mahoney) had told Niles what Frasier was doing, and Niles was incensed. He resented having his older brother fight his battles for him, and Martin was perplexed. He thought Niles would be pleased. His sons never seemed to be what he thought they should be.

Niles stormed out of the apartment and went straight to the club, where he was spoiling for a fight and told off the startled members. Then, when there was a pause, Frasier told Niles there had been a mistake. Niles was the one they had wanted all along.

Niles changed his tune, but it was too late. The members were offended and wouldn't have Niles as a member under any conditions. As a burly bouncer threw Niles over his shoulder and carried him into the hallway that led to the door, he pleaded to be allowed to remain in the club. The last the audience saw of him was his fingers wrapped around the door frame and his voice from behind the wall wailing, "I belong here!" No doubt he saw himself that way.

Sibling rivalry is a real problem that some folks, like Frasier and Niles, never outgrow. Most people who have siblings have a certain amount of sibling rivalry when they are young. That is normal. Some leave it behind in childhood. Some don't.

Those who don't are rarely the elitist snobs the Crane brothers were. That was what made it funny, I suppose. It gave it the exaggeration that was needed to turn a sad situation into an amusing one.

Frankly, it's a tragedy when any siblings carry childhood issues into their adult years. Inevitably, it seems to me it is a symptom of much more complex issues at work, but, with the Crane brothers, you almost had to expect from the beginning that there were issues there, simmering beneath the surface.

And it made for many of the funniest Frasier episodes. But few were as funny as the one that first aired 20 years ago tonight.