Saturday, April 30, 2016

Waging the War Against Nicotine

Daphne (Jane Leeves): Well, I smoked for years, and I never became addicted. To this day I can buy a pack, have a cig or two, toss them in a drawer and not crave another for months.

Bebe (Harriet Sansom Harris): There's a word for people who can do that. What is it? Oh, yes. Bitch.

As a former smoker, I am always interested in TV episodes that deal with the unique challenge of kicking the habit.

That's what they called it when I was growing up — a habit. But anyone who has ever tried to give up smoking — much less succeeded — will tell you that it is not a habit.

A habit is something like doodling, drumming your fingers or biting your nails. I had a girlfriend once who would absent–mindedly twist her hair around her fingers. Those are habits. Tobacco use is an addiction, and the surgeon general once compared it to heroin addiction. (I have never tried heroin — and if it is as difficult to beat as nicotine, I'm glad I didn't.)

But that is really a different subject. The topic of the episode of Frasier that aired 20 years ago tonight was the challenge of giving up smoking, not a debate over whether it is a habit or an addiction.

Frankly that is a matter of semantics when one is trying to give up smoking, and, in that context, habit or addiction really isn't important. What is important is that the person who is trying to give up smoking needs love and support — even if (or perhaps that should be especially if) that person isn't particularly lovable to begin with.

Well, I guess that serves as an appropriate introduction to the episode of Frasier that was first shown on this night in 1996 — "Where There's Smoke There's Fired."

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) learned that his radio station had been purchased by a diminutive Texas millionaire who went by the name of Big Willy. Big Willy owned a $600 million media empire and had the potential to put Frasier's radio program into national syndication. Consequently, Frasier was eager to schmooze his new boss, and Roz (Peri Gilpin) was eager to help, but Frasier soon realized that he would be "sucking up to Yosemite Sam."

Big Willy was in a relationship with Frasier's agent, Bebe (Harriet Sansom Harris), and wanted to marry her, but she was a smoker and Big Willy didn't want her to smoke. So he enlisted Frasier to help her kick the habit — and insisted that it be done while he was away for the weekend. There was a strong implication that Frasier's job was on the line.

If you have ever tried to quit smoking, you know that it simply can't be achieved in a weekend. It is a long, difficult process. But Frasier felt a certain amount of pressure to at least try to make Bebe smoke free.

There is an element of cunning in the initial attempts of a tobacco addict to have his/her cake and eat it, too, and the writers of Frasier captured it beautifully in this episode. Surely, at least one of the writers must have been a smoker at some time to have known the smoker's psyche so well.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce) certainly knew. He came to Frasier's apartment as Frasier and Bebe were wrapping up a therapy session. When Niles and Frasier were alone, Niles warned Frasier not to let Bebe out of his sight.

So did their father, Martin (John Mahoney). When he found out that Bebe would be staying the weekend because she was giving up smoking, Martin observed, "Great. That means she'lll be extra lovable."

You know, there is a cliche about lovers lighting up after an intense sexual session, but Bebe is the only person I have ever heard make the act of smoking sound sexual by itself.

Apparently it sounded that way to the rest of the family as well. Bebe trapped Daphne (Jane Leeves) sneaking a smoke on the balcony in the wee hours of the morning. Not long after, Martin, who was a former smoker, was caught smoking in the bathroom.

It all led to a wrestling match over a package of cigarettes — interrupted by a phone call from Big Willy, who apparently suggested to Frasier that he thought Frasier could be a star of syndication.

Somehow Frasier managed to wean Bebe of the cigarettes — as a former smoker, I really found that achievement in a single weekend impossible to accept.

Bebe's smoke–free status held up for three weeks — until the day she and Big Willy were supposed to walk down the aisle. But Big Willy had a fatal heart attack as they were walking down the aisle. Bebe tried to animate Big Willy as if he were a ventriloquist's dummy, and they proceeded down the aisle, but the pretense ended when they got to the front of the church.

All their hopes for fame, fortune and syndications were, well, up in smoke.