Monday, July 21, 2008

The CHEERS episode I'm still writing in my head

Recently I was asked by TVSquad.com to contribute an article for their CHEERS week. For those who didn't see it, here it is. For those who did see it, here it is again in a different font. Enjoy.Sometimes you just never know.

David Isaacs and I wrote an episode of CHEERS the first season called “Boys in the Bar”. We were also producing the show at the time with the Charles Brother and Jim Burrows.

The subject matter was a little tricky. It had been reported in the papers that a former player for the Dodgers, Glenn Burke admitted he was gay. We thought, what if Sam’s roommate during his playing days made the same admission? It seemed like a great way to explore the homophobia you find in some sports bars. Okay…most.

So came up with this story: When Sam’s ex-roommate reveals he’s gay Sam must decide whether or not to support him. There is concern from the bar regulars that if Sam does the bar will go gay. I never said these were smart bar regulars. Still, Sam does back his former roomy and the regulars are very on edge. The next day, when they suspect two patrons of being gay they try in their clumsy oafish way to “encourage” them to leave. The suspects eventually do and Norm, Cliff, and the gang are feeling very good about themselves until they realize they chased out the wrong pair. The real gay guys are standing on either side of Norm and both kiss him at once.

There was concern from the get-go that this story might be a little too risky for a series that at the time was struggling to find an audience. (It’s bad enough CHEERS was losing to SIMON & SIMON at the time, it was getting its ass kicked by TUCKER’S WITCH too.) We forged ahead anyway and wrote the draft.

Everyone seemed to like it but was still a little worried. To their credit, the Charles Brothers and Jim Burrows did not back away. They put the show on the production schedule.

The first day of production a table reading is scheduled. The cast sits around a large conference table and reads the script aloud. Writers gauge how it’s playing and begin rewriting the things that didn’t appear to work. “Boys in the Bar” seemed to go okay. Not through the roof but decent.

As I walked out of the room Ted Danson approached and said, “Don’t change a word.” I was a little overly defensive and didn’t appreciate the sarcasm, “Hey, give me a break”, I snapped, “We tried for something, okay?” He waved his hands. “No, no, I mean it. It’s great. Don’t change a word.” Needless to say I felt like a giant ass… but was relieved.

The week of rehearsals went smoothly. Just a little tweaking here and there but no major rewrites.

CHEERS, like most multi-camera shows, operated on a five-day production schedule. The first three for rehearsing with the cast alone, then on day four the camera crews come in and the technical work is done. Finally, on day five the show is shot in front of a live studio audience.

The crew is usually a good indicator of what works. We’ve now heard every joke nine times. Nothing is funny to us. They’re hearing the material for the first time.

The crew LOVED “Boys in the Bar’. Big laughs all the way through. And by far the biggest was the last joke where the two guys flanking Norm kiss him. It was easily the biggest crew laugh of the year.

So we felt great heading into show night. Sure enough the audience was with us from the first minute. One joke (Sam telling Diane he should’ve known his roommate was gay, in a piano bar he once requested a show tune) got such a thunderous prolonged laugh that they had to stop cameras. Too much film was being wasted.

The show and the laughs barreled on. I was having the time of my life. There’s nothing a writer craves more than hearing big laughs. Now we’re at the end. The two gay guys lean in and kiss Norm, and…

Silence. Dead silence. You could hear crickets.

It wasn’t like some people got it and others didn’t. Nobody laughed. Not a single person.

I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he runs off a cliff and is in mid-air for a few seconds before he realizes it, then plummets to the ground. That was me and the rest of the staff.

We quickly huddled. No one had an explanation. The best we could come up with was that the audience didn’t realize that was the end. They were waiting for something else. So we reshot the scene and after the kiss we added a line. Norm points to one and says, “Better than Vera”. That got a sort-of laugh but was the best we could do. Cut to the closing credit and get the hell out.

We received an Emmy nomination for that show and won the Writers Guild Award for it. It’s still one of my proudest episodes. But to this day I scratch my head.

The crew liked it! They all got it!

22 comments:

D. McEwan said...

It's been 20 years easy since I saw that episode, and of course much longer since seeing it the night it first aired, which was the first time I saw it (No SIMON & SIMON for me.), but as soon as you started describing the plot, "Better than Vera." sprang loudly into my mind, well ahead of your getting to it, so vividly do I remember laughing my gay ass off at that curtain line. (And bear in mind that I knew Benadette Burkette back in those days, so I was acquainted with "Vera".) One of the classic closing lines.

