7 lessons I learned from Frasier
July 16, 2009
Niles – Linus – they practically even have the same name! Could they by any chance be related?
Sometimes you can learn about something by looking at something else. Funny, that. On Sunday I was handed a script to read – more properly, a transcript – with the promise that it would teach me much and entertain me at the same time. The Gold Standard. In fact, I was being asked to read Frasier.
As I read the script, something struck me with immediate force (aside from the fact that my dry white was coming out my nose). It felt familiar. I had read this kind of dialogue before. Many times before. I understood its ebbings and flowings and veerings. It was like the Peanuts.
Some coincidence, surely? Here, have a look:
Here’s Looking At You
Series 1, episode 5
Written by Brad Hall
Directed by Andy Ackerman
Scene One – Radio Station.
Frasier is well into his show as he takes another caller.
Frasier: Hello Doug, this is Dr. Frasier Crane. I’m listening.
Doug: [v.o:] Look, it’s about my mother. She’s getting on now and
she doesn’t have much of a life. And she doesn’t want to do
anything or go anywhere and she literally hangs around the
house all day. I mean, it’s very frustrating…
Frasier: I’m sorry Doug, can we just go back a second? You said your
mother literally hangs around the house. Well, I suppose
it’s a pet peeve of mine but I suppose what you mean is that
she figuratively “hangs around” the house. To literally hang
around the house you’d have to be a bat or spider monkey.
Now, back to your problem?
Doug: Do you mind if we stop while I tell you my pet peeve?
Frasier: Not at all.
Doug: [angry] I hate it when intellectual pinheads with
superiority complexes nit-pick your grammar when they come
to you for help. That’s what I got a problem with! [hangs
Frasier: [happily:] I think what he means is, that is a thing with
which he has a problem. Now it’s time for a station break
and we’ll be right back after a word from our friends at
[reads:] “Pizza, Pizza, Pizza.”
He puts on the commercial. Roz enters.
Roz: Hey, do you want to know my pet peeve? It’s when you’re
in a department store and the clerk is right in the middle
of helping you and the phone rings. So he starts taking
care of them. And you’re left standing there going,
“Excuse me, but all I did was come all the way down here
in person, whilst some joker is sitting at home in his
underwear getting first rate service!” Don’t you hate that?
Frasier: Actually, I do most of my shopping by phone. You know Roz,
this conversation with Doug has got me thinking about my
father. He doesn’t do much of anything either. He just sits
around most of the time watching TV and doing the occasional
crossword puzzle. What does your mother do?
Roz: She’s the attorney general of Wisconsin.
Can you see it? It moves exactly like the old comic strips. The characters’ replies jump around, they don’t follow each other in a linear way. It makes internal, emotional sense, and this is why it’s fun to read. It speaks to us, and makes us laugh, because we see ourselves in it.
The script-giver and I had a very satisfying conversation about Niles Crane, the movement of the characters and scenarios throughout the series; and how disappointing it was when Daphne reciprocated Niles’ calf-love. And the Peanuts. We saw how Roz is like Lucy, Frasier is like Charlie Brown, both Lilith and Maris are like the grownups in Peanuts (Ngyah, ngyah, ngyah, ngyah, ngyah, ngyah ngyah) and Martin and Eddie together are like Snoopy. Suddenly he said: “The little red-headed girl! Yes! Yes! Charlie Brown never got it together with the little red-headed girl, it couldn’t have worked.”
“Yeah,” I said, “and Charles Schultz would have had to go and be an insurance salesman.”
“He’d have been very rich,” my companion intoned darkly.
“But he’d have jumped the shark .”
This script taught me several lessons very quickly and efficiently:
1. Success comes from being true to your vision. Just work out what you’re trying to do, and don’t go past it. Don’t jump your shark.
2. Talk to your audience about themselves. People are always talking about themselves, whatever they’re saying. It follows that they want to read about themselves.
3. Get them hooked fast. The scene in Frasier is established very quickly. Anything that needs explaining is left for later on, scene 2 or 3.
4. Be generous! Don’t be afraid of wasting good lines – just toss them out all over the place. Whatever you are writing,you can afford to think of interesting sentences. Good ideas. Fun ways of saying things.As many as possible. And then just use the ones that work.
5. Don’t be afraid of the surface. It’s like pennies. Look after it, use the words that fit what you’re trying to say, and the deeper meanings might just look after themselves.
6. Just say it and move on. You can cover a lot of ground in very few words.
7. Connections are beautiful. Frasier and Charlie Brown. Why didn’t I see it before?