Kelsey Grammer: A Profile In Boomer Surrender

by Cara Lentz
File under: Baby Boomers29 Dec 2013 4:45 EST

Ah, Kelsey Grammer. Where to start in assessing such a character — that last token Republican in Hollywood?

Perhaps some background information for the culturally deprived young would be a good start. Kelsey Grammer is an American actor who spent 20 years of his life depicting Dr. Frasier Crane, first on Cheers and later on the spin-off Frasier. Frasier Crane is a character very hard to imagine for your average American youth now reared on the pre-adolescent swill of The Big Bang Theory. Perhaps a visual comparison will help:

Note that this show is ostensibly an adult form of entertainment, though the marketing graphics are more akin to a 90s Nickelodeon show. It's supposed to be a show about smart people, physicists at that, but an actual intelligent person would probably be turned off around the 5th dry iteration of the 'science guys are awkward with girls' joke. In fact, it represents the death of any real geek subculture in America, as dumb, trendy, and fashionable is the new 'nerdy'.

Nothing to see here. Moving on (or, sadly, backwards in time)...

Ah, now that's a bit more like it. The cast of Frasier looks like a pantheon of Olympian gods, proud and masterful, and not a mundane high-definition reflection of the ubiquitous adult-children you first met in high school. If the average member of the American public tried to sit and watch it, he would likely have to look up at least a few of the literary and historical references dropped by Frasier, a Freudian psychiatrist, and his younger brother Niles, a strong foil as an avowed Jungian. Good luck trying to slip that past a Hollywood producer today — why bother with Freud and Jung when most of the audience is on happy pills?

Quite appropriately, Frasier ran all the way up to 2004, a point beyond which its existence, or that of any show like it, would have started to become really incongruous with the wider society. Its main sin was nothing more than overachieving, going beyond what was expected in an increasingly constricting Hollywood culture, which would introduce the disturbing idea of genuine novelty into an industry that wants to run on auto-pilot making remake films.

Indeed, as is evidenced in this quite instructive episode, Frasier always offered us the sitcom as symphony contrary to ever lessening expectations.

To those of us who grew up with Frasier, or caught it in its twilight years before culture took the permanent Friends left turn, these memories are incredibly tantalizing, almost oppressive. How could there have once been this, and now, suddenly, nothing? Everyone involved with Frasier will carry it as a point of pride to the end of their days, but for the rising generation of actors and screenwriters participating in something so enduring seems like a fool's dream.

Perhaps the answer lies in Mr. Grammer himself...

Our interpretation of him is that he is a deeply conflicted character, one with a degree of conscience, at least relative to his generation, yet ultimately a pragmatist fruitlessly trying to appease cultural institutions that want any memory of the quality once offered in shows like Fraiser gone.

For one, there is his well-publicized political conservatism, which very much counters the dominant narrative of stupid Republicans. If the actor who played the most erudite character on television in the past two decades holds Tea Party views, then maybe President Obama isn't 'too smart' to perform well as president...

Notice the resignation, the conscious admission that the only way to change anything would mean being hated in Hollywood. This, of course, is a passive defense for a man of some considerable influence in his own right, and one who should be able to set some standards rather than follow them. But then, maybe Mr. Grammer just wants to be left alone to his work rather than get involved in Hollywood political debates. But therein lies his even greater betrayal...

As unbelievable as it may be to anybody familiar with Frasier, Grammer also produced Girlfriends, an incredibly awful sitcom showcasing a group of fantasy black women living the lives of the Los Angeles rich and famous. While he was still regularly playing an intellectual, Grammer was sinking his money into plots like this:

Joan Clayton, a successful attorney, prepares to celebrate her 29th birthday (although she claims to be 26 to make her achievements seem more impressive). Toni, Joan's best friend, begins dating Charles, a venture capitalist with a propensity for toe-sucking who dated Joan until he freaked out at the prospect of marriage. Toni tries to hide the truth, but their friend Lynn forces her to confess to Joan. Joan claims she has no problem with Toni bringing Charles to her birthday party; but then brings her friend and colleague, William, to try to make him jealous. Joan is furious to learn that Charles is now interested in settling down, and the evening comes to a screeching halt. Meanwhile, Toni constantly clashes with Maya, Joan's sassy assistant.

Yes, produced by Kelsey Grammer, dissident from the mindless left wing Hollywood juggernaut. Once more, so we can be clear that it's the rest of Hollywood to blame for Hollywood's decadence, and not Mr. Grammer himself:

With her bills piling up, Maya is forced to consider a job writing for a porn publisher (which already employs Lynn). She turns down the position due to moral objections and resumes selling her book on the street. When she has little success—due in part to bootleg sales—Maya decides to give up on her dream and go back to working as a legal secretary. This does not work out, and she winds up accepting the job at the porn publisher. Fortunately, she is soon able to quit after her writing aspirations get a boost from a surprising source. Meanwhile, William and Joan quarrel after he goes home for Thanksgiving without her; and Toni vows to not talk too much about her pregnancy.

But don't worry, these kind of moral dilemmas are not the standard Girlfriends fare. Really: it's a fun, laugh-with-your-girls kind of show:

Joan grows tired of the clingy Marcus and plans to break up with him, but only winds up complicating the situation by having "pity sex" with him. The girls try to help her out by bombarding Marcus with negative facts about Joan in the hopes that he will dump her. Meanwhile, Maya gets involved in a get-rich-quick scheme.

We don't imagine for a second that Kelsey Grammer looked at the merits of this show, weighed it against all the other up and coming ideas he could get involved with, including, doubtlessly, projects more along the lines of Frasier which were not and never will be made, and decided this was the best he could do. We imagine the logic was much more cowardly:

"My existence in this town as a traditionalist whose most famous character regularly referenced 19th century literature is extremely precarious. Therefore, in order to prove I am not an elitist or a racist, I am going to finance this awful show to protect myself. Never mind that the actual quality of this show supposedly serving an underserved black female minority is so low that it itself is an extremely racist and misogynistic project — never mind. They hate me, I have to do it or else they will hate me!"

Indeed, it was all prefigured in a telling episode of Frasier, in which he cedes his program entirely to a black woman lest he be called a racist.

We can't imagine the inner torture Grammer must endure having chosen this course, but the radical juxtaposition of these two shows would explain his often erratic personal behavior over the years as the inevitable result of a crisis of personal integrity. To play Frasier while producing Girlfriends you literally have to become two different persons, which eyewitnesses on the set report actually did occur:

He would ooze into the studio, his life all out of sorts. Jimmy would say "Action," and he would snap into Frasier and expound in this very erudite dialogue and be pitch-perfect. And Jimmy would yell "Cut!" and he would ooze back into Kelsey—glazed-over eyes, half asleep, going through whatever he was going through. It was the most amazing transformation I'd ever seen.

So which is the real Kelsey Grammer? Only he can answer this question. He certainly did some good work once. May the Lord have pity on the remains of his tabloid-tattered soul.

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Anglyn Hays says:30 Jul 2014 7:47 EDT
Kelsey is a classic boomer, of course, on the right. But he is also a brand, like most of the political activism to emerge out of the woodstock generation. His presentation may appear to be masterful, but his inner clock has run its course. The sheer disdain for those younger than 50 is obvious and typical.
Anonymous says:05 Jan 2014 21:57 EST
Top-notch analysis of a very intimate drama. Much like a parable about modern life.
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