Cheers was the longest-running and most critically acclaimed situation comedy on television in the 1980s. 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 its run from 1982 to 1993, no less than author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was moved to call the show the “one comic masterpiece” in TV history. Vonnegut 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.”
Fittingly, a bar called Cheers is the setting for the show. Cheers is 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 now under control, he revels in his semi-celebrity and status as a ladies' man. Tending bar at Cheers is Sam's old Red Sox coach, the befuddled Ernie Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto), a character obviously modeled after baseball great Yogi Berra. In early 1985 Colasanto suddenly died and was replaced behind the bar by the actor Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd, an ignorant Indiana farm boy.
Meanwhile, Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) is a foul-mouthed waitress and a single mother who bears several children out of wedlock during the show's eleven-year run. The feisty Carla threatens one woman by saying, “You sound like a lady who's getting tired of her teeth.” The bar's regulars are 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 lives with his domineering mother.
In the series premiere, Diane Chambers (Shelley Long)—a pretentious, well-to-do graduate student—is abandoned at the bar by her fiancé en route to their wedding. Sam offers her a job waitressing, thus beginning one of the most complex romances in the history of prime-time TV. Sam and Diane swap insults for most of the first season, and one such verbal volley in the final episode culminates with their first kiss. They consummate 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 tie the knot. Diane leaves Sam and receives psychiatric help from Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), with whom she promptly falls in love. Diane and Frasier plan a European wedding, but she leaves him at the altar. By the 1986–1987 season, Sam and Diane are engaged when, on the eve of their wedding, Diane garners a sizable deal to write her first novel. Sam allows her to leave for six months to write, knowing it will be forever.
Sam sells Cheers to go on an around-the-world trip and humbly returns to become the bartender for the bar's new manager, Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), a cold corporate type. Cheers is now owned by a slick British yuppie, Robin Colcord (Roger Rees), who has designs on Rebecca. When Robin is arrested for insider trading, Sam is able to buy back the bar for a dollar.
Life goes on for the Cheers regulars. After being dumped by Diane, the cerebral Frasier grows darker and more sarcastic, barely surviving a marriage to an anal-retentive, humorless colleague, Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth). Sam and Rebecca enjoy a whirlwind romance and contemplate having a baby together out of wedlock. Carla marries a professional hockey player, who is killed when a Zamboni runs over him. Woody falls in love with a naive heiress and, by the final season, wins a seat on the Boston City Council. And Norm and Cliff remain loyal customers at Cheers, serving as the Greek chorus to the increasingly bizarre happenings.
Despite the wistful theme song (“Sometimes you want to go / Where everybody knows your name”), the characters are frequently cruel to each other. Norm once stands up for the unpopular Cliff this way: “In his defense, he'll probably never reproduce.” During one exchange, Carla asks Diane, “Did your Living Bra die of boredom?” They also engage in elaborate practical jokes: Sam, for example, devises a prank that ends with Cliff, Carla, Norm, and Woody on an endless cross-country bus trek. The sadism reaches its zenith during the ongoing rivalry with a rival bar, Gary's Olde Time Tavern. During the final season, when the Cheers gang convinces Gary, the smug owner of Gary's Olde Time Tavern, that an investor would pay him $1 million for his land. Gary gleefully takes a wrecking ball to his establishment.
INTO TV HISTORY
Cheers ended after eleven seasons and 269 episodes. Series cocreators Glen and Les Charles once confessed their ideal Cheers ending: Sam and Diane admit they can't live with or without each other and die in a murder-suicide pact. In the actual finale, Diane does return to the bar, contemplating a reconciliation with Sam, but the two finally realize they are no longer suitable for each other. In other developments, upwardly mobile Rebecca impulsively marries a plumber, Cliff wins a promotion at the post office, and—miracle of miracles—Norm finally gets a steady job. In the last moments of the series, the regulars sit around the bar to discuss life's important matters. As the show fades out a final time, Sam walks through the empty bar, which is obviously the most important part of his life, at closing time.
There is no consensus as to which episode of Cheers is the best. Some prefer the Thanksgiving episode at Carla's apartment (“Thanksgiving Orphans,” 1986), which ends in a massive food fight with turkey and all the trimmings in play. Others recall Cliff 's embarrassing appearance on the game show Jeopardy! (“What Is … Cliff Clavin?” 1990), with a cameo by host Alex Trebek. There is also the series' penultimate episode, in which the vain Sam reveals to Carla that his prized hair is, in fact, a toupee (“It's Lonely on the Top,” 1993). Still other Cheers aficionados point to the 1992 hour-long episode devoted to Woody's wedding day (“An Old-Fashioned Wedding”), a classic, one-set farce complete with a Miles Gloriosus–like soldier, horny young lovers, and a corpse that won'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, made an Emmy-winning cameo on Cheers in 1987 as a marriage therapist who goes to great lengths to convince Sam and Diane that they are thoroughly incompatible. Cheers cocreator James Burrows is the son of comedy writing great Abe Burrows, who was responsible for the 1940s radio comedy Duffy's Tavern, a program also set in a bar and noted for its eccentric characters and topnotch writing.
Grammer reprised his role as Frasier Crane in the spin-off series Frasier (1993–2004), which was both a critical and commercial success. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in each of its first five seasons and maintained a loyal viewership until the very end of its 264-episode run.
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