Bars can be such sad places. Some people spend their whole lives in bars. Just yesterday some guy sat next to me for eleven hours. – Norm Peterson, TV's favorite resident barfly
When Cheers premiered on Thursday, September 30, 1982, few people watched and even fewer people thought it would eventually become a Top 10 hit and a modern TV sitcom classic.
Fortunately for those devoted early viewers, NBC had faith in the critically acclaimed comedy despite the fact that it placed dead last in the Nielsen ratings for the 1982-1983 TV season (it’s hard to remember a time when NBC made wise decisions).
Emmy voters had just as much faith in Cheers, as it won Outstanding Comedy Series and five other awards for that low-rated first season.
Though its second season was just as lowly-rated, critical response remained positive and the show won a second Emmy as Outstanding Comedy Series plus three other awards in 1984.
The faithfulness and patience paid off as Cheers finally cracked the Top 15 in 1985 (with the help of NBC’s new series The Cosby Show, which proved to be a monster hit that not only lifted Thursday nights but the network as a whole). The following season, Cheers cracked the Top 10 for the first time and remained there for the remainder of its run. For the 1990-1991 season, Cheers finally hit #1 – a rare feat for series in its ninth season.
Cheers, premised on the staff and patrons of a neighborhood bar in the heart of Boston, starred Ted Danson as Sam Malone, a former relief pitcher for the Red Sox. Malone was also a recovering alcoholic who purchased the bar as an odd means of maintaining his sobriety. Shelley Long also starred as Diane Chambers, an intelligent and well-read but stuffy waitress with no experience that Sam hired in the pilot in the wake of her being abandoned by a fiancée who wound up going back to his wife. Diane served as Sam’s verbal sparring partner – particularly when it came to issues of gender equality, morality and matters of the heart. Her rocky romance with Sam hilariously powered the show’s first five seasons.
Rounding out the core original cast was Rhea Perlman as the acerbic barmaid Carla Tortelli, who always had a cut down for anyone in need of one -- particularly Diane. Nicholas Colasanto was Ernie “Coach” Pantusso, a dim-bulb on the surface who was actually probably the wisest person out of everyone in the bar. And George Wendt was accountant Norm Peterson, a Cheers staple (even prior to Sam taking over ownership) with a stool at the far end of the bar that most people knew NOT to sit in.
Though billed as a guest star in the show’s early seasons, John Ratzenberger appeared regularly from the beginning as proud postman Cliff Clavin, a know-it-all with none of the facts.
I was in a Cosby Show haze throughout most of the 80s, so I wasn’t all that aware of Cheers until late in the show’s remarkable 11-year run. Even then, it was just known to me as “one hour after Cosby”. While I remember sitting in front of the TV watching A Different World, Cheers, Wings and L.A. Law, I was really just looking at the latter four as much of the humor and situations went above my preteen head.
Still, I sat down to watch (and tape) the final episode of Cheers in May of 1993. Even though I didn’t watch regularly or with any level of understanding, it was just as strange to me that this show was going off the air as it was when The Cosby Show went off the air the year prior. After all, the run of both shows encompassed the majority of my conscious life to that time and theirs were the first series finales I had ever experienced.
While I always had an appreciation for The Cosby Show (on so many levels), it wasn’t until recently that I developed such feelings for Cheers. Over the course of the last several months, I Netflixed my way though the entire series – starting with the final season and making my way to the first. It was a strange way to go but I figured I may as well start on the season with which I was most familiar.
Additionally, I wanted to settle the Diane versus Rebecca debate for myself. I fell on the Rebecca side because anytime I caught a Cheers rerun, it was from the Rebecca years. Very rarely did I come across an episode from the Diane years, but when I did, I looked down on it with disdain because I was so much on Team Rebecca since that was what I was used to seeing.
I’ll tell you now that the Rebecca Howe character as it evolved from hard-nosed to pathetic, was a far more inherently funny character than Diane Chambers. However, I love what Shelley Long made of Diane Chambers.
