Golden Words — Frasier, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

 

frasier

Frasier was dominant presence at the Emmy Awards, outperforming every comedy series that had come before, include Cheers, the all-time classic it spun off from. Blessed with crack comic timing honed on its preceding series and buffed up in displayed prestige by the cultured intelligence of key character, Frasier took the Outstanding Comedy series trophy five straight years, a record eventually matched by Modern Family. Suiting the highly literate quality of the comedy, Frasier was also uniquely successful in the comedy writing category, besting the competition in each of its first three years. Only The Mary Tyler Moore Show boasts a longer streak in the category.

After a couple years in which the Academy felt obligated to honor flashier episodes in the writing categories, voters circled back to Frasier to bestow the show with a fourth and final writing prize. The episode that claimed this particular bit of shiny glory called upon both the program’s deftness with farce and the antagonistic sentimentality of the show’s family dynamics. And it’s a Christmas episode.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” finds Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) in the early days of a romantic relationship with Faye Moskowitz (Amy Brenneman). When Faye brings her mother (Carole Shelley) over to Frasier’s apartment on Christmas Eve, she unexpectedly discovers that Frasier isn’t Jewish, which she believes will be a deal-breaker for her mother. Ever acquiescing to potential paramours, Frasier agrees to briefly participate in a masquerade, which is complicated by the a ham roasting in the over and a Christmas tree delivery. The ruse gets even more difficult to maintain when Frasier’s brother, Niles, dresses up as Jesus, an unexpected outcome of helping his secret crush, Daphne (Jane Leeves), stage a holiday musical revue.

As Frasier and his family members clumsily feign Jewish cultural investment, the episode skirts precariously close to uncomfortable stereotypes. The iffiness of the comedy is mitigated — but not eradicated — by the knowledge that the episode’s writer, Jay Kogen, is joshing his own heritage. The real strength of the episode, however, is the way it sets up a comic conclusion that draws on character dynamics solidly established over the course of five prior seasons. After watching Faye and her mother work out feelings of antagonism toward one another in a fiercely flaring argument that immediately gives way to comfortable, casual affection, Frasier and his father (John Mahoney) try the same tactic in addresses a conflict, discovering they don’t have the emotional resiliency for it.

The best part of the episode demonstrates a vital, yet often undervalued, component of television sitcom writing. Kogen is successful mostly because he figures out a way to write to the strengths of the show’s incredibly skilled actors. On paper, “Merry Christmas, Mrs. Moskowitz” is fine. As performed by Grammer, Mahoney, Pierce, and the others, it resembles holiday magic.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.

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