Monday, March 31, 2008

The night the last CHEERS aired

I’m frequently asked about the last CHEERS. The night is best remembered for the cast being smashed on the TONIGHT SHOW that followed the finale’s airing. May 20, 1993. Here are my recollections of that night in Boston.

The CHEERS bar you see on television (now called CHEERS but originally named THE BULL & FINCH) is owned by Tom Kershaw. He owns the entire building. Upstairs are lounges and libraries.

The final airing was a national event. Far different from the premiere on September 30, 1982 when the cast and writers had a modest viewing party in the small back room at Chasen’s. We ate chicken pies, watched the show, and left. But for the finale, wow! Honored to say I was present for both.

The festivities began around 7. Thousands of people gathered outside the building and watched the show on two giant Jumbotron TV screens specially set up for the event. My guess is one or both of them are now in Simon Cowell’s living room. It had rained earlier in the day and even the threat of more did not deter the crowds. At most there were drizzles that night. No one was seriously electrocuted.

We were not allowed downstairs in the actual bar. Technicians were setting up for the TONIGHT SHOW. And to be honest, there wasn’t much to see. Unlike the TV show, the real CHEERS bar is tiny. The bar itself is up against the back wall. That night it was filled with thirty guys in T-shirts toting walkie-talkies named Dave.

The party was on the second floor. It was packed with invited guests, VIPS, NBC execs…oh yeah, and a few people who worked on CHEERS. Governor Dukakis was behind me in line at the buffet. Wade Boggs cut in front of me at the bar. I spent some time with Bob Costas who I knew from my sportscasting life. There were so few people he knew in that throng that he was actually happy to hang with me. Large monitors were scattered around the room and this is where most guests watched the show.

On the third floor there were two smaller lounges. That is where the cast, CHEERS people, studio and network honchos watched the program. I was sitting next to NBC Chairman, Bob Wright. Tried to talk him into letting me anchor the Olympics but he didn’t seem to go for it.

Every time there would be a big joke you could hear thousands of people laugh outside the window. Where were they for the AfterMASH premiere?

As the show unfolded the realization that CHEERS was really coming to an end began to hit us. Eleven years of dedicated talented people pouring their hearts into one project. 275 episodes. All the re-takes and rewrites and now all that will be left are reruns.

The show ended at 11. The next half hour was an emotional tsunami. Everyone was hugging and crying and doing a lot of drinking. We were all completely wrecked.

And at the very height of that, a rep from the TONIGHT SHOW popped her head in and said, “Okay, we’re ready.” The cast, in no condition to face anybody much less 40,000,000 dutifully trooped downstairs to do the live show. Us non-celeb types stayed back and watched on TV…in horror. But in fairness, they should not be held accountable for anything they said or did. And I do believe, that Jay’s inexperience with running the show then contributed to the whole thing falling apart. I’ve always maintained that Letterman would have kept things more in control.

When the actors returned they were so blitzed they still didn’t realize what a trainwreck the show was.

Two final memories:

During that emotional half hour from 11-11:30 the thousands of fans in the park remained and cheered. At one point Ted Danson leaned out the window and waved. As a goof I joined him. I said, “I have a feeling you’re the one they’re waving at.” And he said, “Yeah, but a year from now you’ll be working.” Obviously Ted scraped together one or two jobs since that night.

Second memory:

My partner David Isaacs and I have what we call the “Prince of the City” theory. Simply put it means the moment you think you’re hot shit is the moment you will be cut back down to size. It never fails.

So it’s about 2 a.m., I’m walking back to the hotel. It’s a bit chilly, I’m wearing a trench coat to protect against any more rain. And I’m reflecting on the night and how this little show I’ve been involved with had become a national phenomenon. And I allowed myself to think I must be a pretty damn good writer to be a part of it. Just at that moment a passing truck roared through a big puddle and I got completely drenched. I mean, sopping wet, soaked to the bone. And I had to laugh. Hail to thee, Prince of the City.


Anonymous said...

"That night it was filled with thirty guys in T-shirts toting walkie-talkies named Dave."

Why were their walkie talkies named Dave? In fact, why did the walkie-talkies have names at all?

What I remember about that night was that, as a Letterman fan, I watched the CHEERS closer, but not The Tonight Show. So when I heard the next day that it had been a disastrous train wreck, I thought "Damn! If I'd known it was going to implode, I'd have watched."

