Thursday, December 17, 2015

"Afternoon, everybody!"

Most laughs, when you’re doing a multi-camera show, have to be earned.  Strangers have to laugh.  And that can be especially hard if the studio audience is not that familiar with the show. Example: A network picks up a series but you need to film episodes before it airs. So maybe you show the pilot or have the warm up guy brief the audience, but you’re truly at the mercy of who you get. Add to that, studio audiences are sometimes bussed in to fill the seats. So your show might be an edgy romantic comedy about Millennials and your audience is all over ninety.

We had a tough time the first year of CHEERS. Looking back, I believe season one was our best year, but at the time you’d never know it. Audiences were hot and cold. And of course, any running gag was completely lost on them. I remember once George Wendt doing a Norm entrance that died. He questioned whether that "entrance" routine was even worth doing. I reminded him that this audience didn’t know it was a running bit, but once the show’s on the air they’ll get it.

By season eleven they applauded the minute he entered and said, “Afternoon, everybody.” Which brings up the flip side of this issue. As hard as it was early on to evoke laughter, that’s how easy it was during the latter years. Once CHEERS became a giant hit then demand for tickets was huge.

And now audiences came primed to love it. They were just thrilled to see their favorite CHEERS characters live and in person. As a result, they laughed at everything. We’d watch the rough cut a week later and say, “What are they laughing at?” Not that there weren’t some great jokes those last few seasons, but they certainly weren’t earned.

And the Norm entrances went through the roof. I always wanted to try an experiment.  The idea was vetoed, but this is what I proposed: For one take during the last year when audiences were howling at everything, I wanted to do the following Norm entrance:


NORM: Afternoon, everybody.

ALL: Norm!

WOODY: What would you like, Mr. Peterson?

NORM: A beer.

I seriously believe that in Year Eleven “A beer” would have gotten a monster laugh. That’s what I mean by not earning it.

Like I said, it would have been an experiment and we wouldn’t have used it, but I do wonder how many lines made it through those last few seasons that could have been better? Oh well – I’m sure I paid for it on other shows.


Jeremiah Avery said...

"Add to that, studio audiences are sometimes bussed in to fill the seats. So your show might be an edgy romantic comedy about Millennials and your audience is all over ninety." - this reminds me of what Eric Idle said about some of the early recordings of "Monty Python's Flying Circus". How while they joked how they didn't know what the show was going to be about, the BBC had no real clue either and when they were recording some episodes the audience was basically silent. It was comprised of a lot of elderly pensioners who were told that they were going to be seeing a "circus act". Apparently the name of the show had some think it was going to be an actual "circus".

TF said...

It hit me when I was watching the first season on Netflix, it's not just the Norm entrance that doesn't get a reaction - a lot of the jokes are derived from characters that the audience don't know yet, so they don't get laughs either.


Tim said...

I just laughed out loud at that joke. After 11 years of clever one-liners I think that exchange actually earned joke status, since its straightforwardness subverts audience expectations.

Tom Quigley said...

I had always believed that Stage 25 at Paramount where the show was filmed was a huge soundstage since whenever I watched the show, the laughter seemed to roll through the place with long echoes afterwards. Then when I got the chance to visit it, I couldn't believe how small it was -- one of the smaller sound stages I'd been in in any of the major studios. I realized that what I was hearing on the broadcasts was a tribute to how loud and enthusiastic the audiences at the filmings were.

My favorite Norm entrance:

WOODY: What's going down, Mr. Peterson?

NORM: My butt cheeks on that bar stool.

Terry said...

I agree with Tim; after 11 years of setup, a non-joke would have actually been an unexpected payoff.

That should have been Norm's entrance on the final episode.

Stephen Marks said...

Did they yell out "Norm!" when he walked into the Hungry Heifer? Well its 8 days till Xmas and I've cleared snow off my car they same amount of times you guys have in California. "Cheers" to global warming

Peter said...

I hope I can be forgiven for being off-topic but the UK has got Star Wars a day before you guys. I just saw it (I took the day off work to see the first afternoon showing) and all I can say is that it is beyond magnificent. JJ Abrams is a hero for making the greatest Star Wars film since the original. This is what escapist event cinema is about. And Ken, it's also got a lot of great laughs. I think you'll enjoy the comedy moments.

