Monday, April 23, 2007

Creative license on CHEERS

In yesterday’s post on creative license I touched on CHEERS and how no one ever paid for a drink. We writers knew this was a little dicey but who wanted to see Carla make change for twenty-two minutes or Sam putting his flirting on hold while he ran a credit card for approval?

There were other things we did sheepishly knowing we were stretching credibility.

No one came into town and checked into a hotel. They would go from the airport straight to the CHEERS bar, not even bothering to call to check if the person they wanted to see was even there. And who just ASSUMES their friend will be in a bar at noon? It’s a stretch but it’s always better to see a character than just hear him on the phone. And we figured it wasn’t so bizarre that it would take the audience out of the show.

When those out of town visitors showed up at CHEERS they never had their luggage. We used to joke that there were taxi drivers in Boston with million dollar wardrobes.

The phone was wherever we wanted to place it for blocking purposes. At stage right one week, stage left the next. These were pre-cordless days.

The acoustics at CHEERS were very odd. Sometimes characters could hear all the way across the bar, other times they couldn’t. And the extras upstage at the bar could never hear anything, even though they were two seats away.

Sam cut more lemons than every other bartender in America combined.

Cliff wore his postal uniform even on Sunday. (We did a lot of things with that character but we did think it would stretch belieavability to ever have John Ratzenberger dance on a show.)

In the second episode it was established that Sam was divorced, then never mentioned again.

There were many times when no one was tending the bar. And after Diane left Carla was the only waitress. That must’ve made for some long 16 hour shifts.

As a noted psychiatrist and author of books and articles, Frasier spent as much time in the bar as Norm. When did he ever work we often asked ourselves in the room?

In one episode (that David and I wrote) Norm has to keep feeding a parking meter. That means a guy who drinks beer all day and night drives to and from the bar?

But I will say, to our credit, that we did not go through with the episode where Rebecca gets trapped in a giant Tupperware container. It was quite a discussion though. What clinched it was the argument that if the top were sealed tight Rebecca would get no air and die. There’s only so far you can with creative license and we felt death was just a little over that line. We’d get letters. I know we’d get letters.

Tomorrow: my weekly AMERICAN IDOL recap (or is it weakly?)

38 comments:

Great Big Radio Guy said...

The two things that struck me about Cheers since episode one: No one paid and no one smoked.

(And hey! My verification word actually spells something: "wireaim")

Raymond said...

I think one person paid their bar tab, but of course it was done for laughs: A man in formal dress comes in, counting silently to himself. Sam explains to Diane that the customer is a percussionist from the symphony who snuck out for a beer, and he's counting the measures until he has to be back on stage. He pays for the beer and Diane counts his change out to him - "four twenty-five, four fifty, four seventy-five, five, ten, thirty, fifty". All these numbers mess up the man's counting and he leaves in a frustrated panic.

Tom Maurer said...

Wonderful. Thanks for sharing this.

Alan Sepinwall said...

There were many times when no one was tending the bar. And after Diane left Carla was the only waitress. That must’ve made for some long 16 hour shifts.

That was the one that always struck me. It would be one thing if Sam, Carla, Diane and Coach/Woody were only working the day shift or only the night shift, but they both opened and closed the bar every day. I always thought it would be funny to do an episode about the rivalry between, say, Carla and the day-shift waitress, but I imagine the flexibility of being able to do bar stories at any time of day outweighed that.

As a noted psychiatrist and author of books and articles, Frasier spent as much time in the bar as Norm. When did he ever work we often asked ourselves in the room?

One of the "Frasier" producers -- I think it was David Lee -- used to defend that by claiming that each episode was showing the one day of the week where Frasier was hanging at the bar. Of course, he could say that because he was running a show where Frasier wasn't a barfly anymore.

Michael Zand said...

When I was on staff on an unnamed tv show, I mentioned that I remembered a very weird St. Elsewhere where they crossed over to the Cheers bar and how disconcerting it was. The lighting was St. Elsewhere's and it made the bar look shabby and drab. The writing was all wrong and I hated it. Literally, seeing Norm and Cliff in such a bad light and made them sad and pathetic.

