Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Cheers: Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Hello and welcome to day three of the A to Z Bloggers Challenge on Classic Television Shows where today, C is for Cheers! Cheers is the story of a group of lonely people who gather and work at a Boston bar owned by Sam Malone (Ted Danson). The show ran on NBC from 1982 to 1983, and I personally believe the show owes this long run to the actors who made it great. Ted Danson, Shelly Long, Kelsey Grammer, George Wendt, Woody Harrelson, Kirstie Alley, Rhea Perlman, John Ratzenberger--remarkably, most of these Hollywood stars got their start in this small basement bar in Boston where television history was made. So tonight, let's raise our glasses for a toast because C is for Cheers

The sign leading to the basement bar where "everybody knows your name!" 

During my college years, I worked two and three jobs at a time to support myself and my children, and one of those jobs was generally in a bar (the other was at a local newspaper.) Those who know me well know that I do not drink, and I do not like bars--there's something about a college bar that quickly discourages one from the temptations of alcohol. Nevertheless, I have always enjoyed this show, in spite of the fact that it takes place in a bar, because it's not really a show about a bar, it's a show about loneliness, friendship, compassion, and learning how to laugh when life gets you down. 

That Place Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Everybody needs a place to go where people know them well. It's part of being human, that need to connect with people who understand you, people who will listen when you need a friend and laugh when you need some fun. Cheers is that place. Bars, however, often give people a negative impression, because often that is where people go when they are depressed. The writers had to work hard to build a family atmosphere using bar customers and employees, but they finally succeeded.

It was slow going at first. In fact, John Javna's Cult TV mentions Cheers in his 1985 book, but says very little about it and I suspect the author did not believe the sitcom would last. The show premiered in September of 1982 and came close to cancellation. I'm surprised it wasn't cancelled--it ranked last in the ratings. Then suddenly, the ratings shot up and Cheers became one of the highest rated shows in the country, ranking in the Top Ten for 8 of 11 seasons. It was the number one show in the country for one season!

Ted Danson, Star of Cheers.

The success of Cheers is due largely to its stellar cast, beginning with Ted Danson who already had nine years of television experience before taking on the role of Sam Malone, the former baseball player turned bar owner. Danson was nominated nine times for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for his Cheers performances and won twice. In the early years of the show, Malone has a mysterious attraction to one of his employees, Diane Chambers, played by Shelley Long. The attraction is mysterious because Malone is a bit of a womanizer and likes to tease Chambers when they're working together because Chambers is a graduate student/writer who is a bit too proud of her education and tends to be pretentious. Diane Chambers, or Shelley Long, is eventually written out of the series and Malone sells the bar to a corporation, then tries to seduce the corporate representative, Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley.) Howe rejects Malone's advances for many episodes, though they do eventually connect. In the end, however, Malone admits he has a sex addiction and seeks therapy. 

Nicholas Colasanto was also a prominent figure in the cast during the early years of the show. Colasanto played Ernie Pantusso, or "Coach." He was also a former baseball player and coach, which explains the bond between Malone and Pantusso. When Colasanto died he was replaced on the show by Woody Harrelson who played Woody Boyd, an intellectually challenged young man whose inability to understand simple instructions is part of his charm and amusing to the audience. 

Woody Harrelson in 2007. Photo by David Shankbone. 

My favorite episode involving Woody is Season 7 Episode 19 "The Gift of the Woodi."  Woody falls in love with a wealthy young woman named Kelly Gaines Boyd (Jackie Swanson). Kelly is the daughter of one of the corporate Vice Presidents. Kelly, who is the perfect emotional match for Woody, collects dolls. Woody cannot afford a birthday present for her so instead he sings her a song where he repeats her name dozens of times: "Kelly, my darlin, you are my sunshine. When we're together, I feel fine. Your smile is so lovely, your hair is so clean. You make me feel the whole world is mine. Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly, Kelly..."

Rhea Perlman plays Carla Tortelli in the show, a cynical waitress with many children who are constantly calling her at work. Carla is rude, obnoxious, and her children are just like her. Later in the series she has four more children (Perlman's pregnancies in real life) with her ex-husband, Nick Tortelli (Dan Hedaya). She is a terrible flirt. Carla marries a famous hockey player in the show, Eddie LeBec, and their relationship shocks the employees and customers of Cheers. LeBec dies in an accident, and Carla discovers he was actually married to another woman while married to her, which provides for an emotional episode.

