Ode to Joy

(Video copyright Grub Street Productions, Paramount Network Television)

The trope of mistaken identity (and ensuing miscommunications) is a go-to for sitcom writers, easily played for laughs by appealing to the audience’s egos. The audience, always one step ahead of the actors, is always aware of the true identity (and what’s at stake), while the characters get clued in to the joke one by one. If it works, hilarity should ensue. If it doesn’t, the entire episode can come across as stale.

The “Frasier” episode above (season 2, episode 3) works, and primarily because of the terrific ensemble. Among the cast, though, one performer stands out: John Mahoney as Martin Crane. The setup: Frasier has invited his new boss, Tom, over to dinner as a potential suitor for Daphne, his father’s live-in physical therapist/housekeeper. Tom, as it turns out, is gay, and thinks he’s there on a date with Frasier. No one at the get-together knows this until Tom clues in Niles, Frasier’s brother, and thus the miscommunications get set straight (pun fully intended).

I have such affection for this episode, and it’s primarily because of Mahoney. The character of Martin has always been written as the average Joe in this ensemble — a working-class blue-collar retiree contrasted against his silver spoon sons, a beer-swilling guy-next-door among port-sipping prima donnas. The character could have been played as irascible, grumpy, mean-spirited — more than a few of his lines over the show’s run could have been delivered with a harsher tone, a gruffer interpretation. Mahoney, though, makes Martin not just likeable, but loveable — a grin always threatens to overtake his face, a bemused “can you believe these guys” gleam is ever-present in his eyes. His line delivery is often just a breath away from good-natured laughter. Despite Martin’s nature, he enjoys his sons, the push-and-pull dynamic of their opposite personalities, forced to coexist. And when Mahoney gets to put Martin’s true nature on display, it’s nearly always jubilant.

Mahoney was nominated for an Emmy just twice for his work on “Frasier”, and both times went home empty handed. While the Emmys are regularly bemoaned for getting it wrong, this oversight (and lack of subsequent nominations) seems particularly egregious. (Out of 11 seasons, the awards committee couldn’t find one year Mahoney deserved to win?!?)

But I digress. If you have time, watch the whole excerpt of the episode to see Mahoney’s glee build and build. If you don’t have 20+ minutes to spare, start the clock at the 15:30 mark and wrap up at 17:00. Mahoney’s burst of laughter is undeniably contagious, and the camera’s perspective of outside-looking-in makes the viewer want to run in and join him. I dare you to watch that scene and keep a straight face.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.

All the Rage

(Video copyright Bright/Kauffman/Crane Productions, Warner Bros. Television)

For my money, no one does yuppie urban angst for laughs better than David Schwimmer. And he does it particularly well in the the post-Thanksgiving episode of “Friends”, “The One With Ross’s Sandwich” (season 5, episode 9).

A recurring thread of this season was Ross’s rage problem, a cumulative result of the character’s ongoing romantic and professional frustrations. In this scene, the switch gets flipped, and out comes the anger. The (seemingly minor) catalyst? A colleague at the office has eaten Ross’s lunch, a sandwich (made from Thanksgiving leftovers) he had been looking forward to eating all morning.

I love how Schwimmer accents the word “my” throughout this scene, how his colleague’s seemingly innocuous mistake takes on the full weight of the personal. We’ve all been there, just trying to slog through the work day, the little thing we’re anticipating (be it a sandwich, a cookie, a cup of coffee) the one bright spot in a otherwise dull day, or the one moment of relief and indulgence in an otherwise stressful day. That sandwich represents a moment of individuality in a city where you’re one among millions, in a corporation where you’re one among hundreds. That 3 p.m. snack–a handful of M&Ms, perhaps–evokes the many afternoons, so many years ago, when school let out and that sweet taste signified that the rest of the day was blissfully yours. Discovering the vending machine is out of M&Ms, or that a coworker has emptied the candy jar, is akin to waking from a pleasant dream, one that promised to rejuvenate and fuel the coming day, and instead finding yourself jolted, frazzled, and grumpy.

Which is why Schwimmer’s outburst is so hilariously relatable. We’re all just trying to keep it together, day in and day out, and most of us never get to have our own individual meltdown. We have jobs to keep, bills to pay, responsibilities to uphold, and so we bottle up our reactions. But for a moment, Schwimmer lets us live vicariously through Ross, and goes for the primal yell. His release–and our corresponding belly laugh–may be as effective, and therapeutic, as if we were able to react so honestly. The performer evokes our own authentic reaction–however inappropriate and juvenile, however over-the-top–and we laugh as we recognize ourselves.

This post first appeared on the Good Taste and a Sense of Humor blog.