45. "Dinner Party," Frasier (1999)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
"Dinner Party" is not only a bottle episode (using one set and only series regulars) but a real-time episode, in which brothers Frasier and Niles begin the half hour by planning an "intime soiree" and end it by questioning their unusually close relationship. It came in Frasier's sixth season, the first one that wasn't showered with Emmys, but it's as funny as just about any of the more celebrated episodes, and you can't find a better showcase for Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce.
It's also got an exchange that's one of my favorite in the entire series, in part because it might set a record for the most highbrow reference in a prime-time sitcom (and Grammer is enjoying it so much):
Frasier: (after discovering that his party would conflict with his father's poker night) I tell you what, there's no reason why we can't hold both parties simultaneously. The apartment's certainly big enough.
Martin: I know what you're trying to do and it won't work!
Frasier: What, dad? I'm serious. We can share the buffet table, and we can even have the harpist learn a couple of Bobby Darin tunes for your crowd!
Martin: I can stand it if you can.
Frasier: Of course, we will have to dim the lights at one point. You see, Nina Duncan always insists on sharing her extensive collection of slides from the summer she danced Agamemnon at Jacob's Pillow.
Martin: (after trying to hold a frozen smile) All right, I'll change it!
We never see those slides, of course. We never see a lot of things on Frasier, and with all due praise for Grammer's facial expressions and Hyde Pierce's physical agility, most episodes would work quite well as radio plays (but not "Ham Radio," which is actually about a radio play). No guest stars appear on this episode, but the dialogue includes references to about two dozen potential party invitees and other characters, including "the drunken Duncans," a food-finicky nine-year-old, and notorious real-life hoarders the Collyer Brothers. Frasier viewers were already accustomed to creating their own mental images of Niles's ex-wife Maris, Daphne's "Grammy Moon," and Martin's best friend Duke, so they would have been up to the challenges in this episode.
Then there's the sound gag from Frasier's "blackball" scheme to keep down the number of guests for the party, which rivals the buzzer on NewsRadio's "Complaint Box" and would have fit in on the radio show of Grammer's idol, Jack Benny:
Niles: We'll have to have Joan and Ted Birkin. That's a no-brainer.
Frasier: Technically, that's two no-brainers. Forget the Birkins.
Niles: Wait a minute, you can't just steamroll over me. I want the Birkins!
Frasier: All right, we each have a right to blackball, let's say, three guests. We will each get an equal voice. (he puts a nut tray and large metal bowl on the table, then distributes walnuts to himself and Niles) That's three for me and three for you. And just to get the blackball rolling... (he throws one in bowl, making a loud rattle) Bye-bye, Birkins!
Niles: What about John and Carol Peterson? Everyone loves them.
Frasier: Not everyone! (another nut, another rattle) Blaaackball!
Frasier: No, no, we never question the blackball. We just bow to its will.
Another unusual aspect of "Dinner Party" is that it's ultimately about how well Frasier and Niles get along together, though sitcoms usually thrive on stories about how siblings, roommates, colleagues, etc., drive each other crazy. An answering machine mix-up (today it would be a butt dial) leads to the brothers overhearing one of their party guests remark on their inseparability ("You get one, you get that other one") and suddenly wondering about their reputation.
Niles: This is absurd! Why don't we just call Allison up and ask her what she thinks is so strange about us. We can both get her on an extension.
Frasier: Better yet, why don't we just get on a bicycle built for two, ride over there, and ask her what she thinks is so strange about us!
The episode is a pretty big wink to the audience, given the gay subtext on Frasier. ("She thinks we're some sort of... couple," Frasier pouts.) In highlighting the brothers' quirkiness, "Dinner Party" might also appeal to people who have told me they don't like the series because they can't buy Grammer as a romantic lead.
• In that vein, last week I overheard a college-age guy on the subway remark that he's gotten in the habit of watching Frasier reruns on cable. The college-age woman with him responded, "Oh, I can't stand that show. Everyone on it is so unattractive!"
• Hey, what's that picture on the refrigerator over Martin's left shoulder?
• Frasier is on Netflix, with a few scenes from "Dinner Party" on YouTube.
The awkward phone message: