Saturday, October 17, 2015

The CHEERS I'm still writing in my head.

Hello from THE SITCOM ROOM. Since this is a weekend of rewriting and trying to make things work, I thought I'd reprise a column I wrote seven or eight years ago about a moment I'm still trying to fix.

cheers the boys in the bar

Sometimes you just never know.

David Isaacs and I wrote an episode of Cheers the first season called "The Boys in the Bar." We were also producing the show at the time with the Charles Brothers 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 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. "The 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 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 "The 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! What happened???


M said...

"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."

Brilliant, concise log line for the premise. I could see limitless possibilities as far as character reactions, including a conflicted Sam with Diane chastising him the entire time.

I must admit I was one of those watching SIMON AND SIMON (whatever happened to Jameson Parker?).

Can't wait to hear tales from this weekend's SITCOM ROOM.

One question: Thirty years later, have you come up with a solution for the last scene to close out with a big laugh?

MikeK.Pa. said...

Previous post should be from MikeK.Pa. not M. My typing trigger-finger misfired.

Angry Bear said...

To me it might be as simple as Cliff being the one who got kissed. In later seasons I feel cliff would have had dumb theory about bar turning gay and norm might go along with it in a laid back manner. So if this episode was season 3 Cliff would have been the heal not norm. Audience loves norm so they don't laugh. Or they saw themselves as him. Cliff is easy to laugh at. He's that type of character. Few shows can end on just a look. I can see cliff getting kissed and saying, "but I don't even like ferns."

Anonymous said...

With so many earned laughs in such a fine ep, I don't think too much of a big deal should be made about the nearly-quiet one on Norm's last line. It was fine enough.

tavm said...

That last comment was mine. Sorry for not ID'ing myself there.

Kosmo13 said...

The first time I saw that episode, none of the people I was watching it with (including me) could figure out what Norm had said as the tag line. We argued about it, re-wound the tape and finally figured it out. We knew it was something funny, but didn't know what.

I guess my conclusion is, Ken, that it doesn't matter what you had Norm say there. The fact you had him say anything at all was the right decision and solidified the ending. Good job!

Stephen Robinson said...

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

Ken, this was a defining episode of CHEERS for me and that line (roughly paraphrased) not just sums up everything *great* about Sam Malone (despite his many amusing flaws) but what we all loved about the bar where "everybody knows your name." I've always admired Ted Danson and hearing that he supported the script from the start (in 1982, mind you) increases that respect.

There's a lot of criticism about "message" shows, and I think in the Age of Irony, any sort of true emotion is avoided. This isn't hitting you over the head. It's presenting a true dilemma and saying something about friendship and compassion.

You and David have written brilliantly funny scripts, but this was both funny *and* as you say "tries for something." As a writer, it has long been an inspiration.

Matt said...

I just recently saw this episode on Esquire TV. I love the episode, but as I watched it I just wondered would a current TV show be allowed to make this episode.

kent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kent said...

There's nothing wrong with it. It's just the kind of funny where you cringe, smile and nod your head instead of laughing.

Tom said...

To be honest, I think that the biggest issue is expectations. That moment is the climactic one of an episode where you feel proud of yourself for making a statement about a social issue about which you have strong feelings.

But ultimately, while the setup may have said something about prejudices and stereotypes, is the reveal that they'd made a mistake about identity all that funny or unique? If the mistake about identity had sprung from another reason, would you have had the same expectation for a big laugh?

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that the episode was unworthy or unfunny, or that the final moment wasn't funny. I just agree with the poster above that it wasn't necessarily a big guffaw moment, and even back then there may have been a little bit of an "after-school special moral moment" vibe about it. The crew's reaction may have differed because they were also invested in the production of it, and even if some technical crew may be more conservative than creative staff, their worldview even then was probably more progressive than the world at large.

Diane D. said...

I think Kent is absolutely right. This was one of my all time favorite episodes, in fact, a few months ago I used it as an example of the elegant way CHEERS dealt with the gay issue compared to the awkward manner in which other shows were dealing with it at the time. IMHO, it was perfect, and I don't think it even needed the line that was added. I'm a big fan of George Wendt, but neither he (nor anyone else actually) had Shelley Long's ability to say so much with just a facial expression, and that's all he would have needed to get a big laugh there, I think. I wonder what his facial expression was when he did it for the crew.

