Frazier grew up in Hudson, Ohio; his father worked as a chemist for Sohio; his mother was an amateur actor, performing and directing plays in local Ohio theaters. Frazier attended Western Reserve Academy, and later Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Lampoon. He graduated in 1973.
Since departing the Great Plains, Frazier has lived in Brooklyn, New York, and Montclair, New Jersey with his wife, the author Jacqueline Carey, and their two children, Cora and Thomas.
After graduating from Harvard, Frazier worked briefly as a writer for a magazine owned by Playboy in Chicago. The following year, he moved to New York City and joined the staff of The New Yorker magazine, where he wrote feature articles, humorous sketches, and pieces for "The Talk of the Town" section.
In 1982, Frazier moved to Montana and, through travel and library research, began collecting materials, anecdotes and impressions that would later become 1989's Great Plains. He returned to the region in the later 1990s to research his book about Native Americans, On the Rez.
In his nonfiction works such as Great Plains, Family, and On the Rez, Frazier combines first-person narrative with in-depth research on topics including American history, Native Americans, fishing, and the outdoors. Frazier is among the best modern exponents of The New Yorker's style of level-headed, matter-of-fact lyricism; a good strong example are these final lines from the 1985 essay "Bear News," reprinted in his 1987 collection Nobody Better, Better than Nobody.
Beautiful scenery makes its point quickly; then you have to pay attention, or it starts to slide by like a loop of background on a Saturday-morning cartoon... When you see a bear, the spot where you see it becomes instantly different from every place else you've seen. Bears make you pay attention. They keep the mountains from turning into a blur, and they stop your self from bullying you like nothing else in nature. A woods with a bear in it is real to a man walking through it in a way that a woods with no bear is not. Roscoe Black, a man who survived a serious attack by a grizzly in Glacier Park several years ago, described the moment when the bear had him on the ground: "He laid on me for a few seconds, not doing anything...I could feel his heart beating against my heart." The idea of that heart beating someplace just the other side of ours is what makes people read about bears and tell stories about bears and theorize about bears and argue about bears and dream about bears. Bears are one of the places in the world where big mysteries run close to the surface.
The New York Times critic James Gorman described Frazier's 1996 humor collection Coyote v. Acme (in the title piece, Wile E. Coyote is suing the manufacturer of various rocket-propelled devices) as the occasion for "irrepressible laughter in the reader." Gorman rates Frazier's first collection, 1986s Dating Your Mom, as "one of the best collections of humor ever published."