Since its premiere in 1993, "Frasier" has consistently met the standard for first-rate, TV-comedy writing set by many of the classics that came before it, including "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "All in the Family," "M*A*S*H," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Cheers" -- the long-running series that introduced audiences to Dr. Frasier Crane, the central character in "Frasier."
It isn't just sophisticated comedy that seems to be in decline. U.S. TV viewers currently seem enamored with dramas such as "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Alias," and reality shows such as "American Idol" and "The Apprentice."
When "Frasier" began, seven of the Top 10 Nielsen hits were half-hour comedies. "Friends" and "Everybody Loves Raymond" are the only half-hour comedies that consistently score those kinds of numbers now. "Frasier" and "Friends" are both leaving prime time after this season, and "Raymond" is not expected to go beyond perhaps one more season.
The networks have not yet announced their 2004-05 prime-time schedules, so it's premature to say what the immediate future holds for scripted comedies. However, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker has said that the reality-based "The Apprentice" will likely succeed "Friends" on the network's Thursday schedule.
Kelsey Grammer, who has played Frasier Crane for a record 20 seasons -- and has won three Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series -- wonders whether there is a place on TV anymore for the kind of comedy his show delivered.
"I'd like to think it still does and I'd like to think that maybe someone I know, or even myself, will produce a show that will maybe at least provide that oasis somewhere," he said. "But I'm not sure the networks are interested -- I'm not sure anyone else is interested -- in sophisticated comedy anymore."
In a conference call with entertainment reporters, Grammer said audience taste runs in cycles, so his brand of comedy might enjoy renewed popularity at some point. For now, though, he said networks are going with the hot hand of reality shows.
"Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on what your opinion is -- audiences are responding, and they continue to respond, to people behaving badly," he said, "and as long as people find that entertaining, well then, there will be no room for sitcoms."
Actually, programmers already think of reality shows as dramas and comedies -- they just call them "unscripted." Grammer certainly understands the appeal they hold for viewers, particularly for the coveted 18-49 demographic cohort.
"For a generation of viewers that grew up watching themselves on video, this is what's familiar to you, this is your life," he said. "And they are outrageous and comedic, and people are at such an ebb tide in terms of morality that it's fascinating to watch, of course."
Grammer said other reasons for the decline in smart, scripted comedy include technology that allows people the opportunity to create their own programming and the networks' obsession with attracting younger viewers.
"Right now, no one has cracked the nut of how to get viewership without being sensational and actually crass," he said. "It's impossible to program anything (for the 18-49 audience) without, seemingly at least, assuming that they're all idiots who want to get as close to their Root Chakra as possible."
Presumably, he was referring to belly laughs.
"That being said, and if that is the basic focus of programming at this point, then we have some growing up to do before we really have a need for sophisticated comedy again," said Grammer.
Although it has 31 Emmys to its credit -- more than any other prime-time show -- "Frasier" has not been the ratings success that "Friends" has been for NBC, and the network has not given its series finale the same kind of promotional buildup that "Friends" has enjoyed. Grammer said he understands.
"At the beginning of the year when Jeff basically told us that they weren't going to be promoting 'Frasier' very heavily, that was a disappointment, but when you look at the popular success of 'Friends' as compared to the kind of viewership for 'Frasier,' you have to accept the fact that it had priority as a result of that," said Grammer. "Qualitatively, I certainly wouldn't argue that 'Friends' is a better show than 'Frasier,' but I think we're being honored suitably in terms how much audience we've brought to the show."
Grammer said he hoped viewers will remember "Frasier" as a show about characters who grew and loved one another and put a high premium on family.
"They're kind of corny values, but I think in the end it's a group of people who discovered how much they meant to one another and I think that's a good thing," he said. "We acquitted ourselves with great style and with integrity and with humor and I'm very proud of the show."
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