Thursday, May 22, 2008

The biggest laugh you never saw on CHEERS

One of the biggest laughs we ever got on CHEERS was taken out when the show aired. Not that big laughs are so easy to get that it’s no big whoop to just toss one, but in this case we felt it ruined the show. Here’s the backstory.

First season. The episode was called “The Coach’s Daughter” (written by Ken Estin and directed by James Burrows). From the title you can probably get the gist of what the show was about. The Coach’s somewhat plain daughter introduces her fiancĂ© to her dad and the gang at Cheers and he’s a real boorish lout. (He sold flame retarded reversible suits and yet he wasn’t reputable.)

Sidenote: The actor who played him was Phillip Charles MacKenzie. For the first two days we had someone else and he just didn’t work out. The trouble was finding someone really funny but still likeable enough that you didn’t storm the stage. Funny/obnoxious is not easy to pull off. And it had to be someone who could step in and be up to speed almost immediately. My partner and I had used Phillip in a pilot we created. He was great. I felt worse for him than us that NBC passed on it for PINK LADY AND JEFF. So he was our suggestion and he made us look good. In later years Phillip became a director and we used him often on ALMOST PERFECT. End of sidenote, and no I’m not going to say who the actor was that got fired.

Late in the episode there’s a lovely scene where the Coach has a heart-to-heart with his daughter, Lisa in Sam’s office. It’s clear to everyone (but the Coach of course) that she’s marrying this clown, Roy out of insecurity not love. Lisa tells her dad that Roy thinks she’s beautiful. The Coach says, “You are beautiful. You look just like your mother.” It was meant to touch Lisa’s heart.

We were holding our breaths hoping it didn’t get a big gooey “Awwwwwwww!” Instead it got this thunderous laugh. Applause even. Everyone on the stage was stunned. We shot the scene again, thinking this time they’ll see it differently. Nope. Huge laugh the SECOND time.

Still, when we assembled the show we all felt it hurt the scene and ultimately the story. Kudos to the Charles Brothers for being willing to lift the episode’s biggest laugh to preserve the emotional core of the show.

Sometimes jokes can also sacrifice the integrity of your characters -- make them too stupid, too insensitive, etc. When that even becomes a borderline call my vote is to dump the joke. Same with jokes of questionable taste. Take the high road.

As hard as it is to write big jokes, it's always much harder to discard them. But the rewards are greater and you'll like yourself in the morning.

46 comments:

Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer said...

I've read that part twice, and I still don't see what was funny about that line. I remember that scene from when the show aired, and I remember it being very touching. But funny? What am I missing?

rob! said...

hard to imagine people laughing at that line, esp the way Mr. Colasanto delivered it--his voice was almost trembling, from what i remember.

there were a few moments of seriousness on Cheers, and i always wondered how you made sure the crowd didn't ruin it by laughing at an inappropriate moment (like when Sam breaks up with Diane, and then he looks at the painting she had made of herself by Chris Lloyd).

Sebastian said...

like in "You are as beautiful as the cow of a woman I married".

I understand why they would laugh, sure. I mean both protagonists were portrayed as dumb and "not getting it" - coach always understood things wrong so people expected him to be dumb. We all know that the most heartfelt scenes came from him through him being able to see through the facades and just take people for what they are. So you could think that on the one hand he really loved his wife and would most likely have very funny conversations with her, but also that he'd most likely without a twitch marry a woman that looked like a horse and still be totally in love with her because he would be able to see her inner values.

So the laugh isn't so unexpected as you might think but the authors were aiming for that other part of the character. But without the cliff notes how should the audience have known?

DAZ said...

I'm sorry, but I was eight years old when that episode aired. And I was sophisticated enough to understand what coach was saying. That line broke my heart. Just thinking about Nick Colasanto's quivering delivery of that line makes me tear up as I type this.

Perhaps you just had a particularly dumb audience that night...

beauishere said...

Nah,

I still don't get why thety laughed. I remember that scene. One of my all time Cheers favorites. I think the daughter responded by almost saying her mother wasn't beautiful and then realized the love in her dad's eyes and said her mom wasn't "comfortable with her beauty" or something to that effect.

Great scene. The studio audience must of been retarded.

Anonymous said...

Did you rewrite the dialogue at all, or did you just mute the laughter for that scene?

John S said...

Oh, that is a marvelous episode. Allyce Beasley as the daughter. I also remember that Diane described the fiance as "pond scum" and that phrase seemed to enter the language whole right from the dialogue of that episode.

Beauishere, you have Coach's daughter's line verbatim. Nicely done.

This episode so beautifully showed Nick Colasanto's range of emotions as an actor that NBC ran it the day he died as a tribute.

KEN LEVINE said...

"Pond scum" was coined by Cheers co-creator (and one of the funniest people I have EVER met), Glen Charles.