Elf said...

Had Norm simply said "A beer," I'd expect the other characters to assume he was deathly ill.

Jim said...

I've heard more than a few well known comedians say that the routines that go down best of all when they are doing a live show are those that they've done on TV before. I don't know why comedy audiences like that familiarity, but I guess that's why the Monty Python cast are all an awful lot richer than me.

So from someone who appreciates punchlines that are unexpected and way better than anything I would have thought of, thanks for bothering for all those years.

MikeN said...

Stephen, there was a scientist who declared that in ten years, children just won't know what snow is. A decade passed and we ended up with more snow, so now scientists are saying global warming causes more snow!

Michael said...

Ken, you would have been following the footsteps of Jack Benny, who was a genius on this sort of thing. Yes, he had the cheap character. But if you think of the running gags associated with him, they didn't show up all the time--the Maxwell, the vault, the tout, and so on. There was a 1930s radio comic, Jack Pearl, whose character Baron Munchausen would tell a ridiculous story and, when questioned, reply, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" Benny once told him that if he didn't use that for a couple of weeks and then brought it back, he would get a bigger laugh. Pearl said that was what people tuned in to hear. Soon, they weren't hearing it, because his show didn't last.

Glenn said...

The line "a beer" might not have gotten a response, but you might have gotten something good with the reaction shots of Carla, Woody, Sam, etc. After "a beer", there's a pause and everyone glares at Norm like ...."Is that it? No zinger? No wiseass remark?"

Canda said...

This is probably why viewers think sitcoms use laugh machines, because they can't believe audiences would laugh at every single thing at a taping. But you're right. Audiences have waited a long time to see their favorites in person, so they're bursting at the seams with enthusiasm. The difficulty, I'm sure, is writing a joke and knowing it works because it's funny, and not because the in-studio audience is ready to laugh at anything.

The same thing happens when a line is changed. The audience will laugh hard because they it's different than the line they just heard, so the surprise makes them laugh. Do the writers try to assess which was actually the funny line?

Howard Hoffman said...

I would've laughed and then wondered why. Diane's insistence on calling him "Norman" every time was a nice touch.

My fave FWIW:
What's up, Norm?
My nipples. It's FREEZING out there.

cd1515 said...

hearing the "Norm!" greeting at the bowling alley was a nice touch.

Friday question Ken: watching Cheers on Netflix now, I see a lot of lines I'd never seen before, that I assume were cut out of reruns to jam in more spots.
Have you had what you thought was a great line cut out of a show in syndication?

John Hammes said...

Sam Malone's sports commentary for the local television station.

Hard to believe that was only (?) one episode. Darn near lost it with Sam's ventriloquist act. The groin injury rap, too.

So iconic and hilarious, it just seems like it carried for more than one episode. Actually, kinda wish it had: even "back in the day" there were no shortages of such local television - um - "inspirations" to draw upon.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

George Wendt knew how to deliver a good line.
I bet if you gave him, "Beer" he may have done something with it. Perhaps rub his tummy, perhaps deepen his voice...

I watch some shows, and you can tell that the lines are clever or funny, but that the actors can't deliver them

You've been on some great shows with actors who knew how to deliver a funny line.

Stephen Robinson said...

The Norm line you suggest would work for me at least as a "reversal of expectations." Granted, that requires awareness of the normal expectations, which is the benefit of a "running gag." Sort of like if a character makes a reference to Niles's wife Maris that we all know is untrue (how "warm" she is or what a big appetite she has) and Frasier and Niles share a knowing glance. If you know the history of the character, that's enough to kill but without it, the joke can fall flat.

emily said...

A few nightcaps:

COACH: What would you say to a glass of beer, Norm?
NORM : Going Down?

COACH: What would you say to a glass of beer, Norm?
NORM : Daddy wuvs you.

COACH: What's shaking, Norm?
NORM : All 4 cheeks and a couple of chins.

COACH: What'll it be, Normie?
NORM : Just the usual Coach. I'll have a froth of beer and a snorkel.

SAM : What'll you have, Norm?
NORM : Well I'm in a gambling mood, Sammy. I'll have a glass of whatever comes out of that tap.
SAM : Oh, Looks like beer, Norm.
NORM : Call me Mister Lucky.

