Frasier might have been the titular character of the hit sitcom, but Niles was clearly the star of the show. Let’s take a look at what made him so hilarious (and lowkey relatable) and unpack why he provided such an important balance to the show!
CH 1: Niles, The Best Brother
Pretentious, neurotic, and always on edge, Niles could have very easily become a very irritating character. But David Hyde Pierce brings a level of humanity to the character, even in his most annoying moments, that allow us to both laugh at and with Niles. While he shares Frasier’s dry humor, he also brings a good amount of physical humor to the show as well – often finding himself in bizarre predicaments that only seem to escalate the more he tries to handle them on his own. Often his issues are exacerbated by his anxiety, which works to make him rather relatable. But no matter what’s going on, Niles is always ready with a pithy comeback.
Niles’ life, much like Frasier’s, has been a quest to be and be seen as more interesting and intelligent. And he provides an interesting contrast to Frasier – both are stuck up and obsessed with appearances, but Frasier was to some degree softened by the more normal people he hung out with during the Cheers era. Pierce once noted that Niles was essentially “what Frasier would be if he had never gone to Boston and never been exposed to the people at Cheers.” Frasier spent time in Boston falling in love with Diane and battling with Sam for her affections – eventually having a full breakdown when Diane left him (before going on to marry and divorce Lilith and move back to Seattle.) Niles, on the other hand, had stayed in Seattle, focused solely on climbing the social and career ladders and marrying into money. This would usually make a character end up feeling more detached from reality and thus less relatable, but all of Niles’ many quirks (and his core of kindness that’s clearly hiding under his layers of expensive suits and pompous attitude) bring him back down to earth. It also helps that Frasier himself is often rather grating, and so Niles’ constant willingness to take him down a peg endears him to the audience even more. This banter between the brothers is one of the highlights of the show – because they are so similar in many ways, they get each other on a deep level. They grew up feeling similarly out of place, and so grew particularly close. And it’s this closeness that also allows them to constantly mock one another and volley barbs back and forth without any real hard feelings. And at the end of the day, they’re always there for one another when it matters the most.
While everyone on the show has their own moments of hilarity, so much of the show’s humor comes from Niles’ quips, squabbles, and basic attempts to function in society. He makes being pretentious funny instead of just obnoxious – like his wild steak order that is so over the top you can’t help but laugh. He does, at least outwardly, look down his nose at people he deems to be beneath him in taste or intelligence, but this is mostly a defense mechanism because he doesn’t understand so many parts of “regular” society. He desperately wants to fit in, constantly clamoring to attain all of the markers of the echelon of society he thinks he belongs in. Whether it’s taking up smoking in an attempt to get hot theater tickets or making up a story about having an affair with a married woman in Paris to sound more interesting, Niles is willing to do whatever it takes (even though things seldom go in his favor.) Even his attempts to have “normal” experiences usually go awry – like when he thought he ate pot brownies and excitedly prepared to experience being high for the first time, only to find out that they were completely normal brownies. In addition to being humorous, there’s something about his myriad neuroses and constant tripping on the hurdles of life that is incredibly relatable.
CH 2: Niles Very Rocky Road To Personal Growth
While Niles’ more extreme behavior serves to make Frasier look more rational by comparison, he also provides an illuminating (and amusing) contrast to the rest of the characters on the show as well. Martin had never been very close with either of his sons – as a grizzled police detective, his interests were quite different than theirs and they never really saw eye to eye. While Martin was into the outdoors and sports, Frasier and Niles were decidedly not. The boys and their father had drifted apart for years until Martin was shot in the line of duty and forced to retire and eventually moved in with Frasier. Both sons often look down on their father, assuming he can’t possibly have any useful insight on anything because he’s just an average guy (though they usually come to find that he was right, even if they’d rather not admit it.) Niles lets slip just how much not having a close relationship with his father has secretly hurt him when he dresses up as Martin for a Halloween party. Drunk and in character as his father, Niles begins a tirade about how disappointing the two sons are. It’s clear that, deep down, he always feared that he wasn’t good enough for Martin. But Martin sets him straight. It takes time and work, but the pair do come to form a deep bond (even if they still don’t always understand each other.)