I still say, however, that it didn't need a big laugh there.

Wilson said...

I felt the final joke was a bit rushed and there should've been more. Also, there's nothing wrong with the regulars fearing Cheers would turn into a gay bar. Gay bars have a different ambience than a sports bar. Would the regulars have been "bigots" if they were to ever fear Cheers turning into a biker bar?

Anonymous said...

If it hasn't been said already, I would guess the difference between reactions is that so early in the show's tenure the crew knew Norm/George much better than the audience, so the surprise of seeing Norm kissed generated a bigger response from those who knew him well.

D. McEwan said...

I was watching that episode the night it first aired,with a couple other gay men. "Better than Vera," not only got a big laugh in my living room, but cheers and applause.

Breadbaker said...

One of my favorite all-time Cheers episodes and I'm with D. McEwan. Organically, it was the right move and it did so much to establish the good parts of Sam's character. Mind you, it's very much of its time. Today, Sam in Boston would have far less hesitation about "supporting" his roommate.

Andy Rose said...


Where the prejudice comes in is not the fact that the regulars wouldn't want the tone of their bar to change. It comes from making the assumption that just because Sam would accept a gay friend that he'd automatically want to turn his business into a gay bar. This episode was made at a time when "homophobia" was often expressed as fear in a literal sense, as though being gay was some kind of social disease. Fear that a gay person in power would make their whole institution somehow gay. Fear that a child exposed to a gay teacher or gay pop idol would make that child "turn" gay.

Charles H. Bryan said...

It didn't need a big laugh. Norm's line is perfect. Exactly the tone and humor that befits the episode.

However, whenever go-to big laughs are needed in the future, I recommend any sideline photo of Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell when he's in his fugue state. I'm not blaming him for feeling that way.

fred said...

Maybe, just maybe, the crew was laughing at "George" getting kissed since they knew him. And weren't laughing at Norm being kissed...

Johnny Walker said...

Re-watching Cheers again recently, the ending of that episode did fall a little flat for me (sorry Ken!). The Cheers regulars reveal themselves to be a tad bigoted (which isn't great for their likability) so it felt like they needed to redeem themselves in some way. At tall order for 25 mins, I know. Instead of redemption, however, Norm gets kissed. The "better than Vera" line gives us some redemption (he doesn't mind he was kissed after all) but it's not a big laugh (for logic reasons, I think -- Vera doesn't give great kisses on the cheek?).

As Anonymous points out, I think the crew watching George (not Norm) get kissed would have been hugely funny to them.

The rest of the episode is great and surprisingly progressive! I was kind of shocked watching it again. It handled homophobia in a way that's not really dated -- which is far more than you can say for most shows 20+ years old.

I wish the same could be said for Sam's womanising (anyone remember when he finally gives up on trying to sleep with Rebecca? I'm on season 7 and it's a bit grim at times).

Now I need to go and rewrite that blasted scene from the SITCOM ROOM one more time. Good luck to all those there. (I hope it's not 6am when you're reading this -- and if it is, I hope it's not because you're still trying to figure out what happens in the scene!)

DrBOP said...'s the off-topic kid again.....bringing you an recently-discovered interesting source of relatively cheap cd's of radio broadcasts from the past.....I'm hoping some of the names mean something to you.....good luck!

Steve Mc said...

I like Angry Bear's angle about Cliff getting the kiss as a comeuppance. Maybe we all identified with Norm but we felt superior to Cliff so it's easier to laugh at him.

Jason Roberts said...


Did you see this article on Deadline:

Ted Danson had to pitch cheers to Cristin Milioti at a Paleyfest event as she had never heard of it before!


John said...

Agree with those above on how the show's characters became defined in the ensuing years, Norm's role here would have gone to Cliff -- by Season 3, the joke with Norm would have been he didn't care if Cheers turned into a gay bar, as long as they kept allowing him to run a tab (and if you got to Season 3, Cliffie explaining his theories on homosexuality to psychologist Frasier Crane also would have been an easy place to mine comedy).