Bitter Animator said...

I'm very confused. It's been a while since I saw that episode but that's pretty much the line I remembered, and I found it touching rather than funny.

Was it just ever so slightly reworded?

A. Buck Short said...

I enjoy these poignant moments both in the shows and the posts. But I think we no longer use the term flame retarded. It's now "flame challenged." There's something ambitious about the whole flame retardancy concept anyway. Once had a romantic restaurant sketch where the maitre d' was trying to light a candle, but it kept going out. The guy on the date's line was, "They should make children's pajamas out of this stuff." (Yeh, that's it Buck, ignore the whole point of the post and just look for the hook.)

Jim said...

Cruel bunch. Mind you, what I remember most about that episode is how the "somewhat plain" daughter wasn't really that plain at all. Maybe slightly less chiselled than the average Hollywood woman, but pretty near the top of the bunch in any random group of ordinary women from the rest of the world. But how do you cast roles like that in California? Can you really go back to the casting agencies and say "these ones aren't ugly enough. Send us some real dogs."

Vermonter17032 said...

As aired, Lisa admits that Roy is marrying her only to get advancement in the company -- she's his boss. Coach can't understand why she would settle for someone like Roy, and Lisa tells him to take a good look at her. Coach does and says something like, "I never realized how much you look like your mother." Lisa says, "That's right, I look exactly like mom, and she wasn't..." And when she sees the love Coach has in his eyes for her mother she says, "And mom wasn't comfortable about her looks." Coach replies, "That's what made her beautiful. Your mother grew more beautiful every day of her life." And Lisa responds, "Mom was really beautiful."

That's when she decides to give Roy the boot and find a man as good as her father.

Wonderful scene. But I do find it hard to believe people laughed so loudly at the original scene. Does that sting an actress like Allyce Beasley, when basically the audience is saying she's ugly as sin... which she wasn't.

sephim said...

"The biggest laugh you never saw on CHEERS"

I imagine this was one of many.

Dave Lifton said...

The line that Vermonter references, where she dumps Roy, is a classic:

"You don't get Pennsylvania. You don't get me. You just get more and more obnoxious."

Vermonter17032 said...

On the DVD collection, this episode is the second, but it always felt to me like it took place long after Diane started at Cheers. Does anyone know if it really aired second?

Tom Quigley said...

In terms of what may have been the reason for the laugh, Allyce Beasley, who was also one of the regular cast of the series MOONLIGHTING, was no great prize in the looks department (and I'm not trying to be facetious, but she always reminded me of a younger Imogene Coca). I'm not surprised that the line got a laugh when you consider who it was directed at. However, it was a beautiful line, showing how Coach, as much of a fumbler and bumbler as he was, could love both his daughter and his wife enough to see the inner beauty in each of them, and express it in such a genuine heartfelt manner. CHEERS to the writer(s) who came up with the line, and to the Charles brothers for deleting the laugh.

steveh said...

I remember that scene so clearly and as such a heart-clutching moment, especially when Alice Beasley says, with that perfectly timed pause, that her mother was never comfortable with her beauty.
Bravo. So, Ken, just to clear: was the scene reshot after the audience was gone?

Andrew said...

On a show I worked on there was a moment where a character insisted he was in control of his own fate (SF comedy, y'see). The line went something like "I don't want to believe I'm just an actor saying lines in a script written by someone else."

Yeah, I know, already too post-modern for its own good. It was a decade ago, and it genuinely wasn't meant to be.

The audience, of course, cackled knowingly.

When it went out, the laughter had to be removed. The line did play better on broadcast TV - probably because that audience hadn't been sat watching the actors live on set, doing retakes, corpsing, cracking jokes and chatting to the crowd between scenes.

Vic DiGital said...

Even though you won't reveal who the fired actor was, can you at least let us know if it was someone that we had ever heard of, and especially if he went on to achieve a modicum of success? Or was getting fired from Cheers the mark of death back in the day?

Dimension Skipper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dimension Skipper said...

Vermonter17032 said...

On the DVD collection, this episode is the second, but it always felt to me like it took place long after Diane started at Cheers. Does anyone know if it really aired second?

According to a Cheers episode guide "Coach's Daughter" was the fifth episode aired and "Sam's Women" was the second. However, in the notes section of the TV.com overview for the episode " it says...

"This was actually the 2nd episode, but its airing was delayed. The Season One DVD restores it to its proper place."

Two other notes listed at TV.com...

Alternate Episode Title: Coach in a Crisis Week.

Philip Charles MacKenzie would later direct most of Season 3 of Frasier.


