David Hyde Pierce
National Humor Treasure
Copyright The HUMOR Project, Inc 1997 -- All rights reserved
"Niles is intelligent, well-dressed, and badly married," says David Hyde Pierce who plays psychiatrist Niles Crane, brother to the title character on the hit comedy series FRASIER. David's brilliant comedic portrayal of Niles was celebrated as he earned his first Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Additionally, David has won two consecutive American Comedy Awards for Funniest Supporting Male Performer in a TV Series, a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor, and two consecutive Viewers for Quality Television Awards.
FRASIER has received numerous awards and distinguished honors, including ten Emmy Awards (with two consecutive Awards for Outstanding Comedy Series) and an unprecedented three consecutive Television Critics Association Awards for Best Comedy Series. FRASIER has found a place in television history as one of the most honored series of all time.
David was born in Saratoga Springs and is a graduate of Yale University where he received his bachelor's degree in English and theater arts. In 1981, with degree in hand, he proceeded to New York City and promptly got a job selling ties at Bloomingdale's while he studied acting. David landed his first professional acting job in Beyond Therapy on Broadway, followed by stints off- Broadway and in regional theater. Between 1983-1985 he worked in various productions at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis before returning to New York to appear in Hamlet with the New York Shakespeare Festival. He then traveled to the Soviet Union and Japan to perform in the stage production of The Cherry Orchard and also appeared on Broadway in The Heidi Chronicles.
David has appeared in such feature films as Bright Lights Big City, Little Man Tate, The Fisher King, Crossing Delancy, Sleepless in Seattle, and Oliver Stone's critically acclaimed Nixon (in which he portrayed John Dean). His television credits include starring in the NBC series The Powers That Be and guest starring in the series Caroline in the City, Crime Story, and Spenser: For Hire.
In his leisure time, David enjoys playing piano (he used to be a church organist), skiing, and playing tennis. It is a natural to honor David Hyde Pierce at our conference this year... since Saratoga Springs is his hometown and the home of The HUMOR Project. Saratoga is known for health, history, horses, humor, and Hyde Pierce!
Joel Goodman: We are very excited about giving you the National Humor Treasure Award at our 12th annual international conference this year. Especially since I'm now talking with you only one block from your old home in Saratoga Springs... it's nice being literally a stone's throw from your ol' homestead. It got me thinking about Saratoga Springs and what a birthplace or mirthplace it's been for other humor treasures. Certainly people like author Frank Sullivan from years ago... or cartoonist John McPherson (see interview in Volume 11,
David Hyde Pierce: Both my parents had a strong influence on my sense of humor and my ending up in this profession. They both had terrific and very different senses of humor. Dad's father actually was an actor as well as an insurance man. Arthur Pierce worked with the Town Hall Players in Saratoga as did Dad after him. Although Dad gave up the profession many years ago, he's never given up performing...
JG: So, all the world's a stage for him still...
DHP: Anyone who has ever seen him dance can attest to that, too. Sense of humor was always very present in our house, and helped us through good times and bad.
JG: How would you characterize the difference between your Dad's and Mom's senses of humor, since you mentioned they were very different?
DHP: Mom had a very dry, deadpan sense of humor. My Dad has a very wet, anything-goes kind of humor. He tends toward the wild and crazy...
JG: And she was the "mild and crazy." I understand that back in the third grade cafeteria line, you had at least a mild inspiration.
DHP: That was at the Caroline Street School... I have no idea why I remember this, but I do remember it very clearly. I was waiting in line to go into the cafeteria, and I told a joke to someone and realized that it was funnier if I didn't laugh when I told the joke. I actually had to bite my cheeks to keep from laughing. That's when I first discovered for myself the value of deadpan.
JG: Any other early memories from childhood...
DHP: Well certainly falling down the stairs. I would always fall down the big main staircase in our house. My favorite thing in the world was to pretend to be horribly killed at the top of it, and to fall dramatically down to the bottom of it. Although I wasn't doing it to be funny... it was extremely tragic in my mind... but it didn't always have that effect on people.
JG: Hence the link between high drama at the top of the stairs and low comedy at the bottom of the stairs. You were an early- day Chevy Chase... or maybe he copied you. Did you have any early role models of comedic actors, comedians or humorists who influenced you?
DHP: There definitely were people whose work I saw and who either consciously or unconsciously have influenced me. Certainly Bob Newhart, Alec Guiness, and later on in high school all the Monty Python people but especially John Cleese.
JG: I was talking with your older brother Tom the other day, and he mentioned that when you were about ten years old, you did something with a recording of Alice in Wonderland.
