STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
"Cheers" is one of the most celebrated TV sitcoms of all time. Set in a Boston bar, the show survived cast changes as it won major awards, turned its stars into household names and even spawned a classic spinoff.
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
"Cheers" ended its run 30 years ago this spring - 30 years. So we thought this would be a good time to answer your questions about the series. I'm Linda Holmes.
THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today we are talking about "Cheers" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THOMPSON: Joining Linda and me today is our co-host, Aisha Harris. Hey, Aisha.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
Norm. Hey. Hey there.
HARRIS: Hey there, y'all.
THOMPSON: We shout your name whenever you enter the room. So "Cheers" aired from 1982 to 1993, but it's never really ended. It has aired in syndication for decades. As of this taping, it's streaming on Hulu, Peacock and Paramount+. And several of its characters continued on for another 11 years, thanks to the success of "Frasier." Many members of the "Cheers" cast became major stars, including Ted Danson as bar owner and retired Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone. Rhea Perlman played acerbic waitress Carla Tortelli. John Ratzenberger played know-it-all Cliff Clavin. And George Wendt played the Cheers bar's greatest customer, Norm Peterson. "Cheers" was famous for its cast changes. For the first five seasons, Shelley Long played Diane Chambers, a prim waitress who becomes Sam's unlikely love interest. But when Long left the show, "Cheers" continued to be popular. Kirstie Alley joined the cast in Season 6. She played Rebecca Howe, who brought her own neuroses and subplots to the mix.
After its first three seasons, the show had to replace a beloved bartender, Sam's mentor, coach Ernie Pantusso, after the sudden death of Nicholas Colasanto, so the show brought in the naive Woody Boyd, played by a young Woody Harrelson. Starting in Season 3, we meet the psychiatrist Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer. And in Season 4, we meet his wife, Lilith Sternin, played by the wonderful Bebe Neuwirth. Though "Cheers" had very low ratings at first, it became a blockbuster success on NBC, airing 275 episodes in 11 seasons. It was nominated for an astounding 117 Emmy Awards, winning 28 of them. The show was created by James Burrows and Glen and Les Charles. Now, Aisha, one reason we wanted to talk about "Cheers" is that you watched the show for the first time fairly recently. So I'm going to start with you. Give us your overall impressions of "Cheers."
HARRIS: Yes. I was a latecomer to "Cheers," and it actually took me a few years to get through all 11 seasons but not because I didn't enjoy the show and didn't find it bingeable. It is a show that is very much of its time but also timeless. And I think that's why it continues to be found on best sitcoms of all time lists or best sitcom episodes or best characters. There are so many ways in which this show feels like a throwback to periods before the time it was airing. There's a lot of "I Love Lucy" vibes, both with the screwball and also with its kind of misogynistic tone occasionally - which we will definitely get into later on - and the way it views women and treats women on the show. But at the same time, there's just so many great zingers.
And if you sit with the show long enough, you will understand these characters who never actually really change much. Different stages of life occur. People get married. People have babies. But overall, these characters are pretty much who they are as soon as they walk through that Cheers bar door. They're pretty much the same by the end of the season. And I think that's kind of part of the appeal, is that you pretty much always know what you're going to get, and what you get is really smart dialogue, really great chemistry between all the performers and just people you want to hang out with, even if they are, in many ways, kind of insufferable.
HARRIS: So I - you know what? - I liked it. I think it's really, really fun. And I understand now why people loved this show and why people continue to love this show - with reservations.
THOMPSON: I'm glad that you had the experience of kind of joining this show without that veneer of nostalgia. I had the thought, like, am I enjoying this because I have always enjoyed this? You know, like, this is great, right? So I'm glad to have - I'm actually glad to have this little bit of validation. "Cheers," turns out - good show. How about you, Linda?
HOLMES: Yeah. I love "Cheers." I think my appreciation for "Cheers" does overcome its retrograde gender politics in some ways. I think my appreciation for it stems from the fact that they wrote good jokes. They wrote just a lot of good jokes. And that is the kind of comedy that "Cheers" is. As Aisha mentioned, this is not a comedy where people deeply change and grow a whole lot. You know, their relationships deepen a bit here and there, but it's not a show that is about that. It is a show that is about stasis to a great degree. As an example of what I'm talking about, "Cheers" opens every episode with a little cold open, which is just a little joke about the bar. And I want to play a little bit of the cold open from the very first episode, where a teenager walks into the bar and gives Sam a fake ID.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEERS")
TED DANSON: (As Sam Malone) Ah, military ID. First Sergeant Walter Keller, born 1944.