Billy Wilder ("God" to his friends) had little faith in "Nobody's perfect." to close SOME LIKE IT HOT. It was a last minute, "Come up with SOMETHING for Christ's sake!", line and Wilder shot it thinking, "We'll come up with a better line later and overdub it." only he never could. (Perhaps because no better line was possible?) In his essay on the film in THE GREAT MOVIES, Roger Ebert calls it "The best curtain line in the movies."

Okay, "Better than Vera isn't "The Best Curtain Line Ever on TV," but it's close. A great, memorable button.

My only issue with that episode, and it's a small issue, was the presence of openly-gay "actor" Michael Kearns as one of the guys the regulars think is gay but isn't. (Kearns straight? On what planet?) I've had the misfortune of seeing two of his one-man stage shows, and seeing him in other plays also, and I do believe he is a massively overrated fraud of an actor.

But other than him, it's a great episode.

And no episode's perfect.

charlotte said...

Hmm... Because it was a visual gag, I'm thinking maybe the audience members couldn't SEE the kiss from where they were sitting? I've been in the studio audiences of some more recent sitcoms, and even when a scene was taking place in the set built directly in front of the audience's bleachers, between the distance from the bleachers, the sound/light baffling in the way, and all the cameras, crew members, and other people blocking the studio audience's view of the actors, sitting in the studio audience you can't actually see what's going on everywhere in a scene. You're just listening. Yes, there are monitors mounted above your view of the stage to address this problem, but if you're at a live filming/taping, you don't want to waste the experience by watching it on TV! You can do that at home.

That would be my humble guess, Ken.

It would also explain the studio audience's lackluster response to the killer button line too: If they hadn't been able to see the preceding visual gag, then they also didn't know what Norm was talking about. "What's 'Better than Vera'?"

Noah said...

Hey! I know one of those guys who kissed Norm! Ken Tigar, a really great character actor. He's been in EVERYTHING, but is perhaps best known as the guy who thought he was a werewolf on "Barney Miller." He tells me the casting director went out of his way to cast both gay and straight actors in this episode, assuring everyone they wouldn't be able to tell who was which.

wcdixon said...

Great story...

Tim W. said...

I remember this episode very well. And I remember Thursday nights were difficult because I liked both Simon and Simon and Cheers (hey, I was 13). I don't recall if we actually had a VCR, yet, so I'm not sure if I ended up taping one.

As for the episode, I've watched the rerun numerous times, but not in many, many years. I thought it was great, but without Norm's line, I can see how people might not laugh. To me, it's a little much to have the guys lean in and kiss Norm. If you're gay in 1983, the last thing you'd probably do is surprise a straight guy with a kiss in a sports bar in front of everyone. It just felt a little uncomfortable to me, hence why it possibly didn't get a laugh.

And I have seen Ken Tigar all over television over the years, but the character I'll remember him most for is the serial killer on one episode of Magnum P.I. Man, was he creepy.

Ed said...

A California audience, decades ago, was conditioned to never laugh directly at a gay. Political correctness. Simple.

The first thing I thought when I read your post was when Sammy Davis, Jr. kissed Archie Bunker as he had a picture taken. Perhaps the greatest prejudice-busting TV episode ever taped. Did anyone on the Cheers production staff express concern that the final scene was somehow a ripoff of this All In the Family ep?

Sebastian said...

Saw it before. Hate the font.

Anonymous said...

80s Hollywood meets 80s Middle American audience...and---cut.

Vermonter17032 said...

Ken,

"The Boys in the Bar" is one of my all-time favorite Cheers episodes. The show tunes joke is great. I have to say that I never thought the ending was all that funny, I did think it was appropriate. The "better than Vera" line added just enough comedy, but also demonstrated that Norm had a sense of humor about the whole thing. Just right!

notanonymous said...

What was the setup for the guys kissing Norm? I can imagine people familiar with the character, ie crew and longterm fans being tickled, but coach parties from wherever?

rob! said...

that's a brilliant episode, one of my favorites of the series. its got the mock-seriousness of a murder mystery, except its over something so silly. plus, as likable as the Cheers barflys were, it was totally plausible that, circa mid-1980s, they'd be less than comfortable around gay people.

"it was getting its ass kicked by TUCKER’S WITCH too."--what the hell was Tucker's Witch?

qrter said...

I can't remember seeing this episode, but how you describe it doesn't make the guys-kissing-Norm thing sound very funny. It sounds a bit cheesy (although that may have been different 20 years ago).

Simon said...

Amazing how much things have changed in 25 years. I still love the episode of Taxi where Tony is freaked out by the bisexual man who wants both him and Elaine, which ends with the hilarious sequence of Alex dancing at the Gay bar. Between episodes like that and the regular presence of Soap, it really had a bigger impact on American society than I think some people realize.

Tom Quigley said...