DHP: I should never have let him talk with you! I got as a little kid one of the most incredible recordings of Cyril Richard reading Alice in Wonderland. It has some great woodwind octet playing incidental music in between the chapters. He not only reads it... he also assumes all the voices... and apparently, so did I. I listened to the record until I wore holes in it and did all the characters myself. Only in talking about it right now do I realize that was one of the early warning signs of an impending actor. I loved playing all those characters. Cyril Richard was another one with a very dry wit... I really appreciated that.
JG: What about your relationship with your brother back then... I don't know if there was enough of an age difference that you didn't have a chance for sibling rivalry.
DHP: Tom was the first... and as he'll tell you, the best of the children. I was the last. I don't remember any sibling rivalry growing up, because by the time I was really conscious, Tom was going away to college. My relationship with him, which is a very close one, really developed in more recent years.
JG: So, you didn't have any of that early material to work with in your role as Frasier's brother.
DHP: It's all made up, because Kelsey didn't have a brother either.
JG: So, you guys are making up for lost time.
DHP: Exactly... and we're making it up out of whole cloth.
JG: I understand from your having spoken at our Chamber of Commerce dinner last year, that you were a security guard at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center as a kid and that your first job after graduating from Yale was selling ties at Bloomingdale's in New York City. Is there any connection you can make now between those two jobs?
DHP: I wore a tie in both locations. I probably was as bad as a security guard as I was as a tie salesman. So there was a definite parallel there.
JG: Which is why you are where you are now!
DHP: That's right... no one else would have me. Actually, I was as happy doing theater in New York for little or no money as I am now doing television for more money. The happiness, I guess, comes out of it being a good job. The success has to do with the fact that it's a good job that will continue.
JG: Three strikes and you'd be out... but thank goodness you hit the third one! I'm curious also about the connection between music and mirth. I know that early on piano was a passion for you, and that it's still something that you love playing to this day. In the past, we've had people at our conference like Victor Borge, Mark Russell, Steve Allen, Sid Caesar, and the Smothers Brothers... all of whom have had music as a very important part of their lives. Have you ever thought about the music-mirth connection?
DHP: I've thought about it a lot. I think it's not a coincidence at all. So much of good comedy is timing and being able to hear the music of a line and the rhythm of a joke. I think that's why a lot of the best comedians have some sort of musical instincts. That's one reason why Kelsey and I work so well together. He's also a musician. I think we have the same ear... we hear things in a similar way, so without thinking about it, we can pick up on each other's timing and play almost like you'd play chamber music. Actually, I think the whole cast is that way on FRASIER.
JG: So, you do improvisational music together-- almost jazz and classical together. What instrument does Kelsey play?
DHP: Kelsey plays the piano, and he's also a tremendous singer.
JG: Have you two ever done an off-the-cuff duet?
DHP: You were right-- we play different kinds of music. I'm classically trained, and he's more of a jazz improvisatory pianist. So, we don't usually sit down and play together. On the show, I've occasionally played while he sang.
JG: Music is universal. Humor is also universal. I've had the good fortune to do humor presentations in South Africa, Japan, Taiwan, Sweden, Norway, England, Germany, Russia, Panama, and points in between. I know you traveled to Japan and what was then the Soviet Union back in the 80's. What did you discover about humor then and there?
DHP: We were doing a Chekov play, The Cherry Orchard, which although it has very dramatic elements also has a lot of comedy in it. It did play in the Soviet Union. We were doing it in English and they were listening to it in Russian. They laughed in "the right places."
In Japan, we had a slightly different reaction. There was a simultaneous recorded translation there. It was broadcast into the theater through a radio system. The audience members had the transmitters that they could use to listen to the translation. We would be doing the performance, and from the audience you could hear a pitter patter that almost sounded like rain. It would happen every now and again throughout the performance. We didn't know quite what this odd sound was. Sometimes it would actually pick up quite a lot of force as a PINGing sound.
Since we didn't know what it was, we finally sent the wife of one of the company member's out into the audience. She came back to report that the floor of the auditorium was not carpeted. The radio transmitters that all of the audience had were hand held... so that as audience members fell asleep, they would drop the transmitters and they would hit the floor and make a PINGing sound.
Once we knew that, of course, we couldn't get through a performance. There was one very fine actor, one of the great film actors of all time who works with Ingmar Bergman, had all these big speeches. That poor man couldn't get two words out before the PINGing would start. We were just hysterical on stage, because it sounded like a thunderstorm by the time he was half- way through his speech.
JG: When I was presenting in Japan, I heard about an American who had done a program there. The speaker was delighted with all of the laughter he was generating... until he discovered later that the translator was telling the audience all along the way, "This part is supposed to be funny, so please laugh now."
