During my basement era — those years from age 8 to 17, 1990 to 1999 — I watched constant comedy. I memorized NBC’s jingles (“If you want to be happy on Tuesday night, Wings’ll raise your spirits with a brand new flight”), and called my off-at-college brother after episodes of Seinfeld to do post-mortems of Nothing. At that point my critical capacity only allowed me comments like, “Another thing that was really funny was when George screamed ’Seven.’ Wasn’t that funny?” I still needed him to tell me for sure.
By the time I was 14, television producers and writers had become my heroes. They were like baseball players to me. If there’d been trading cards of Miller and Boyett, mine would have been in mint condition. And my brother endured dozens of conversations about the relative merits of James L. Brooks and Marcy Carsey. But no name seemed to come up in the credits more than David Angell, the co-creator of Frasier and Wings, and a prolific sitcom scribe.
Angell, with his wife, Lynn, died on 9/11 in one of the planes traveling from Boston — the town he helped capture as a writer for Cheers — to Los Angeles, the adopted home he’d found success in since the late-70s. As this Sunday’s anniversary approaches, I wanted to reflect on his work.
After first arriving in California, Angell muscled himself into show-business using a car-trunk full of spec-scripts, selling writing to Archie Bunker’s Place, among others, before settling in with Cheers. That nose-to-the-grindstone success story still inspires me, and since 9/11, I’ve been fascinated by him, mostly because his unassuming sense of humor somehow dominated my adolescence.
Back then, I’d associate this name, David Angell, with me-time. David Angell meant I wasn’t doing my Algebra homework. David Angell meant I’d get to spend the next 29 minutes studying the formula of setup-setup-punchline, letting a laugh track teach me the right answer:
Setup: “Listen, something terrible has happened. It’s Brian and Casey.”
Setup: “Oh my God, were they in an accident?”
Punchline: “Worse. They’re having sex.”
Wowsers! Misdirection at its simplest. Add a sprig of randiness and the comedy stew’s a-boilin’. Never were shows more reliant on the quick joke, on puns and farce. And I credited David Angell for the excellent gags that were somehow both explosively witty and pleasantly predictable.
But I’m also fascinated by him because the violent death of a comedian seems especially incongruous. Now, when I watch Brian Hackett crack wise in a rerun of Wings, I’ve got to keep two opposing ideas in my head at once.
I recently re-watched the opening episode of Frasier, for which Angell won an Emmy, and was struck by its mix of those two opposing ideas, silliness and emotion. Angell’s work, even though it’s packed with quick, cutting punchlines, seems generous, and in “The Good Son,” we see a hopeful Frasier Crane starting anew in Seattle after the breakup of his marriage to Lillith. The episode has its brilliant comic moments — Frasier tells a caller to his radio show, “Six months ago I was living in Boston. My wife had left me, which was very painful. Then she came back to me. Which was excruciating” — but besides the Henny Youngman-y zip of Angell’s work, he could also marshal the sentimentality that harms lesser shows. As the episode continues, Frasier’s father, Martin, moves in with him, and the drama of the series begins. How will loquacious Frasier and his stoic father reconnect?
Frasier: “I don’t want to adjust. I’ve done enough adjusting […] And now my father and his dog are living with me. Well that’s enough on my plate, thank you. The whole idea of getting someone in here was to ease my burden not to add to it.”
Martin: “You hear that Eddie, we’re a burden.”
Frasier: “Dad, you’re twisting my words. I meant burden in its most positive sense.”
Martin: “As in, ‘Gee, what a lovely burden.’”
Angell constructed surprisingly affecting scenes as well as any sitcom writer. As in a real argument, there were always jokes — here, Frasier admits boomingly that he’s taken his father in out of guilt — but Angell doesn’t paper over his characters’ trouble with cheap gags. The scene ends with Frasier storming out and we get the show’s signature fade-to-black.
On Blossom, or even on a good show like Modern Family, these kind of scenes can be too touchy-feely. On Seinfeld and 30 Rock, they’re pretty much nonexistent. But David Angell knew how to balance comic relief and dramatic intensification better than just about anyone. He could do special without doing “very special.”
Angell’s shows also included something we don’t get as much of anymore — silly humor delivered by characters who know they’re being funny. Think of Sam Malone’s winning smile or Niles’s post-crack sip of sherry and compare to Michael Scott’s or Phil Dunphy’s unintentional hilarity, to Jack Donaghe’s deadpan sincerity.
Angell seems to have imagined Borscht-belt comedians showing up in real life to zing each other before moving on to their next problem. The comedy isn’t exactly organic, but it’s not showy either. Even the most staged bits seem to be inevitable, to be earned by a writer who’d thought twenty-seven times about the funniest, most natural way for Lowell Mather to be a dunce. And because the characters grin about their own jokes, they seem friendly, not as snarky-cynical as a Sheen.
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Watching “Old Flames,” Angell’s Emmy-Award winning episode of Cheers, I see another of his best comic weapons: he loved to let the air our of a blowhard. A huge percentage of the jokes in Frasier also followed this simple rule. A man says something pompous only to be made a fool of by circumstance. Here, Cliff Claven lectures Diane when she tries to get Sam interested in high art. We think the joke’s on the first blowhard, Diane, but then Cliff gets knocked down a peg, too, as the scene progresses:
Cliff: “You’re going against eons of biology on this one, Diane.”
Diane: “What are you talking about?”
Cliff: “Well, early cavemen, they went out and hunted for the very food that graced the simple table. Women stayed in the cave and developed their art and culture, what have you. While men down through the centuries have been hunters, doers, adventurers. Cogito, it is not in man’s nature to sit alone and be passive and docile.”
While we giggle that Cliff has used a Latin word to correct Diane and to help him argue that men are always go-getters, Norm groans.
Cliff: “What’s the matter, Norm?”
Norm: “Oh, nothing, it’s just my shorts are binding up on me.”
Cliff: “Just, you know, stand up and straighten ‘em out a little.”
Norm: “Nah, I’ll give ‘em five minutes. Sometimes they self-correct.”
In a matter of lines, we’re able to laugh at the arrogance of two characters (plus, there’s been a bonus butt joke). Angell loved madcappery, but he also got a ton of mileage out of satirizing folks who thought too much of themselves, especially folks in the roaring 80s.
My sense is that David Angell didn’t think too much of himself. There are stories of his softspokenness and humility. Friends remember that he’d wait for a joke to run its course in a writing room and then quietly deliver a funnier line without any kind of one-upsmanship. And if we only knew him from his shows, I think we’d be able to intuit what a decent man he was. But before I get “very special,” myself, I want to include a great line from one of Angell’s colleagues, Les Charles, who said at Angell’s memorial service, “And lest we forget, if he’d never done another thing in his career, David Angell would have earned immortality as the man who added the word ‘boink’ to the English language.”
So we should remember David Angell for “boink,” which arguably originated on one of his episodes of Cheers. And for the main feature of his comedy: the rat-tat-tat speed that never seemed to overwhelm comic kindness. Ten years after his death, that brand still influences NBC’s schedule in shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, even though the laugh track has faded away.
It’s strange to consider a comic force like David Angell in light of the awful thing that ended his life. I know Mr. Angell would have better words to describe that discordance. I’ll just say what I might have thought as a 14-year old: Wasn’t he funny?
David Wanczyk misses those NBC jingles.