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'Taped before a live audience' TV: Laughing out loud with the folks who venture to Los Angeles to see how "Frasier" got so funny.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You stand in line outside for as long as an hour. You have to wait almost as long for the big event to start. And depending on how many scene and costume changes are required, what takes a half-hour to watch on television may take two, three or four times that to sit through in person.

And they expect you to find it all laugh-out-loud funny?

That's pretty much how it works in the world of taped-before-a-studio-audience television. The fact that it works is testimony to the quality of the writing and acting or the willingness of studio audiences to do what they're told.

At the taping of tonight's season finale of "Frasier," airing 9 p.m.-9: 30 p.m. on WBAL, Channel 11, it's primarily good writing and acting, with a little help from a stand-up comic.

The episode, in which Frasier and Company reminisce about his first day on the air in Seattle, was taped at the Paramount Studio in Los Angeles on March 26.

Those 250 or so people lucky enough to land tickets, including a large contingent from Planned Parenthood who somehow secured a block of seats for one of the hottest tapings in Hollywood, get in line a good hour before the scheduled 7 p.m. starting time -- and even then have to wait another 20 minutes before being ushered into the studio.

Once inside, they are greeted by the jazz/rock stylings of Ron Calvin & The "Frasier" Band. After a few minutes, the audience's guide for the evening bops out -- Dave Willis, a comic and professional warm-up man (he also does this for "Cybill") whose job is to keep the crowd pumped and ready to laugh.

"Are you eager to be here?" he asks. "Are you ready to make a lot of noise?"

Assured that everyone is, he sets the ground rules. Don't talk while the cameras are rolling. No photographs or audio recordings. No food. And laugh. A LOT.

It doesn't take long to take in the scene laid out on the sound stage below: three contiguous sets (Frasier's apartment, the radio station and the coffeehouse where he and his brother, Niles, give each other often unsolicited advice), four cameras, about a dozen people (excluding actors) and a catwalk hanging above it all, filled with bright studio lights and their operators.

Sensing the audience is getting a little restless, Willis kicks his act into gear, using a technique that must date back to when restless Romans were waiting for the lions to be unleashed on the Coliseum floor.

"How many of you are from out of town?" he asks, prompting about a dozen hands into the air. There was a couple from Colorado Springs, another from Michigan and even a few folks from Baltimore. But the comic hits pay dirt when a guy says he's from Sydney, Australia.

"Sydney?" Willis repeats in mock horror. "My goodness now, you've been sitting here 45 minutes now without a beer. Get this man a beer, quick."

The audience roars. Willis has primed the pump.

Star Kelsey Grammer is introduced to say a few words. He lives up to his billing, saying hi, thanking everyone for coming and leaving after maybe 45 seconds.

Not all shows follow this suit. Brett Butler of "Grace Under Fire," for one, spends a good half-hour with her audience before every taping. But the crowd here doesn't seem to mind, perhaps glad this means the action is about to begin.

Opening with a scene involving Frasier and his housekeeper, Daphne, the show soon segues back to that day three years ago when Frasier, on the rebound from a failed marriage while he was living in Boston, hit the Seattle airwaves for the first time.

The show is a delight, starting with a nice bit of physical comedy from Grammer, as he fumbles with the phone while his first-ever caller is explaining her dilemma. There's the reunion between father and son that sets the tone for their future relationship; a very funny scene as Roz, Frasier's producer, explains all she thinks went wrong with that first show; and a subtly hilarious first encounter between Daphne and Niles that lasts only a moment but creates one of the episode's biggest laughs.

The most pleasant experience is watching Grammer, who has played Frasier Crane so well for so long that his skill is sometimes taken for granted. Watch carefully and see how differently the Frasier of today acts from the Frasier of three years ago, moving from quavering-voiced rookie to confident veteran. Making the difference obvious without unduly calling attention to it cannot be as easy as Grammer makes it seem.

Most amazing, however, may be the audience's ability to keep laughing at the jokes and sight gags, even if -- thanks to a flubbed line or botched camera angle -- they're not seeing them for the first time.

Three hours after it all began -- because much of the story is told in flashback, there are a lot of costume changes -- the episode is finally in the can. The band strikes up the "Frasier" theme (Grammer politely declines to sing along), the cast members warmly hug one another and the audience slowly begins filing out.

They'll have to wait two months before the show airs, but that's OK. They know they did their job, laughing all the time.

Not that their job was hard. "It was great," one woman, an apparent veteran of the show-taping circuit, is overheard saying as she walks out. "This was so much funnier than that 'Full House' thing."

Pub Date: 5/21/96

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