Reflections of Legal Culture in Television Comedy: Social Critique and Schadenfreude in the US Series “Frasier”
Traces of law can be found in all aspects of life, law is ubiquitous. People relate law to some of their most desperate life situations, and sometimes law serves them well. It is no wonder that law features prominently in popular comedies. There also is a tradition to ridicule authorities and social institutions, and the law, courts, and legal professionals are no exemption. To be understandable and “funny”, there needs to be at least a fleeting familiarity of the audience with them. Popular tv comedies thus offer a unique window into popular legal culture: they show elements of law and aspects of its workings, of the behavior of lawyers, which the public relates to. For example, previous media coverage, other lawyer television, and movies, or indeed personal experience, may have introduced them and something made this information stick, perhaps a rather objectionable practice. “Law” in this context has to be taken in its widest possible meaning as “living law” (Eugen Ehrlich), which means including those non-statutory rules by which society is organized, by which people live their daily lives. A further dimension that lends itself to good entertainment is rule-breaking behavior, which often testifies for the validity of laws, only that they are inconvenient in certain situations. Again, a constellation that invites mockery, humor, and Schadenfreude. The manuscript will apply a cultural and socio-legal perspective to the depiction of things legal in one of the most outstanding US television comedies, shown to audiences internationally: “Frasier” (1993–2004).
Traces of law can be found in all aspects of life, law is ubiquitous, as Talcott Parsons  put it. Law comes in different guises: limiting the choices people can make, but also safeguarding people’s expectations of the behavior of others , and thereby facilitating long chains of action. Many of these laws will sound like common sense and people usually follow them more or less automatically. In other instances, laws are the result of political and social struggle and may still evoke hostility in some quarters. People relate law to some of their most desperate life situations, and sometimes law serves them well. It is no wonder that law features prominently in popular culture [4, 19, 20, 33, 36, 42, 54]. There also is a tradition to ridicule authorities and social institutions, and the law, courts, and legal professionals are no exemption. Indeed, the humorous portrayal of the law, its arcane rituals, the solemn atmosphere of its institutions, and the ways of its learned personnel form a worthy object of study for scholars of popular legal culture. Tried and proven formulas of comedy and satire apply to the object of law: hopeless character flaws and awkward situational humor are only sharpened by the sense of importance and dignity surrounding the law. And then there is the ubiquitous fact of life that those with deeper pockets can avail themselves of more services, which of course eases their access to the law and more expensive lawyers. In American culture, lawyers have an ambivalent status, which lends itself to humor [17, pp. 609–610]. It is similar in other countries, but not on the same scale. The multiple functions of lawyers as “officers of the court” in the service of law, as representatives of their client’s interest, as exponents of a proud profession, and as private entrepreneurs (or part of law firms), with an eye on the bottom line, provide contradictions, which spark incendiary laughter, but one that comes with an underlying feeling of horror.
For legal fiction to be understandable and “funny”, there needs to be at least a fleeting familiarity of the audience with things legal. Popular television comedies thus offer a unique window into popular legal culture: they show elements of law and aspects of its workings, of the behavior of lawyers, to which the public can relate. For example, previous media coverage, other lawyer television, and movies, or indeed personal experience, may have introduced them and something made this information stick, perhaps a rather objectionable practice.
Scholars have started to look for legal culture in what might appear first as unlikely places, areas not worthy of study. This includes products of popular culture drawing on humor. For example, Robson  discusses the British strand of the “light legal procedural”, offering lawyers and judges a medium to criticize courts and the profession. Podlas  emphasizes the assuring message of the American animated sitcom “The Simpsons” that law may work for citizens. Wolff  describes legal tv comedies in Japan and how they relate to the country’s legal culture. Thus, turning to comedic portrayals of the law promises insights into how people perceive the law.
The Frasier Habitat
For 264 episodes in eleven seasons, the sitcom Frasier about the travails of a psychiatrist-turned radio personality entertained American audiences on NBC. It continues to be watched internationally on repeat scheduling, on pay-tv and lives on with the help of DVD sets and fan websites. A sequel is possible . Frasier and the people behind this remarkable success have collected many prizes, including 37 Emmy wins [10, p. xi]. The actor in the title role, Kelsey Grammer, received the highest critical praise for his performance, as did the writing team of the series. Frasier must have some of the funniest moments of tv history, but there are dark topics and sad moments, too. The quality of acting is superb as evidenced already in the earliest episodes when Grammer and Peri Gilpin as “Roz” react to the utterances of the other as if not just reciting a script, but relishing the banter in the very moment of acting.