Donald Benson said...

Seasons later, there was a moment where Cliff and Norm were ogling a photo of Rebecca's rival for boyfriend Robin. Rebecca sniffs that the girl isn't THAT pretty. Cliff and Norm summon an acquaintance over; he looks at the photo and says "I'd switch" -- the joke being that even a (subtly implied) gay man found this girl hot. Big laugh, but also a sign that the boys had long since accepted gays in the bar.

If memory serves, gay was used for farcical purposes rather than stereotype jokes. Norm pretending to be gay so he could charge more for interior decorating work; Rebecca being the only one who doesn't know her old high school love is gay; and Sam introducing a fake gay lover to escape out of a rash promise.

Stephen Robinson said...

Some more thoughts:

1) I think Cliff would not have worked as well as Norm in another version of this episode. The middle-aged virgin who lived with his mother was played for Norman Bates laughs at times and also would skew the story to being about Cliff's own concerns about his sexuality. It reminds me of a WKRP when Les Nesman is assumed to be gay.

2) To @JohnnyWalker's point about the regulars coming across as bigoted, I think that was a bold move. And certainly true to the times (and sadly, even now in some parts of the country). I think the "redemption" is the reality that these men were happily interacting with two gay guys and never knew it (two men who were hardly going to turn the place into a "gay" bar).

3) I think the "better than Vera" line is key -- even by this point of the series, we know that Norm is a wise cracker. If he's let speechless, something feels wrong (same with Carla), and I'd argue that's why the audience might have responded poorly before the line was added. They were *waiting* for something. I don't think this is a reflection of Wendt's talents, but just the expectations for the character. At a time when sadly, this type of physical affection might have resulted in violence (gay men were assaulted for even the perception of having hit on another man), Norm's reaction diffuses tension and lets us know that he's OK with it. We leave the episode still liking him.

Johnny Walker said...

Stephen, you're right that the idea is to show that their fears were absurd, but that doesn't make them any more likeable for being homophobic in the first place -- that's what I meant by "redemption". Not for the show, but for the characters.

Speaking of identifying with Norm over Cliff: That's definitely a trend I didn't enjoy (and I don't think it really became a thing until seasons 6 or 7). They're both buffoons, and I much preferred it when Cliff and Norm were shown as an equally sad-sack double act. Yes, Cliff was far more annoying, but for Norm to look down on him is a bit silly; they're both pathetic (in the most likeable way).

As the show went on, something else changed with Norm, too: There were moments where he genuinely seemed to not care about Vera anymore. The original joke that he was lost without her, but he could never let the bar know his true feelings, kind of went out the window later on, where the opportunity for a joke overtook his supposed hidden feelings.

And speaking of that, in my head, the reason that Norm was in the bar, night after night, instead of at home with his beloved was this: Vera worked nights, and Norm couldn't handle being home alone.

canda said...

Could it be as simple as Norm was not a huge bigot, so it's not that big a deal. Now, when Archie gets kissed by Sammy Davis, that's HUGE....because Archie is a huge bigot.

Dana King said...

I rememeber that episode. I loved it. Canda may have the best explanation. Maybe if Clif had been the most certain about who was gay (and mistaken) and they had kissed him?

(Knowing Clif, he may well have been the most certain, but it's been a long time and I'm old.)

Stephen Marks said...

Ken you mentioned that the table read received a nice reaction but not a great one, wondering if you could tell us which episode did receive a great response from those assembled around the table.

Angry Bear said...

All I know for sure is people don't talk about a show 30 plus years later unless it's the best sitcom of all time. And to me CHEERS is. And I'm afraid this blog is becoming too gay. Where can I turn to?

I do agree that the biggest problem is simple the guys who kissed Norm we didn't know like Sammy Davis Junior and Norm wasn't as bad as Archie... also it did end so fast after the reveal, you could barely sink it into your head if you weren't paying attention the first time.

And maybe it's just not as funny as clever. It's still a great episode, but like most sitcoms, it's best in the middle of the run when you know the characters as writers and as an audience, just always funnier.

- Matt (Angry Bear is my nickname via my wife.)