It was only a year after NBC bid farewell to Johnny Carson, and it was time to say goodbye again. After 11 seasons and 117 Emmy nominations, the doors closed on Cheers, America’s favorite TV watering hole. Hoping to air the most watched special of all time, NBC billed the night of May 20, 1993, as ”The Television Event of a Lifetime.” While 80.4 million patrons did tune in to see the fate of Sam Malone and Diane Chambers, the overhyped event, which stretched the sitcom to 98 minutes, didn’t even crack the all-time top five.
Then again, according to Glen Charles — who, along with his brother Les and James Burrows, created Cheers — ratings and an epic-length finale were the furthest things from their minds. ”We wanted to go out with a regular episode,” he recalls, ”but the network said, ‘You gotta think about the audience! They deserve more!”’
NBC got what it wanted: a supersize salute, preceded by a Bob Costas warm-up and followed by a special Tonight Show with Jay Leno, broadcast live from the Bull & Finch Pub, the Boston tavern that inspired the Cheers bar. Clearly, the network was sad to see them go. And is it any wonder? The NBC stalwart was still on top of the ratings, despite the ascendancy of pop-culturally frenetic shows like The Simpsons and the dizzying plotlines of network-mate Seinfeld. Many asked, was this a ”Lifetime” cut too short?
Ted Danson was the first cast member to voice his desire to close the bar — his simple explanation: ”It was time to leave.” According to Glen Charles, the producers had been contemplating ending the show for two years.
However, Burrows speculates that ”if Ted had wanted to stay, we would have kept going….The [cast] had the best jobs in the world. We were still on top. Regardless, they were all wonderful characters who could carry their own show.” (And, four months later, one would, when Kelsey Grammer reprised his role as the urbane shrink on Frasier, which remains an NBC hit.)
And while the idea of sitcom cast as big happy family seems mythical, with Cheers it just might have been for real. After all, they endured the traumatic (the death of Nicholas ”Coach” Colasanto) and the unexpected (the departure of Shelley Long). Given the resilience of Cheers, it seemed all the more ironic that this whip-smart show would, in its final hour, go out with a sentimental, arguably embarrassing swan song.
”It was just too much,” says Glen Charles of the finale bonanza. ”I remember thinking ‘This has disaster written all over it.’ I didn’t enjoy [it] because we were so self-conscious….It was a really bad plan, but how many times do you end a show?”