So do you think the night the last episode of LOST airs, will the castaways and the others appear live and drunk from the real Dharma Iniatative?

blogward said...

This is nice.

Anonymous said...

I heard a guy with a walkie-talkie named Dave once shot an elephant in his pajamas.

Great story, Ken. How awesome to have been a part of that show from beginning to end.

Bitter Animator said...

Puddles - Man's only remaining natural predator.

Bitter Animator said...

By the way, if you have any pull at all, Mr.L, you need to get this guy into a sitcom -

His comic acting is superb and he needs to get on television, even if he doesn't seem to know that.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Hail to thee, Prince of the City.

And yet, at least you were wearing that trenchcoat. The normal way the universe works is that you would have been in a t-shirt and jeans, and if you had a coat or an umbrella or something else, there would have been no water-related mishaps.

I loved everything about that finale night, both the episode itself -- still one of the few great finales for a great series -- and the drunken Leno trainwreck.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Or was it one of those wool, non-waterproof coats? In which case, nevermind.

Anonymous said...

Out in the video collector's circuit is the raw satellite feed of that TONIGHT SHOW broadcast.

Anonymous said...

so...i tried to find the Tonight Show on youtube and failed. anyone have tips for me?

Anonymous said...

Hi,Just found your blog and think it's great.
About The Big Puddle to End All Ego - these natural acts of man, weather and animals always seem to impose on my personal narrative when big thigs happen, good or bad. Like when I failed my driving test after being asked to reverse around the corner, hitting the curb and squaking that I must have "killed a cat, I've killed a cat - Oh God I've killed a cat"... "That was the curb, Miss Brown"
After he gave me my big Failed sheet with all teh crosses on it I had to get into the passenger seat to be driven home by a qualified driver and promptly stepped in dog poo. Could have been another disgruntled failuire who encourage their dog to do do at the DVDL (department of vehicle drivers licences)- but then again it may have just been kismet.

Anonymous said...

Here's a sincere question. It's something I've thought about a lot.

You were a successful deejay, you've written and directed some of the most successful TV shows in history, you've done Major League Baseball play-by-play and now you're hooked up on Dodger Talk.

Ken, your enormous and varied talents are obvious. But do you ever feel you are blessed beyond all reason?


Anonymous said...

Although you were gone from the show for several years, any similar stories about the M*A*S*H finale from a decade earlier (other than that little idea of putting several of the characters back together at a Midwestern military hospital?)

Anonymous said...

All these years later, I still think Cheers is the best sitcom of all time. I especially loved that last season when you seemed to pull out all the stops and just go with total anarchy, from the "Did Cliff Kill Ma Clavin"? episode to Carla's fling with John Allen Hill. And of course the much awaited return of Nick Tortelli.

I watched that finale in repeats a while back, spread out over three nights, of course. Not to pick on her, but Shelley Long seemed really off. Like a dinner theatre actress playing Shelley Long playing Diane Chambers (especially noticeable after watching some earlier episodes and realizing how good she was the first five years). Was she uncomfortable being back in a place where she was, um, less than beloved? Or was she just out of practice playing the part?

rob! said...

i think the Cheers last episode is one of the best final episodes ever. yeah, NBC hyped it into the stratosphere, but the quiet, melancholy ending seemed perfect to me--a bunch of witty people (and Woody) sitting around talking.

i thought Sam straightening the pic of Tcumseh was touching, and then just going into the darkness was spot-on perfect.

but of course that wasn't really the final Cheers, since the whole cast (and bar!) appeared in the cold opening to Letterman's last NBC show a month later.

Anonymous said...

I saw the finale's original broadcast. By then I had become tired of all the various Rebecca plotlines, although I still enjoyed what happened with Carla, Cliff, Norm, and of course Frasier and Lilith. I agree that in the finale Shelley was not especially Diane-like.

Was it that episode, or the one the previous week, in which Sam showed Carla his toupee?

Anonymous said...

CHEERS for this - love the blog

Anonymous said...

"You were a successful deejay, you've written and directed some of the most successful TV shows in history, you've done Major League Baseball play-by-play and now you're hooked up on Dodger Talk."

