Revisiting the Cheers Pilot
Every time I watch the Cheers pilot, I’m always amazed at just how low-key it is. ‘Give Me a Ring Sometime’ doesn’t try to get anybody’s attention with flashy characters or some convoluted premise: as the cold open suggests, this is just another day at a bar in Boston, where an ex-baseball player serves his friends and lends his ear to the working man. It sucks a quiet, unassuming scene, it’s no surprise that it didn’t draw in a huge audience for the second episode (or the entire first season, really). As Sam prepares the bar for work, a clearly underage kid comes in and tries to order a beer with a military ID. Sam can see it coming a mile away, and after the kid calls his Vietnam experience “gross”, sends his on his way.
That’s it; the first two and a half minutes have no importance attached to them, no important bit of Sam’s character shining through (except the hair and that iconic smile, of course). And although it goes out of its way to try and avoid some kind of definition, that opening scene speaks to the foundation of the series: this is a bar where people meet and share stories, oftentimes covering up their insecurities with stories that lead to laughter. Of course, Cheers is a little more thoughtful and sentimental than the opening scene suggests, but the framework is right there in the opening scene.
The Laughs Are On The House!
Smartly, the show doesn’t drop us into the world of Cheers without anchoring us to a character and their perspective: for all intents and purposes, we see Cheers through the eyes of Diane Chambers, a teaching assistant waiting for her fiancee to return and whisk her away to Barbados to be married. The last place she wants to be is some blue-collar bar – which may or may not be a little shot at the audience, a way to say “Who says America doesn’t want to watch people just hanging out in a bar?” It’s the antithesis of everything a modern comedy pilot is: there has to be some hook, some catch to bring it the advertising bucks, and set a show on the quick path to syndication money piles. Cheers throws that concept to the wind, and even asks the world through Diane Chambers in the final scene: what better place to learn about life than in the places we all come together?
It’s this simplicity that makes ‘Give Me A Ring Sometime’ the definitive comedy pilot. Look how smoothly characters are introduced: their expositional moments bubble organically from conversations, and before we know it, we’ve established Carla as the fireball (her opening monologue when she busts into the bar late for work is expertly delivered by Rhea Pearlman), Cliff as the know-it-all (though I don’t think we learn his name in this episode, and he wouldn’t be the main cast member until season two), Norm as the bar regular, and of course, Sam “Mayday” Malone, the show’s true core and the owner of Cheers.
Cheers always took time to tell the stories of others (the pilot is really about Diane than the bar itself), but it always found its way back to Sam Malone, the ladies man who lost everything except his bar, the very same place his downfall from fame began. It’s really one of the greatest premises for a character I’ve ever seen, especially when you think about baseball and its deepest philosophies. Best of all, they don’t try to define Sam solely on his successes and failures: like everyone else in the bar, he’s been a victim of life’s basic, cruelest realities, and is just trying to make the best of what he’s been able to hold onto.
It speaks to the very blue-collar nature of Cheers, both as a show and a location – as the ending reveals, the show’s not just about people hanging out, but how meaningful a community really is. It’s almost a religious thing: people come to the bar (which, when sitting at a stool, puts people’s arms on the counter as if it was a place to pray) to reconcile life’s difficulties and disappointments. It’s not quite a confessional, but it’s a place where we can share and heal: when you’re in a place where “everybody knows your name”, it feels like it’s where you belong, where you can be understood. In simple terms, Cheers is a little piece of heaven, and Sam Malone is the fallen angel here to help us all along (notice how characters revere Sam as a “baseball god”).
You want to be where everybody knows your name…
Cheers doesn’t go out of its way to suggest some of these more spiritual things, but when Sumner leaves Diane alone and jobless in the bar at the end, there’s a beauty to the moment where Sam reaches out and offers her a job. Initially, she laughs it off (again: who would want to spend a half-hour of their week hanging out with bar regulars?), but when she realizes she’s educated but unqualified for anything, she resigns herself to taking the waitress job Sam offers after repeating a complicated bar order back to him.
In the end, people went to Cheers because it was a place they could join others at their lows, and help each other heal. And eventually, that’s why millions of people tuned into the show and it became one of the most revered sitcoms in history: whether it was the show’s best episode or its worst episode, Cheers always delivered on its promise to be a place where people were familiar, and would always find a way to make you laugh, even on the worst days of your life. We all want to have hope and something to believe in: and in its own way,
– I didn’t even talk about my favorite character ever on Cheers, but it’s because he’s mostly comic relief in the episode: Coach, played wonderfully by Nicholas Colasanto. I always felt Woody was a much more one-dimensional character than Coach, who had the ability to make you laugh and cry in the same breath. In the pilot, he’s just getting confused a lot, but later episodes would reveal him to be the guiding light for Sam, Diane, and many other characters on the show.
– Diane recites the story of Sumner proposing to her, and notes that the piece of poetry he quoted was “Donne”, to which Sam responds “I sure hope so.”
– as a man named Ron exits the bar, he stops to thank Sam: “Thanks for letting me bend your ear, Sam.” One line was all it took to establish that Sam was a man we could trust.
– Diane: “You’re a magnificent pagan beast.” Sam: “Thanks, but what’s the message?”
– Coach (talking about Sam): “He was a great drunk!”
– It’s weird to hear Carla say she had four kids – she would have eight by the end of the show’s run.
– the men in the bar debate the sweatest movie ever. Nominees included Rocky II, Ben-Hur, Alien, and Cool Hand Luke.
– Sumner, on the phone with his ex-wife: “Barbara…. your depth frightens me.”
– the ending is so perfect: Diane dictates the show’s mantras about the microcosms of life that a bar is, only to find out they didn’t speak English. Another bit of meta, saying “we know, we know… don’t try and teach us, just make us laugh!” Thankfully, Cheers didn’t try too hard to subscribe to this idea in early seasons.
– Cliff’s first little known fact is that women have less sweat glands, but they’re bigger, so they sweat more.
– Norm’s first entrace: “Whaddya know, Norm?” “Not enough.” Pretty tame.
– Carla referring to Diane: “how long is the wind convention in town?”