DANSON: (As Sam Malone) That makes you 38. Must have fought in Vietnam.
JOHN P NAVIN JR: (As Boy) Oh, yeah. Yeah.
DANSON: (As Sam Malone) What was it like?
NAVIN: (As Boy) It was gross.
DANSON: (As Sam Malone) Yeah. That's what they say. War is gross.
HOLMES: This is the first, you know, 30 seconds to a minute of this show. It is such a good bit. It is such a funny line. And one of the things I love about the pilot is that, particularly in the first couple of episodes, Sam and Diane don't really hate each other. They have an antagonism toward each other, but they also smile at each other a lot. They laugh at each other a lot. There is a warmth to it. It's not a strictly, like, meanness-driven thing. There's a lot of kind of back-and-forth teasing, and they're just funny.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEERS")
SHELLEY LONG: (As Diane Chambers) If you'll admit that you are carrying a little torch for me...
LONG: (As Diane Chambers) ...I'll admit that I'm carrying a little one for you.
HOLMES: (As Sam Malone) Well, I am carrying a little torch for you.
HOLMES: (As Diane Chambers) Well, I'm not carrying one for you.
HOLMES: This is a show that I mostly just appreciate because I think it's funny. And many comedies that I have loved over the years, you know, I've loved for character reasons. I will say they have the ability to pull out a few surprisingly resonant, emotional moments, particularly around Sam, who is a retired professional athlete and also a recovering alcoholic. And there are a couple of moments when Sam is kind of very close to kind of losing his sobriety, his kind of hold on the bar, his hold on his life, and those actually can be really affecting. But mostly, it's the jokes.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And I'm actually really glad you mentioned the poignancy of this show because, yes, this is a joke-delivery vehicle. It is one of the most reliable joke-delivery vehicles in the history of television. It's one reason it gets talked about all the time as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. For 11 years and 275 episodes, that is an extraordinary number of jokes. But I do think the character work on this show and the character development on the show - even if there's a lot of stasis involved, there is this deepening and richening of these characters as we get to know them more. I love this show, and I was really happy to go back and rewatch the show. And every once in a while, you kind of go, ooh, boy, that didn't age well. But there are still so many laughs.
HARRIS: Yeah. I'd say that happens probably once an episode for me, where I'm like, oof, oof.
HARRIS: At least once an episode. One of the things that I find so interesting about it is the way that Sam especially - like, you talk about that poignancy. And while so much of him is like horndog, total jerk in many ways when it comes to women, a lot of the show also has to do with him trying to wrestle with aging and his concern...
HARRIS: ...With his life passing him by and the choices he made. Even though towards the end he doesn't really change that much, to see him kind of struggle over the various episodes and various seasons where, suddenly, he wants to have a baby because he's worried about his mortality, and he decides - dumbest idea ever - but to have it with Rebecca or try to have one with Rebecca. Like, what? What is happening? Or even when he's, like, concerned about his hair and all - like, all of those things are very - in a way, yes, they're vain. Yes, he's kind of a dolt. But at the same time, they deal with these very real and natural concerns that everyone, especially straight, hypermasculine men deal with. And I think it's really interesting to watch the show through that lens and kind of appreciate the ways it tackles those things, even if sometimes it's not always in the way you would hope that they would do it today, you know?
HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, the entire driver of the Sam and Diane relationship kind of finally getting underway at the end of the first season is Sam's brother coming to town. And Sam is incredibly insecure. The sort of romantic climax of that first season comes out of his insecurity and his realization that he cares about her, which comes from feeling like his brother outdoes him in every area that he cares about. And the other thing that I always note when I talk to people about "Cheers" is like, keep in mind. They got those two people, quote, unquote, "together" at the end of the first season.
HOLMES: So when people say, like, oh, you know, the show is ruined once you put the people together, that's just all very silly. They put these people together at the end of the first season. The rest of it was very much back and forth as opposed to will they, won't they. And it was fine. So do not drag "Cheers" into...
HOLMES: ...Your weird conversations about why people should stay apart forever.
HOLMES: Because I actually think - I think they're very funny as a couple. I think during the time when they're trying to coexist as these really, really different people who are super, super hot for each other and yet really don't make any sense as a couple, I actually think a lot of those episodes are really funny.
