Cheers at 40!
I’ve been to the Cheers bar. I mean the real Boston bar – the Bull & Finch Pub, since renamed the Cheers Beacon Hill – the series creators picked randomly out of a phone book as the model for the TV Cheers and to use for exteriors.
This was some time in the late 1980s, I think. The show was a hit by then. I was a fan, in Boston for a weekend with a friend and fellow fan. We’d heard there was a real Cheers, had a natural fan curiosity about it, and so hunted the place down. Walking into the real place was…odd. The Cheers barroom set, we saw, nicely replicated the wood-heavy style of the real thing…except you could’ve fit four of the real barrooms in the TV version. And instead of a quiet back room with a pool table, there was a large table-and-chairs space.
And the place was humming. Packed. This wasn’t the quiet neighborhood bar of the TV show. This was a place where you had to worm your way to the bar to try to get a drink. It reminded me more of how I’d pictured the never-seen Gary’s Olde Town Tavern, the TV Cheers’ always-outdoing-them nemesis.
Maybe the Bull & Finch had been different before the series clicked, maybe the buzzing crowd was the result of being associated with one of the all-time TV sitcom hits (four years after the series went off the air, the Bull & Finch was rated as the 42nd busiest food & drink establishment in the country all because of its association with Cheers!).
Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t a bad place, not by any means. It just wasn’t…Cheers. You know; that laid back safe space where people hung out after work for a little while, decelerating from the stresses of the day, b.s.ing with fellow regulars, where – like the theme song by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo said – everybody knew your name.
But that’s the magic of TV and the particular magic of Cheers. Look, yes, some shows go completely into what’s never gonna happen, what’s never gonna be and they’re fun because of that. Some shows get to us because they’re all too reflective of the reality we uncomfortably recognize as ours, and we’re engrossed because of that. But some – like Cheers – land in a sweet spot somewhere in between; life as it should be, with a little tweaking could be, and which we’d like to believe, probably does exist…somewhere.
I don’t have any research or hard evidence to back this up, but I think chains like Applebee’s and Chili’s and the like, as well as those upscale, white collar stand-alone places that try to emulate their booze-and-full-menu atmosphere (maybe with a weekend live music act thrown in), have eaten away at the idea of the neighborhood bar.
The neighborhood bar; a local watering hole, no bands, not a lot of food (if any if you don’t count a box of Slim Jims by the register), just a place to hang, bad mouth politicians and baseball managers, watch The Game on the TV over the bar (the game determined by the season) with fellow barroom critics of the sport. Maybe there was a pool table or a shuffle puck table, maybe a pinball machine or two (or in later years, videogames like Missile Command and Pong). It wasn’t for date nights, in fact, it was never for anything special. It was usually a homely little place, often within walking distance (or at most, a short drive) of most of its regular patrons. A place where the regulars took an hour or so vacation from their lives and did it often enough to be, well, regulars. Oh, on the weekends the place could be kind of buzzy, but the rest of the time it was pretty quiet, low-key.
They’re still out there, those little hole-in-the-wall places, but the demographic tends to be older than the Applebee’s crowd, the palates more basic in their requirements (no funny-colored drinks, nothing with any kind of fruit architecture on it). You drive by these places and you notice them because there are always a few customers taking a break from hanging inside to loiter around the door smoking (tobacco, people, tobacco!) because this crowd doesn’t give a damn what the Surgeon General, the family doctor they rarely see, or their spouses say about how bad cigarettes are for them.
Yeah, they’re still there. But how many of you go to them? For me, that was Cheers; an echo of something fading by the time the show closed down in 1993 after eleven Emmy-winning seasons, something I’d been lucky to have a taste of even if the denizens of the real places with names like Fatso’s and The Russian Hall were never as colorful, as lively, as much fun as the regulars of TV’s Cheers. But then, as I said, that was the magic of the show; like The Andy Griffith Show’s Mayberry, like The Gilmore Girl’sStars Hollow, like all those TV places that were just real enough to make you want them to be real, Cheers was a somewhat softened, gentled version of something you could believe in, a place – and I’m going to steal from the theme song, again – you could take a break from all your worries…Wouldn’t you like to get away?
The ensemble nature of the show — … Let me change that to the alternate family feel of the show should come as no surprise when you look at the pedigree. Co-creator James Burrows had established himself as one of the best sitcom directors in the business with his work for MTM Enterprises, the TV production company founded by Mary Tyler Moore and her husband, former and future network exec Grant Tinker. Burrows made his directorial bones on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and MTM’s The Bob Newhart Show. He crossed passed with the Charles brothers, Les and Glen, on another sitcom classic, Taxi, on which Les and Glen were producers. Desiring more creative control over their material, the three decided to create something of their own and, voila: Cheers.