Niles also shows surprising growth in his relationship with Frasier’s co-worker Ros. She’s no-nonsense and not afraid to push back on Frasier or Niles’ pretentious attitudes. This leads to most of Ros and Nile’s interactions in the earlier seasons being relegated to mean jabs back and forth. But over the seasons even they are able to find common ground, as he sees the value in her self-confidence and she gets a better picture of how his more annoying habits are driven by insecurity.
Much of Niles’ growth comes from his relationships on the show – or rather, finally escaping one toxic relationship and, eventually, getting up the courage to enter a new, healthy one. When we initially meet Niles, he’s married to the elusive Maris – a character we constantly hear about but never see. More than love, he seems to have married her for her money and social status and her domineering nature. Though Maris doesn’t ever appear on the show, through Niles we do come to feel like she’s a real threat always looming just off-screen. Their relationship is the definition of toxic – they’re always tearing each other down and fighting, usually with Niles bearing the brunt of the pain, only to reconnect for a night of passion and start the cycle all over again. Eventually, he does break free from her at last – but in doing so ends up losing all of the things he holds dear as she takes all of his money. Initially distraught, he realizes it’s worth it to finally be rid of her (even if it does mean giving up his fancy apartment.)
Escaping from Maris’ slightly webbed grasp was certainly a huge milestone for Niles, but really opening himself up to true love took a bit more growth. He fell in love with Daphne, his father’s carer, the moment he saw her, but it took him years to work up the courage to actually attempt to be with her. He spends most of the show pining after her, with her completely unaware of his feelings. His being head-over-heels in love but way too afraid to do anything certainly provides some laughs, but also something for the audience to root for. The audience got to spend seasons excited for any little moment between the two, hoping the stars would finally align and they’d get to be together at last. Everyone (except for Daphne herself) is acutely aware of Niles’ feelings because, when she’s not around, he can’t shut up about it. And seeing her with other guys drives him mad. When Martin at one point seems well enough that he doesn’t need Daphne anymore, Niles even jokingly-but-not-so-jokingly is willing to try to get him to have an accident to keep her around. In the end, Niles doesn’t end up with his happily ever after through stalking or pining or trying to injure his father, but through personal growth and finding the courage to be open and honest with Daphne. And even when they do get together, things aren’t immediately rom-com perfect – they have very different personalities and they have to take time to really figure out how to work together in a relationship.
CH 3: Why Niles Was Added To Frasier, & Why He Was Taken Away
Niles wasn’t always a part of Frasier’s story – when he appeared on Cheers, he never mentioned a brother at all (and even, at one point, said that his father had died.) When it came time for his own spinoff, a casting director happened to notice that David Hyde Pierce kind of resembles Kelsey Grammer, and the team got the idea to give Frasier a brother. Frasier’s previous omission of his family was just explained as him being embarrassed of his past. And adding Niles was a great choice since like we discussed, he works so well both to balance out and call out Frasier when needed in a way no other character on the show can. As the character had time to flourish over the seasons, he became the fan favorite on the show. So it was incredibly disappointing for many when it was announced that there would be a Frasier revival but David Hyde Pierce would not be involved. He told Vulture, “I would never disrespect that in such a way as to say just offhandedly, “Oh, no, thanks. I’m not going to do that again.” It’s too valuable to me. But by the same token, because it’s so valuable to me, I also wouldn’t do it just do it.” He noted that the Frasier revival was similar to the way that Frasier itself was spun out of Cheers, with only some of the characters coming along because those were the ones that had a story left to tell. But he also didn’t totally count out a return for Niles, saying, “I think if they came up with some way of telling the stories that intrigued me, then I might think, Oh, I could go back and do that.”
The Frasier revival is trying to find its footing without Niles. But while it has made some improvements over the course of its first season, it’s still missing the spark that made the original work so well. It is nice to see Frasier back on our screens, but it also just makes us miss Niles all the more. But at least we’ll always have the reruns!
Adalian, Josef. “David Hyde Pierce Almost Missed His Julia Moment.” Vulture, 26 June 2022, www.vulture.com/article/david-hyde-pierce-julia-interview-frasier-reboot.html.
Gates, Anita. “Yes, America Has a Class System. See ‘Frasier.’” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Apr. 1998, www.nytimes.com/1998/04/19/arts/television-yes-america-has-a-class-system-see-frasier.html.