The comedy happened upon Diane by virtue of who she was within this situation and that is what Long played to with perfection. Diane could have easily been just an insufferable pain in the ass, but there was an underlying sadness and loneliness that Long portrayed very effectively. Diane had never been particularly well-liked as a person, not even after her eventual union and reunion with the extremely well-liked Sam. While this rarely played out on the surface, Long also parlayed this wonderfully through her facial expressions and line deliveries.
Besides Rebecca Howe being the funnier character outright, Kirstie Alley was also a very talented comedic actress. The comedy happened to Rebecca because of who was within this situation – a train wreck of a person in a position of authority that went largely unrecognized. And Alley played up that comedy to the hilt.
Neither is better or worse than the other. There's just a marked difference.
For a series on the air for more than a decade, Cheers managed a high level of consistency despite the death of one cast member, the defection of another and the addition of others.
In the middle of the series third season (1984-1985), Nicholas Colasanto passed away. For the remainder of the season, his absence was explained as the Coach being away traveling or just having a day off. It wasn’t until the beginning of the first episode of the following season (1985-1986) that Coach was said to have died as well.
In that same episode, Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson) made his first appearance on the show as a pen pal to Coach who made his way to Boston from a small town in Indiana to finally meet Coach in person. With no money and no place to go, Sam hired him on as a bartender. Though very reminiscent of Coach, Woody didn’t have the same wisdom that the years of life had provided for his predecessor. It was this distinct difference in characterization that made Woody much more than just a de facto replacement for Coach.
The third season also brought us Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), a psychiatrist and love interest for Diane that she met during a stint in a sanitarium following another botched attempt at a relationship with Sam. Diane’s romance with Frasier played out hilariously throughout the season even though it was still obvious that she and Sam still had strong feelings for each other that they couldn’t deny no matter how much they tried.
At the end of the 1986-1987 season, the series’ fifth, Shelley Long left the series – effectively ending the storied Sam and Diane complication when she was offered an opportunity to finish working on a long-in-gestation book.
It wasn’t Diane’s first departure from Cheers as Diane had already spent time away in the aforementioned sanitarium and then joined a convent when Sam showed up in Europe to stop her marriage to Frasier at the end of season three.
Such a departure would have crippled a lesser series, but Cheers was far more brilliant and resilient than that. Enter Alley's Rebecca Howe (in the unenviable position of essentially replacing Long's Diane Chambers), the new bar manager hired after Sam sold the bar to a corporation and bought a boat with which to sail around the world.
The addition of Rebecca not only gave same a new sparring partner, but also added a new dimension to the show when a penniless Sam returned to Cheers and schemed his way into getting his job back -- though in a subservient position. Because Rebecca was so different from Diane, both the writers and Kirstie Alley were able to take the character in any number of directions that just another version of Diane would have prohibited.
In early 1986, the final new regular was added to the show’s core cast in the form of a love interest for Frasier Crane. Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth) was a rather cold and stiff colleague of Frasier’s who possessed an underlying sex appeal. This combination both frustrated and intrigued him, but the two were married in early 1988 and had a son, Frederick, in late 1989.
Frederick wasn’t the only child born of the Cheers family. Carla, who began the series with four kids, wound up having four more from three different fathers over the course of the show -- including a set of twins with the only one of these men to whom she was married. Carla’s fertility (coupled with Perlman’s own pregnancies during this time) was a running gag throughout the first several seasons of the show.
It was one of many running gags that played themselves out throughout the course of the series. Among the many others include:
- Norm’s entrances. Norm would enter the bar, everyone in the bar would yell, “Norm!” (except for Diane, who would drolly say, “Norman.”). Sam or Woody would follow up with a variation of a greeting to which Norm would have a snappy retort. The best of these was “It’s a dog eat dog world and I’m wearing Milk Bone underwear.”
- Norm’s wife, Vera. She was referred to in almost every episode, but her face was never seen. Though Norm often spoke of her being fat, ugly, nagging and undesirable, Vera’s rare appearances (without her face ever being shown) showed a rather slender woman of a comparable height to that of Norm.
