There’s this joint in Boston, exposed brick, no ferns. Sam Malone tends bar. He also owns the place, although there were times when he didn’t. Coach Ernie Pantusso used to tend bar, but then he died and Woody Boyd took his place. Woody got married not too long ago; he also got elected to the city council, through no fault of his own. Carla Tortelli’s a barmaid. Diane Chambers used to be a barmaid — she left years ago to write a novel — but that doesn’t begin to explain what she means to Sam. (Don’t ask Carla.) Diane used to be involved with her shrink, Frasier Crane, but that was long ago. Then Frasier married Dr. Lilith Sternin, but now that relationship is in shreds. Rebecca Howe manages the place. She was once involved with rich Brit Robin Colcord, but now she’s not. She also once wanted Sam’s baby, but now she doesn’t. Sometime accountant Norm Peterson drinks there. Full-time. So does mailman Cliff Clavin. (When his mother lets him.) Want to join the party? Good. Pull up a stool. Cheers.
Few Casts have ever mixed it up so frothily
When a much-admired sitcom ends its run, as Cheers does next week after 275 episodes, it is common to salute the devotion the show inspired in its audience, to note the lovableness of its characters, and to pull out the most clichéd sitcom metaphor — that those charming characters were a family, a family we’d come to feel a part of.
In the case of Cheers, we should refrain from all this, and not least of all because I can practically hear Rhea Perlman’s Carla snickering, ”Family? Get outta here — my family’s big enough without any-a youse guys.” And not because the show wasn’t good. On the contrary, for 11 seasons, NBC has broadcast the equivalent of a first-rate, more-laughs-than-Neil-Simon comedy nearly every week. But a dewy-eyed, elegiac tone simply doesn’t fit this series — doesn’t do it justice.
That’s because the major reason Cheers has been able to maintain its startling level of consistency is that it has been the least sentimental sitcom since The Honeymooners. Obviously, Cheers yielded characters you could like or even love: hunky, dopey, sex-crazy Sam Malone (Ted Danson); cranky, combative Carla Tortelli (Perlman); beefy, bibulous Norm Peterson (George Wendt); and fatuous, foolish Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger). But founding writer-producers Glen and Les Charles, and series-long director James Burrows, never permitted their show to coast on the likability of its stars; instead, Cheers was, line for line, sight gag for sight gag, just about the most relentless joke machine ever.
Cheers also performed at least one other impressive trick. Through some combination of skill and luck, the show managed two crucial casting changes that might have ruined a lesser sitcom. When Nicholas Colasanto, barmy Coach, died in 1985, he was replaced by Woody Harrelson’s Indiana dimwit Woody Boyd. As different as these actors are, they performed the same function — to serve as sweetly naive dumb guys. The odds against a new character picking up seamlessly where a unique old one left off were enormous. To take a quick recent example, Designing Women never did recover from the departure of Delta Burke — butt Harrelson pulled it off.
Then in 1987, Shelley Long — whose sensuous prig, Diane Chambers, had been the object of the show’s most artful ridicule as well as its most emotionally complex romance — left for a movie career that only proved what a fragile comic creation Diane was. (In flop after mediocrity, Long gradually turned her Diane persona into a mere pain in the neck.) Her replacement, Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe, had a rocky adjustment period — Rebecca initially seemed merely blowsy whenever she wasn’t a prissy Diane clone. But it’s a testament to Alley’s shrewd gutsiness that she and the writers stuck it out and made Rebecca her own woman by revealing her loneliness, her ambition, and her guile, and then turning those qualities into amusing, appealing characteristics.
One reason Cheers is still a pleasure to watch in the syndicated reruns saturating America is that it mercifully avoided clearing its throat to deliver heartwarming sermons about The Way We Live Now. Few shows do this well, and as writer and co-executive producer Rob Long wrote recently, ”For 11 years we did a show about a guy who chases women, and his friends who sit around drinking beer all day, and yet we never did a show about AIDS or alcoholism.” Really, the worst you can say about Cheers is that it had a lousy theme song. ”Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was two things Cheers never was — sappy and a lie: Sure, we knew nearly everybody’s name in the Cheers bar, but they sure as hell didn’t know yours or mine.
NBC is promoting Cheers‘ final episode as ”the television event of a lifetime,” thus proving that, after 11 years, the network itself really hasn’t gotten the whole point. Even if (as rumor persists) Sam and Diane take it into their heads to get married, we hope that May 20 will still be just another night at the bar, familiar and funny. That would be plenty.