I can't imagine a closing line on CHEERS episode not getting a laugh but I guess it can happen, even with the best. In one episode "Fun and Games with Robin and Sammy" the final line was changed from the script where Robin calls to Sam (who's exiting with the penny they just engaged in various competitions over the entire afternoon) "Hey, you didn't let me try and win my penny back!" to the shot version that aired: "One, two, three, four, I declare a thumb war!" I don't think either of them were particularly strong and wouldn't have gone over big with an audience.

I don't remember seeing "Boys in the Bar" although I'm sure I have seen it... I can guess that maybe the buildup to the kiss wasn't enough, or that there wasn't a big enough surprise to it happening, or (put this down for 20 years too late, but) -- for an option, how might it have gone over if one of them bussed Norm and the other did the same to Cliff? Now you've got BOTH of them reacting in their typical Norm and Cliff fashions....

John Trumbull said...

I've always wondered how this episode would have played if it had aired a few seasons in. Would the audience have gone with Norm and Cliff openly expressing their dicomfort around gay people?

D. McEwan said...

"A California audience, decades ago, was conditioned to never laugh directly at a gay. Political correctness. Simple."

Oh that's simple all right Ed, simple-minded. It had nothing to do with the fact that we in California are progressive and ahead-of-the-curve in battling bigotry, such as, for instance, your anti-Californians snarky crack. (On the comments page of a native Californian's blog yet.) And "California audiences" had been laughing at gays all through the episode, and at SOAP for years.

When that show was shot, CHEERS was not yet a hit show, as Ken points out. (Was it even airing yet, when this was shot Ken?) Non-hit TV shows's studio audiences are primarily BUS TOURS OF TOURISTS! There were probably extemely few, if any, Californians in the audience at all at that time.

For those of you who don't remember the episode and have expressed curiosity about the staging of the kiss, as I recall once it was revealed that the guys they had hounded from the bar weren't gay, Norm asked some variant on "Well then who?", at which point the two men who had been flanking Norm throughout most of the episode leaned in and kissed him, one on each cheek, symetrically and briefly. No tongue. Not cheesy.

Jim said...

For those of you who don't remember the episode and have expressed curiosity about the staging of the kiss, as I recall once it was revealed that the guys they had hounded from the bar weren't gay, Norm asked some variant on "Well then who?"

From memory:
"Nah, this crowd's straight. They're all too ugly to be gay."

Miles said...

I, too, remember this episode well. I watched it as a closeted kid with my writer, liberal parents and we all laughed out loud, though, I did so maybe a little timidly. Great great show. Well done.

Anonymous said...

easy, the hollywood crew was laughing WITH the "gay episode". The guys are being goofy trying to kick the gays out, and the at the end you have the big twist where the gays "win the day" by showing that they're just like regular people at the sports bar.

The audience was laughing AT the "gay episode". The guys are funny because they're kicking out the gays and they succeed (and they make a bunch of jokes such as "LOL OMG THAT GUY IS GAY BECAUSE HE LISTENS TO SHOW TUNES, I BET HE'S FRENCH!!"). But at the end, when they show that the gays where "one of the guys" all along? that's just goddamned scandaouls!

Mike S. said...

Yeah, this was an excellent episode (and I'm gay, so I should know.)
However, let's not dismiss "Tucker's Witch" so quickly. It had Tim Matheson, who's good in anything, and if it had kept its working title, "The Good Witch of Laurel Canyon", it might still be on today.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Anonymous's theory two comments above, re: the difference between reactions of the crew and the audience, may well have something to it.

Rock Golf said...

Three years after this episode was filmed, I attended my first and so far only sitcom taping. (Hey, I'm in Toronto. It's a helluva commute.) It was the pilot episode of "Sara". Great cast: Geena Davis in the title role, Bill Maher, Bronson Pinchot, Alfre Woodard. Brandon Tarkitoff had big hopes for the show and sat in the front row of the taping.
Being a pilot, everyone has to get the basis of their character out in within the first 3 lines.

Brandon's character was gay and an early line was both meant to make that obvious and be funny. I could be wrong or confused but I think the line was "You see I'm G-A-Y" with the last word spelled out. But it sounded like "U-I-M-G-A-Y", and most of the audience, myself included, thought he was spelling out a single word. Belatedly there were a few titters.

Maher's character was a right-wing bigot. (Yes, I guess this makes Maher the original Stephen Colbert.) One of his first lines was a putdown of Pinchot's sexuality. It not only got a big laugh but scattered applause.

I've since found that the director was Will McKenzie. That reaction must have ate at him.

But the point is that I got the tickets as a tourist. So probably did most of the people who attended, Brandon Tartikoff excluded. Homosexuality was still a punch line to most Americans, not a life style.