No one in the room believed me. I swore up and down that I had not imagined it. They put out a search for the episode but never found it.

I know I'm not crazy. Do you remember this Ken?

Anonymous said...

I, for one, never noticed those creative license issues on Cheers, except maybe I wondered how anyone paid their bills.

However, this is the case with almost all television when the show does not happen at work. Those "Friends" characters must have had secret trust funds that they didn't even tell each other about.

(And, what is "wireaim?" I know the words "wire" and "aim" but I have no idea what "wireaim" means).

Ken Levine said...

Michael,

You are not crazy. That scene actually took place. The ST. ELSEWHERE people arranged with CHEERS to have their characters come into the bar. Their staff wrote the scene (which felt completely weird) and lit the stage for their purposes. I'm friends with one of the writers and will probably see him today. I'll ask him for more details. Just know that what you remembered is right.

Christopher said...

Um, totally off-post here, but - any way to know what the headcount is already at for the Sitcom Room? I just need to know if I should keep trying to round up the fee...I'm close.

So far I've sold all of my third edition Harry Potters, my bootleg copy of Final Draft 7, and seasons two and five of A-Team. I even found someone to buy my eBay account.

Hey, take it easy. Moo shu pork ain't cheap...

Alan Sepinwall said...

I know several of the "St. Elsewhere" producers consider that "Cheers" crossover to be one of the two or three worst ideas they had in the entire run of the series.

The weirdest part is that the bits with Norm, Cliff and Carla are all written like a bad approximation of sitcom dialogue, only there was no laughtrack after each punchline. Very troubling.

VP81955 said...

Interesting Los Angeles Times story today on production being accelerated, just in case a writers' strike comes to pass:

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-strikeplans24apr24,1,3152821.story?coll=la-headlines-business

Let's hope there's no strike. Scripted programming must be saved!

roger said...

In the second episode it was established that Sam was divorced, then never mentioned again.

It was mentioned in the episode where Woody was trying to win some "create a new drink" contest. Sam explained to Woody why he couldn't test Woody's concotion, as he was an alcoholic who "drank himself out of baseball and a marriage." Woody replied that he didn't know Sam had been married.

Oddly, the matter was dropped then and there. I'm really surprised that this possible story thread was never developed further -- just part of the mystery of Sam's past, I suppose.

Dan Kelley said...

Ken-

I love these stories. Cheers, MASH...all wonderful as a fan of those shows for so long.

I did forward today's piece on Cheers to a bunch of friends. Got back one response that said "hey, I know that guy...we used to work together at B100!" Bob Landree.

thanks again Ken!

-dan kelley
lansing, mi

michaelrbn said...

I never noticed about the paying for the drinks, but through the entire run of the show I was always confused about what time of day it was supposed to be.

Anonymous said...

No one paid and no one smoked.

Wasn't there a gag where Carla chased someone out of the bar and they threw coins down the stairwell when Carla yelled about forgetting the tip?

Smoking was usually part of a gag or storyline: Coach's daughter's obnoxious fiance smoking a cigar; the scary woman who bid on Woody at the bachelor auction; Rebecca trying to quit smoking; Diane smoking while trying to track down a written work she thought Sam had plagiarized. And didn't the boys smoke cigars at Frasier's bachelor party?

Mr. Peel said...

I was a teenager already watching Cheers regularly when the St. Elsewhere crossover happened, so I tuned it to watch that show for the first time. My memory of it is that it played as awkward as has been written here but I actually started to watch St. Elsewhere from then on. So if they were trying to pick up some viewers it at least worked for me. But does this mean that Cheers and Frasier all took place in Tommy Westphall's head?

Cheers question: I recently caught one of the Andy Andy episodes--the dream episode--and it reminded me how the episodes with that character always struck me as sort of odd, slightly out of rhythm from the rest of the series. Has there ever been another sitcom that featured what is basically the attempted murder of one of the leads? Was this ever an issue at the time? I do remember one final Andy Andy appearance done as a Diane-left-years-ago joke, a very funny punchline for the character.

