It drives me nuts that when most people think of The Nanny, the only thing that comes to mind is That Voice: Fran Drescher’s straight-outta-Queens whine that could turn a simple “Mr. Sheffield” into a four-syllable assault on the human ear. It was a genius bit of shtick, but it also ended up being the show’s Achilles’ heel, giving critics and armchair snobs an easy excuse to write off The Nanny as a shrill and pandering bit of comic fluff.
To everybody out there who still holds that opinion, I forgive you. I was you.
Around 2000, when The Nanny started syndication on Lifetime, I only had a few vague memories of its first run on CBS. I remembered the Voice, for sure, and Fran’s crazy outfits, and the fact that the butler was snarky and British. But watching it again, I realized that The Nanny wasn’t just a 90’s relic of big hair, neon leggings and Barbra Streisand jokes. (Although obviously it had all of those.) It was a seriously great, classical sitcom. Fran’s hammy antics were straight out of I Love Lucy. The show’s set-up pulls comedy out of the same class conflicts that fed everything from Oscar Wilde to The Jeffersons. And the jokes… Well, there’s no better way to do justice to the writing of The Nanny than to let it speak for itself.
Gracie: Fran, how much older than me are you?
Fran: Let me put it this way: When you’re 20, I’ll be 40. When you’re 30, I’ll be 40. And when you’re 40… you’ll understand why I’m still 40.
Roll your eyes if you will. But The Nanny really was one of the last great sanctuaries for the zinger, an endangered species on modern TV. In our post-Office world, most sitcoms find their laughs in situational gags and character humor. (See: Parks and Recreation, Modern Family.) But there was something pure and wonderful about that the way that, in The Nanny, a joke didn’t need to be couched in an emotional reality. It could just pop up, do its thing, and leave us in stitches as it got yanked away by a cartoon-vaudeville hook.
Everybody on the show had their share of quips, from Maxwell to C.C. to Val. But I think it’s fair to say that the best were split between two characters: Fran and Niles, the sardonic butler. Before he fell in love with his ex-arch nemesis C.C., Niles didn’t even really have a function on the show except as an avatar for the writers’ room, standing in the corner until it was time to deliver the next perfectly timed punchline. Meanwhile, Fran was the show’s star, powering every episode with her oversize personality and perfect comic timing.
So who really had the best lines? Before we bring it to a poll, I’d like to jog your memory by giving a pair of examples, one for Niles and one for Fran. But these aren’t just any random lines. What you see below are actual excerpts from my own personal email archives, jokes that I thought were so funny that I actually transcribed them to send to friends, complete with set-ups and full dialogue. Please excuse any inaccuracies.
From an email dated May 4, 2009:
Fran and Val are up on a billboard (trying to paint over it? tear it down? i can’t remember) and Val falls off.
Val (shouting from off screen): I’m ok! I landed in someone’s garden. Ooh, there’s a party. Lots of cute guys!
Fran (shouting down to her): Get help! [beat] And phone numbers!
Val: Actually, there’s no girls. Just cute guys.
Fran: [shrugs] Get recipes!
From an email dated Aug. 24, 2007
Setup: Fran & Maxwell have been having tons of sex to try to get pregnant. Niles is in the kitchen serving breakfast to the kids.
Maggie: Niles, do you know where mom and dad have been these past few days?
Niles: They’re, uh, working on co-producing a new production.
Gracie: Wow. Daddy is letting Fran handle his business?
Niles: Eat your eggs.
There you have it. So now about that poll…