But then a problem emerged: Frasier’s writers had, even by that early point, so laden Maris with jokes—some of them about her dour personality, but most of them about her slight body—that they had made it logistically impossible for a human woman to portray her. “Two or three episodes in, she was already so bizarre, she was uncastable,” Lee said. “So we just went, ‘Well, we’re never going to see her.’ Although we did see the shadow of her behind a shower curtain once.”
What the show’s writers did instead will be familiar to anyone who has watched Frasier: The writers took Maris’s absurdity and ran with it. She became an experiment without a control. A German acquaintance who meets Maris in the show describes her, in absentia, as “Nichteinmenschlichfrau”—a “not quite hooman vooman.”
You’re supposed to laugh at this. And I do! Frasier, at one point, refers to Maris as “ounces of fun,” and it’s a good joke—just as it’s a good joke when he compares his sister-in-law to a bag of flour: “bleached, 100 percent fat-free, and best kept in an air-tight container.” The lines work, in part, because they, too, exist in an air-tight container: They’re jokes made at the expense of another joke.
Lilith, by contrast—Frasier’s ex-wife, and Maris’s most direct counterpart on the show—becomes notably more human as the show goes on. She becomes more complex as a character, expanded rather than reduced. That’s mostly because Bebe Neuwirth is such a richly compelling actor, able to bring warmth even to Lilith’s defining coldness. It is also, however, because of the simple fact of Lilith’s personhood. Even when you are a show that marries vaudevillian whimsy with the cadences of the sitcom, you can spend only so much time making fun of a character to her face before the humor starts to wear thin.
Maris’s absence, though, doubles as a kind of permission. While Frasier mocks Maris for her looks and her weight and what is pretty clearly an eating disorder, the jokes don’t typically register as cruelty, because, strictly speaking, they aren’t ever directed at anyone. They’re mocking someone who doesn’t exist.
Frasier premiered during the backlash era, as Susan Faludi frames it, and the show’s historical context is most clearly evident in the character you cannot see. Maris is a caricature, and the features exaggerated in the show’s sketch of her can suggest American culture’s worst views of women: that they are weak, that they are self-absorbed, that they are manipulative, that they are vapid. Maris is excessively self-conscious about her appearance, and the mental state leads to physical deficiency. The jokes about her smallness accumulate: She can’t wear earrings because their weight makes her neck droop. She once sprained her wrist from holding a cracker laden with too much dip. She makes no tracks in the snow. She had youthful dreams of becoming a ballerina, but could never manage to get her weight up. A disgruntled servant once left a whoopee cushion on Maris’s dining room chair, aiming for revenge. “Fortunately for all of us,” Niles says, recounting the incident, “embarrassment was averted when my little fawn proved too light to activate it.”