"How many babies does it take to change a light bulb?"
The above joke from Cheers should be enough to refute claims that all American sitcoms are aimed at idiots. Similarly clever lines came thick and fast for 11 years before its creators decided to end the series in 1993.
Attempting to analyse comedy is notoriously difficult. A discussion of the gag above would fill a good few paragraphs, whether the individual found it funny or not. But it's interesting to look at the way Cheers has developed and at the qualities that set it apart from other TV comedies.
Like M*A*S*H before it, Cheers was not an immediate success, perhaps because its early episodes were quite dark in tone. Most sitcoms are about successful people (take The Cosby Show as an especially blatant example) and often involve us laughing along at the day-to-day exploits of 'normal' American families. Cheers, however, introduced us to a set of characters who were, in society's terms, failures: Sam, a former baseball player whose career hit the skids when he hit the bottle; Diane, who for all her intellectual pretensions has to earn a living by waitressing; Coach, who used to be Sam's mentor but now works for him; Carla, who's chronically unpleasant; Norm and Cliff, who waste their whole life in the bar.
As for nuclear families, there isn't a happy one to be seen in the programme. Carla was pregnant throughout her youth and now lives in an apartment teeming with obnoxious kids; Norm turns nauseous at the thought of intimacy with his wife Vera; Cliff lives with his mother; Sam hates the idea of a committed relationship; and so on.
These people have all opted out of, or failed in, 'normal' life. In early episodes, the action is confined almost entirely to the bar, office and pool room which comprise Cheers, adding to the sense that these characters' horizons don't extend into the outside world.
Although there's plenty of pathos in the show, there has never been schmaltz. Its characters are not like the Golden Girls, for example, who are constantly hugging each other and apologising for their rash behaviour. The bar regulars have sad, empty lives and don't even relate to each other very well. Their failure in interpersonal relationships is illustrated by a scene in which Norm enters and reveals that Vera wants a divorce. His friends ask why. "She says I don't listen to her, we never communicate...yap, yap, yap, bunch of other stuff."
In early episodes, Cheers' unusually tragic characters would find themselves in some very downbeat stories. Sam often brags about his fame, only to find no one remembers him. In the two-part story 'Coach in Love', Coach is set to marry when his fiancee wins two million dollars in a lottery and loses interest; yet he waits for her on their planned wedding day, refusing to believe love won't conquer everything and bring her back. As well as being downbeat, early Cheers shows are also downright unusual at times, and one ends with the entire cast singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone'.
Around 1984-85, Cheers went through a weak period during which it became bogged down in the central Sam/Diane romance. (Regular Cheers viewers know that it tends to be funniest in mid-season, when the supporting characters come into their own. The beginnings and endings of series tend to concentrate more on Sam's problems with Diane/Rebecca.) But the show was subsequently transformed into something different from early editions but remained at least as funny.
In some respects, late Cheers is less radical than early Cheers (the fact that the programme had become hugely popular in the intervening period may have something to do with it) but the laugh-count is probably even higher. Although the plots are less unusual, however, the show has introduced a harsher edge to its characters. Those who have been in the show since the beginning have become blunter versions of their original selves, and it's significant that the programme introduced the psychiatrist Frasier Crane, since all the characters have deep-rooted hang-ups and neuroses which bring them into constant conflict.
Although the theme song tells us that it's good to go "Where everybody knows your name...And they're always glad you came' in many ways the denizens of Cheers are not very pleasant. Sam is shallowness personified, the manager Rebecca judges everything in cash terms, Norm has become so apathetic he's amoral, Cliff is such a bore nobody else in the show has any sympathy for him.
More than any other American sitcom, Cheers constantly sends up the male peer group. To make up for the emptiness of their own lives, its characters hero-worship Sam, watch TV all the time, place bets on events in the bar and have absurdly trivial bar arguments. Even Carla is one of the guys constantly urging them on in their loutish behaviour.
This aspect of the show can be illustrated by an episode chosen more or less at random, 'Norm and Cliff's Excellent Adventure', which was the 10th episode of the 1990-91 season, written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs.
The main plot of this episode concerns Norm and Cliff amusing themselves by provoking arguments between Cheers regulars. They turn their attentions to Frasier and report his gold credit card stolen, so that when Frasier tries to impress a group of influential psychologists, Sam is forced to reject his card and cut it up. The episode shows how mercilessly shallow bar-room humour can be. When Cliff and Norm realise they've driven a rift between Sam and Frasier and should set things straight, they delay going to Frasier's house for a couple of hours so there might be a chance of a free dinner.
The fact that Frasier is the victim makes this episode especially funny, because he occupies a unique position among the characters. As a psychiatrist, he knows all about the narrowness of the male peer group and realises that the Cheers regulars are sad characters, yet he can't resist the lure of the pack. He enters enthusiastically into the bar rituals but brings his pompous professional vocabulary with him. Bringing members of the Psychoanalytic and Social Therapeutic Practitioners to Cheers, he says, 'Allow me to charm you with the quaint hospitality of my friendly neighbourhood tavern.' And when Sam cuts up his credit card, he declares:
After years of friendship, you proudly pour a tall cup of humiliation. I close the iron door upon you!Sometimes it's impossible not to read Cheers as a vicious satire on the American dream. All the characters have fallen victim to the success ethic: Sam has seen the down side of fame; Rebecca is forever trying to ingratiate herself with corporate bosses who ignore her; Cliff the postman believes in his own importance as a government employee, but people in power think he's crazy; Norm has given up on the American dream altogether, and in one episode he memorably extols the virtues of mediocrity. In fact, the only character who takes the American ideal fully on board is Woody (who ends up as a politician) - and he's universally regarded as stupid.
goes on in Cheers at a thematic level, it's all integrated seamlessly
into beautifully constructed scripts. Whereas British comedies often struggle
to produce six good episodes a year, Cheers' 26 a year are
almost all successful. A look at the writing credits (as well as a couple
of writers per episode, the show has three creative consultants, an executive
script consultant and two story editors) suggests that the show is re-written
till it's perfect. Each episode is based around long scenes during which
the story switches effortlessly between sub-plots as different characters
enter and exit.
The mechanics of getting characters on and off stage prompt fine gags themselves. For example, when Lilith, Frasier's domineering psychologist wife, is required to leave a scene, she exits with this parting line:
Otto my lab assistant has gotten into the synthetic hormones again. I have to bail him out. Or her - I won't know until I get there.Most British sitcoms would have had her going off to answer the doorbell.
For an episode and cast/crew guide go to:
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