Wednesday, November 19, 2008


It’s usually not a good idea to build a whole show leading up to one big joke. Why? Because if the big joke doesn’t work you are pretty much left with nothing but a big hot steaming turd. On the other hand, if the payoff does work, the episode can be a home run.

Who (over 40) will ever forget the classic HONEYMOONERS episode where Ralph is on a quiz show and has a week to become an expert in popular music.


He enlists Norton to play songs on the piano. But before every one Norton plays the intro to Swanee River. It drives Ralph bat shit of course. By the end of the week he knows every song ever written, can tell you the composer, the year, everything. So he gets on the show and the first song he has to identify is Swanee River. His eyes open wide. He has no idea. Trust me, the first time you see this you laugh for ten minutes.

But it’s usually not worth the risk.

That didn’t stop us from pitching the following idea to CHEERS: Frasier and Lilith are worried that their baby, Frederick hasn’t spoken yet. They fear the worst: that he might be average. They blame themselves of course, and then each other. Frasier suggests he might be better suited for caring for their son during the day. (at the act break he says, “I’ve done a horrible thing. I’ve left our child alone with its mother!”)

The next day Frasier has Frederick and brings him to the bar. At the same time, they put parking meters on the surrounding streets so Norm has to leave every two hours to feed the meter. Every time he returns we do a “Norm entrance”. Finally, Lilith enters and is outraged that Frasier has brought the baby to this worst possible environment. Frederick’s growth will be stunted. Now he’ll never begin talking. Just then Norm enters, says, “Afternoon, everybody” and the baby says “Norm!”

Everyone in the room laughed and we went off to write the script. Then it hit us. What the fuck were we thinking? This was already the 9th season. It was hard enough to come up with one Norm entrance. Now we had to dream up with like five. We had to establish this pattern so that Frederick would have heard the name a lot. The other CHEERS writers would walk by our office, peek in and say, “Hey, how those Norm entrances coming?”

The night of the filming the payoff received a huge explosive laugh. We were heroes. The audience applauded wildly when we were introduced. It was now time to get our just desserts. We sauntered up to the other writers and asked with a swagger, “Well, now what do you think?” Almost to a person they answered, “You’re still schmucks”.

The episode is called “Breaking In Is Hard to Do”. You decide.


Cap'n Bob said...

That was a great Honeymooners episode, all right, but if I may I have one minor correction. Ralph was already an expert on old songs but used Ed to help him bone up for the show.

Anonymous said...

Married With Children and assumedly many others have taken that Honeymooners setup and made it their own.

The MWC gag was Kelly was entered into a quiz show of some kind, the night before she was fed all sorts of information and with each new piece of information she absorbed, another item was pushed out.

Al had always made the claim that back in his high school football hey-day he scored a large number of touchdowns in one game, a grand final or the gridiron equivalent.

The day of the quiz arrives, Kelly has been getting every question right with her newfound knowledge and then the final question...

Well, everybody knows the setup so I don't think I need to tell you all what the final question involved was and how it all turns out.

There is a lot about MWC I miss, but there's also a lot of it I don't.

Unknown said...

The Honeymooners: $99,000 Answer

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

One of the best bug eyed moments.

Anonymous said...

Is that what you meant when you said Norm was hard to write for? The entrance lines?

My personal favorite: Watcha up to, Norm?

My ideal weight if I were eleven feet tall.

(It has some personal relevance).

Max Clarke said...

I remember the little Freddy "Norm" moment, it's still funny.

Favorite Normism: It's a dog-eat-dog world and I'm wearing Milkbone underwear.

Rays profile said...

"What's shakin' Norm?
"All four cheeks and a couple o' chins."

The best example of a big-payoff-ending-joke, I still think, is the Dick Van Dyke show where Rob is sure Ritchie was switched for another baby at I really need to reveal the ending for the six people who haven't seen it?

Anonymous said...

I love that whole episode of Cheers. Frasier's line about leaving Freddy alone with his mother cracks me up. But Freddy's little "Norm!" is definitely a highlight!

I much preferred little 1-2 year Freddy over the insufferable little brat Freddy that emerged during Frasier's run!

Oh and the "dog eat dog, milkbone underwear" Normism is my favorite one as well.

Anonymous said...

Hey, I just watched that episode in the past two weeks. Hadn't seen it for years, and it is terrific.

QUESTION: I think the show got better when Lillith bcame a regular character. Bebe Neuwirth is great. When a character who has been in the show sporadically is finally made a regular, are writers glad or is it just more challenging?

Anonymous said...

1- Best. Honeymooners. Episode. Ever. (I like the Honeymooners well enough, although I am not a super-huge fan.)