- Carla’s putdowns. Carla didn’t like most people. And the main targets for her caustic jibs were Diana, Rebecca and Cliff – perhaps because they vaunted themselves higher than they probably should have. Carla’s natural response was to cut them down to size. In later seasons, the upper-crust Frasier and Lilith also had their share.
- Cliff. A running gag in and of himself. Not only did any innocuous conversation require his generally unsolicited input, correction or clarification, but he was unlucky in love and still lived with his aging, overbearing mother.
- Paul. Another bar regular who was similarly unlucky in love and in life with the added misfortune of missing all the action at the bar to bathroom breaks, phone calls, early exits and late arrivals. This aspect of his character was seen more in the later seasons when he was featured more frequently.
- Bar Wars. Gary’s Old Towne Tavern was a rival bar of Cheers. For each the show’s last six seasons, there was some sort of contest with Gary’s. Cheers lost every year except one – and even that was after cunningly eliminating Gary as the competition. The best of these was an intricate episode involving a bloody Mary contest.
Cheers was one those rare shows to have hit the ground running from episode one with a solid premise, well-drawn characters that became richer over the course of the show’s run, great stories and a top-notch ensemble that clicked immediately – even through the occasional turnover.
Like The Mary Tyler Moore Show before it, new characters were introduced seamlessly and sensibly with respect to the departing characters. Most importantly, when new prominently-featured characters were introduced, there was always something for them to do and a way for them to contribute to the series as a whole as opposed to a one or two episode showcase before fading into the background.
This year Cheers celebrates its 30th anniversary. Still, when you mention a Sam Malone you think of a playboy or a genial bartender, depending on the context. When you mention a “Norm”, you think of a resident barfly or a frequent customer at a diner. Even the theme song itself has become iconic and synonymous with being a part of something or someplace special.
Cheers and its legendary theme song survive because it’s about the universal themes of belonging, friendship, escape, camaraderie, support, survival, laughter, tears, ups and downs. Even when the show veered into more tenuous issues such as addiction (alcohol, nicotine, sex), classism, social status and feminism, it did so through the humor of the characters without pandering or preaching. The show was so good at this that you don’t even think of Cheers as an issue show in the same way you would All in the Family.
Perhaps the best example of this was the brilliant Emmy-nominated first season standout titled “The Boys in the Bar” that aired in early 1983 and shone a groundbreaking spotlight on homophobia. In the post-Stonewall, early AIDS but very pre-Ellen episode, a well-known friend of Sam’s comes out of the closet. Though initially taken aback, Sam quickly offers his support but several bar patrons become afraid of Cheers becoming a gay bar – including, to my surprise, Norm.
Despite their threats of finding other bars to patronize, Sam holds his ground and convinces them to stay. But a group of men walk in, sit at a table and order light beers. Because of this and their natty attire, Norm, Cliff and the other patrons immediately suspect they’re gay. After a discussion about how one could tell such a thing, they orchestrate a way to kick them out of the bar without actually kicking them out of the bar or making Sam angry.
They think they’ve gotten rid of them all but Diane tells them that there are still two gay men in the bar – who reveal themselves as such by each planting a kiss on either side of Norm’s face.
Perhaps because the show’s pilot (and so many other episodes) was so excellent or because it aired during the show’s low-rated first season, “The Boys in the Bar” isn’t accorded a similar status in the annals of the show or television history as a whole. This is all the more strange because homophobia isn’t as much of a thing of the past as a nearly 30-year-old episode should reflect.
Among the many other fantastic episodes of Cheers are these, which constitute the remainder of my Top Eleven:
“Give Me a Ring Sometime” – The pilot episode of the series (and one of the best pilots in TV history) in which Diane Chambers walks into Cheers for the first time – with a fiancée, who winds up abandoning her to go back to his wife. The episode introduces the characters beautifully and, in Diane’s last line, sets up the entire purpose for the series.
“I'll Be Seeing You, Part 2” – The second season finale. In one of their many two-head scenes, which are always so great to watch, Sam and Diane have a huge fight over a handsome artist who wanted to paint Diane. The episode sets up what seems to be Diane’s annual attempts to leave the bar and never come back. The aforementioned climactic scene includes Sam and Diane’s classic back-and-forth-slap-nose-pinch.