I too couldn't understand why the scene as originally done would get a big laugh, but there is a significant difference in that one vs. the way it was then rewritten. (Thanks Vermonter17032 for the mental refresh!) I doubt that the audience was as clueless as it might seem now in retrospect since we have the benefit of having seen the polished final product many times and now probably can't imagine it having been done any other way. But I assume that in addition to dialogue changes there can also be subtle differences in the acting, and timing of early takes and all that may get honed and made to work just so through various takes.

The dialogue rewording coupled with Mr. Colasanto's heartfelt delivery absolutely MADE that episode. I mean, the episode was funny enough as usual until then, but it's those kinds of scenes that really make a sitcom episode memorable.

Another such episode that's always been one of my favorites for any sitcom ever is the second season episode of Taxi titled "Elaine's Secret Admirer." The scene at the end where it turns out Rev. Jim cut up his own van to make Elaine her "castle" was perfectly written and acted imo. It was touching in an understated way and it seemed like exactly the sort of thing Jim would do in an effort to ease a friend's unintentionally hurt feelings.

KEN LEVINE said...

"The Coach's Daughter" was not filmed or aired second. "Sam's Women", "Tortelli Torte", "Sam at Eleven", and a couple others filmed and aired before it. "Sam's Women" aired third.

To my knowledge there was never another title for "Coach's Daughter".

If the scene were rewritten from Ken Estin's draft it was very minimal at best. We just removed the laughter as I recall but we might have done a pick up of that moment. It's been awhile.

I still can't tell you why 200 strangers simultaneously not only found the line amusing but uproarious.

KEN LEVINE said...

Correction:

Sam's women aired second. Sam at eleven aired third. Tortelli Torte fourth. And then the one (I forget the title) with all the different customers (old guy, guy who was there to see Gus, etc.)

April said...

I clearly remember this episode, and it certainly touched me the way you wanted. What kind of drugs was that studio audience smoking?

Dimension Skipper said...

Well, these episode guides and "authoritative" online resources can be iffy at best, but they're all I have to go by as a quick ref. I figured if they were right, then it was helpful, and if they're wrong, well, then you'd correct it. Thanks for doing so, Ken.

Sorry, I guess I kind of misread or misinterpreted the gist of your recounting of the original line as attributed to Mr. Colasanto's role vs. the dialogue as related by Vermonter (which sounds right to my memory). I then kind of "assumed" that the dialogue had been "significantly reworked." I assure everyone that unlike Felix I only made an ass of me!

Truthfully, I can't understand why the audience would have found it all that hilarious either, but then why are so many people fascinated by Paris Hilton?... [shrug] Maybe they were just so "warmed up" from the rest of the episode that they were in a laughing mood at that point. Who knows... I only know that my sense of humor is often out of step with what others around me find so funny. It may just be me, but I think comedy in general these days is often much too mean-spirited for my taste. Too many shows and comics rely on material that rapidly boils down to insults and sex jokes (or both). Some of that is OK in low doses (and depending on the characters), but too much reliance on that can quickly turn me off.

Anyway, and regardless of any "misconstruations" on my part, thanks for posting the behind-the-laughter story, Ken. I greatly enjoyed just being reminded of such a touching scene, not to mention the beloved Coach.

jbryant said...

I imagine a crowd of people herded together to watch the taping of a fairly new sitcom are sitting there expecting big laughs and a fun night out. So such a mass misinterpretation is at least slightly understandable. But it must have been frustrating as hell.

Can we offer guesses for the fired actor's identity? Michael Richards? Jere Burns? Sir John Gielgud?

Annie said...

Since Coach was so consistently hilarious, perhaps the audience anticipated the laugh. Then on the retake, the fence-sitters thought, 'I don't get it, but hey, it's Coach so it must be funny.'

I had a boss who was told I was funny. That's all he knew of me, so everything I told him he'd laugh at.
"Boss, we're almost out of fuel."
"Ha, ha, you're a riot."
"No, really, I'm serious. we're gonna crash."
"Har. You're killing me here!"
*cue explosion*

Much more moving when Coach switch-hits to poignancy. (that's a real word - Yogi Berra told me.)

Matthew said...

It was early on in the show's run (had the show even aired when this episode taped?) so the audience may have had no idea who Coach was. Just reading the setup (and not particularly remembering the episode, but I would imagine that it doesn't get replayed as often as later seasons I'm more familiar with), there's the chance that the audience took it that Coach was an overbearing lout who'd married his wife because she was insecure. They may have taken it that he was too stupid to realize he was just like (or had been) just like the fiance.

Tallulah Morehead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tallulah Morehead said...

"Can we offer guesses for the fired actor's identity? Michael Richards? Jere Burns? Sir John Gielgud?"

Damn! You figured it out. Payback came later, when Gielgud replaced MacKenzie as KING LEAR, after MacKenzie kept getting big laughs on "Howl! Howl! Howl! Oh you are men of stone!"

Dr. Leo Marvin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dr. Leo Marvin said...