THOMPSON: All right. So we asked listeners to send us questions about this show, and we got some great ones. Let's hear the first one.
REESE GOLCHIN: Hi. It's Reese Golchin (ph) from Davidson, N.C., Can any of you think of a show that benefited from such serendipity? I don't want to say good luck, but as I think of "Cheers," I think of a show that could have absolutely fallen apart after the untimely death of Nicholas Colasanto. And then Woody Harrelson steps in. They bring in Kelsey Grammer to play Frasier Crane. And, boy, does he explode. And then when Shelley Long decides she wants a movie career, she leaves. They bring in Kirstie Alley. I can't think of another show whose longevity was tied to just a murderer's row of talent that got brought in. And I'm wondering if you feel the same. Thanks.
THOMPSON: Yeah. That's a great question. And I think we're kind of talking about different eras of the show, right? And this show was so adaptable. This show mapped over my childhood pretty effectively. And Nicholas Colasanto died when I was, like, 13. And I felt that loss really, really, really deeply. And the show reacted to that, A, with poignancy, B, still finding a way to fit in jokes and, C, by bringing in Woody Harrelson as a different kind of naive character and then found a new avenue into more and more jokes. When Shelley Long left, they brought in Kirstie Alley. And I think, you know, we'll talk about the character of Rebecca and some of - and how the character of Rebecca kind of suffers from some of those retrograde views on gender that kind of seep into the show. But Kirstie Alley was a very, very gifted comic actress and really kind of helped bring in a little bit of what - Linda, I think you used the word madcap, you know, that ability to create episodes that were sometimes just pure farce. But I don't know - is there a conventional wisdom about what is the peak of "Cheers"? And, like, do you have a favorite era of "Cheers" where you think, this show is at its best when blank? Aisha, I'll start with you.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I think that it is really, really lucky that this show was able to just replace great actors with other great actors and have them be not quite the inverse of who those former characters were, the sort of analog, but really add something new to the show. But for me, if I had to think about my favorite era or the episodes that I most want to go back to, it's usually the Diane era. Even though towards the end, I actually think that their will they or won't they get married question gets dragged out, and her character is kind of reduced to something kind of horrid in a way, I still think that those are the best seasons. And when Rebecca comes in, say what you will about Kirstie Alley and her political leanings that we learned about later in life. I do not like Rebecca Howe, but it's not because of Kirstie Alley. It's - I think it's because of the way she's written. I think she starts off as the sort of - the very typical '80s working woman. You know, I'm shoulder pads. And I'm, like, all about business. And then quickly, she kind of devolves into just a straight - sort of like a farce in a way that I think is not necessarily a bad thing. But I feel like the writers didn't like her. She's an unabashed gold digger, and that's fine. But then she also, like, just keeps getting degraded and humiliated in the worst ways. Just like, oof, this is cringy. So for me, it's definitely the Diane seasons. And as much as I love Coach, I also do really think that Woody brings a new energy into the show. So it's sad that Coach wasn't there, but then I also think that, like, the years where Woody and Diane overlapped were some of my favorite seasons.
HOLMES: Yeah. I think my absolute favorite is the first three seasons when Coach was there. I just have a very - Coach and his kind of always wanting people to throw baseballs at him. And, like, I just think he's so funny. And I do prefer the Diane seasons to the Rebecca seasons, other than maybe when Rebecca was very new, and they were doing that kind of '80s working woman thing. They were really putting Sam in a different position, where rather than having a woman to whom he felt - intellectually, like, he had trouble sort of being good enough for Diane, but he felt like he was sort of more competent than she was. And I think that when Rebecca came in, she was more of a challenge to him in terms of power because she was literally the boss - right? - as opposed to Diane, who worked for him. I did think that was an interesting and different dynamic. But as Aisha said, they so quickly turned her into a joke and a character who was mostly just humiliated over and over again that that character sort of fell apart for me. So I would definitely say the Diane seasons. I loved when Sam and Diane were a couple. Was I invested in the idea that, by the very end of the show, I wanted them to, like, be together forever? No.
HARRIS: No. Not at all.
HOLMES: They make no sense together at all.
HOLMES: But I always enjoyed, you know, seeing them together.
THOMPSON: Yeah. They're not Jim and Pam. There's not a sense...
THOMPSON: ...That these two people obviously belong together.
