Cheers was the longest-running and most critically acclaimed situation comedy on 1980s television. Combining physical and verbal gags with equal dexterity, Cheers turned the denizens of a small Boston bar into full-fledged American archetypes. By the end of the show's run, author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was moved to call Cheers the "one comic masterpiece" in TV history. The author of many comic fiction classics added, "I wish I'd written [ Cheers ] instead of everything I had written. Every time anybody opens his or her mouth on that show, it's significant. It's funny. "
Cheers was set at a Boston bar of the same name owned by Sam Malone (Ted Danson), a good-looking former relief pitcher for the woebegone Boston Red Sox whose career was cut short by a drinking problem. His alcoholism under control, he reveled in his semi-celebrity and status as a ladies' man. Tending bar was Sam's old Red Sox coach, the befuddled Ernie Pantuso (Nicholas Colasanto), a character obviously modeled on baseball great Yogi Berra. In early 1985, Colasanto suddenly died. He was replaced behind the bar by an ignorant Indiana farm boy, Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson). Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) was the foul-mouthed waitress; a single mother, she bore several children out of wedlock during the show's eleven-year run. To one woman she threatened, "You sound like a lady who's getting tired of her teeth." The bar's regulars were the pathetic Norm Peterson (George Wendt), a perpetually unemployed accountant trapped in a loveless marriage to the unseen Vera; and the equally pathetic Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), the resident trivia expert and career postal worker, who still lived with his domineering mother.
In the series' first episode Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), a pretentious, well-to-do graduate student, was abandoned at the bar by her fiancé en route to their wedding. Sam offered her a job waitressing, thus beginning one of the most complex romances in prime time TV history. Sam and Diane swapped insults for most of the first season, and a volley of insults on the season's last episode culminated in their first kiss. They consummated their relationship in the first episode of the second season:
SAM: You've made my life a living hell.
DIANE: I didn't want you to think I was easy.
Yet Sam and Diane never tied the knot. Diane left Sam and received psychiatric help from Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), with whom she promptly fell in love. Diane and Frasier planned a European wedding, but she left him at the altar. By the 1986-87 season Sam and Diane were engaged when, on the eve of their wedding, Diane won a sizable deal to write her first novel. Sam allowed her to leave for six months to write, knowing it would be forever.
Sam sold the bar to go on a round-the-world trip. He humbly returned to become the bartender for the bar's new manager, Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), a cold corporate type. The bar was now owned by a slick British yuppie, Robin Colcord, who had designs on Rebecca. When Robin was arrested for insider trading, Sam was able to buy back the bar for a dollar.
Life went on for the Cheers regulars. Dumped by Diane, the cerebral Frasier grew darker and more sarcastic, barely surviving a marriage to an anal-retentive, humorless colleague, Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth). Sam and Rebecca enjoyed a whirlwind romance and contemplated having a baby together out of wedlock. Carla married a professional hockey player, who was killed when a Zamboni ran over him. Woody fell in love with a naive heiress, and by the final season won a seat on the Boston City Council. Norm and Cliff remained loyal customers, serving as Greek chorus to the increasingly bizarre happenings.
Despite the wistful theme song ("Sometimes you want to go /Where everybody knows your name"), the characters were frequently cruel to one another. Norm once stood up for the unpopular Cliff this way: "In his defense, he'll probably never reproduce." During one exchange Carla asked Diane, "Did your Living Bra die of boredom?" They also engaged in elaborate practical jokes; Sam devised one prank which ended with Cliff, Carla, Norm, and Woody on an endless cross-country bus trek. The sadism reached its zenith during a petty rivalry throughout the run of the series with a competing bar, Gary's Olde Time Tavern. The feud culminated during the final season, when the Cheers gang convinced the smug Gary that an investor would pay him $1 million for his land. Gary gleefully took a wrecking ball to his establishment.
Cheers ended in 1993 after 11 seasons and 269 episodes. Series co-creators Glen and Les Charles had once confessed their ideal Cheers ending: Sam and Diane admit they can't live with or without each other and take each other's life in a murder-suicide. In the actual finale, Diane did return to the bar, contemplating a reconciliation with Sam, but the two finally realized they were no longer suitable for each other. In other developments, upwardly mobile Rebecca impulsively married a plumber, Cliff won a promotion at the post office, and—miracle of miracles—Norm finally got a steady job. In the last moments of the series, the regulars sat around the bar to discuss the important things in life. As the show faded out one final time, Sam walked through the empty bar, obviously the most important thing to him, at closing time.
There has been no consensus as to the best single episode of Cheers. Some prefer the Thanksgiving episode at Carla's apartment, ending in a massive food fight with turkey and all the trimmings in play. Others recall Cliff's embarrassing appearance on the Jeopardy! game show, with a cameo from host Alex Trebek. There was also the penultimate episode, where the vain Sam revealed to Carla that his prized hair was, in fact, a toupee. Perhaps the finest Cheers was the 1992 hour-long episode devoted to Woody's wedding day, a classic, one-set farce complete with a Miles Gloriosus-like soldier, horny young lovers, and a corpse that wouldn't stay put.
Cheers was inspired by the BBC situation comedy Fawlty Towers (1975, 1979), set at a British seaside hotel run by an incompetent staff. That show's creator/star, John Cleese, appeared on Cheers in an Emmy-winning 1987 cameo as a marriage therapist who went to great lengths to convince Sam and Diane that they were thoroughly incompatible. Co-creator James Burrows was the son of comedy writing great Abe Burrows, responsible for the long-running 1940s radio comedy Duffy's Tavern ("where the elite meet to eat"), a program set in a bar which was also noted for its eccentric characters and top-notch writing.
Grammer reprised his role of Frasier Crane in the spin-off series Frasier, which debuted in the fall of 1993 to high ratings and critical acclaim. The series won Best Comedy Emmy awards during each of its first five seasons.
Bianculli, David. Teleliteracy. New York, Ungar, 1993.