Sunday, May 05, 2013

The CHEERS episode we wrote that is now very timely

With the recent announcement by NBA player, Jason Collins that he's gay, I've been asked to talk about the "Boys in the Bar" episode of CHEERS that my partner David Isaacs and I wrote.  The story has suddenly become very timely.  So here again is my behind-the-scenes account of that episode:
Sometimes you just never know.

David 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 we 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!

28 comments:

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Must have made Jerry Falwell nuts. (Not that he needed far to go...)

Mike said...

Just watched this out of curiosity. If I may demonstrate my ignorance, "showtunes" is a guy joke, wheras the kiss is sweet.
(Incidentally, showtunes. I've wondered about Mark Evanier. And Earl Pomerantz. Was Earl's marriage a green card affair?)

Anonymous said...

Good save.

Anonymous said...

I clearly remember one laugher in the cheers studio audience who was Mr. Big Laugh. Was that a crew member? Or a guy who just happened to go to every show?

Stephen Hoover said...

It's mentioned in another blog post that distinctive laugh belongs to James L. Brooks.

alopecia said...

In 1972, All in the Family did an episode titled "Sammy's Visit": Sammy Davis Jr had left his briefcase in Archie's cab and came to the house to retrieve it. As he's leaving, Davis asks to get a photo with Archie and as the picture is taken he kisses Archie on the cheek. Huge laugh—they had to cut over a minute down to fifteen seconds.

It's hard to believe the Cheers audience hadn't seen that episode of All in the Family, so maybe that had something to do with the non-reaction. That can't be the whole explanation, but it's all I can think of.

Isabel Rogers said...

I loved that episode. I loved it so much I blogged about one of my favourite exchanges in it: http://isabelrogers.org/2012/11/08/comedy-its-the-writing-stupid/
It makes me hugely excited that I can mention being a fan of Sam's dangling preposition in your blog about the very same episode. Fantastic to read about how it was made. Thanks!

Breadbaker said...

For what it's worth, I remember laughing out loud at the kiss when I saw the episode when it first aired. I never watched either Simon & Simon or Tucker's Witch.

Kirk said...

I read this the last time you posted it, but just now realized that "Boys in the Bar" is a play on "Boys in the Band."

Chris said...

Friday question: http://syndicationbible.cbstvd.com/series/cheers/cheers.htm

This may be outdated but can you tell us why only 87 episodes have a 16:9 version, since they were all shot on film and future-proofed with 16:9 framing?

RCP said...

Congratulations on the Emmy nomination and the Writers Guild Award - I wish I'd seen this episode when it first aired but I was glued to Tucker's Witch (kidding).

My first thought was that maybe the audience suddenly got uptight, but that doesn't make sense, since that usually elicits at least nervous laughter.

pumpkinhead said...

Is it possible that what the crew thought was hilarious was watching George Wendt get kissed, as opposed to Norm, whereas the audience would not have had the same perspective?

Kosmo13 said...

I really do like the Tucker's Witch series myself .. but nowhere near as much as Cheers.

Just a reminder for those who might have forgotten: Ted Danson guest-starred in the first episode of Tucker's Witch, playing a serial killer.

Chris said...

Friday question: what's up with the "producer" credit? I read somewhere that WGA rules specify that whoever gets it must have had a provable contribution to the episode's script.

Is that true or is it just a staff credit that got moved at the beginning of the episode for most series?

By the way, how did that change happen? (Written By credit first got moved, then Supervising Producer and Consulting Producer, then Producer, now it's just Executive Story Editor, Story Editor and Staff Writer, all lonely at the end).

YEKIMI said...

Friday question: Say you have the script for the two guys (extras, or for that matter anybody who may have a part, speaking or not, that interacts with the main cast) that kiss Norm....are they there for the table read, or does someone sit in for them and they're cast later?

John said...

I think I may have asked this question a while ago, but just in case not, here goes -- Ken, since this was an early Season 1 episode, and the supporting characters' full personalities hadn't been fleshed out yet, if this episode had been written a year or two later, do you think Cliff would have been the one voicing his fears over Cheers becoming a gay bar?

I only mention that because by Season 3, it was pretty much established Norm would drink beer just about anywhere as long as he could run a tab, while Cliff was the know-it-all full of wrong answers. The joke became unless it involved beer or the Hungry Heifer, Norm Peterson wasn't going to get too excited about anything, while Cliff was the excitable screw-up. Watching the episode in syndication -- where you get the full 11 seasons of the characters -- Norm just come across as caring too much here, as compared to the apathetic beer drinking personality he'd be best-known for.

Ron said...