What's the problem, Levine? Why can't you hold a job???

Anonymous said...

Wasn't the final "Letterman" opening- a re-use of one of the openings for a Letterman anniversary show that aired in the "Cheers" slot- a couple years earlier?

Nathan said...

The Bull & Finch was one of my favorite hangouts when I went to Emerson College in the late 70's. I loved Cheers, but I'll never forgive you guys for transforming a great neighborhood bar into a franchise of cheesy airport venues.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of blessed guys,

Frasier's "Room Service" ran on Lifetime this morning. Makes me laugh hard every time.

By Ken Levine said...

Yes I do feel INCREDIBLY blessed.

Eric Weinstein said...

Ken, I was just walking up Beacon Street yesterday, and I noticed people taking pictures of the bar; they come from all around. You've given the panhandlers a place to hit up the unsuspecting now they leave me alone. I appreciate that.

Anonymous said...


Do you think it can be again? Do you think we will have another Cheers, Taxi, Mary Tyler Moore run of good sitcoms?

Unknown said...

Thanks yet again for sharing. Your stories about your stories are treasures.

Could you please write of the feeling(s) you had when you realized you had made your final contribution to either Cheers or M*A*S*H? In this post, I'm guessing you had been done with the show for weeks, if not months by airtime.

For me, when the shows I was a part of wrapped their final meetings before actual production, I was at my saddest point. That was the point when my input was pretty much complete.

Thanks, again.

Anonymous said...

Hey Puddles,
I agree this was nice. But don’t think of it as a Prince of the City Moment, think of it as a Sarah Jessica Parker Sex and the City moment.

I remember when a bar about a quarter mile away in Park Square named Three Cheers,” suddenly popped up with the same font. I think Tom Kershaw had Richard Villerino throw Paramount lawyers at them until the awning came down like within a week.

I still have: 3 Cheers ashtrays, 2 matchboxes, 1 shotglass and about 2,000 cocktail napkins (I don’t know what we're saving those for? Maybe in case Sherry Lansing drops in unexpected, I can run out to Hickory Farms, pick up a cheese log and make a really great impression?) Also one pristine, never worn, but yellowing, size large, long sleeved baseball style Cheers T-shirt (TM Hampshire House Corp./Paramount Pictures Corp.). I’m pretty sure you’d be an XL, but you can have it if you want. I’m not really a long-sleeved T-shirt kind of guy. Mostly because I’ve got the kind of arms that when I roll the sleeves up, they tend to roll right back down again on their own.

My personal Princey moment, just up the hill from the Bull & Finch, was being seen on television walking down a flight of stairs in front of Paul Newman. I I watched it with my wife and said, “Gee, I look a little self-conscious, don’t I?” She said, “Didn’t you notice nobody was looking at you.”

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Hail to all of thee.

I have interviewed three Cheers writers and one of it's directors and would 'do' them all if I had the chance. I tried reaching David Lloyd, but he doesn't do that sort of thing. Instead I got a postcard with a very nice quote regarding the last Cheers episode: "If Ted Danson hadn't decided he wanted to do something else, we all could have made some good money for two more years." But than he wouldn't have written those great Frasier episodes. You gotta love that man.

Anonymous said...

"You were a successful deejay, you've written and directed some of the most successful TV shows in history, you've done Major League Baseball play-by-play and now you're hooked up on Dodger Talk."

And you still find the time to write inspirational notes to yourself...;)

Anonymous said...

Hi Ken

I remember the final episode of Cheers being broadcast in the UK only a few days after it's US showing.

I watched Cheers from episode one -as an 8 year old - and never missed a beat and you bet I was there to say goodbye in '93.

As I recall, as the minutes ticked by, I felt a real sense of sadness kick in, and by the end of the show, and it's little message, I realised that this TV show hs become a part of my life.

I still miss it.

Thank you, Ken.

Suzanne said...

Here's a clip I found, enjoy!

Pamela Jaye said...

Sadly, I am too late to see this.

I didn't see it the night it aired, either.

At the time, we were living on the north shore (Salem, I'm fairly sure - it seemed as if it were Lynn but we only lived there one year, and I've already forgotten what year the finale was. okay, now that I know - Salem)

We heard about it later but pretty much, we just didn't stay up to see the Tonight Show. Ho Hum.