I won’t go through all the evolutionary iterations the concept went through before it wound up on our TV screens, all the casting possibilities that were considered, rejected, or refused; you can look that stuff up. You can also easily find how the show continually evolved, refining itself after the death of Nicholas Colasanto who played Coach, Cheers owner Sam Malone’s (Ted Danson) one-time pitching coach, brain-addled fellow bartender, and good buddy; after the departure of Sam’s love interest over the first five seasons, Diane (Shelley Long); the successful integration of new characters Woody (Woody Harrelson filling the slot left empty by Colasanto’s passing), Kirstie Alley (taking Long’s slot), and new supporting character Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar; a character who would be spun off into his own successful sitcom). The point worth keeping in mind was that this wasn’t some golden concept that sprang instantly and completely to the Burrows/Charles collective creative mind, but something that was endlessly noodled before its premiere, and which kept getting noodled thereafter.
Certainly, the audience didn’t immediately embrace the show. Despite a positive welcome by critics and Emmy blessings on that first season, of the seventy-seven shows on prime time television in the 1982-1983 season, Cheers came in – get this – seventy-four! (Its premiere episode came in dead last!).
In today’s more volatile media environment where shows get cancelled after just a few episodes, it seems a miracle the cellar-dwelling show wasn’t cancelled by the winter break! But Brandon Tartikoff, NBC topper at the time, looked at the reviews, looked at those first season Emmys, and thought there was something to the show; the show worked, it just needed the audience to find it. So, he stuck with it.
Or maybe it wasn’t that gutsy a call. According to Cheers writer Ken Levine, another factor was that the network’s overall ratings at the time were in the tank. According to Levine, “(NBC) had nothing else better to replace (Cheers) with.” In either case – a belief in excellence or brutal practicality – Tartikoff hung with the show. Cheers ended its second season at #34; third season at #13; and after that never fell out of the Top Ten (actually except for the final season, it was consistently in the Top Five). When the show went off the air in 1993, 93 million people – about one-fourth of the country — watched Sam Malone turn off the lights at Cheers for the last time making it the highest-rated thing on television that year; bigger than the Super Bowl.
Burrows, who directed 243 of the series’ 270 episodes, gets a lot of the credit for keeping the show vital through eleven seasons, but that doesn’t explain why the show clicked so well with the audience. Yes, it was witty, it was adult, it could be laugh-out-loud funny, the characters – even the obnoxious ones like Frazier Crane’s icy fiancée Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth) or the lovable dolts postman Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and his bar buddy Norm (George Wendt), or the abrasive, hot-tempered waitress Carla (Rhea Perlman) – were great company.
But there was something else, I think. Back in 2020, I wrote a piece here on the 50th anniversary of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and I think the same dynamic applies to Cheers:
(The) idea of the alternative family…struck a chord in the 1970s. Boomers were flooding into the workplace at the same time divorce rates were climbing and the traditional family was coming apart. In his milestone TV history, Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, Erik Barnouw writes about the rise of workplace sitcoms in the 1970s as a reflection not of the prevailing American Dream, but of the growing American Longing for connection:
“…the people of the workplace had become a kind of family…The success of such series had led to speculation that, with the erosion of family life, the workplace had for many people become the real center of ‘family’ life…”
The idea of an alternative family would run from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to today, in one variant or another from workplace comedies like Barney Miller and MASH to The Office and Parks and Recreation and different-but-the-same ensembles like Kate & Allie, Cheers, and Friends.”
Like the characters, Burrows had shepherded on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the Charles’ had overseen on Taxi, most of the characters on Cheers had little or no close family…except for each other. And in an era in which one of the recurring buzzwords was becoming “dysfunction,” I think a lot of us out there on our sofas watching these characters who, despite their often humdrum circumstances, their petty victories and embarrassing failures, always had each other, it was hard not to envy them that connection, that comradeship, that bond. They were, when you think about it, people much like us: a mailman, an office worker, a bartender who defined himself by such shabby standards as having a Corvette, his prowess with not-so-bright women, and having a great head of immaculately maintained hair. Blue collars (or at best, off-white). Life-sized. In my New York commuter days, the word I heard on Manhattan streets that probably best applies is “schlemiel” (look it up). “Our troubles,” the theme song tells us, “are all the same.”
They were us, and no matter who they didn’t have in their lives, they always had each other, even if it was someone who was just going to bust chops over something gone horribly awry (Sam, to some brutal razzing, having to replace his studly ’vette with a – gasp! – emasculating Volare! Augh!).
Like I said earlier, Cheers was, for the characters, that safe space, that haven, that place to get away from life over the span of a few beers with familiar faces there to do the same.
And we who spent thirty minutes of our Thursday nights with them wished we had such a place where we could pull up a stool, jaw with a bar buddy, and take a break from all our worries.