Sunday, April 24, 2011

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.

43 comments:

Bill said...

Flame retarded?

unkystan said...

Maybe I'm crazy but I do remember hearing that line in the show (with no laugh) and the daughter responding with something like "and Mom was never comfortable with her beauty." Coach responded with "and that's what made her all the more beautiful". Am I remembering this incorrectly?

Ian said...

A great story, Ken, and a great lesson about how you have to be willing to cut even the lines you love in service to the story. I think the "you look just like your mother" line is touching, and I don't understand why it was met with laughter. I would have been reaching for a hanky at that point(but I'm an old softie).

Ford Capwn said...

Wasn't there still a line like that, though? I can remember Lisa saying something like, "Mom was not..." and then covering and saying "Comfortable with her beauty" or something like that. One of my favorite early episodes, though, for sure.

Cantara Christopher said...

I remember that line being aired too. It was the most touching thing I´d ever heard on a sitcom.

Jonathan said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQ6rwZg-J9w&t=1m20s

Interesting story. Rewatching the scene I hear an audio dropout after the line at 2:03. Removal of another laugh?

The Screenwriting Screenwriter said...

I don't understand at all why that got a laugh. It's not even a joke. That's always been my favorite Cheers scene of all time, not because it's funny but because it's beautiful.

Where's the joke?!

Dan B said...

Easy enough to film the scene after the audience has left, and edit that bit into the finished product. Voila, no laughter and the line's integrity left intact.

The Screenwriting Screenwriter said...

And, I must say, that was the wonderful Nicholas Colasanto's finest hour. I will always remember him for the way he said "That's what made her more beautiful. Your mother grew more beautiful every day of her life."

Linda said...

What aired was a somewhat different line. There's a much longer and more contemplative reaction from Coach, who sort of holds on her demand that he look closely at her and be objective and says basically, "I never saw it before, how much you look like your mother." It's there, but the moment is allowed to settle in a way that dodges the laugh.

Anonymous said...

I think the point is they muted the audience laughter on the soundtrack, and kept the line in the show.

Calum said...

I have to agree with the earlier commenter... what's remotely funny about that line, let alone uproariously funny? I can't imagine any way that even Coach could have delivered it that would raise so much as a smile.

Anonymous said...

As a woman who isn't very good-looking, I'm so happy to read something like this and not seen nasty comments after about how homely the character was, like you'd see on Yahoo news stories or even on IMDb. I love this blog!

Alex said...

funny because: father fancies mother, father says daughter looks like mother, perverse

Emma said...

Awwwwwwww! I remember the episode. As a woman not good looking, I found it touching.

DonBoy said...

I remember it not from its first showing but from its appearance on a clip show late in the run -- perhaps just before the finale? And how amazing that I am joined here by several people who remember it word for word the way that I do. However it was made, it came out perfect.

It might help to mention that the daughter was played by Allyce Beasley, later better known as Miss Di Pesto on Moonlighting. If you saw her on the street I'm sure she'd strike you as a fine-looking woman, but she's not "TV beautiful", and I'm sure with the "right" wardrobe/etc the effect was enhanced.

John said...

I don't understand at all why that got a laugh. It's not even a joke. That's always been my favorite Cheers scene of all time, not because it's funny but because it's beautiful.

Where's the joke?!


I think it was a matter of the audience's assumption because of who Coach was -- a dumber, older guy would in the normal stereotype have a dumb/ugly wife, and that's why the line triggered the audience's laugh (i.e., you could give Woody someone hot and dumb like Kelley later in the series because of Woody Harrelson's youth, but in the world of "Cheers" as the audience would have seen in in early Season 1, Sam Malone was the one who was supposed to have all the hot women. All the others men at the bar, including Coach, were supposed to be getting only the leftovers).

That doesn't mean I'm agreeing with the audience laughing, just that that's the likely reason why they did laugh.

dgwPhotography said...

This has to be my favorite episode from the first season. It was sweet, and touching, and it was Coach at his best. I always felt that even more than Diane, Coach was the heart and soul of that show, and it wasn't the same after he was gone.

John S said...

They re-ran that episode the day Nicholas Colasanto died. It was perfect

Johnny Walker said...

That YouTube link really helps show what was going on. I don't know if the broadcast was change (other than losing the laughter), but you can see where the audience went.

Weren't you afraid that the audience at home would go the same way, or were you expecting them to be led by the studio audience reaction?

Anyways, it's a very touching scene.

Mac said...

That's really interesting. If the joke the audience got is what I think it is (and I'm not 100% sure it is) it would have been a very cheap laugh, and would have totally undermined the scene. For a show rammed full of classy jokes, it would have felt out of whack.
Anyway, fascinating post.

Max Clarke said...
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Max Clarke said...
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Jaime J. Weinman said...

Philip Charles Mackenzie was really good at playing jerks who don't quite seem like jerks at first. He'd already been on WKRP as a likable DJ who turns out to be a coke addict and on the take, and on Bosom Buddies as a seemingly nice guy who turns out to be a complete asshole. It was his thing before he became a director, and he was good at it.

"Coach's Daughter" is one of the great episodes, as others have said. I found it interesting that Estin, who was still running Taxi at the time (in its last season) came over to write this episode. Did he and Sam Simon and other Taxi people write scripts for Cheers when Taxi was canceled by ABC, and then go back when NBC picked it up? Or did the Charles Brothers call on their Taxi colleagues to come over and write some scripts to help them out with the new show?

