In the winter of 2020, with more time indoors and on my hands than usual, I learned a new language, finally landed Crow Pose, finished my screenplay, and perfected my sourdough loa—no! I watched all 264 episodes of Frasier.
Frasier, a show about two pompous psychiatrist brothers who love to torment their working-class dad, was wildly popular when it ran, from 1993 to 2004, and has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years. This is in part because it’s available on streaming services and in part because half the population is turning to comfort television to cope with the alienation of living at the end of history. (The other half is doing ketamine.)
During my Frasier journey, I found myself asking certain questions time and time again. Will Frasier ever stop getting hoisted by his own petard? How did the dog who plays Eddie become such a good actor? Why is this fake National cover of the Frasier theme song better than every other National song? God, Niles is so horny. (More of a comment than a question.) And, most importantly: How the hell did Frasier afford his apartment?
My fixation on Frasier’s apartment can probably be chalked up to the fact that, as with a sitcom character, a disproportionately large percentage of my life was taking place within my home. A spacious bachelor pad with three bedrooms and three bathrooms was looking extra good, as were the soothing beige tones of the 1990s. I’m hardly the only one taken with Frasier’s space. Fans make floor plans and Zoom backgrounds and suggest Lego sets in homage to it. For the show’s 25th anniversary, in 2018, the interior design service Modsy even drew up a digital rendering of what Frasier’s apartment might look like in the present day. (Here’s hoping the revival will go for something a little less severe.)
While characters living in unrealistically spacious apartments is a sitcom mainstay, the extravagance of Frasier’s apartment is central to the show, rather than an incidental. Frasier, ever class-conscious, takes great pride in furnishing his condo in the Elliott Bay Towers because it’s how he expresses his refined sensibilities. What better way to show off his yuppie bona fides than an Eames chair and a Wassily, a Le Corbusier lamp, a Chihuly vase, many questionable global artifacts, and, as he brags in the pilot, a couch that is “an exact replica of the one Coco Chanel had in her Paris atelier”? As a 1994 Chicago Tribune article points out, the decor choices were extremely deliberate—and extremely pricey.
How could Frasier possibly pull off that design, let alone his mortgage, on a local radio personality’s salary? Sure, the ‘90s were an economic boom time—but not even that can make up for his out-of-control sherry and opera habit.
There was only one way to find out: a demented one-woman investigation about a fictional apartment on a TV show that went off the air over 15 years ago.
How much would an apartment like this cost?
First things first, I needed to find out how much Frasier paid for an apartment in a luxury highrise with a primo view of the Space Needle. (He owns the place, as evidenced by his recurring condo board drama.)
A few years back, Curbed published an article trying to determine how much Frasier’s apartment would be worth in 2018. Most of the realtors they talked to put it in the $3 million range.
But I wanted to know how much he would’ve plunked down for it in 1993. So I reached out to several Seattle-based realtors and, surprisingly, many of them did not email me back when I asked them to price out a fake nineties apartment. But Scott Wasner, the executive vice president of Christie’s International Real Estate Seattle and self-described “condo expert” of downtown Seattle, did. He gave me an estimate of $1 million for 1993 and $5 million for present day. So $1 million was going to be my starting point.
How much did Frasier earn?
Before Frasier was a radio host in Seattle, he worked as a psychiatrist in Boston. At the time the show started, Frasier was 40 years old. So let’s assume he started working as a psychiatrist full time at the age of 30 and in the year 1983. (After he graduated college, he would have had to complete medical school and then a residency, both of which take about four years each.) Then, he started his gig as a radio announcer in 1993.
Because I could not simply FOIA “Frasier salary,” I attempted to find the numbers I was looking for through the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I called them up and a kindly employee helped me access their historical data. However, they only had public records on their website that went back to 1997. Biden’s America!
I knew I had to bring in the big guns: our research librarian Deirdre McCabe Nolan. She stepped in and sent over older statistics from the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Deirdre also informed me that the database she pulled the information from was called FRASER. It was at this point that I started to get that crazy look in my eyes that Mark Ruffalo gets in movies where he’s rummaging through files and investigating something nefarious.
From the available numbers, I learned that in 1989, the average salary for a psychiatrist was $117,700. Though Frasier likely would have made less starting out and more by the end of his tenure, for the sake of simplifying things, let’s say he worked that job at that salary from 1983 through 1993. If he saved the recommended 20% of his income during this period, he would have $235,400 stashed away at the end of that 10-year period—of course, this is before taxes.
As far as his new gig, the average radio announcer salary in 1994 was merely $27,901.
Could he afford his place?
Let’s say he put down $200,000 upfront. Though he likely made more than the average, the mortgage would’ve been untenable on his new salary. Especially when you factor in child support to Lilith, some of Daphne’s home health care worker fee, daily cappuccinos at Café Nervosa, sumptuous dinners at Chez Henri, spur-of-the-moment trips to Bora Bora that he inevitably ruined, etc. Then there was that period he was laid off for most of season six. So, no.
At this point, I could just willfully suspend disbelief and move along. But Mark Ruffalo does not stop until he finds the truth, and neither do I!
I called up Joe Keenan, who wrote for Frasier for various seasons from two through the finale. He had once answered this question in some form on Twitter and I wanted to hear more about how the writers’ room on the show approached this conundrum.
“We talked about, ‘If anybody wonders how he can afford this it’s because Frasier has an investment income,’” Keenan told me. “He made a fair amount of money in Boston as a private therapist and he lectured and he wrote articles and he just invested very well. And at one point somebody said, ‘He’s from Seattle, maybe he got in on the ground floor of Microsoft.’ Little dividends arrived to augment what he was making in the station.”
The question of how Frasier could afford his place didn’t come up too often, Keenan told me, though there was another running joke about the apartment. “The funniest thing about that apartment to the writers was the way in which the kitchen was treated like a private space and a separate room in which whispered conversations could happen as if it weren’t completely open to the living room,” he said.
Keenan also pointed out that Frasier wouldn’t have seemed as wealthy compared to Niles, who lived in a “preposterously baronial house” thanks to Maris’s money. Plus, to an unfamiliar audience, “radio host” would have probably seemed like a pretty impressive and well-paying job.
“Another thing you have to recall is that in the nineties, the internet wasn’t as wildly available or as fast and easy a tool to investigate this,” he said. “You kind of went on instinct. Looking up what rents would’ve cost in Seattle or looking up what local market celebrities made would be the easiest thing in the world to do now.”
Not exactly. But at least the nineties can live on forever in Frasier’s apartment.