Thursday, March 16, 2006

Part II

Here’s part two of the article I wrote for ESPN.COM on the best sports related episodes of CHEERS.

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In season six David and I wrote “I on Sports” again going after one of our favorite targets. Sam is given the opportunity to become a local TV sportscaster. Feeling he needs a schtick, he resorts to hard hitting editorials on rooting for the home team, a commentary on groin injuries delivered in rap, and finally – a puppet.. My favorite line in the show was delivered by Cliff to Sam: “Why don’t you do something really different like just read the scores

Later that season my partner and I were huddled with the show’s producers mapping out an episode involving a practical joke war between Cheers and their dreaded rival, Gary’s Old Towne Tavern. One twist would be a famous sports personality coming into the bar, the gang thinking he’s a fake, and running him out. I suggested Wade Boggs, then at the height of his career. Great idea but it was March. He was in Spring Training in Winterhaven, Florida. We decided to inquire anyway and sure enough, a half hour later word came back that he was in, he’d gotten a few days off from the Grapefruit League. Boy, did I feel important! All I had to do was mention a name, snap my fingers and poof, in a few days he’s on a plane.

Later I learned the truth. He was really excited to get a free ride to LA to spend time with his mistress, Margo Adams. She writes about the incident in her Playboy Magazine expose. She also reports that Boggs asked her for a pair of her undies because he promised the guys on the team he could get a pair of Kirstie Alley’s panties. I HAD to be on the stage the day Kirstie read that. To her credit she just laughed. Kirstie is the ultimate good sport. A year later I approached her and said, “Kirstie, this Saturday night is my high school reunion and I’m sure my classmates won’t believe that I work on Cheers. So could I borrow a pair of your panites?”

It’s always risky to let sports stars guest star. Although supremely gifted they are traditionally enemies of comedy. (Luis Tiant notwithstanding). And generally they come off stiff. The wooden Indian at the door has more life. The trick is to give these jocks very little to do and never ever ever give them big jokes. One exception was Kevin McHale of the Celtics. We used him in an episode called “Cheers Fouls Out” by Larry Balmagia in which he’s recruited by the gang as a ringer in a basketball game against Gary’s Old Towne Tavern. Kevin was such a natural we actually kept giving him MORE lines and jokes over the course of the week of production. He did so well we brought him back for a second episode. Even in comedy Kevin McHale is the best sixth man in the game.

The following year David and I wrote “Where Have All the Floorboards Gone?” Kevin goes into a slump (that novel plot device) when he becomes obsessed with the number of bolts in the floor of Boston Gardens. (Don’t tell me you haven’t wondered yourself.) Cheers is filmed in Hollywood in front of a live audience but for this episode we actually went to Boston to shoot at the Garden. That’s the real reason we wrote it -- a free trip. (With no mistresses waiting for us of course. We’re writers) There was also a short scene in the show where Kevin is in bed with his wife and calls the bar. We used his real wife, Lynn and, like Kevin, she was great. If this VP of Basketball Operations for the Timberwolves thing doesn’t work out for him I’m sure he and his wife have a career as the next Osbournes.

We once tried to a write a show for Larry Bird to guest. The premise of “Hot Rocks” was that Sam and his good pal, Larry show up at Cheers after a big charity benefit. Larry goes into Rebecca’s office to use the phone. After he leaves the bar Rebecca discovers that her expensive diamond earrings, which she had left in the office, are gone. Larry Bird is accused of stealing her earrings. For “whatever reason” Larry decided not to do the show so instead we got Admiral William J. Crowe, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (When you think of one you just automatically think of the other.) Amazingly, we altered very little of the script. Changed some Celtic jokes to nuclear destruction gags but otherwise the drafts were almost identical.

Bar bets and football pools were a staple on Cheers. In “Fools and Their Money” by Heide Perlman Woody bets his entire life savings on a ridiculous long shot. It was based on the real life experience of every writer on the staff.