Now, you're not a doctor, but you do play one on TV as the old television ad used to say... John Cleese, whom you mentioned earlier, had an article in an earlier issue of LAUGHING MATTERS (Volume 6,
DHP: I'm not knowledgeable about the direct biological connections but I do know that if you're able to laugh in a situation, it means you have perspective on the situation... that you're not swallowed up by it. On some level, you can keep your head above water enough to see the humor in something. Being able to have a sense of humor in dark times is an indication that you can make it... that you can get through it. As well as being a tool to get through it, I think it also shows that you're in a good place.
I also have an observation: over the past year of FRASIER, a startling number of times, people have come up to me on the street, in the supermarket, and various places, and said the same words, which are "I'm fighting cancer, and I cannot tell you how important your show is to me." It's happened so many times that it's almost strange.
For one thing, it shows the prevalence of cancer... but it is also clearly something that people who are having a hard time for various reasons... when there's something like that that they can depend on, it takes them out of themselves or gives them perspective or just gives them a laugh. And that seems to be-- literally-- vital.
JG: It's very touching to think-- whether you intended it or not-- that the work you are doing as entertainment is also making a difference for a lot of folks.
DHP: In fact, in one of our early shows, Niles makes a reference to his healing with humor support group... and that he has to get down to the store to buy his floppy shoes.
JG: I wonder what you've learned from the ensemble yourself. It seems like you're a wonderfully tightly-knit support group. What tickles your funny bones and what is it that you've learned from working with your "fellow travelers?"
DHP: I don't have the time to tell you all the things I've learned from this cast. It's an extraordinary ensemble because we all support each other so well. Each of us brings something different: a different style, a different approach. The styles are all cohesive. It's really like a musical ensemble, like a string quintet where you get different flavors from each instrument.
From Kelsey, I have learned among many other things the value of turning on a dime and how you can have an extremely funny and extremely poignant moment with absolutely no separation in between... and sometimes in the same moment. That is good-- not only because it's good comedy-- but it's good because it's real life. That's how things happen. Sometimes in the most tragic situation, something just profoundly funny happens.
I remember we did an episode in which I had been given responsibility to dispose of an aunt's ashes. We drove off to a secluded area that she loved, and Niles couldn't get the top off the urn. That actually came from one of the writer's own lives. That's something that Kelsey is certainly a master of-- in the middle of a very heartfelt scene, he gives something that is side-splittingly funny.
JG: I know when you did the Friar's roast for Kelsey, you talked about his flatulence and wearing shorts without underwear at rehearsals.
DHP: All of which was exaggerated for the point.
JG: As long as his flatulence occurred when he had underwear on.
DHP: We have a great time on the set, and we have a lot of fun, but it's not a place where there's a lot of practical joking. Maybe as we get into the later years, there will be more of that. We just come in and do our jobs and have a great time doing it.
JG: I can envision it's a double-edged sword for you: on the one hand, it's been wonderful to experience all the success that FRASIER as a show and Niles as a character have generated-- all the awards, the Emmy, American Comedy Award, and so on that you received as Niles... but I also could imagine that you don't want to be type-cast. Certainly the work you've done in other films and projects helps to break that... I'm curious in what ways you are like or unlike Niles.
DHP: Niles is breathtakingly handsome, debonair, a real ladies' man.... I would say every character you play, you find the parts of yourself that are that character and then you emphasize them. Any person can be selfish, any person can be stuck-up, any person can be jealous... we all have those infinite number of personality traits. Some people have a stronger dose of certain ones of those. For me, playing a character like that, I consciously or subconsciously draw on whatever attributes are most appropriate to the character and just heighten them. I think Niles has some superficially unpleasant traits, but deep down he's a good person. That makes him fun to play. The fun of the character is that he's an intellectual but there's also a lot of room for physical comedy.
A lot of times, I think the best parts spring purely from imagination. That's the extra step in creating a character that has a little bit more magic to it. You can do a lot of work, you can research the character... but then there's this whole other thing that happens. It's the alchemy between the actor and the writer where something else happens that's more than just the acting and more than just the writing... it's a combination of all of that... and certainly fueled by the ensemble.
JG: Being able to play with the serendipity of it all.
DHP: It's interesting for me... I was a stage actor for many years. There is a particular joy and discipline in playing the same play night after night after night, month after month after month, because you have the same words each night, the same actions. Your task is to continually deepen and refine within a very carefully-structured framework, because you obviously can't decide to say a different thing each night or decide not to enter one night. There are certain things you must do, so you have to meet the challenge of keeping it alive for yourself and for the audience.
On a TV show like this, the script changes every week, and the challenge is to keep the character alive, to keep the character changing and growing. It's a different task, but it's a very enjoyable one, because the longer you're on the show, the more you are relaxed enough and familiar enough with the character that they can throw a situation at you, and you can respond in a totally new way that is rooted in this character that you have created.
