Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Le Cigare Volant

(A DISCLAIMER: I realize there's a certain degree of silliness in placing a disclaimer in front of a chunk of text that is already preceded by a disclaimer, yet I feel I need to explain myself a bit. While finishing up work at home tonight, I went to save a file in My Documents and found that a Microsoft Word file there bore the title “Le Cigare Volant.” Not knowing what this was — or, for that matter, what “Le Cigare Volant” meant, off the top of my head — I opened the file to find an essay, the thesis of which seems to be “That show ‘Frasier’ is really gay.” I have little recollection of writing this, though the save date places it sometime last summer. It sounds like me, I guess, but looking at the article I can’t even figure out if it’s completed or not. Uncertain what point I was trying to make, I can’t hazard a guess how to finish it. Thus, I’m posting it here, exactly as I found it. My best bet as to why these words exist on my computer is that I had an idea and was overcome with the compulsion to write it out, then possibly was distracted by a phone call or a particularly animated bird outside the window or something. I don’t know. In any case, here it is, twinned disclaimers and all.)
(A DISCLAIMER: I’m not responsible for the thoughts my brain produces. In fact, I cannot take credit for the words I’m typing now. What comes out of me — my verbal leakage — is no more my doing than any other kind of leakage. It just happens, mostly as a by-product of the environment I put my body in at whatever time. I’m saying this only because where I’m about to go is most likely the result of me having drank an entire bottle of wine last night, then chasing it with whiskey. Now, I don’t know why. I just did. The following, apparently, is what happens to my brain after you do that.)

As far as sitcoms go, “Frasier” is thought-provoking — and not just because its title character is a psychologist. At the most superficial level, “Frasier” stands out among sitcoms because unlike a lot of the shows that aired during its day, “Frasier” didn’t shoot for the lowest common denominator. I’m not just saying that because I think the show was consistently funny. It wasn’t. I didn’t even watch the last few seasons. What I mean in that statement is that “Frasier” often tried for chuckles instead of the guffaws other sitcoms try to illicit. A lot of the episodes involved content that probably didn’t interest the average American, who likely would have rather been watching “Home Improvement” when “Frasier” first started airing and “Everybody Loves Raymond” towards the end. In that sense, it’s actually appropriate that the show was set in Seattle — a fairly important American city, I suppose, but one renown for its quirks, what with the rain and the coffee and the former music scene and being stuck way up in the corner of the nation and all that. It was something like highbrow — not out-and-out highbrow, but maybe some sitcom writer’s idea of what highbrow should be like if it were crammed into the mold of a ratings-topper.

Then there’s also the fact that “Frasier” did what few other TV shows manage to do: It spun off of a successful series and eventually grew into a success in its own right. When “Cheers” introduced Kelsey Grammer’s character as a love interest for Shelley Long’s Diane, I don’t think viewers immediately foresaw that Frasier would be hanging around for twenty more years. For the same reasons that “Frasier” didn’t match up with a lot of other popular 90s sitcoms, the Frasier character stood out in that Boston bar as haughty and distinctively upper-class in room full of the middle-class. Nonetheless, Frasier endured, surviving even Shelley Long’s alleged attempts to write the character off “Cheers” when Diane began sharing too much of her screen-time him. The character began to grow into something of a wit and, once Diane left Frasier at the altar, a sad sack who had finally earned a spot next to Norm and Cliff at the bar.

When Frasier finally moved to Seattle, however, he lived in a world that revolved around him. Frasier in his home, with his father. Frasier at work on his radio show with his producer. Frasier at his favorite restaurant with his brother. But in creating this little world for the character, the show runners also managed to make some curious decisions in how the character was portrayed. Specifically, when it comes to “Frasier” and Frasier, there’s a lot of odd gay subtext that, for the most part, was never addressed in the show itself.

This subtext is present, in a way, during the character’s time on “Cheers” too. If you think about his introduction to the show, the writers clearly modeled him to be a response to Ted Danson’s character, Sam Malone, the suave, macho former baseball player who has scored with the majority of Boston’s female population. Frasier Crane is the opposite: he’s eloquent, smartly dressed, socialized for academia and wine-and-cheese parties and an intellectual champion rather than an athletic one. In short, Frasier seemed a little gay. He has to be, if he’s the answer to a womanizer like Danson’s character. I think Diane’s attraction to him was, in a way, a joke on how Diane is a romantically misguided dingbat. “She can’t be in love with this guy,” says the viewing public. “This Frasier guy is obviously a fruit.”

During his Seattle years, however, this vibe becomes stronger. I can remember watching a news show some years ago in which various pundits were discussing social issues and television shows. The conversation had turned to the sudden popularity of gay characters on shows — and, yes, this statement helps to date when this show would have aired, as gay characters have since proved more of a gamble than networks are willing to take. (Seriously, it’s surprising when you actually look at lists of it.) Anyway, the fact was stated that “Ellen” was the first show to have a gay lead character. Then in response, one of the more conservative pundits joked, “What about ‘Frasier’?” And everybody laughed, because when you think about it, there’s a lot about the show that would speak to gay experience.

Foremost, unlike most shows ever, there’s no sexual tension between Frasier and either of the two women in the main cast. Frasier’s brother Niles quickly decides that he likes Daphne the maid and chases awkwardly after her, but seeing as how Frasier never spoke a word about his attraction to Daphne until halfway through the show’s run, it seems plausible that Frasier could have made the first move, especially since Daphne lives at Frasier’s apartment. (Meanwhile, the actor who plays Niles, David Hyde Pierce, is allegedly gay, though apparently not openly. But my friend took photos and some gay-interest fundraiser at his house a while back. I’m told he is gay and has a boyfriend. At least that's what I heard, anyway.)

