Saturday, January 09, 2010

CHEERS -- the Russian Poetry Corner

Here’s a scene of ours from a first season episode of CHEERS called "Any Friend of Diane's". Diane’s college chum Rebecca (played by Diane runner-up Julia Duffy) comes to visit the bar. Imagine a sitcom today being allowed to do this run.


Diane and Rebecca are chattering away in French. They laugh together. Rebecca’s laugh turns into a sob, and she buries her face in her hands.

Rebecca, something’s wrong.

You always saw through my fa├žade of gaiety… Elliot and I have parted.

No. You and Elliot? Rebecca, you two were together forever.

I know. I know. It all started when Elliot got his doctorate in ichthyology. His eye began to wander, and the next thing I knew he had taken up with a young student he met on a squid expedition.

A doctorate changes a man. Rebecca, there’ll be others. In the meantime you have your work.

You’d think so. I used to find enormous comfort translating Russian poetry. But no more. Even when I went back over my favorite, Karashnikov’s “Another Christmas of Agony”, it failed to soothe me. (RECITING) “Mischa the dog lies dead in the bog. The children cry over the carcass. The mist chokes my heart, covers the mourners. At least this year we eat.”

Well...If that didn’t pick you up, I’m at a virtual loss.


denzdenizens said...

Probably,the closest in similar smart,snappy dialogue nowadays is-I believe-'The Big Bang Theory'.

Larry McHenry said...

Needs more dick jokes.

Max Clarke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max Clarke said...

A smart episode. Cheers didn't dumb down their dialogue, so sometimes they made references which a lot of the audience wouldn't get, but they'd get a sense of it. But enough Shope talk.

Julia Duffy was great here, she could get a laugh just by the way she said something, as in "squid expedition." She also wants a man, peasant class, hairy arms, one-word sentences. Very funny delivery.

The poem Julia recites is still hilarious. Strange, most jokes aren't that funny once you know them, but there is something so perfect about this one, it is always funny. Maybe the fact that it's a poem, and delivered so well by Julia, it's more like a song we enjoy over and over, rather than a joke.

At least this year, we eat.

Michael said...

Why didn't Julia Duffy get the role of Diane?

Coops said...

" least this year we eat."

My sides hurt! That is still sooooo funny many years later. I think maybe it wouldn't be out of place on Modern Family (Gloria reciting some kind of Colombian anecdote) or even The Big Bang Theory - but would I laugh as hard? Julia Duffy's delivery was spot on.

Incidentally, I like to watch all of her scenes with Ted Danson and imagine her as Diane but Shelley Long was absolutely the right choice.

However, like Michael, I'm curious: how did Shelley Long end up in the role when Julia Duffy was the first choice to play Diane?

Thanks for Cheers and this very entertaining blog.

A Cheers obsessive in the UK.

Charles said...

I still consider that poem as the purest example of the spirit of Russian literature.

Matt Bird said...

A great episode. I love how, even though Diane's world was was viewed as a big joke by everybody else, you were also able to do whole episodes featuring her friends where you respected her perspective. She could be the laughably-snooty one minute, and then become out sympathetic point-of-view character in the next. This meant that the same writers had to be able to do literary humor and bar humor, which is why they were luck to have you!

Charles Jurries said...

Unedited, I could see MODERN FAMILY having a similar conversation. Made slightly more absurd, BETTER OFF TED could pull it off.

The conversation's too long for 30 ROCK, too funny for the low-key THE OFFICE, not enough interruptions for PARKS AND RECREATION, no fart jokes for TWO AND A HALF MEN...

D. McEwan said...

"Another Christmas of Agony" is the greatest and most touching Christmas poem every written. Clement Clark Moore WISHES he had written it. It still makes me laugh like crazy.

The last time I saw Julia Duffy in something, it was as a mother superior on the crazy NBC daytime soap PASSIONS. Although that show often made good use of many funny performers, Julia was wasted in a nothing role. How could she have sunk to that? She's so terrific.

MattA said...

I don't know why she didn't get the Diane role, but we're fortunate she didn't. This way we got two great characters--Shelley Long as Diane, and Julia Duffy as Stephanie on Newhart.

mcp said...

I last saw Julia Duffy in the Two and a Half Men/CSI writing staff switch off.

The THM writers came up with a CSI episode called "Two and a Half Dead" where Chuck Lorre got revenge on Cybill Shepard, Rosanne and Brett Butler by combining them into one character and then killing her. Julia Duffy played the much funnier sidekick (think Christine Baranski on "Cybill") who got away with the crime and ran away with the show runner.

While I liked "Two and a Half Dead," I thought the CSI writers did a better job with their "THM." episode.

By the way, my checkword is "diangs." Would that be Diane's bangs?

amyp3 said...

Just the title of the poem itself is so great, and then the stanza …

Also, there’s something about the juxtaposition of doctorate in ichthyology and wandering eye … but let’s say no more lest we ruin humor by trying to analyze.