The inevitable Sam comeback episode arrived in season nine. “Pitch It Again, Sam” by Dan Staley & Rob Long contained one of my favorite moments of the series. Sam and Carla are alone in the dugout. Sam is thrilled to be back but says there’s one thing missing -- the Coach.

Cheers was never really the same without him.

The inevitable second Sam comeback episode was hatched a year later. This time, in “Take Me Out of the Ball Game” by Kathy Ann Stumpe Sam gives the minors a shot. I had spent three years broadcasting in the bushes and was able to provide some key inside information that I think helped the show immensely. It was my idea that when Sam’s team was on the road they should stay in a “motel.” I earned my keep that week.

All in all there were 270 episodes of Cheers produced. Sports was pretty much mentioned or interwoven into every one of them. And yet, there was one sports-related moment that we never could get into the show despite our trying for eleven full years. Before the series aired, co-creator and director Jim Burrows went to Boston with a camera crew to film establishing shots. Those are the exterior shots of the bar and various locales that tell you where the next scene will take place. One of these shots was taken at Fenway Park. With the camera in the centerfield bleachers what you see is sprinklers watering the outfield in an empty stadium. When we all looked at the footage we said “When the hell would we ever use THIS?” So it became a running joke throughout the course of the series. Sam & Diane have just made love.. Quick! Let’s cut to the sprinklers at Fenway. Carla just learned her husband has been killed by a Zamboni machine. Go to the sprinklers. Frasier discovers a rat in Lilith’s purse. Fenway time. Somehow we could never make it work.

Eleven years. That’s quite a run. A day doesn’t go by when I don’t miss Cheers. It was like being part of a storied dynasty. And just as players long for one more year, just one, so do I. Because I know, deep down in my heart, there HAS to be a way of getting that damn sprinkler shot in the show.

9 comments:

glassblowerscat said...

Great stories! Thanks for sharing some of your favorite moments.

Here's one unsolicited tech-tip: when you keep changing the title of the article, it really freaks out the RSS reader.

Ken Levine said...

Sorry about that. I was having weird problems last night posting this.

Paul Duca said...

Ken, for a while you could have gotten a pair of George Wendt's undies and SAY they were Kirstie's, and no one would disbelieve you.

John Hudgens said...

You coudl always turn the Fenway sprinkers on your anonymous troll... :)

Tom Quigley said...

Danny Simon always said that good comedy involved the ability to suspend disbelief among your audience. There was never an episode of CHEERS that I couldn't find believable as well as funny! (with the possible exception of Woody's wedding episode, which was both unbelievable AND funny, and was written, if I remember correctly, by David Lloyd, the author of the immortal "Chuckles Bites the Dust" episode on MARY TYLER MOORE)

Julie O. said...

Thanks, Ken! That was fun.

For some reason, a line popped into my head just now that still makes me giggle:

Do not say Cochise to this dog.

I miss CHEERS, too...

andrew said...

Hi Ken, you can't imagine the surprise and pleasure I got, when i found your blog. I'm a HUGE HUGE FAN OF CHEERS and particularly any episode written by you and Issacs, and yes, I love especially the mash episodes you guys wrote. First off, let me intro myself. My name is Andrew Ngin, I'm a television writer in a small country called Singapore. Learning the craft of sitcom writing, there were only three shows I felt were master classes of the genre - Mash, Cheers, Taxi.

Other than these three classics, i consider Seinfeld and Curb your enthusaism to be modern classics, but that's just me. Some might disagree.

I remember taping down every episode of cheers after it aired and then watching it again to remember the timing and the lines.

Now that there are dvd's, i am collecting each season as it comes.

Its been a long time and i have been writing for close to ten years now and i still go back to Cheers to get my daily dose of laughter and warm hilarity.

Did you ever work on shows where the actors are not funny? how do you deal with that?

Webs said...

Ken,

Who wrote the episode in which Woody gets hypnotized to like the vegetable drink?

The line "You can really taste the kale!" is still a catchphrase in my house.

Ken Levine said...

That episode was called Veggie-Boyd.