‘Cheers’ at 30: Eight Reasons Why the Classic Sitcom Still Matters (INSIDE STORY)
Today, however, Cheers’ place in the TV firmament seems less certain. After all, as of this weekend, it’s 30 years old (it debuted on Sept. 30, 1982). It’s not as hip in its content as the more subversive, satirical Simpsons or Seinfeld, or as cutting-edge in form as laughtrack-free mockumentary sitcoms like The Office or Modern Family. Younger viewers simply may not be aware of what a landmark Cheers was, or how it made all those other shows possible.
“It was incredibly sharp and literate and well acted. It raised the bar in terms of what comedy could be, and the best thing an aspiring TV comedy writer could do is watch that show,” she added.
Those sentiments are echoed by such accomplished comedy writers and and performers as Amy Poehler, whose current Parks and Recreation is unimaginable without the example set by Cheers. Fans of the series should visit GQ’s website, which just posted a wonderful, epic oral history of the show, featuring recollections from nearly every star and writer. Those who aren’t yet fans, read on for eight reasons why Cheers still matters and why it still holds up 30 years later.
1. It created lasting stars. Among those made famous by Cheers are Ted Danson (currently heading the cast of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation), Kirstie Alley (currently on Dancing With the Stars), Kelsey Grammer (currently starring in Boss), Shelley Long (occasionally guest-starring as Ed O’Neill’s ex-wife on Modern Family), and Woody Harrelson (whose recent movies include Zombieland and The Messenger, for which he earned an Oscar nomination).
Then there are others who are less household names but eternally recognizable faces, including Rhea Perlman, John Ratzenberger, Bebe Neuwirth, and George Wendt, who, for the rest of his life, will never have to pay for a drink and will be greeted with a rousing group shout of “Norm!” every time he enters a bar.
2. It was based on a brilliant, endlessly adaptable premise. There had been workplace sitcoms before Cheers, but Cheers was the first one that suggested that any ad hoc people who spent enough time in one place together, whether they worked there or not, constituted a family. That was true of Seinfeld and Friends (substitute a diner or coffeehouse for a bar), and it’s true of the extended families of The Office, Parks and Recreation and Community.
3. It created fully-rounded characters whom viewers came to regard as family members. “What the show did was give viewers an array of characters we could care deeply about, and it also made people care about those people’s relationships with each other,” Huffington Post’s Ryan told Celebuzz.
“This was not the standard way in which comedy operated back in the day, but it’s very present in how many of TV’s best comedies have worked in subsequent years, and I think that’s largely the influence of Cheers. Why did we care about Ross and Rachel on Friends, why do we care about the citizens of Pawnee [on Parks and Recreation]? Because Cheers provided an example of how you deepen and enrich the bond between audience and show — you tell funny jokes, sure, you entertain, but you also have a heart and a story that is going somewhere.”
4. It worked as both self-contained episodes and as a long, soapy arc. Watching any of them today, out of order on late-night TV, each Cheers episode works on its own. But Cheers also marks the beginning of primetime comedies with long-gestating storylines, with characters who grow and change over time instead of remaining static. The will-they-or-won’t-they-hook-up plotline between Sam (Danson) and Diane (Long) in the first few seasons was the model for every show since that’s tried to milk the sexual tension between its male and female leads for as long as it can, without losing the spark of conflict (and the audience’s interest) if they do finally become a couple.
“It raised the stakes in the characters’ relationships over time,” Ryan told Celebuzz. “That simply didn’t happen, for the most part, on any TV shows, but in its own stealth way, Cheers made it safe for shows to be serialized, to have people’s lives change, to have dramatic developments reverberate for months or years.”
Eventually, the notion of a serial plotline that you had to follow from the beginning was everywhere, even in unclassifiable dramas like Lost.
5. It was the model for how to replace a beloved character who leaves — twice. When Nicholas Colasanto died, his sweet-but-dimwitted Coach was replaced by a similar but younger character, Woody Boyd (Harrelson). And when Long left, Diane was replaced by a character who was her polar opposite, Alley’s Rebecca Howe. Both transitions worked remarkably well and gave the show several more years of life. In fact, it’s hard to think of another sitcom that has replaced primary cast members as gracefully — not NewsRadio, nor The Office, nor Two and a Half Men.
6. It made Thursday the most important night of the television week. Believe it or not, in the 1970s, people used to stay home and watch TV on Saturdays. CBS had an unbeatable lineup of sitcoms that included The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. ABC had frothy, hour-long escapist shows Love Boat and Fantasy Island. But the rise of Cheers helped make Thursday into TV’s top night Augmented later by The Cosby Show and eventually by Seinfeld, Thursday night became what NBC rightly touted as “must-see TV.”
Soon, its Thursday hits were commanding top dollar among advertisers. It didn’t hurt that Hollywod studios realized that Thursdays are when many people decide which movies to see on the weekend, making Thursdays especially lucrative for film ads. The other networks began moving their strongest shows to Thursdays to compete, making the night an ad bonanza for all of them. Still, NBC held on for a very long time, with its ’90s Thursday schedule including such mainstays as Seinfeld, Friends, and the drama ER. It’s only in the last decade or so that NBC’s Thursday dominance has slipped, though it’s still the night you can watch the network’s smartest comedies — Community, The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation. And it’s still the most prestigious night for TV sponsors.
7. It never jumped the shark. Sure, some people prefer the Diane years over the Rebecca years, or the Coach years over the Woody years, but the quality stayed remarkably consistent over 11 seasons, thanks to the working rhythms developed by the cast (who knew their characters inside and out) and the top-notch writing staff.
“I attended a taping once,” Denver Post TV critic Joanne Ostrow recalled to Celebuzz.
“They rewrote lines on the fly, trying out various ways to make the funny jokes funnier. There they were, hitting marks, making entrances, spouting lines, writers on the side rewriting even during the taping, suggesting new lines, and it all went off like a little play,” she said.
By the time Cheers went off the air in 1993 (only because Danson was tired of doing it, and no one wanted to do the show without him), it was still one of TV’s top-rated and best-loved series. Forty million people watched the finale, an unimaginable number for any comedy now.
8. It championed a sophisticated style of writing that became a dominant style in sitcoms. Cheers punchlines were full of lofty references to highbrow culture, but placed in context so that, even if you didn’t get the reference, you’d still get the laugh. The writers didn’t talk down to the audience. Often, the writers would avoid addressing sticky topics directly, assuming that the audience would figure out what was really being said. That’s a writing style that bore fruit most clearly on Frasier (which, naturally, was staffed with writers who’d worked on Cheers), but also shows like Friends, Will & Grace (both of which depended on the light touch of Cheers director James Burrows), Seinfeld, The Office, and The Simpsons and Modern Family (both of which have included writer/producers who had worked on Cheers).
Poehler continues to study Cheers on her downtime. “It’s the only show I have on my DVR, and I watch it all the time,” she told GQ. “Not only because it’s comforting, but also because I relate to that feeling of loving the people you work with.” She added, “I hope and assume that every good comedy writer, no matter the age, has a moment where they discover how great Cheers is. And I would encourage any young person getting into comedy to sit down and watch the best television show that’s ever been on, and see the structure of it. Because their jokes were evergreen.”