OK, here's my conjecture. The audience was given permission to laugh at an otherwise too cruel joke because Coach was also expressing a deeper truth that redeemed the superficial reality. So the laugh was part "ha ha funny" and part happy, approving and tension-releasing.

KEN LEVINE said...

The fired actor has worked before and since. I see him in things from time to time and he's always good. He just wasn't right for that part. But I'm sure he makes a nice living as a character actor.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

It weas a great show and those were wonderful moments.

My idea of a great laugh was Carla's line in another show that went something like, "I only meet two kinds of men: Geeks, and those studying for the geekhood." If you wrote that one, Ken, you deserve a star on the Walk of Fame.

Max Clarke said...

I can see why the line got such a big laugh, that was Coach. It's like the time he was asked by Diane in Episode one, "Where's your bathroom?" Coach replied, "Right next to my bedroom."

Better the laugh was axed. It's a tender moment, almost a little hard to watch because it's so intimate. I recall his daughter saying something like, "Mom was not...comfortable with her beauty." Excellent episode.

The Crutnacker said...

Some worthless trivia: Philip Charles MacKenzie played a DJ taking payola in the very funny WKRP episode Johnny Comes Back where Carlson thinks he's using foot powder and it is actually cocaine.

Fellow guest star in the episode? Jeff Altman from Pink Lady and Jeff.

Damn I miss WKRP.

Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer said...

Oops... got the quotation wrong. Here it is, corrected.

"I wanted Mary Ann on 'Gilligan's Island' ugly, not Cornelius on 'The Planet of the Apes' ugly. TV ugly, not... ugly ugly."

Man, the Simpsons nails Hollywood beautifully.

NAILS said...

Shot in the dark here, but maybe it was in the delivery, that the line seemed to say "of course you are beautiful, you got your looks from your mother (not me)."

yeah?

Anonymous said...

I remember that lovely scene between Coach and his daughter - that episode was rerun shortly after Nicholas Colassanto's death and dedicated to him. Those types of touching moments pretty much vanished from the show after Shelley Long rode out of town. Too bad - "Cheers" was at its best when it had heart as well as laughs.

Someone compared Allyce Beasley to Imogene Coca. Coca actually played Beasley's mother on "Moonlighting" a few years later.

ajmilner said...

That episode was the very first episode of CHEERS I ever saw, and I was instantly hooked.

IIRC, the subplot had something to do with Sam giving names to each of the bar's beer glasses.

Another IIRC: About five seasons later, a GOLDEN GIRLS episode had one of Blanche's grown daughters getting engaged to a jerk, with an almost verbatim parent-child climactic scene.

Doug from Seattle said...

That was such a touching scene. Now that I have a daughter of my own, I sometimes think about it when I look at her. I can't imagine it ever would have stuck with me like that if it was just another laugh line. Thanks for having the wisdom to do what you did.

John said...

Way back in the days of Hollywood theatrical cartoons, the folks at United Productions of America, which was making shorts for Columbia Picutres, decided that, instead of the typical slapstick gag cartoon of the early 1950s, they would make an animated version of Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" complete with James Mason doing the narration. It was a totally straightforward retelling of Poe's story, but when it reached the theaters, the audience laughed. No matter how many times they screened the cartoon, the audience laughed, to the point that Coulmbia finally had to tack on a notice at the start of the film saying "This is a serious cartoon".

The point is, audiences go into certain places expecting certain things. In this case, even though "Cheers" was a brand new show, they were expecting a comedy, and if Coach said a line that seemed to top off the scene, odds are they thought it was supposed to be a laugh line.

That may say something about the audience's intelligence and/or their grasp of the story narrative, but it probably wouldn't have hurt if the second time around, one of the producers had given the audience a little briefing on what they were about to see.

mr. pat said...

Here's an example of how inappropriate laughter kills a moment.

The opening tag of "Rescue Me," the final episode of the third season and Nick Colasanto's final appearance, consists of Coach's misunderstanding of a "blind man."
The scene ends with Carla telling Coach that the man wasn't really blind. Coach replies, "I know, Carla, but in some ways, he can see more." A very poignant moment, underscored by silence as the theme music starts.

The new version of the episode as seen in syndication and on TV Land throws in a canned laugh over the silence, thereby destroying the poignancy.

Guy LaDouche said...

I know it's been a few years since this post, but I just watched this episode and there is no way I can believe the audience laughed at this scene. Coach and daughter are crying, voices quivering, and the line isn't (and not meant to be) funny at all. Isn't it more likely that Ken may be remembering an earlier take, possibly before a script re-write?

Anonymous said...

I remember the episode, and I can see why the audience laughed. Coach's daughter was frankly homely, a real two-bagger. So the audience was laughing at Coach's low standards of beauty, not to mention the fact that he got stuck with an ugly woman for a wife.