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Focus : 'Cheers' Chaser : THE PLUSES AND MINUSES OF A BUILT-IN AUDIENCE

September 12, 1993|STEVE WEINSTEIN

In the premiere episode of "Frasier," the first spinoff of "Cheers," John Mahoney, who plays Frasier Crane's father, ridicules his other son's choice of a wife. And when Kelsey Grammer, who stars as the familiarly pompous title character, responds, "Yes, we Crane men sure know how to marry," the in-studio audience laughs uproariously.

"You don't get that unless the audience understands the whole history he brings from 'Cheers,' " says Peter Casey. He and partners David Lee and David Angell created and executive-produced the new sitcom. "With a new series you can't do that because you have to develop the characters and relationships brick by brick before you can start playing back on things."

Built-in jokes are a major advantage the trio enjoy in creating a new show around a beloved old character from one of television's most beloved series. Another clear advantage is that coming on the heels of the hoopla surrounding the end of "Cheers," the spinoff comes with a a virtually ready-made audience. The challenge is in trying to keep its interest.

At first, Casey, Lee and Angell intended to create a series around Grammer in which he played a brand-new character. But, they say, Paramount, the studio that produced both "Cheers" and now "Frasier," urged that the character be kept alive to take advantage of the "Cheers" tidal surge. The producers, who were all writers on "Cheers" during its third season when Frasier was created, say they loved the character and were eager to work with Grammer. So, they decided to give it a go.

But an automatic audience doesn't come without its pitfalls. Many viewers will watch the series with built-in expectations--some expecting it to be another "Cheers"--and the risk of disappointing them is great, Lee says. "But we also didn't want to copy 'Cheers' or continue it in dribs and drabs. We could have had him say, 'I'm giving up psychiatry and opening a little tavern.' But I think it would be deadly for us to copy it."

The producers took pains to avoid making a poor man's "Cheers." Because they planned to move Frasier to Seattle and give him a job as a radio talk-show psychologist, they initially set the show in the radio station with supporting characters filling the jobs of engineer and station manager along with a Rush Limbaugh-styled on-air personality and gonzo sportscaster. But, they recall, it began to feel like yet another workplace "gang comedy" a la "Cheers" or "Wings," the last show they created. And is also sounded derivative of "WKRP in Cincinnati."

So they scrapped most of the workplace characters and focused the show on Frasier's home life. Frasier's estranged "Cheers" wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) and their son stayed behind in Boston. In Seattle, Frasier got a brother, who is even more pompous and uptight than Frasier ever was on "Cheers." And into his stylish bachelor pad they moved his gruff, sickly father (John Mahoney), his annoying dog and his streetwise health-care worker.

Together they form a kind of "Odd Couple," or odd trio. The humor in this domestic comedy about adult children and their aging parent comes from such conflicts as: Can Frasier ask his father to leave the apartment when he wants to romance a woman, and if so, does that mean his father can, in turn, ask Frasier to leave his own home when Dad wants to get lucky too?

Frasier is still the pompous, erudite, well-traveled snob he always was. It's just that instead of Norm and Carla deflating and irritating him with their one-liners and practical jokes, he now battles Dad and the nurse.

But the producers also have tried to humanize the character in hopes of creating a series that will endure. Often, spinoffs from successful shows don't work because the original series may center around a Mary Tyler Moore or Sam Malone who is rooted in reality and can react realistically to the crazies around her or him. When you take one of the weirder supporting characters and make him the center, Angell says, you have to calm him down a bit.

"That cartoony, pompous Frasier Crane would not carry a series," Angell says. "We needed to find ways to pop that pomposity and deal with some real emotion."

What makes the Frasier character perfect for his own series, Angell adds, is that "in the course of 'Cheers,' his experiences in the bar softened some of the hard edges.

While the producers acknowledge that bringing back the "Cheers" gang would certainly grab ratings, they insist that doing that too often would not be fair to the memory of that show or to the creative independence and merits of the new one. But they leave the door open. Lilith, for example, will probably show up in a story about their divorce or in other episodes involving their young son.

"But we want it to come out of 'Frasier' stories, like his dealing with the day his divorce is final or his feeling guilty about not spending enough time with his kid," Lee says. "We don't want it to be, 'Oh, we could really get a big rating if Woody drops by.' "

"Unless we start having ratings trouble," Angell interrupts. "Then, keep an eye out for the November sweeps and it'll be: 'Hey, the whole gang rides through on a bus tour.' "

"Frasier" premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on NBC.

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