The Weird and Wonderful Sphere of Sub-state Law
Eugen Ehrlich, one of the founding fathers of socio-legal studies, is best known for his theory of the “living law”, more precisely, of those rules by which associations in society organize the life of their members . In the remote Bukovina province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he described how professions and local groups regulated themselves, without the help of codified law . The emphasis on the intermediate level of society was shared by Ehrlich’s contemporary Emil Durkheim. Only that Durkheim aimed at a level a bit higher and more formally organized. The French pioneer of sociology saw in professional associations a better form of democracy, an alternative to what he criticized as destructive centralized state politics . As much as there is something wonderful to aspire to in grass-roots organizations, in mutual self-help, cooperative effort, strong neighborly relations, and even professional structures (maybe), popular culture also always knew of its potentially weird downsides. Sticklers for perfection, for example, turn their devastating efforts to creating association rules. Others read statutes to their advantage and utilize them mercilessly against opponents, or run their club like a family business. If an opportunity emerges that is too good to let it pass, even true believers are tempted to stray from the code of ethics.
In Frasier, the law of associations and their slippery social and ethical terrain appear in three settings mainly. Several episodes see Frasier engaging in the politics of the condominium, trying to utilize its power against his neighbors. The vine-tasting society allows Frasier and his brother Niles to compete recklessly. Finally, the ethics code of the psychiatric profession frustrates some of Frasier’s most personal urges.
Civil Law and Lawyers
Civil law governs most of the legal relations people have. In legal theory, it is the law in which all affected are equal, unlike public law, including criminal law, where the citizen is confronted with the state as a superior authority. But there is a nagging suspicion that not everyone is equal in practice.
Civil law allows private parties to create a law that will direct their actions and that is enforceable in a court of law. Typically, this is the world of contractual relations and labor law is not different. In “Frasier”, agent Bibi masters the art of manipulation, to make her client artists and broadcasters agree to suggested deals. No ruse is too amoral for Bibi and she preys on Frasier’s vulnerabilities. In exchange for the hope to become a bigger star, Frasier allows Bibi to deduct a sizeable cut from his income.
Crime and Criminal Law
Norm violations, the apportioning of blame to individuals and generally inviting moral judgment are some of the tried and proven recipes to attract audiences, be it for the news , or be it for legal fiction . The breaking of law , especially criminal law , triggers an emotional response. People fear that the stability of society is at stake and observe if the rules are upheld and the perpetrators punished. Once they perceive this to happen, the general social cohesion is strengthened . These basic social reactions are also at work when it comes to the audience’s interest in crime news and crime fiction . Comedies often also draw on crime, the detection of crime, and the sanctioning that follows, only that the real hurt caused by crime is taken out of the equation largely. Already the earliest forms of crime fiction have preyed on another response to crime additionally. As much as people like to see perpetrators punished, there also is a certain fascination by the gallant robber, the Robin Hood-imposter, who brazenly takes from the rich and powerful, and gets away as well. In crime fiction, these figures make good entertainment and in comedy, crime and punishment are not only not taken seriously, but laughter is created by exposing character weaknesses and temporarily reversing the mundane social order.
Portrayal of Police
On balance, the police get good treatment in Frasier, as in “reality tv” shows in which the camera follows police officers [38, 50]. Officers for the most part appear upright and competently conduct their duties. They provide a “normal” counterpart to the crazy behavior and norm violations of the Frasier brothers which they are obliged to reign in from time to time.
The adventures of Frasier and Niles lead them to occasionally stray from the straight and narrow, when for example Frasier takes a U-turn on the highway, or when Niles tries to steal a street name sign to impress Daphne. With his past as a police officer in Seattle, who was wounded while on duty, Martin still has contacts in the force and he uses them, e.g. if he has to get Frasier or Daphne out of police arrest. Martin also knows how to distract border posts from finding out that Daphne crossed the US borders without proper paperwork. He aggressively interrogates Niles and Daphne’s housekeeper suspected of stealing—but ultimately, the chance discovery of a videotape reveals that it was Daphne’s own mother who took things out of the household. When Frasier admonishes Martin for stereotyping people, Martin is not really getting the message: not even when it is positive? “[T]he policeman discriminates in his behavior”, as officers lookout for people and situations [25, p. 184]. Not only the US audience will be aware of accusations that the police is biased against e.g. black citizens or ethnic minorities . Through his portrayal in “Frasier”, the figure of Martin becomes a symbol, signifying what is good and bad in US police.
courting Court Tv
Courts and judges hardly appear in Frasier. In one episode, a public prosecutor is present in a neighbor’s apartment, who cannot stop investigating people, right when Frasier had stolen a 1936 Olympic medal under the influence of acute sexual frustration. When Niles and Daphne want to have a repeat marriage ceremony for their family, after they had a quick one in Reno before, two patient judges, one male, one female, one black, one Asian, suffer the chaos they create.
In Frasier, there is, however a clever story around an appearance of the Crane brothers on court tv, exemplifying the entertaining value of self-reference of media . Many products of popular legal culture refer back to previous films or shows. The audience enjoys recognizing the relation, reading the current portrayal in context with their experience.