B said...

How funny -- I was just thinking about Cheers today. I was remembering the very brief, though heartfelt, acknowledgment of Coach's death when Diane came back to the bar near the end of the show's run. I always thought there were a few more lines to be had in that conversation -- like how Diane had heard, for instance. (It would have been interestingly against character if Carla had let her know.)

Thanks for the good memories, Ken.

Michael Zand said...

Mr Peel, you are so right. I always thought the end of St Elsewhere was the most contempuous of the audience, arrogant, and self indulgent wrap up of a series in tv history. Your observation about the Cheers crossover episode shows how even more ridiculous it was.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Well, you could have used a tupperware container for bread or salads and then it would have had air holes. Problem solved. Now, I KNOW I'm supposed to be a writer. Or a tupperware lady...

johnstodder said...

I always figured that since this was only a half-hour show, we were just seeing brief moments in time, and didn't need to know the context. Sam was cutting lemons because he was trying to be the bartender who invented the lemon drop martini. No one paid because all the scenes took place during "Extreme Happy Hour."

Alan Sepinwall said...

I always thought there were a few more lines to be had in that conversation -- like how Diane had heard, for instance. (It would have been interestingly against character if Carla had let her know.)

Coach died while Diane was still on the show, as she spent a couple of seasons with Woody.

If memory serves, Diane was hanging out in a convent at the time the show acknowledged Coach's death, so the Carla/Diane scene you're referring to may have taken place at that point. The only Coach reference I can recall from the finale was Sam straightening the photo from Nick Colasanto's dressing room right as he was locking up for the night.

God, I loved Coach. Ken, next time you're feeling in the mood for a "Cheers" post, I'd love some Colasanto anecdotes.

Paul Duca said...

The plot point of a recovering alcoholic running a bar surely didn't sit well with some people. When the show debuted, the critic in one of the Boston area papers DESPISED the show, and that was the major reason. The review suggested why not do a sitcom about an circus fat lady who slimmed down. then opened a candy shop?

And Alan's comment made me think of something...was it Nick Colasanto who taught you to enjoy Hawaii ( I know he spent time there directing episodes of HAWAII FIVE-O)?

Herb Popsfarter said...

I remember a weird inconsistency, but it wasn't from Cheers - it was in MASH.

Admittedly, I could be mistaken about this, but I recall an episode that starred Harry Morgan as a crazy General who danced around singing some song about Mississippi Mud?

Then, a few seasons later, he shows up again as Col. Potter.

Probably not unheard of, but at the time I thought it was strange.

Daniel said...

I assumed everyone just put their drink's on Norm's tab. If you remember the episode where Sam cheated @ chess ussing a computer until Norms bar tab used all the memory. Thats why we have such powerful computers today. Thanks Norm.

benson said...

Michael Zand made the point of self indulgent finales (with regards to St. Elsewhere, where my only complaint was they made the final joke so obviously that it was becoming a distraction for me)

I read the reasoning for the rather unfulfilling Cheers finale (I read or saw one the Cheers producers or writers say once it was about losers, so no one could win in the end) and certainly respect that, but there also an argument to be made for getting Sam and Diane together, remembering how that romance in seasons 1 and 2 was magical.

With all due respect, the MASH finale for me was the most self indulgent and disappointing.

Alina said...

I remember my mother constantly wondering who was watching Frederick at those times when both Frasier and Lilith seemed to spending night and day at the bar.

Oh, and since we're talking Lilith... I once wrote an article speculating that Lilith being Jewish was invented solely so you could do the bris episode as, like Sam's marriage, it was never mentioned again (it did come up a few times on Frasier). Any insight on why Lilith was made Jewish?

Max Clarke said...

What about the sounds of patrons in the bar? Did they talk at low levels, or did they talk normally? It looked as if customers were talking normally, but then, how did we hear the characters so easily? Were they miked?

By the way, somebody did smoke once on Cheers. It was that woman in red during an auction that Bex set up to get publicity for Cheers and charity. Liluth paid a thousand or so for Sam, she was upset with Frasier. Meanwhile, the woman in red at the bar smoked non-stop. She bid and won Woody. When Woody walked up to her, she told him, "You'd better be good." Good scene

sylvia said...