And yes, in defense of more recent shows, there are several that don’t treat their audiences like dummies - they just have a different style.

I'm also reminded of my favorite hourlongs, near-contemporaries of Cheers like Northern Exposure and Moonlighting, and the more recent Gilmore Girls that also believed their audiences had a cerebral cortex. (Even if sometimes the lines didn’t fit the character, e.g., when David Addison said: “I told e. e. cummings, “e,” use caps.”)

Vermonter17032 said...

That's my favorite poem!

Scott said...

mcp I don't think that was Julia Duffy in that (very funny) CSI episode.

This is a great scene, and I loved Julia Duffy. I agree with those who've already noted they could see something like it on The Big Bang Theory.

Raymond said...

My friends and I recited that poem to each other repeatedly. Thanks for bringing it back.

emily said...

When do we get to chew on NBC, Leno, O'Brien and that other guy?
Finally the guy who suggested New Coke can relax...

mcp said...

Scott said...
mcp I don't think that was Julia Duffy in that (very funny) CSI episode.

Good catch. It was Rachael Harris and the title was "Two and a Half Deaths." Must check before posting.

WV: wisin as in I am wisin that I checked before posting.

charlotte said...

[quote]there’s something about the juxtaposition of doctorate in ichthyology and wandering eye … but let’s say no more lest we ruin humor by trying to analyze.[/quote]

This reminds me of a FRIDAY QUESTION I've been meaning to ask:

Steve Martin was famously hyper analytical when it came to studying comedy both from writing and performing standpoints, why something works or not, what makes it more or less funny, moment by moment beats and word choices, etc. (It could be argued that he should go back to that approach since it worked for him so well, compared to whatever it is he's doing these days. But I digress.) Whereas other comedy writer/performers of his generation (Harold Ramis, etc.) come from an improv school background, which is also studious but in a different way.

Do you and your writing partner come from the analyzing-humor-kills-the-comedy school? Or do you prefer to carefully rework/tweak a bit or line for maximum effect? Do you just go with the moment--if people at the table read or the studio audience laughs, then it's a keeper--whether it really "works" in the scene or not?

AlaskaRay said...

I suspect that's not a real Russian poem. It's far too cheery.


Sunshine Vitamin said...

From one with a doctorate in ichthyology, seriously, there is nothing funnier than squid expeditions. We should all be so lucky.

D. McEwan said...

"AlaskaRay said...
I suspect that's not a real Russian poem. It's far too cheery."

Well it's what is considered a heart-warming poem in Russia. A serious Russian poem is far more bleak.

In London in 1994 I went to see a play that starred Helen Mirrin, John Hurt, and Joe Finnes, because it starred Helen Mirrin, John Hurt, and Joe Finnes. The ads all said it was a "comedy."

The play was an 1850 Russian "comedy" called A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by Turgenev, although it should have been called "A CENTURY IN THE THEATER by Turgidnev. It was not a laugh-riot. It was an excruciatingly dull play about a woman in her 50s making a fool of herself over a young man (Finnes. This was 16 years ago) and how this utterly destroys the lives of everyone in a one-mile radius of her house. It was about as cheery and amusing as ANTIGONE performed by a cast of lepers. You had to be a Russian from 1850 to find it a "comedy."

Some plays do not need to be revived, or in this case, exhumed. Leave them buried, espcially Russian "comedies."

So I can easily accept "Another Christmas of Agony" as something Russians would read to their children on Christmas Eve, as they hang up their one stocking for the whole family (with a foot probably still in it), with the kids HOPING for a lump of coal.

Chalmers said...

I always suspected that Julia Duffy didn't get the "Diane" role because she's five feet tall, which might have prompted unintended visual comedy in romantic scenes with her and Ted Danson who's (6'2" or 6'3").

By comparison, Shelley Long is 5'7" and a half and Peter Scolari is 5'6". Like MattA, it's nice that everything worked out and we got two fine characters (and couples).

thomas tucker said...

amyp3 is exactly right- the juxtaposition of ichtyology and wandering eye makes it hilarious.
It conjures up a hilarious mental image.
wv: varyasm ( different types of orgasm)

Jeffrey Leonard said...

In my opinion, Julia Duffy has never gotten enough work. She has been wonderful in everything she's done.

Chalmers said...

Coincidentally, WGN last night ran the first-season "Newhart" episode where Julia Duffy made her series debut as a guest star.

While she played Stephanie Vanderkellen, the cousin of the show's first-season maid (Leslie, played by Jennifer Holmes), she wasn't, you know, "Stephanie."

Along with the videotape that the show used that season, it made for a bizarre viewing experience: same character, same actress, but without the trademark prissiness that made her such a great character once she became a regular.

Kate Coe said...

Everyone always says how smart 30 Rock is, but they never do anything like this. Why is that? TV writers are all better educated (no offense, Ken) and supposedly edgier than in the past, and yet, TV is so ehhh. Are all those Harvard Lampoon alumni dumbing down their work for the rest of us?
I know a Harvard grad who's never stopped working, but she works on junk.