“It’s not like he’s the first gay friend I’ve ever had.” —Frasier
“He’s the first one who thinks you’re gay, too.” —Niles
Frasier’s 2003 gay farce “The Doctor is Out” is a masterpiece of queer representation.
“Frasier?” I can hear you laugh over your glass of sherry. Hear me out.
This spin-off of NBC’s wildly successful sitcom Cheers starred Kelsey Grammar as the titular Frasier Crane, a middle-aged divorcee and psychiatrist with a radio talk show, David Hyde Pierce as his brother Niles, John Mahoney (rest in peace) as their father Martin (“Marty”), Jane Leeves as Marty’s British in-house caretaker (and by Season 11, Niles’s wife), Daphne Moon, and Peri Gilpin as Roz Doyle, Frasier’s producer. The show ran from 1993–2003 and received high critical and audience praise for its fast-paced, witty humor, nuanced characters, and heartfelt themes. By the time its 11th and final season rolled around, Frasier was no stranger to having a laugh about homosexuality.
As early as Season 2’s “The Matchmaker,” Frasier was already introducing gay characters in a far more substantial way than Cheers. In the episode, Frasier’s new boss at the radio station, Tom, believes Frasier to be gay after a series of misunderstandings (a plot device we’ll return to), and takes their “business dinner” to be a date. Other episodes like Season 5’s “The Ski Lodge,” which entangles a gay man in a classic open-door-closed-door farce where everybody is trying to sleep with everyone else, and Season 7’s “Out with Dad,” which has Marty “playing gay” to impress the uncle of a woman Frasier is trying to seduce, run the gambit of funny, if slightly stereotypical humor, where the punchline is usually a straight person’s misunderstanding, and rarely, if ever, the nature of a character’s sexuality.
This was a far cry from a lot of queer sitcom humor leading up to that point. Cheers itself had several episodes devoted to the idea of gayness (“The Boys in the Bar” and “Norm, Is That You?” come to mind) with almost zero visibility for queer characters, until Harvey Firestein showed up in Season 10. Will & Grace, for all its talk of representation, presented such hollowed-out gay stereotypes to the world that it’s not something I’ve ever been able to enjoy. It employs some borderline Hays-Code-level queer-coding, in my opinion, and feels more like SNL’s “Xanax for Gay Summer Weddings” skit than an actual TV show. Watching Ellen come out and subsequently get her show cancelled is infamous and painful for more reasons than I have space to list right now.
Enter Frasier S11E3, “The Doctor is Out.”
Where Every Gay Bartender Knows Your Name
The plot centers around Frasier meeting the fictional director of the Seattle Opera, Alistair Burke (Sir Patrick Stewart), and follows the two of them in a…relationship of sorts as Frasier basks in Alistair’s fame and fails to tell his famous friend that he’s actually straight.
The Frasier-Alistair relationship is treated more like an unrequited love than a trick or infiltration on Alistair’s part; a huge leap in the simple framing of queer relationships, particularly when it comes to gay men. Alistair’s infatuation with Frasier is, in many ways, mutual—I would even argue that Frasier is more dopey and starstruck with Alistair than vice versa is in the relationship. What makes it so funny isn’t that Alistair is gay, it’s that Frasier is being an idiot (again).
Why does Alistair think Frasier is gay? Here comes the B plot—or, rather, the Barry plot.
Roz’s new boyfriend, Barry, gives off gay vibes to Frasier and Niles, and after they appear to witness him entering a gay bar (the immaculately named “Bad Billy’s”), Frasier follows Barry in, experiences a series of classic Frasier misunderstandings, and is subsequently “outed” on his radio show by a caller the next day. Frasier must protect Niles, who was pretending to be bogged down with patients all day to avoid driving Daphne’s mother to a flower show, and so is unable to deny the accusation.
Alistair bonds with Frasier over his outing and begins courting him with invitations to the opera, expensive gifts, and propositions of travel. Frasier is, naturally, delighted by the attention, and hijinks ensue. Frasier continually denies that Alistair is interested in him romantically, or that they have, essentially, been dating for several weeks.
There are a few things that raise the quality of this episode from good comedy to exceptional sitcom storytelling.