WOODY: Hey Mr. Peterson, there's a cold one waiting for you.
NORM : I know, and if she calls, I'm not here.

WOODY: Hey Mr. Peterson, Jack Frost been nipping at your nose?
NORM : Yep. Now let's get Joe Beer nipping at my liver, huh?

COACH: Can I draw you a beer, Norm?
NORM : No, I know what one looks like. Just pour me one.

COACH: How's a beer sound, Norm?
NORM : I dunno. I usually finish them before they get a word in.

COACH: What's going down, Normie?
NORM : My butt cheeks on that bar stool.

COACH: Beer, Normie?
NORM : Uh, Coach, I dunno, I had one this week. Eh, why not, I'm still young.

COACH: Normie, Normie, could this be Vera?
NORM : With a lot of expensive surgery, maybe.

COACH: What's up, Normie?
NORM : My nipples, it's freezing out there.

SAM : What'd you like, Norm?
NORM : A reason to live. Gimme another beer.

SAM : What do you say, Norm?
NORM : Any cheap, tawdry thing that'll get me a beer.

SAM : What do you say to a beer, Norm?
NORM : Hiya sailor. New in town?

SAM : How's life in the fast lane?
NORM : Dunno, I can't get on the on-ramp.

SAM : What's the story, Norm?
NORM : Boy meets beer. Boy drinks beer. Boy meets another beer.

26. SAM : How about a beer, Norm?
NORM : That's that amber sudsy stuff, right? I've heard great things about it

SAM : Beer, Norm?
NORM : Have I gotten that predictable? Good.

SAM : Whatcha up to, Norm?
NORM : My ideal weight if I were eleven feet tall.

SAM : How's life treating you, Norm?
NORM : Like it caught me sleeping with his wife.

NORM : Afternoon everybody.
ALL : Norm!
CLIFF: Afternoon everybody.
ALL : [silence]

NORM : [come in from the rain] Evening everbody.
ALL : Norm!
SAM : Still pouring, Norm?
NORM : That's funny, I was about to ask you the same thing.

WOODY: What's the story, Mr. Peterson?
NORM : The Bobbsey twins go to the brewery. Let's cut to happy ending.

35. WOODY: How's it going, Mr. Peterson?
NORM : Poor.
WOODY: I'm sorry to hear that.
NORM : No, I mean pour.

WOODY: What's going on, Mr. Peterson?
NORM : A sign flashing in my gut that says, "Insert beer here."

WOODY: What's your pleasure, Mr. Peterson?
NORM : Boxer shorts and loose shoes. But I'll settle for a beer.

WOODY: Pour you a beer, Mr. Peterson?
NORM : Alright, but stop me at one.....make it one-thirty.

WOODY: What's going on, Mr. Peterson?
NORM : The question is what's going in, Mr. Peterson? A beer please, Woody.

WOODY: How's it going Mr. Peterson?
NORM : It's a dog eat dog world out there, Woody, and I'm wearing milkbone underwear.

PAUL : Hey Norm, how's the world treating you?
NORM : Like a baby treats a diaper.

NORM : "Women. Can't live with 'em, pass the beer nuts."

Johnny Walker said...

Wow. I'm watching CHEERS again to fall asleep to and I do think about making a list of all the Norm entrances (and all the Cliff "facts"). Did you make that list Emily?

Re: Laughing in the later years, it's weird to think the show's quality may have dipped because it was too popular. I've already noticed the audience change in Season 9. I watched a bit of exposition between Sam and Woody and they both kept having to wait to deliver their lines because of the huge laugh after *everything* they said. Sure, there was a bit of comedy in there, but as someone sat at home I was thinking the same thing: "What are they laughing at?" Was the laughter ever edited down in post?

Also, with this in mind, could a warm-up guy ever be TOO good? Could they make the audience TOO giggly, and so destroy that useful barometer?

Dennis said...

I had always believed that Stage 25 at Paramount where the show was filmed was a huge soundstage since whenever I watched the show, the laughter seemed to roll through the place with long echoes afterwards. Then when I got the chance to visit it, I couldn't believe how small it was -- one of the smaller sound stages I'd been in in any of the major studios.