“Thanksgiving Orphans” – One of the most well-regarded Thanksgiving episodes of all-time in which Sam, Carla, Norm, Cliff, Woody and Frasier all wind up at Carla’s for Thanksgiving dinner. Naturally, Diane is more festive than the rest (even dressing up as a pilgrim for the occasion), but no one else shares her enthusiasm. This fifth season entry includes a classic food fight and a rare physical appearance of Norm’s wife Vera – after a pie had been thrown in her face. George Wendt’s real-life wife appeared as Vera.
“I Do, Adieu” – In Shelley Long’s final episode as a series regular, Sam and Diane’s wedding planning come to a screeching halt when Diane’s former fiancée Sumner returns to Cheers to offer her an opportunity to work on her long-in-gestation book. The episode is highlighted by Carla’s wails during the wedding, the repeated exchange of money among the bar patrons as “I Do” became “I Don’t” (and vice versa) followed by the last two-head scene between Danson and Long.
“Home is the Sailor” – Kirstie Alley makes her first appearance as a series regular in the sixth season premiere which not only proved that the show could survive Long’s departure, but also set a new tone for the remainder of the series. In the episode, Sam returns to the bar he sold after Diane left and he has to finagle his way back in when his charms don’t work on Alley’s hard-nosed Rebecca Howe. Her character was eventually softened and made out to be a lot more pathetic – which was so much better given Howe’s position as bar manager.
“Bar Wars II: The Woodman Strikes Back” – The best but most intricate of the seven Bar Wars entries pits Cheers versus Gary’s Old Town Tavern in the annual Bloody Mary contest. In this seventh season episode, Woody quits Cheers, gets hired at Gary’s and winds up a contest judge. Or is he?
“The Days of Wine and Neuroses” – A stellar outing for Kirstie Alley from the ninth season. The night before her wedding to longtime paramour Robin Colcord (Roger Rees), a nervous Rebecca goes on a drunken bender in her apartment and comes onto Sam when he stops by to check on her. This is the best of the two-head scenes between Danson and Alley as Sam and Rebecca.
“An Old-Fashioned Wedding” – Why wouldn’t Woody’s wedding to longtime love Kelly Baines (Jackie Swanson) NOT be an utter comedy of errors? The fantastic tenth season finale took place almost exclusively in the kitchen of the Baines’ mansion. When it is discovered that the amorous Woody and Kelly made love the night before their wedding, it becomes Sam’s goal to not only keep them apart until after the nuptials, but to also keep Kelly’s father from finding out. The minister dies and the replacement hates weddings – unless he’s drunk. Sam flirts with a woman who turns out to have a jealous German husband. Rebecca causes the caterers to quit. And then there are the vicious Dobermans. But yet, the wedding (which takes place off screen), must still go off without a hitch. Brilliantly directed and brilliantly performed.
“The Little Match Girl” – In the final season premiere, Rebecca, who supposedly quit smoking, sets the bar on fire after discarding a poorly-extinguished cigarette into a garbage can. When she is revealed to be the cause and Sam finds out, he bans her from the bar. The episode is highlighted by two things: the fact that Cliff left a bag of undelivered mail behind the bar and Rebecca’s return to the bar to beg Sam to take her back.
“One for the Road” – The Little Show That Could concluded with an extended finale that marked Diane Chamber’s (and Shelley Long’s) first return to the Cheers (and Cheers) for the first time in six years. After Diane wins a Cable Ace Award, Sam gets in touch with her. She tells him about her happy life and family. Naturally, Sam lies about his own life and conjures up a family of his own. Then Diane visits. Look for a small moment at the end of the episode acknowledging deceased cast member Nicholas Colasanto.
To Sam, Diane, Carla, Norm, Cliff, Coach, Frasier, Woody, Lilith and Rebecca…congratulations on 30 years of being our favorite local watering hole.
And for always knowing our names.
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