The Good Son
Right off the bat, you’ll notice the surprisingly nuanced relationship every character has to Frasier’s predicament.
A major theme of the episode is Frasier’s own reliance on stereotypes to psychoanalyze people…and the blind spot he has for himself. This was a recurring theme on the show, but had only once before been addressed in the realm of sexuality. Season 4’s “The Impossible Dream” examined Frasier having erotic dreams about his extravagantly queer-coded coworker Gil Chesterton (Edward Hibbert), and dared ask the question—is Frasier gay? The answer is decidedly no, but it opens up the conversation about stereotypes.
Frasier and Niles both enjoy fine dining, wearing nice suits, the opera, playing squash in tiny white shorts, and a milieu of other extremely stereotypical “gay man” things. That’s what makes it so easy—and funny—to believe that a gay character might mistake Frasier for swinging for his team. Obviously Alistair enjoys fine dining, nice suits, and the opera, and is gay, but the show’s titular character likes all of those things, is straight, and is still blind to the way he examines those stereotypes in others.
It adds an extra juicy layer of hilarity, as we go from Frasier doggedly insisting that Barry must be a homosexual just because Barry works in the fashion industry, to being absolutely resolute that Alistair couldn’t possibly think he, Frasier, is gay even though they were both “outed” on broadcast radio.
Casting Sir Patrick Stewart as Alistair was also a brilliant move both in character and presentation. Stewart is funny, charming, and handsome, and plays the character “straight” for lack of a better word—he’s a dramatic opera director, but he isn’t offensive. Casting someone with such inescapable star power gives Alistair an air of prestige that’s believable to the audience—they relate to Frasier and Niles, and as the brothers are star-struck over this celebrity in their universe, we are left going “wait a minute, what the hell is Sir Patrick Stewart doing on Frasier?”
When Alistair comes out to Frasier mid-conversation while expressing his consolation over the “outing,” Frasier doesn’t bat an eye. Frasier laughs along with Alistair’s story, and the only response comes in an attempted refutation Frasier makes of his own “queerness”: “Oh, how awful for you. Of course, in my case—”, which is cut off by Alistair’s invitation to the opera after-party.
Alistair’s position is borderline aspirational, as outlined in that moment just after Alistair first asks Frasier out at the coffee shop post-radio-show-outing, and Niles, left out, sinks disappointedly back into his seat, lamenting “I was in that gay bar, too, you know.” Martin grumbles in response: “Let’s see, one of my sons just got picked up by a guy; my other son is jealous. Yep, life is good.”
Martin, considering himself open-minded for not assuming Barry is gay earlier in the episode, doesn’t notice his own blind spots.
After Frasier has his radio show incident, Marty leads Frasier in an argumentative double entendre in Cafe Nervosa: “Guy walks into a coffee bar, you can’t blame people for thinkin’ he likes coffee…of course, if he didn’t like it, he could make that clear to people. He might say, ‘I am not a coffee drinker,’ or ‘I have never tried coffee even once!’…or ‘I am not even curious about coffee!’” Martin is clearly more concerned for Frasier’s image, and while Marty may not be outwardly homophobic or aggressive, his concern when it comes to Frasier exposes that “as long as it’s not in my family” brand of deep-seated homophobia that queer people are all too familiar with.
It’s a natural investigation of Marty’s character, and it works because we as the audience trust him so much.
When Frasier opened up about his same-sex dreams way back in “The Impossible Dream,” Marty was embarrassed and standoffish about the subject at first, then made it clear to Frasier that he loved him no matter what, and was sure he would figure it out eventually. It was pretty obvious, however, that Marty didn’t actually believe Frasier was having a sexuality crisis; rather, a psychological one. When faced with the proposition of his son effectively dating a man, it makes sense that the question might come up in an inescapable way for Martin.
Later, when Frasier tells the family that Alistair is coming over, Martin completes his arc in the episode by transitioning from denial (“He’s perfect for you, Roz…not gay at all!”) to hypermasculine caution (“not even curious about coffee!”) to concerned parent, taking part in some gentle mocking over his son’s lovesick behavior: “That’s all we’ve heard around here all week! Alistair this, Alistair that!” Marty has moved on to being preoccupied with the fact that Frasier is clearly duping Alistair (or at least, is in denial about the nature of his and Alistair’s relationship), and is more upset with his son’s idiocy than the fact that Frasier’s date is a man.
