By Lynn Elber
The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES - When the blue-collar barroom comedy "Cheers" ended its run in 1993, it managed the neat trick of turning beer into champagne.
"Frasier," the "Cheers" spinoff about psychiatrist Frasier Crane and his dysfunctional family, became its own vintage blend of sparkling wit and dependably funny highbrow neuroses.
The NBC comedy's last episode airs Thursday, closing a remarkable 22-year chapter in television history in which it matched the 11-season run of "Cheers" and became one of TV's most successful spinoffs.
Only the prime-time soap opera "Knots Landing," derived from "Dallas," lasted longer (14 seasons) - and it certainly couldn't boast of the record 31 Emmys, including five consecutive best comedy series awards, bestowed on "Frasier."
It's an accomplishment a demanding sort like Dr. Crane would relish. Series star Kelsey Grammer certainly does. He believes "Frasier," with David Hyde Pierce as Frasier's brother and partner-in-repartee Niles, raised the TV bar.
"I'm proud of it. I have something I can look to, point out and say, Well, I did that,"' said Grammer. "There is an audience for these guys. We proved that. Most of America, frankly, is much smarter than television assumes they are."
Created by "Cheers" alumni David Angell, Peter Casey and David Lee, "Frasier" shoved Dr. Crane out of an unhappy marriage, off his Boston barstool and into a Seattle radio job as host of an advice show.
"I cannot call Frasier' a spinoff," said Pierce. "I know it is, but it seems to me that, from the beginning, it so stood on its own."
The series debuted Sept. 16, 1993. Effete, erudite Frasier's style was matched by fellow shrink Niles but clashed with dad Martin (John Mahoney), a down-to-earth, disabled policeman who ended up bunking with Frasier.
Others in the ensemble cast included Jane Leeves as Daphne, Martin's caregiver and the object of Niles' yearning and Peri Gilpin as Frasier's sassy producer.
There was a succession of squeezes for Frasier.
The latest flame is Charlotte, played by Laura Linney, who features prominently in the two-hour finale, which includes a retrospective at 8 p.m. EDT. Now-married Niles and Daphne, awaiting the birth of their baby, and Martin and fiancee Ronee (Wendie Malick) share the spotlight.
Why did viewers take to a spinoff in which an intellectual snob went from one of the "Cheers" barflies to the hero?
"He wasn't a cold intellectual," said co-creator Casey. "I can't say he never lorded it over people, because there were times that he did. But deep inside he was a good guy and his motive were usually pretty good."
Pierce credits Grammer's ability to make his character "continually interesting and surprising." Grammer won three best-actor Emmys for the role; Pierce received three supporting-actor Emmys.
Grammer's 20 combined years as Frasier Crane (he was introduced on "Cheers" in 1984, two years after the show began) puts him in the league of James Arness and his Marshal Matt Dillon on "Gunsmoke" (1955-75).
"Frasier is the most delightful character to play," Grammer said. "He has a rich emotional life, he has quirks that make him fun to play ... That's the adventure of a lifetime for any actor."
Even during periods in which critics complained the series was "arguably hitting some slumps, I always found him fascinating," he said.
Although the show's ratings flagged in recent seasons and never rivaled those of "Cheers," which aired during a time of less cable competition for networks, it was a key player for NBC.
"During the '90s, NBC captured the most desirable demos on television by appealing to young, urban, upscale viewers, the audience advertisers adore, with smart shows like 'Frasier,"' said Tim Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows."
While changing the setting and dynamic of "Cheers," "Frasier" managed to retain those coveted viewers.
"There's precious little of its stature for that audience on television right now," said Brooks.
With audiences favoring reality shows such as "The Apprentice" and "American Idol," and with long-running sitcoms "Frasier," "Friends" and "Sex in the City" gone, the state of TV comedy is at a low.
Casey suggests a variety of reasons, including too-green sitcom producers, but singles out one.
"My big complaint is that networks tend not to be patient enough to let a show find an audience," he said. "They expect a show to come out of the gate firing, and it doesn't happen. It certainly didn't in the case of Cheers.' They had a horrible first season, in terms of ratings, but they lasted 11 years, didn't they?"
"Frasier" is ending at the right time, said its stars and producers. (Casey noted the series stands as the final credit for Angell, who along with his wife died in one of the planes that hit the World Trade Center.)
"I always wanted to do 11 years, and we did 11," said Grammer. "I've never been arrogant, I've just been hopeful."