2- Second. Best. Cheers. Episode. Ever. (My favorite was the John Cleese episode. Feel free to shed any additional light on this.)

3- TV in general is suffering from Bebe Neuwirth Deficit Syndrome.

As you were.

Anonymous said...

And how fortunate that the rest of the bar didn't shout "Norm" so we could hear Freddie. (But the payoff was worth it.)

MM said...

As someone with a baby whose first word was the dog's name, I can appreciate this story all the more! (He heard us telling her no all day, every wonder he said her name first!) Babies enjoy the repetitive indeed. It's always nice when TV writers get little details like this right.

Anonymous said...

Joe said:

"3- TV in general is suffering from Bebe Neuwirth Deficit Syndrome."

I agree. I always thought Bebe would have been a good addition to the Boston Legal cast. Obviously, that's not going to happen now.

Perhaps a stint on Desperate Housewives!

Anonymous said...

And as perfect as the baby shouting "Norm!" was, you managed to top it with Lillith's response: "He said mommy!"

Anonymous said...

3- TV in general is suffering from Bebe Neuwirth Deficit Syndrome."

I concur. Even my laid-back boozer brother had the hots for uptight Lillith. He loved when she had air time. She was his dream girl for a long time. Lillith, not Bebe. :-)


Matt said...

that's my second favorite moment from cheers. my favorite is when john allan hill bricks up the back, and sam takes the sledgehammer to it and fails to make a dent. so he gets the welcome mat and tries to destroy it, first with the sledgehammer, then by taking a lighter to it - when he realizes it's impossible to destroy, his line, "hey, this is a pretty good mat" puts me on the floor every time...

for what it's worth.

Cap'n Bob said...

And Jim, Jackie Gleason said on one of his shows that he was the perfect weight for a guy 6'11"--or whatever number he used. "I'm not too fat," he said. "I'm too short." Like I always say, all sitcoms flow from The Honeymooners.

Anonymous said...

My favorite "big joke" is an episode of Sgt. Bilko. For some reason, Bilko wants to intentionally lose a bet with the biggest sucker on the base, Sgt. Ritzik.

But Bilko is such a winner, and Ritzik is such a loser, that Bilko simply cannot lose a bet against the guy. It leads up to Bilko betting him that Rupert Ritzik's name is NOT Rupert Ritzik. The way the writers pull off this scene is one of the brilliant moments in sitcoms.

Anonymous said...

Even if you'd guessed the 'Norm!' payoff, it would have been no less suspenseful waiting to see if the baby would fluff his line. Did he do it first take?

Anonymous said...

What happens to the writer(s) that come in after the first bloom is off a show? For example, how do you write the episode that follows the "Happy Days" Jump the Shark three-parter? Or, when a character previously played for laughs ("Hot Lips" etc.) then takes a more serious turn? Is it possible for a show to recover from a stunt episode? Or does that tend to linger?

Anonymous said...

I recall another Honeymooners gag that was like a Polish joke.
Ed and Ralph are struggling to move a chest of drawers. It's too much. One has an idea. "let's remove the drawers." The other congratulates his brilliance. They slide the drawers out. Pile up the drawers on top of the chest. Then move it easily!

Anonymous said...

Your blog has lately made me realize just how much I miss "Cheers" (and "Everyone Loves Raymond" and even "King of Queens"). The story of this particular episode brought a much needed smile to my face. Thanks for all the laughs, and I'm really enjoying reading your blog.

And btw, how great was is to see Ted Danson totally rock his part on "Damages"?

Anonymous said...

Ha! Just reading the joke makes me laugh. I must admit I don't think I've ever seen a whole ep of The Honeymooners, but thanks to Daniel I just watched the ep - funny stuff.

And DrBear, I don't know how that DVD ep turns out - I'm one of the 6!

Anonymous said...

On the Simpsons they were all waiting for Maggie's first words and she burps. Homer says "There, see? She said BURLAP!

Neuer M√ľnchener said...

What great memories this brings. It always makes me think of a colleague of mine who, sadly died recently at 44. He suffered from painful and serious illnesses but never stopped him from a joke. One day I greeted him in our firm's cafeteria. When I asked him how he was doing, he relied, "It's a dog's life and I'm just a big bowl of Alpo." At first I didn't get the joke, then he pointed to his name tag--his last name was actually "Peterson"! And he was built exactly like George Wendt. So after that, we had a running gag--whenever I ran into him, I'd say, "Good Afternoon, Mr. Peterson", or "What's going on, Mr. Peterson?" and he'd reply accordingly.

Eamon Doyle said...

*just deserts

Unknown said...

Cheers was my favorite comedy show! Laughed till I cried sometimes. My sister and I call each other Norm! Miss that show!