This kind of character-based humor is what Frasier was known for, and it ties naturally into the narrative of both the single episode and the series as a whole. The generational gap in Martin’s priorities versus Niles’s adds an interesting and realistic layer to the characters’ reactions. It’s what makes the comedy all the more natural and varied, and Frasier uses its leads to continually address the thematic narrative that gay people don’t fit one shape, character type, or plot role.
“I Shouldn’t Make Fun”
There’s much to say simply about the jokes in this episode. By Season 11, Frasier’s humor had hit a bit of a rut. The past few seasons, with the exception of the Niles and Daphne subplot, had leant way too far into hammy slapstick and embarrassing misunderstandings without any heart. “The Doctor is Out” comes out swinging and completely reignites that witty, brisk fire of comedy that was what made the show so captivating 11 years back.
When Frasier and Niles first meet Barry and decide Barry must be gay, Martin is taken aback, challenging with: “That guy’s not gay! Know how you can tell? The muscles.” Niles quips back: “Good point, dad. Second tip-off: no poodle,” in that dry David Hyde Pierce way that makes you absolutely cackle on a good day.
What you might notice throughout this episode is the sheer delight Niles seems to be having in Frasier’s gay misunderstanding. While it’s nothing new for Niles to find glee in Frasier’s troubles, there’s a lighter edge to Pierce’s delivery in this episode. Pierce wouldn’t come out as gay until 2007, and it would be purely speculation to say he read any of these lines with that level of enthusiasm for any particular reason other than doing his job, but the sheer giddy joy he takes in cracking these “gay jokes” that aren’t at the expense of gay characters feels like a sigh; a breath of fresh air.
A personal favorite of mine comes after Niles has been relentlessly mocking Frasier for being “outed” on the radio; Pierce bursts into giggles while choking out the line, “I shouldn’t make fun, you people have been persecuted long enough as it is!” As an audience member in 2020, and as a queer person who knows what it feels like to come out of the closet and finally get to find humor in your situation, it’s nothing short of delightful. The jokes hit hard because they have backbone.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the episode’s humor is that none of the jokes are at Alistair’s expense…or even Barry’s. Frasier and Niles make a couple of cracks at Barry’s seeming effeminate-ness, and there’s certainly a fair dose of dick-themed double entendre, but the brothers’ ignorance and missteps are the source of the laughter.
An excellent example of a gay joke that’s targeted at Frasier’s idiocy comes right after Alistair has come over to “meet the family.” On his and Frasier’s way out the door, Alistair stops to take a snack that Frasier has prepared, declaring “These are amazing!” and, “Is there anything this man can’t do?” Niles swipes back once Alistair is out of earshot: “Time will tell.”
The difference between mocking someone’s stereotypical vicinity to queerness and mocking someone else for being a jerk about it means the world. Anything can be funny, so long as you’re not punching down. Furthermore, Alistair gets to make many of the jokes himself. When Alistair tells Frasier about his own experience being “outed,” he proclaims “An angry ex-boyfriend phoned in, everything came out: names, dates, birthmarks…” which not only works to sympathize the audience to Alistair, but gives him the power in this situation. He’s the one cracking the joke.
It’s downright hilarious to see Frasier become flustered by Alistair’s sexual advances in the final act, not because Alistair is a man, but because he’s a handsome, charming man who Frasier has been lying to. Everyone likes a dick joke, but deciding who’s the dick to be joked about is the art.
There are arguably a few exceptions to the “no gay punch lines” rule, like Frasier drolly remarking “One wonders what’s been in Barry’s closet a little too long” upon meeting Roz’s new beau. Frasier yelling “Shut up, you big queen!” at a sympathetic Gil who has come to console him over the “outing” reads intentionally callous on Frasier’s part, if not borderline hypocritical…but he’s about to be proven all the more ignorant for it.