Ken Levine said...

The line stayed, the laugh was removed. Sorry fir the confusion.
Ken

Jeff said...

Coach was a truly brilliant character, he was the "center" of the show when it came for one of his very, for him, insightful comments about the goings on in the bar at any given moment. His death really shot a hole in the show, and it really wasn't the same without him. I dearly remember the scene with his daughter. Heartfelt, loving, spot-on honest and truly added that real emotional spark to the show. Brilliant writing that scene.

Ken, I'd like to get in touch with you somehow. I'm an old Top 40 jock, I worked in San Francisco back in the early-mid '80s on K101. We share some commonalities, beside both being Jewish, raised by hardcore Jewish mothers. I'm also a writer...have written three screenplays...had an agent in LA for like, a month, before the old guy dropped dead of a heart attack. Darn, I was this close.

Anyway, I've recently made friends with the brilliant Rich Brother Robbin and he suggested that I get in touch with you. Have what I think is a good idea for an hour long show about a fictious Top 40 station patterned after KHJ in the '60s. I think it's high time someone does a realistic show about how Top 40 radio was so important to people's lives in that extraordinary time period. The show can be a mixture of comedy and drama, ala Hill Street Blues. Think Mad Men, but set in a radio station. Make it as realistic as possible just like Mad Men. Get into the private lives of each of the jocks, their trials and tribulations, showing their passion for performing on the air and what goes on in their personal lives. Music can play a great character on the show. Have a young teenage boy hanging around the station, wanting to become a Boss Jock. Have the crazy, brilliant program director...a larger than life character. Make the show as real as radio was in the '60s. Lots of pathos, yearnings, emotions, wants and desires. I think it could be a great show, the way Mad Men is and absolutely like the brilliant Hill Street Blues, my favorite show of all time.

What do you think? Any suggestions? I'd love for you to get in touch with me. Please, when you have a spare moment, email me at hollingerjeff@comcast.com. I'm serious about this project...I just need a helping hand from someone as brilliant as you are, and I sincerely mean it. (Blush.)

Thank you for reading this, Ken, it means a lot to me. Hope to hear from you in the coming days.

Best,
Jeffrey

Phillip B said...

I remember Philip Charles MacKenzie best from the Showtime sitcom - "Brothers" which always seemed to me to be a clone of Cheers.

And apparently needed to be on Showtime, rather than on a broadcast network, because it had a homosexual character in 1984.

So a Friday question, Ken -

Have you ever pitched to a pay cable network (HBO, Showtime, et. al.) and did the freedom of that environment make a difference in your approach?

And do the sitcoms on those networks - from Dream On to Curb Your Enthusiasm - really benefit from that freedom?

Anonymous said...

I'm somewhat new to Ken's blog but I remember this post from a few months ago, right? Does Ken often repost old posts?

Ref said...

Anon @ 7:25, I hope you can find a man (or that one finds you) who sees beyond the book's cover. Best wishes!

selection7 said...

The audience thought coach was playing the dozens!

Buttermilk Sky said...

You never know how an audience will respond. When I saw "The Conversation," after Gene Hackman tore up his apartment looking for a bug and then sat in the ruins playing his saxophone, the audience roared with laughter. Not remotely funny, but what do I know? CHEERS was a comedy, one of the best, so people thought they were supposed to laugh.

Cap'n Bob said...

A few months ago I saw an old TV show in which Coach played a mobster. It was odd seeing him slap around a punk, talk tough, and have brown hair. Thing is, he was a good actor, which is why his role is so memorable.

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Brother Boomerang said...

the funny thing is that people look like their parents. I mean it was funny that coach has a daughter and the way he says it is like he was surprised she looked like her mother. It is just obvious. like if you eat an apple and someone brings you another one and you remark that it reminded you of the first one. why wouldn't one apple be like another apple.

it is just funny he would see it as remarkable. like if someone was shocked that identical twins looked the same.

Joey in DC said...

After "Brothers,"I remember Philip Charles MacKenzie from a very early Fox show called "Duets," that they either retooled or spun off as "Open House." (You know, back when Fox gave shows a chance.) MacKenzie brought that same "lovable lout" quality to that character as well. So talented. Good choice, Ken!

Anonymous said...

I'm posting this here because I did not see another way to contact Ken. Plus, it has to with Cheers. NPR has a podcast called Poptopia: Pop Culture Happy Hour. Last week they spent a good amount of time talking about how wonderful Cheers was, how good the writing was, how great the actors were. It's somewhere in the last 10 minutes of the 4/22 podcast.

turnley said...

Well, that's annoying. I had a post set to go anonymously (just because I don't expect to post here again). Blogger asks me to add a name and it deleted the text I had entered. Here we go again.

NPR's Poptopia: Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast podcast from 4/22 has a long section talking about how great Cheers was -- the writing, the actors. It's in the last 10 minutes. They really loved it.

Kirk Jusko said...

I remember the episode, and it was a sweet bit. Had you left the laugh in, I don't know what I would have thought. Insecure as I am, probably that the joke was over my head.

Larry said...

I haven't watched an episode of Cheers in a long time, but I still remember that moment.

Word Verification: redleg

Anonymous said...

@ Anon at 4/24/2011 6:22 PM:

Ken's not re-posting, he's going into reruns.

Of course, his residuals go down every time he reposts the story...

Anonymous said...

That brought tears to my eyes when I first watched it and seeing it again on YouTube. Wonderful writing and great acting. Thank you very much.

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