Ken, A question regarding Mad Men on American Movie Channel (AMC). Why does not Weiner have the agency go after AMC (American Motors Corporation)?

Tom Quigley said...

While I'm not going to try and second guess what was probably the best sitcom writing staff of all time (OK, I am), I also think that the ending might have been better suited to Cliff being the victim of the kiss, after going on with one of his nonsensical musings -- in this case maybe pointing out what he perceives to be characteristics of alternative lifestyles, not in the context of being anti-gay, but that how he could always spot someone who is "different" by describing some totally off the wall stereotypical trait ("Look at the socks they wear. Argyle. Who wears argyle socks these days?") -- at which point the two gentlemen each plant a big one on him.

Stephen Robinson said...

"This won't be the kind of bar I have to throw people out of."

This episode was a defining moment for Sam Malone. We saw him for the good-hearted, loyal man he was, despite his many (amusing) flaws.

bigkjordan said...

Ken I was wondering if you had an email address that would feel comfortable sharing. I had some questions for you, but I did not see any contact info on the site.

Johnny Walker said...

I wonder if pumpkinhead nailed this one? Watching their friend get kissed might just have been a lot funnier for the crew. Personally I remember feeling a little awkward about the kiss. Maybe it's because it was only on Norm's cheek? Maybe I wanted him to be confronted more? (Of course I'm watching it with 2010 eyes, not 1980 ones, so what was risky then, is tame now.)

A very interesting mystery, though!

CRL said...

I would have gotten into Cheers a lot sooner if Catherine Hicks played Diane. Or Carla. Or Sam. Or Norm. Or.....

Michael Stoffel said...

Thursday night had the best theme songs....

Kirk said...

I agree with the writer who said it would have worked best with Cliff in a later season. But not the first season. Even though he's in just about every episode, John Ratzenberger's name is not even in the opening credits, and most of time his character just echoes whatever Norm is saying. The know-it-all aspect of his character is present, but it's not yet the butt of jokes. In fact, the other barflies seem to take him seriously. At that point, only Diane sees through him.

ChicagoJohn said...

I'm always interested in what makes an audience laugh during "risky" moments. My thought, from the description, is that the audience was too self-conscious by then to know how their laugh would be received. After all, in the show, the bar members had *just chased the "gay men" out of the bar.
So now the audience is feeling really awkward. You just set them up for a serious moment.
If they laugh at the kiss, then is their laugh perceived as making fun of the two guys?
I'd love it if you had a set of comment cards from the audience at the end of the episode.

Dbenson said...

I think it's more a simple mechanical thing. Nobody really knew Norm yet.

Sammy Davis kissing Archie Bunker was huge because we knew Archie. Benny and Newhart could get huge laughs by just standing there since we had a pretty good idea of what they were thinking and feeling in some supremely awkward moment.

Norm's character was still largely unknown and to some extent unfinished; there was no character reaction that would resonate as seriously funny. He needed a gag line.

Later, you could get a laugh with Norm at a party somewhere, silently gravitating to the closest equivalent of his place back at the bar. Or Vera visiting and not showing her face.

Melanie Hatfield said...

I begged my mom to take me to see the film “In & Out” when it was in theaters, and I remember the audience having a great laugh at that film…until Tom Selleck planted a wet one on Kevin Kline’s lips. I was the only one who didn’t react since I was a young ‘90s teen and seeing two guys kiss didn’t bother me (I’d seen sloppier same sex kisses in my school’s hallways). The rest of the audience was a bit older, and they recoiled. Some people gasped, others (like my mom) covered their eyes. I didn’t understand the reaction, and assumed that some folks just aren’t open to other lifestyles. Maybe I was more open minded because I was young at a time when “coming out” was a big deal, and also seen as a heroic move to an oppressed lifestyle. Perhaps the audience in “Cheers” was the same way as that movie audience: they weren’t quite ready to actually see gays being gay. If you did this episode today, no one would laugh since it's something we've already seen. Y'all were just ahead of your time.

Nathan said...

I realize I'm two months late to the party posting this, but I wanted to say that I remember this episode of Cheers as a formative event in my childhood. I just now looked up when it aired, and it turns out it was my tenth birthday, which I guess is why I was allowed to stay up "late" to watch TV. Afterward, my extremely conservative, extremely religious parents forbade me from ever watching the show again.

That, of course, created a mystique and an allure, and for years I would sneak out of my bedroom to watch Cheers with the volume down low and my nose inches away from the screen. When I was ten, I had no idea I was gay (though my parents may have suspected); when I was in college, and people would bash television as mindless entertainment, I used this episode as an example of television providing a viable alternate worldview to the one I was raised in.