Frasier eventually wanders into Bad Billy’s wearing Niles’s tiny squash shorts (after Frasier’s ripped, naturally), recognizes his “furniture polisher” (a Freudian slip if I’ve ever heard one) as the bartender, and only exits the scene after Niles realizes Barry had slipped into an apartment next door, and, running late for Daphne, runs into the bar to collect Frasier, yelling “I’m begging you, please take me home!” as the hip dance music conveniently cuts out.
The Queerness of You
The point of Frasier being mistaken for gay after being caught amongst this web of stereotypes is a nuanced one that elevates this beyond just a simple vaguely homophobic sitcom misunderstanding, and ties the conflicts of the A and B plots together thematically.
At the end of the episode, when the Cranes attend the reception of Alistair’s opera, Frasier is greeted by Alistair…and his mouth. Yep, on prime-time television, Frasier Crane kissed Jean-Luc Picard on the lips. If for nothing but the sheer entertainment value, this scene is worth watching. It’s noteworthy in that (chronologically) it’s one of the first truly funny sitcom scenes I’ve watched where a man kisses another man, it’s played for laughs, and there’s not an ounce of homophobia or disgust involved. Frasier simply looks gobsmacked, then moves about the party continually delighted by Alistair’s famous friends, his position in a self-proclaimed “power couple,” and having been offered a position on the opera board.
Eventually, Alistair is cued by Daphne and Niles’s compliments about the show and explains that to save his energy for rehearsal, he abstains from sex during the process. “Well, you can ask Frasier here…my poor, patient Frasier,” Alistair sighs as he strokes Frasier’s lapel. Frasier looks utterly dumbfounded, though not offended by the proposition, and is forced to confront the fact that he is in gay denial.
The scene is played much more like a mutual breakup than a gay freak-out. Daphne offers her sympathy and Frasier just responds with “Damn my fatal allure,” in the same egotistical way he would, conceivably, if he were breaking up with a woman. After a quick flirt and intimate (and truly hilarious, dick-joke-filled) dance, Frasier gently breaks up with Alistair. We get one final crack at Frasier’s ego: “Would three weeks in Capri in Bertolucci’s villa change your mind?” Alistair asks cheekily. Frasier takes a long beat, responds with, “It’s worth a try!” and then comes to his senses. In a surprisingly sweet move, Frasier offers to stay until the end of the party to avoid the appearance that Alistair was dumped.
When confronted with the reality of gay sex, Frasier finally realizes that there is more to being gay than “seeming” it: the only thing that actually makes someone gay is their attraction to the same gender…the one thing Frasier lacks in this relationship. It calls all the way back to his quick snap-judgment of Barry that started all the drama in the first place, and the way Frasier assumed Barry was gay because of his stereotypical interests and appearance. Barry is, in many ways, just like him, and neither are gay.
“The Doctor is Out” asks audiences to engage with queer characters by elevating them to a high status and associating them with big-name actors; it consciously works to undermine harmful stereotypes that were all the rage in sitcom representations of gay people, particularly throughout the 1990s, as a tumultuous battle was being fought over the way queer people could live and marry in the public eye.
“Tuesday is Leather Night…”
The button on the episode, played over the end credits, shows Barry and Roz kissing outside Barry’s apartment and heading inside. As the camera pans away, we see Gil hiding behind a magazine of naked men. He puts down the magazine, then heads down into Bad Billy’s. This coda is not only the perfect type of last-plot-thread-wrapped-up-by-a-joke that the Frasier credits were used to, but contains the rare character beat as well.
Gil had, up until that point, only been aggressively coded as gay. There were references to his wife that made her seem like a stereotypical lesbian “beard,” he was the food and wine critic on KACL, he wore pastel vests with matching bow ties. This tag on the end of “The Doctor is Out” was the first time we got to see Gil move beyond his existence as a constant effeminate punchline and act on textual gayness.
Either that, or he was just looking for Barry in the bathroom. You know, like Frasier.
The bold and complex interplay between humor, heart, and theme is what makes this show so good. It’s quite something for any TV show to hit its stride again three episodes into its final season, but my fond memories of the sitcom are all the better for it. “The Doctor is Out” excels not only for its remarkable place in queer comedy, but because it is a perfect episode of Frasier.