Monday, January 16, 2012

Frasierquest 4.18: Ham Radio

Frasier Crane, actor/director

Frasier: The people of Dad's generation would sit around the radio every night, absolutely mesmerized.

Martin: We were a simple people

As a fan of audio theater I've been looking forward to this one. "Ham Radio" is one of the show's best and silliest episodes, an exercise in pure goofiness that trades on the old comedy trope that, in a live performance, Murphy's Law is always in effect. It's one of Frasier's own great personal disasters, but while his arrogance is the cause of a lot of it, it's mostly just things going wrong because it would be funny. And that's all right, because the gags end up being just that good.

KACL's anniversary is coming up, and Frasier discovers that the station used to specialize in live radio theater. He's found the script for "Nightmare Inn", the first mystery the station ever did, and is the director of a live reading of it on the station. He enlists Roz, Bulldog, and Gil to read parts, and when his over-direction gets one actor to quit, he pulls in Niles to play several small roles, most of whom speak in succession. Of course Frasier casts himself in the lead. When showtime comes around the situation with the cast is already tense, so when things start to go wrong the production quickly lurches out of control.

A lot of what happens is pinned on Frasier having an "Orson Welles complex", which becomes apparent early on when he names the production "Frasier Crane's Nightmare Inn". His controlling nature leads to the project being no fun for anyone, and you can see their enthusiasm drain away slowly. None of these people are professional actors (except the one that Frasier drives away), but they want to make it work. Their director just makes it really, really hard

Of course, if the story were limited to Frasier's bad decisions it wouldn't be nearly as entertaining. What we get in the broadcast is a perfect storm of live disasters. Sound effects fail, music cues miss hilariously (with Frasier making the worst save of all time, described below), and Gil's attempt to hold on to his character's "boyhood in Surrey" speech turns the story increasingly surreal. And a bit about Roz on novacaine trying to spit out "multiple murderer" is just inspired. There really isn't a reason all these things happen, but the results are too hilarious to care about a lack of narrative tightness.

Indeed the entire episode leans more heavy on the rule of funny than the show usually does. Take Niles' climactic tantrum, in which, sick of Frasier's direction and having to play several parts at once, he hijacks the story and brings it to an abrupt and extremely violent conclusion. Under most circumstances this would seem a petty and childish thing to do, but it's far more hilarious than any "actual" conclusion to the Nightmare Inn saga could ever be. And it's not like the other performers care- by this point Frasier has turned everyone against him. The whole point is just to watch a glorious trainwreck, and Niles sends it off with such aplomb.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? That a good director should never let ego get in the way of a collaborative effort, perhaps, or an admonishment against populating your live radio drama broadcast entirely with non-actors? Maybe, but fundamentally you get the feeling the writers just wanted to have some fun with the idea of the gang doing a live radio play and screwing the whole thing up. Fortunately everyone involved brings their A-game, and the result is not just a nice salute to a neglected medium, but an oft-cited classic episode of the series. Farce never sounded so good.

No Guest Caller

Written by David Lloyd
Directed by David Lee

Aired April 22, 1997

Frasier: It appears to be… the ice cream truck!

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