A friend of mine at Paramount calls 25 the "Lucy" stage, though he said if people at the studio call it anything they usually call it the "Lucky" stage, because of the long running hits that were filmed there. Lucille Ball occupied it for most of the 1960s and into the early '70s for THE LUCY SHOW and the first few seasons of HERE'S LUCY. Later, CHEERS and FRASIER both filmed there. BOSOM BUDDIES was taped there before CHEERS moved into it.

Brian said...

Norm deadpanning "A beer?" would have been funny. Or...

Norm: Afternoon Everybody
All: Norm!
Woody: What would you like Mr. Peterson?
Norm: Diet Coke
At this point everyone in the bar freezes in their tracks and goes dead silent like those old EF Hutton commercials. Maybe even the audience is clued in ahead of time to not make a sound.
Norm: Just Kidding!
All: Whew!

Johnny Walker said...

I don't think Ken's test response is funny at all. I know it subverts expectations somewhat, but there's no joke. Ken, did you have a bunch of entrances lined up for when you needed them, or were they always written for the script in question? How did you check you hadn't done one before? For example, even though I've recently watched most of the series I don't think I could tell you if something like the following was ever done:

WOODY: What are you in the mood for today, Mr Peterson?
NORM: Less silly questions and more beer.


WOODY: What can I get for you, Mr Peterson?
NORM: I thought I might try something new today.
WOODY: Really?
NORM: Sure, but let's start with a beer while I decide.
NORM: Sure, let's try that glass over there. I don't think I've ever drank out of that one.
NORM: Sure, what other bar snacks have you got that goes well with beer?

Matt said...

I think Norm saying "a beer" could have been the start of a story. Norm has a problem and he is off his game.

After years of clever retorts, you not only get a laugh but the beginning of a story.

R. said...

Coach asks Norm, "What'll you have?" Norm, clutching his chest, cries, "Heart attack! My heart!" Everyone laughs at Norm's latest funny as the poor man collapses on the floor. Cliff offers an interesting fact about heart attacks while Carla, nearly stumbling over Norm's body, tells Sam most emphatically, "Okay, I'm not cleanin' that up." Diane, meanwhile, has an author she adores coming to the bar to give her his opinion on her manuscript and frets that this incident will ruin everything. Sam is busy slicing a crate of limes and cannot be bothered.

Johnny Walker said...

@Matt You're right. It would have to be the beginning of something, or at least commented on by the others. They did do one episode where the gang was convinced that Gary's Old Towne Tavern had stolen their wooden Native American statue. They didn't notice until everyone was off their game -- Norm turning down a beer was the final confirmation that something was wrong in Cheers. I believe Ken and David may have written it!

Unknown said...

I'm sooooo excited that I'm finally here for a couple of recent Cheers posts, thank you Ken! I've been posting on really old Cheers posts... anyway, I think 'A beer' would have been hysterical... because that would be the whole point... there WAS no joke, he just wants a damn beer, okay? But I get what you are saying...

As someone who has been religiously watching the early Cheers seasons on Amazon Prime, I can tell you that there are many times when the audience is laughing for no particular reason, even that early on. For example, in Season 2, during 'Homicidal Ham' (love that title!) Diane tells Sam that she's sorry she hasn't been around lately and will make it up to him later that night. Sam says "What time tonight?" and the audience ROARS. What? Why??

Also, I didn't know you were still answering Cheers questions (it must get monotonous sometimes) and I will figure out how to submit, but I'll place my question here for goofs: Would you be able to have such a flagrantly promiscuous character like Sam today? And I realize that pregnancy scares are hard to plumb for laughs, but how does he sleep with "four honeys" (just by season 1) and no one gets knocked up?? Ah, sitcom land...

Also, is there a joke you regret?

Love you Mr. Levine and thank you for helping create the BEST SHOW EVER.

halojones-fan said...

The bit not being funny is the point of the story--that audiences just laughed at the running joke whether it was funny or not.

Unknown said...

I went to a science fiction convention in Chicago quite a few years ago, where one of the guests was Norman Lovett. He is an English actor, who played a character in the series "Red Dwarf." Someone had to explain to him why, whenever he walked into one of the function rooms, the entire audience yelled "Norm!"