Cheers writers on why Norm jokes were the hardest to write (and some of the best)
On any given episode of Cheers, there are a few things you know to expect: Drinks will be served, Sam and Diane will bicker, and Norm will be greeted. But only one of those episode staples gave the writers a particularly hard time… and it had nothing to do with Sam and Diane.
"The writing with the greatest degree of difficulty was writing an entrance for Norm," Cheers writer David Isaacs tells EW as part of our examination of perfect TV punchlines. "He would always come in and they'd say, 'Hi, Norm,' and then the running joke was the question, so: 'How you doing?' 'What's up?' 'What are you up to?' And then you had to write a joke from Norm's 'my life is just nothing' attitude to fit that, which is hard because it's like writing a joke from nothing. You don't get a running start because it's not coming out of context, it's not coming out of the conflict or situation, so you have to write a joke by itself."
For Isaacs, his favorite Norm joke came from his writing partner, Ken Levine. "It was one of my favorite lines ever on Cheers, We said, 'Okay, let's try, What are you up to?'" And Ken just said, 'My ideal weight if I was 11 feet tall.' I said, 'You just broke the bank. We'll never top that.'"
Levine, however, has a different favorite joke, but it also has a little something to do with Norm (played by George Wendt). "When I was a kid, there was an episode of The Honeymooners called 'The $99,000 Answer.' And Ralph Kramden, who's the Jackie Gleason character, is on a game show," Levine recalls. "And you have to guess the title of songs. So he's practicing for a whole week. By the end of the week, he knows every song from every musical, from every show, everything else. And so they get on the show and the first question is like, 'Okay, identify this song.' And he didn't know it. I was 10 when I first saw that and I did not see the joke coming, and I laughed so hard. So I always wanted to do the equivalent of that episode. I always wanted to base an episode leading up to one monster joke."
Levine got the chance to do just that with the season 9 episode titled "Breaking in Is Hard to Do." The premise is that Lilith and Frasier are starting to worry that their baby, Frederick, hasn't started to talk yet. When Frasier volunteers to watch Frederick for the day, he naturally takes him to the bar, where there's another subplot at work. "We have a subplot going where they put parking meters out on the street," Levine says." So Frasier brings the baby to the bar and every hour, Norm has to go out and feed the meter. And so every time he comes back in, we had to do those Norm entrances. And we had four or five of them."
It all builds to the final Norm entrance, which occurs at the end of the episode, when Lilith returns to find that Frasier has spent all day with their child at the bar. "She's just horrified," Levine says. "And then Norm comes in and the baby goes, 'Norm.'"
The joke worked beautifully. "It got a thunderous laugh. I remember turning to David saying, 'This is something I always wanted to do. I will never do this again,'" Levine says with a laugh. "Because it was so stressful when you realize that you are building a whole show to one joke and if the joke doesn't work, the whole episode dies. So it's like, we did it, we got away with it. I will never do that again. But that's one of my favorite punchlines."