The unemployed accountant "regular" bar customer Norm Peterson is played by George Wendt. When he enters Cheers, the employees and customers shout out "Norm!" He complains constantly about his marriage to Vera, who never appears, but it is clear that he loves his wife.

Another bar regular, the postal employee, Cliff Clavin, is played by John Ratzenberger. Clavin lives with his mother who actually appears on the show: Esther Clavin (Frances Sternhagen). Cliff is a nuisance character, the foil to the popular Norm Peterson. Cliff makes annoying and inaccurate comments, the typical "I know everything" type of person who in actuality knows very little, but thinks if he keeps talking he can hide that fact.

Kelsey Grammer. Photo by U.S. Navy Employee. 

Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) is a psychiatrist and regular customer who is coping with a horrible marriage to another psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Sternin-Crane (Bebe Neuwirth), known simply as "Lilith." Frasier started in the show as Diane Chamber's lover, but she abandoned him on their wedding day and left for Europe. Frasier decided to give his ex-wife, Lilith, custody of their son and he moved back home to Seattle, which is where his show begins. 

Theme Song

The Cheers theme song was surprisingly popular, as well. "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" was composed by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo who also wrote songs for Broadway musicals. After the producers of Cheers rejected three of their others songs.  The songwriting pair read the plot for the series and wrote "Another Day." Then they learned that NBC commissioned numerous episodes for the series, and apparently "Another Day" seemed like it referred to one day, or one show, so they revised the song and it became the now famous "Where Everybody Knows Your Name." 

Cheers Bar in Boston. Photo by Ian Howard.

Cheers has 275 episodes and the last one aired on May 20, 1993. It was nominated for the Emmy Awards Outstanding Comedy Series every season it was on the air, even when its ratings were low! Cheers was awarded 26 Emmys and nominated for 111 (I have two disputing sources on these figures), which was a record in 1993. It's success was not a complete surprise considering the producers of the show, Glen and Les Charles, also produced and wrote another cult classic, Taxi! 

A Sweet Ending and a New Beginning for Dr. Frasier Crane

In 1993, Paramount announced that Cheers would be cancelled due to budget constraints--Ted Danson's salary alone had reached $450, 000 per episode. Paramount spent $65 million on the 1991-92 season according to The Museum of Broadcast Communications. The series finale attracted a huge audience--64% of the evening's viewing audience--and aired on May 20, 1993. 

When Cheers ended, Kelsey Grammer was given his own spin-off show, Frasier, playing Dr. Frasier Crane, a divorced psychiatrist who lives with his father Martin Crane (John Mahoney); his father's adorable dog Eddie, played by Moose; and his father's nurse, Daphne Moon, played by Jane Leeves. The family is frequently visited by Frasier's brother, Dr. Niles Crane (David Hyde Pierce) and the producer for his radio show, Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin). Frasier is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms. This show also ran for 11 seasons and its many episodes frequently included guest appearances from most of the original cast of Cheers (actor/director Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach Ernie Pantusso, died in 1985 and was replaced by Woody Harrelson as the bartender). Frasier won three Golden Globes, five American Comedy Awards, and was nominated for 195 additional awards. 

  • Bird, J.B. "Cheers." U.S. Situation Comedy. The Museum of Broadcast Communications
  • Javna, John. Cult TV. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1985. 
  • Winship, Michael. Television. Random House. New York: 1988.


JoJo said...

My dorm at Emerson (in the mid 80s) was a block from The Bull & Finch and I grew weary of out of town friends/family saying, 'Let's go to Cheers!' then being disappointed that the actual bar looking nothing like the one on TV. Great show though, great characters. And we did see Vera once, she got a pie in the face in the Thanksgiving food fight episode so all we saw was a woman with her face covered in pie cream.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

I didn't know there was a real bar named Cheers until I started researching this piece, then I noticed photos for a few of them, including one in London and one in Boston. Your comment has inspired me to do even more research--now I want to know where the show was actually filmed!