Then there’s Roz, Frasier’s producer at the radio station. Like Frasier, she’s single and approaching middle-aged status. They spend hours working in a fairly confined space together. She’s smart. She’s pretty. And yet somehow the show never bothered to develop any romance between the two characters. Very odd, when you think about it.

And then there’s the matter of Frasier’s relationship with his father. In the “Frasier” pilot, viewers quickly learn that Frasier takes after his late mother, Hester, and not his father, Martin, a grizzled ex-cop who prefers football and beer to opera and wine. In truth, the living situation would have probably worked a lot better if Martin had cohabitated with Sam Malone instead of Frasier. Even though Fraiser and Martin live together throughout the series run, they clearly reside in two different worlds. It seems difficult for Martin to understand what compels Frasier to partake in his interests. To him, Frasier’s life is full of decadence and unnecessary fanciness and intellectual smarminess. To him, his son literally leads an alternative lifestyle, whether or not sexuality has anything to do with the great divide between them.

Maybe the oddest part about gay subtext on “Frasier” is the character of Gil Chesterton, the effete food critic at the radio station Frasier and Roz work at. Compared to Sam Malone, Frasier might seem as gay as springtime. But compared to Gil, Frasier seems like a Roman gladiator, who drives a lifted truck, often while fathering babies by several women. It stands to reason that Frasier’s relative masculinity compared to Gil would be the very reason Gil’s character was ever written onto the show: in order to make Frasier seem like more of the central male leading man character that a show starring a man usually revolves around. Even “Will & Grace” — a show in which the two male leads both play gay men — centers on the less flamboyant title character.

That I know of, the subject of Gil’s sexuality only comes up once in the series. Casual conversation brings his co-workers to discuss the notion of who Gil goes home to at night and everyone hesitantly tosses around some gender neutral pronouns until Gil, offended, blurts out that he’s been married to years to a lovely woman who is also a skilled auto mechanic. Gil stomps out and another character remarks that his declaration of heterosexuality was the only time they had ever seen anybody “in” themselves. It’s a throwaway joke and the subject isn’t brought up again for the rest of the episode, but I think it’s interesting that Gil’s co-workers remark on the same kind of implication that a real person employing the same kind of stereotype might make having sat down at watched the show without having seen it before. What especially gets me about the way Frasier’s workplace character interact is that Gil himself is counterbalanced by the presence of Bob “Bulldog” Briscoe, the macho, loudmouthed sportscaster character whose radio show often follows Frasier’s. Dan Butler, the actor who played Bulldog, is gay.

Not that any of this adds up to anything, really, except maybe that there’s at least a lot of gay-seeming stuff on “Frasier,” if very little explicitly stated gay stuff. It all strikes me as very odd, not just because it brings up some interesting ideas about how Americans view gay people — the show was, after all, pretty popular for a long time and conceivably watched by people of different walks of life — but also how people who write TV go about creating a character and then changing it and contrasting it against other characters to make sure that people watching the show respond in the way the creators want them to.

11 comments:

  1. This, though inconclusive, is pretty brilliantly observed. To add, despite the fact that Roz was conceived of on the show as heterosexual (expressly through her somewhat loose repuation and her random affair with Bulldog), I can't help feeling like there is something kind of lesbian about Roz, though not as strong as the lesbian vibe we get from Lillith. But I think the reason both of those characters come off with a slightly lesbian vibe is because they are constructed as "unfeminine," especially in comparison to Daphne, who is a feminine as her namesake and is the only one of the three women who has a traditional woman's occupation and association (a domestic care worker/live-in nurse who spends all her time in the home). Roz is tough, therefore "dykey" and therefore unfeminine. Lillith, on the other hand, is what no woman ever wants to be called: cold. She's also intelligent and agressive and aloof, all of which are considered unfeminine and that somehow leads on the slipperly slope to accusations of lesbianism.

    You're definitely right. That show Fraiser is really pretty gay.

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  2. You're right. Promiscuity aside, Roz eventually decides to live without men, as she raises her kid on her own. And as for Lilith, cold as she may seem, she shows up on "Frasier" after divorcing the man she lives Frasier for. Her second marriage ends, Lilith explains, because her husband "wanted to find someone more feminine." And then she follows up with the joke: "And he found him."

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  3. As to the title, perhaps the reason you don't remember writing it is because you were enjoying a fine Santa Cruz wine by the name of Le Cigare Volante from Bonny Doon Vineyards?

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  4. Ha, ha... Shelley Long.

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  5. have you ever seen The Celluloid Closet, i recommend it, good ol' FS 46

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  6. Anonymous1:00 AM

    roz and fraiser boned in one episode.

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  7. Well hell, that changes everything.

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  8. AevalFae9:41 AM

    Actually they didn't bone, they said later it was just a "flirtation". They did come close though... so make of that what you will.

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  9. AevalFae11:31 PM

    Actually, I stand corrected. Just watched a couple more episodes in ;D so, there's your monkey wrench.

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  10. Anonymous1:51 AM

    This article is well written, I must admit. However, I don't really agree that a man having refined tastes makes him gay. Why does everyone seem to think guys should all be hairy viking rugby players?

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  11. Anonymous: You're completely right. And in the real world, that's true. The thing with the "fancy man" stereotype is that is has for years been used as a code for gay men in movies and on TV. That's dissipating, but it isn't gone yet, and so you're going to see echoes of it in fictional works.

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