There's no expectation that "Frasier" will draw the 80.4 million viewers who tuned in for the last "Cheers," making it the second-most watched TV series finale ever, or even the 50 million-plus who watched last week's finale of "Friends." ("M-A-S-H" was seen by 105 million viewers.)
"Frasier" is also lagging behind among advertisers, who paid up to $2 million for 30-second spots on the last "Friends" but reportedly are getting time on "Frasier" for up to $800,000 per half-minute.
But those who are part of "Frasier" say it's going out in style.
"I feel the producers have been able to bring the whole series, for 11 years, to a really sterling conclusion," said Pierce.
"I'm very proud of that last episode," said Casey. "No matter how good the show, they always seem to be waiting in the bulrushes on that final episode. And I just don't see how they're going to get us."
On the Net
Why can't Frasier find love?
In the spirit of promoting mental health, we asked relationships counselors for their expert take on Frasier's romantic woes.
Pat Fedders, a therapist with Catholic Social Services, suggests the good doctor might be wound a little too tight.
"Loosen the tie," she advises. "Lighten up a little bit. Enjoy people for what they are."
Frasier is too serious and rather inflexible.
"If he were a really open, tender, warm guy, he would be Jerry Seinfeld; he wouldn't be Frasier. You kind of know what to expect from him because he's so predictably pompous."
Seven Neff, a counselor with Assured Counseling Services in Clermont County's Union Township, says Frasier is too narcissistic.
"He's very self-involved. He's very self-centered. He's got the radio show and all that going on," Neff says. " When you're spending that much time focusing on yourself, you really don't have time to connect to another person."
Is Charlotte the one?
Has Frasier found "the one" in matchmaker Charlotte? Fans of the show sound off:
Jim Fetick, 38, Anderson Township: "He will stay single - no one can take Lilith's place in Frasier's heart."
June Carvel Johnson, 67, lives near Hillsboro: "I love the show and am sorry to see it end. I think Laura Linney is the one. . Frasier has sampled a variety of women over the years, but Laura is just enough fun to suit the ending of the show. I love her acting aside from the part she plays here. I hope she wins out with Frasier."
Andrea Henderson, 37, West Chester Township: "I think he's too set in his ways to settle down for any length of time. Even if they do get married, it wouldn't last."
Shari Kelly-Burrows, 39, Milford: "I'm still counting on a return of Lilith, or maybe even Diane, before Frasier makes a commitment to Laura Linney."
Leslie Daly, 46, Loveland: "I think she is the one for Frasier. They have great chemistry - wit for wit, barb for barb."
Thressie Fletcher, 47, Colerain Township: "Stamp me as a romantic, but I believe Frasier will finally find true love. I feel she is aware of his flaws and shortcomings and will be the one to see his soul."
Rob Thornton, 25, Walnut Hills: "If I were a betting man, which I guess I am, I'd bet that he ends up with Charlotte. TV execs know better than to leave a bad taste in people's mouths ... especially with one of the most successful shows on television. I can't wait to buy the DVDs."
Kendra Hull, 25, West Chester Township: "Because Charlotte is moving back to Chicago, and doesn't want a long-distance relationship, I believe Frasier will leave Seattle to be with her. I think Charlotte is the soulmate he's been searching for."
--John Johnston, Lauren Bishop
How well do you know 'Frasier'?
Frasier ends Thursday after 11 years on the air. How much do you know about America's favorite radio psychiatrist?
1. What is the name of the Seattle coffeehouse where Frasier and Niles often meet for a cup of gourmet joe?
A. Hallowed Grounds
B. The Java Spot
C. Central Perk
D. Cafe Nervosa
2. How many Emmy Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series has Frasier won to date?
3. Which Friends star was originally cast as Frasier's radio producer, Roz?
A. Jennifer Aniston
B. Courtney Cox
C. Lisa Kudrow
D. Matthew Perry
4. What is Frasier's radio catch-phrase?
A. Tune in, turn on, get help
B. Let's get better!
C. Frasier feels your pain
D. I'm listening
5. In addition to nominations for his role as the good doctor on Frasier and Cheers, Kelsey Grammer received an Emmy nod for a guest-starring gig as Frasier Crane on what other NBC show?
C. 3rd Rock From the Sun
D. Mad About You
1. D. Cafe Nervosa
2. C. Five
3. C. Lisa Kudrow
4. D. I'm listening
5. A. Wings
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