HOLMES: No. They don't belong together at all.
THOMPSON: When I think of my favorite episodes of this show, I was really surprised by how often they were in the Rebecca seasons.
THOMPSON: And, like, I think about that bit where Sam tries to do sports commentaries on the local TV station and eventually winds up rapping.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEERS")
DANSON: (As Sam Malone, rapping) So get your scores from a guy like me who knows what it's like to have a groin injury.
THOMPSON: That bit is still so funny. I still do that, like, (impersonating Ted Danson) groin injury. You watch that clip, and that's Rebecca era. I was thinking, you know, my family watches a lot of "Jeopardy!" And so I went back, like, oh, I got to watch the episode where Cliff is on "Jeopardy!" It's so, so funny. They deployed Alex Trebek so well in that episode. That's, like, the eighth season of that show. And so it's very easy to think of, like, this is the golden era of this show where all the best stuff happens, but it's really not. The show does evolve. I agree that the writers don't seem to like Rebecca as much as I would like them to, and I think that builds in some major flaws into those later seasons. But, man, there is still some just absolutely solid gold comedy writing and some of the most classic bits.
THOMPSON: All right. Let's hear the next question.
NANCY WEST: Hi. My name's Nancy West, and I am calling from Carlisle, Mass. I feel as if it is held up as a vaunted example from the golden age of sitcoms, but it is basically a show about sexual harassment in the workplace. Even back in the clueless '80s with their very different standards of acceptable behavior and interaction between men and women, a decade before Anita Hill and eons before the #MeToo movement, I remember being so disturbed by Sam Malone's relentless predatory behavior toward his female coworkers and the fact that no one seemed bothered by it. How do we look at this theme through a contemporary lens? And can we agree that maybe it wasn't as great a show as we claimed it was back then?
HOLMES: What an interesting point.
HOLMES: I mean, here's the thing. I can't argue with anything that Nancy is saying in terms of the fact that this is not acceptable workplace behavior, right? I have given a lot of thought to why this doesn't get under my skin in the same way that a lot of other shows of the same or even later eras get under my skin. And I think part of it is that the show always tried very hard to present the relationship between Sam and Diane as mutual - right? - the flirtation as mutual. Please do not misunderstand me. That does not mean that it is OK to flirt with or make comments about the people who work for you. I am not saying that at all. I'm saying I think what made it go down a little bit easier for me at the time was that, and what probably makes it go down a little easier for me now is probably that just on a gut level.
But listen. Sam is, in a bunch of different ways, a completely inappropriate person. He's an inappropriate boss. He's also inappropriate to women who come into the bar. He hits on every woman who comes into the bar. He is a very bad example of how you would want an actual person to behave. And I think you have seized on the complexity of trying to deal in an honest way with things that you have a great amount of nostalgic attachment to. You know, if somebody made this show now, I would probably not watch it, and I would probably be pretty mortified by it. A lot of it is the power of nostalgia and how much you can get away with if you're writing good jokes. And I think in terms of, does it mean it's not as good of a show as, quote, unquote, "as we claimed it was" back then? - I think it depends on what you mean by a good show. If you mean, did it have a lot of really problematic portrayals of how people behave in a workplace and a place of business? Absolutely. Yes, it did. I cannot argue with anything that you said.
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I'm coming at this as a millennial who has no sense of nostalgia for - like, I was obviously aware of it as a kid and growing up, but it was never a show that I actually watched. So watching it through that lens, without feeling any sort of attachment to these characters, for the first time, yeah, it was kind of difficult, and I did find myself turning to my partner a lot of times, and we're both looking at each other like, what? Like, this is not OK. And I think that there is something to be said for how the show occasionally pushes back or, like, makes it very plain that Sam is indeed a vapid horndog. Actually, let's just play a clip from Season 7 where Sam hits on a psychiatrist who walks into the bar. And so they go out on a date, but then after the date, he asks her, you know, like, what do you really think of me? Were you psychoanalyzing me the whole time? And she tells him this.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CHEERS")
MADOLYN SMITH OSBORNE: (As Dr. Sheila Rydell) You're an aging lothario who uses sex to cover up massive insecurity, a fear of true intimacy, fear of a relationship and, quite frankly, not only a fear of dying but a fear of living, too. You're one sick cowpoke.