Mr. Peel: It's not just Cheers and Frasier.

Michael Zand said...

Re Mr. Peel's post and Andy Andy.

Was that the episode where they put on the death scene from Othello in the bar? If so, I remember that as one of the funniest, with one of the best lines I've ever heard in sitcom.

Just before they perform the scene where Othello kills Desdemona, Diane informs Andy that she doesn't share his feelings for her and he goes mental. What follows is a classic. He really tries to strangle her in the scene and she manages squeak out: "Help, this psycho is killing me!" Whereupon coach says: "That's the first line of Shakespeare I ever understood." Brilliant!

John said...

- The St. Elsewhere episode at Cheers sounds like something Aaron Sorkin would have written, though I think he was just getting out of Syracuse University at the time, so he still had his bad comedy writing career ahead of him.

- Ken, if John Ratzenberger could be part of the rebel alliance against the emperor how much more of a suspension of belief can it be to think he can dance?

- Harry Morgan did play General Steele in the third season opener of M*A*S*H. It was a bit of a change for TV viewers used to seeing him paired with Jack Webb on "Dranget", and even weirder to later find out "Mississippi Mud" was originally sung by Bing Crosby.

jim bailey said...

TV writers' creative license drives me nuts in my job.
The surveillance room in the show "LAS VEGAS" is nothing like the REAL LIFE room I work in.
When the local police or state gaming agents come in to review something and piss and moan about the length of time it takes or the quality of the shot that I get for them I can only turn to them and say "gee, you guys solve things alot quicker on 'LAW AND ORDER' too!"

Stratman said...

Did anybody else find Coach tedious? He was certainly a nice character, but he was one joke made over and over, IMO. A British sitcom I'm sure no one reading this blog has ever heard of, ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES, had exactly the same problem in Grandad.

Anonymous said...

Actually that gag with the counting orchestra percussionist was my all-time favourite spot-gag on the program. Still cracks me up.

(Then again, I am a musician ;)

Thanks for the post!

Lairbo said...

I seem to recall a Cheers episode in which Norm's bar tab was part of a plot line. He either paid it off all at once or did something so worthwhile that Sam cleaned the slate.

This whole conversation got me thinking about a couple of historic gems of creative license: 1) That we never knew what Ozzie Nelson did for a living that allowed him to be home all the time; 2) Edgar Bergen's ventriloquism on the radio.

Seymour said...

Stratman,

Coach was saved from tedium owing to Nick Colasanto's extreme lovability. The viewers, including myself, loved him, and thus enjoyed his variations on a single premise.

Lairbo,

Ozzie was a bandleader of a big band, and the Big Band era was over, so he was unemployable, except for the occasional interview with Chuck Cecil. He'd apparently saved his money well.

On radio, Bergan's ventriloquism became that obscure art form called voice acting. Funny is funny, whether you can see the wooden puppet or not.

Anonymous said...

Sam's ex-wife, Debra, appeared in the second episode of the series, and he seemed to be on good terms with her. After that, though, she was never seen again.

There also an argument to be made for getting Sam and Diane together, remembering how that romance in seasons 1 and 2 was magical.

Season 5 as well. The show was originally a romantic comedy, and the premise was that Sam and Diane belonged together. Had Shelley Long not left the show, they would have ended up together.

The premise of the inferior, Kirstie Alley years is that the bar is about losers. Sam was not a loser in the early days of the series. But the finale fulfilled the second premise, while violating the first.

The folks who worked on the series later years should have been forced to watch the first five seasons until they understood what made the show so special in the first place.

Stratman said...

I actually preferred the later years. The whole Sam/Diane thing got old very fast for me...

Lairbo said...

Seymour,

Maybe Ozzie was charging next door neighbor Thorny for all the stuff he borrowed.

Robert said...

There was another episode that mentioned Sam's divorce. In season one when Sam and Diane almost marry to satisfy the clause in her father's will, Sam reminds Diane that he has been married before.