JG: Here's a place where humor and creativity intersect. We talk about the whole notion of "planned spontaneity" or "prepared flexibility"-- there is some sort of structure, you do have a character and the character has a history, but you can be flexible, playful, and spontaneous in growing the character.
You seem to be an intriguing juxtaposition of traits, abilities, and talents. On the one hand, you play classical music on the piano and at the same time, you're a trained combat stage fighter; you have an intellectual side to your comedy and yet you also enjoy and do physical comedy very well. There's the sibling rivalry and brotherly love that you and Kelsey exhibit. It's interesting how paradox and juxtaposition...
DHP: So much of life is paradox. So much of life is neither one thing nor the other... it's both things at the same time. That's something I always look for in my acting because on some level in acting what you're trying to find is "truth" because when it's true is when it's also funny. My experience of life in my very few years is that situations or events are not good or sad... they're both at the same time. Our logic tells us that it has to be one or the other... but our experience tells us that things are both.
JG: A very dear friend, Hedy Schleifer, who has spoken at our conference, told me about her parents, who are concentration camp survivors. Her father quoted the Talmud: "When there are two alternatives... you should pick the third."
DHP: That's a great expression!
JG: How do you express your own interests? I assume that piano is still an important part of your life...
DHP: That was one of my big purchases: Last year, I finally got my own grand piano, and that was a big thing for me because it's always been and always will be a very important part of my life. Edith Stonequist, a Saratogian who is now gone, was my piano teacher and a very strong influence in my life musically. As I'm talking to you now, I'm realizing she also was someone with a wicked sense of humor. I ended up getting the piano that she had recommended because her family had one of these when she was growing up in France. I came across one, and heard her voice, so I got one.
JG: So, Edith is still with you...
DHP: Every day!
JG: Now I understand you're also a masochist... because you started taking up the game of golf.
DHP: I wanted to play golf with my Dad, but I had never played. Before I came home last Summer, I went and took golf lessons so Dad would let me play with him. I was just terrible... but I was able to have a wonderful time just walking around with Dad. I can see the real pleasure of that game.
JG: It was at least a moral victory that you were able to stay in the same twosome with him. Do you also play with modern-day toys like computers? I noticed that you and John Mahoney have done several on-line chats.
DHP: NBC sets that up. It's a no-brainer because you sit there with a typist who does all of the inputting for you. In fact, the first time I did one of those, it was the first year of the show, and I had never done anything like that before. I sat down, and people internetted in questions (or whatever the verb is), and I made a joke in response. The woman who was typing typed my response and put an exclamation point after it. She was just about to send it when I said, "Wait a minute. Make that a period, because exclamation point is not my style of humor. You can convey deadpan over the internet by using a period instead of an exclamation point."
JG: Scott Adams of DILBERT and internet fame is someone I interviewed for the previous issue of LAUGHING MATTERS. Near the end of the interview, he said he thinks everyone is born a certain age. He thought he's always been and always will be 42 himself. Do you feel that you were born a certain age... or is there a particular age that resonates with who you are?
DHP: Let's see... how old am I? I'm definitely in my 50's... and I've certainly always been in my 50's. I could be older than that... but I'm not willing to face that.
JG: What are you willing to face for the future? Do you have any future plans for FRASIER? I don't know if you and your cast- mates have put your hands around your collective crystal ball...
DHP: We just found out that we have a future... the network has picked us up 'til the millennium... for better or for worse.
JG: Humor can help us... through better and worse.
DHP: This goes back to what you were saying on humor and healing: There was an episode two years ago that we did where Niles thinks that his wife Maris is having an affair with her fencing instructor. The whole episode ended with a huge swordfight between Niles and the fencing instructor. It was a big episode for me.
By coincidence, I found out about an hour before we were to shoot that episode that my Mom had been diagnosed with cancer. The family had known and decided that they weren't going to tell me because they knew I was shooting that night, but that if I called, they would tell me. It was the best thing in the world to have that show to do, because there was nothing I could do except be upset and think about it... whereas I could put all of my energy into that episode and into making the show as good and as funny as it could be. In a very strange way, it was perfect timing.
JG: That's another example of the funny and the poignant coming together in real life. Thanks for the perfect timing of this interview... again, I look forward to presenting the National Humor Treasure Award to you.
Epilogue: George Hyde Pierce (David's father) and Tom Pierce (his brother) attended our annual conference this year at which we honored David. Tom noted that their father had been on a life support system all of his life... and that life support system is his sense of humor. We thank David for extending his humor life support system to millions of viewers and LAUGHING MATTERS subscribers. Don't leave home without your laugh support system!
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