HARRIS: Because of who he is and because of the way the show is, Sam almost always gets the girl, even if they are not interested to begin with or they claim they're not interested. At the end of it, she still wants to sleep with him.
HARRIS: And I think that's just such a pervasive moment of that time. And even the way that all of the other members of the bar are always cheering him on and are, like, living vicariously through his exploits, I mean, I take it seriously, as, you know, this is ingrained in the culture, and a lot of this was allowed to pass by because these are actual feelings and ideals that people held. But at the same time, I also recognize that this show is about people who, for the most part, are pretty terrible. And I think that "Seinfeld" gets a lot of credit for being a show about characters who you despise, but this show also - like, for the most part, they're all very mean to each other. They're very terrible to each other. But I think you have to watch the show, and you have to just engage with that. And then your mileage may vary, basically.
THOMPSON: I was just about to use the phrase your mileage may vary.
THOMPSON: 'Cause absolutely, "Cheers" is a cultural artifact. We did an episode of this show where we talked about "Friends" and the process of going back and revisiting "Friends" through the lens of so many jokes about gay panic. I completely hear those criticisms. And, I mean, this show was walking a very, very delicate tightrope. This is a show about a bar in which several of the characters and not just Sam Malone are clearly dealing with alcoholism in ways that the show does not really touch. This show is extensively about sexual harassment which is not necessarily given the name sexual harassment. This is a show that is set during the AIDS crisis with a very, very, very promiscuous lead character, and AIDS and STIs are not mentioned. Whether you're able to kind of push past that and enjoy it for the jokes is kind of up to each person. Your mileage may vary, as Aisha said.
HARRIS: I think what, for me, makes it worth checking out is to at least, like, understand how - what sitcoms were in that era because I think it's kind of the prototype for everything that came after it, including "Seinfeld" and, you know, "Friends." And obviously, "Mary Tyler Moore" and other shows like "Taxi," which the creators were involved with previously - those were also in the similar vein. But when you think about the fact that this show lasted 11 seasons, I feel as though ignoring it completely and not at least going back and trying to dip into it a little bit is kind of like wanting to understand film history and not watching something like - I don't know - "Do The Right Thing" or - or anything on the Sight and Sound list. Like, I think you have to - I don't want to force anyone to watch something they don't want to watch. But I do think it's kind of important in just a sense of understanding where the culture was or where a lot of white, mainstream culture was and how it kind of laid the foundation for the sitcoms we know today.
HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, it was a huge deal, right? It's always a mistake to say, we used to have a monoculture, and everyone watched "Cheers." That is not accurate. But it was hugely popular, and the end of it was this gigantic cultural event. So I think it's always valuable to kind of dip in and see what something was. But I will say, you know, check out a handful of episodes. If you're interested in it, watch a few. And when you start to feel like it's not worth it, dip back out.
HOLMES: There's no need to be a completist about "Cheers."
HOLMES: Like, it's one thing to say, if you're going to watch "The Sopranos," you should really watch the whole thing.
HOLMES: It's another thing to say, if you're going to watch "Cheers," you got to watch 16 versions of the episode where they go to war with Gary's Olde Towne Tavern and all that stuff.
HOLMES: Like, just watch it until you feel like you get it. And if you're not enjoying it, stop watching it.
THOMPSON: If you do find that you're enjoying it and kind of interested in mainlining all of it, it does manage to plant little comedic seeds in your brain. And little things will trigger bits from that show in ways that have given me joy for 40 years. I ultimately really, really, really appreciate the show. I totally understand and share reservations with it. But if you're able to kind of push past it, you're just going to laugh at so many jokes.
HOLMES: Yeah. And one thing that I also want to say just before we get out of here is I don't think that you can leave a conversation about this show without acknowledging that it is from the era of iconic TV theme songs.
HOLMES: And it has not only an iconic TV theme song but an iconic TV theme song that speaks to its actual essence and heart as a show about lonely people finding community.
HARRIS: Quite possibly the only TV theme song that you will hear at a bar.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME")
GARY PORTNOY: (Singing) Sometimes, you want to go where everybody knows your name. And they're always glad you came.
THOMPSON: We want to know what you think about "Cheers." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Linda Holmes, Aisha Harris, thanks so much to both of you for being here.
HARRIS: Thank you, Stephen.
HOLMES: Thank you for knowing my name.
THOMPSON: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Stephen Thompson, and we will see you all right back here next time.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARY PORTNOY SONG, "WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME")
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