THE death last week of that wonderful actress Kirstie Alley reminded me fondly of Cheers, the classic American comedy set in a Boston bar.
One of the most poignant TV moments I can remember is the ultimate scene of the final programme.
Owner Sam Malone is left alone when customer Norm Peterson lets himself out and drops the latch on the door. Sam, played by Ted Danson, strolls around his domain, pondering on their recent conversation. A knock comes at the door and Sam shouts: ‘Sorry, we’re closed.’ Those are his last words before straightening a picture of Geronimo on the wall and disappearing into darkness.
Thus concludes a saga which began in 1982 and ended in 1993 – some 271 episodes spread over 11 seasons. I never missed a show at the time and recently completed a viewing of the entire DVD box set. I can’t wait to watch it all again.
So what is it that makes Cheers so damn good? In a word, quality. The main actors are uniformly brilliant – from Norm (George Wendt), to his sidekick Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger) and the pompous psychologist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) who would go on to have his own long-running series.
Then there is the ‘ice queen’ Lilith Sternin (Bebe Neuwirth), another psychiatrist who eventually marries Frasier despite her obvious and oft-stated contempt for him. She is austere and humourless but, on the rare occasions when she lets her hair down, a real beauty.
The main theme is Sam’s frustrated romances with irritating barmaid Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) and her bonkers successor Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley). Cocktail waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman) has acid comments for customers and colleagues alike. Some of her best are reserved for Sam’s naïve co-barman Ernie ‘Coach’ Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto). When Colasanto died of a heart attack, he was seamlessly replaced by Woody Harrelson, who plays the gormless hick from the sticks Woody Boyd.
Here is one of my favourite scenes, the arrival of Woody in Series Four. He tells Sam that he and Coach were ‘kind of like pen pals’. ‘You exchanged letters?’ asks Sam. ‘No, pens.’
So that’s the cast. The other massive strength of Cheers is the script. Beer-swilling Norm, the fat guy whose name is roared by all every time he comes through the door, gets at least one great one-liner per show and often many more. Here are a few examples:
Coach: ‘How’s a beer sound, Norm?’
Norm: ‘I dunno, I usually finish them before they get a word in.’
Coach: ‘What’d you like, Normie?’
Norm: ‘A reason to live. Give me another beer.’
Coach: ‘Can I draw you a beer, Norm?’
Norm: ‘No, I know what they look like. Just pour me one.’
Coach: ‘What would you say to a beer, Normie?’
Norm: ‘Daddy wuvs you.’
Woody: ‘What’s going on, Mr Peterson?’
Norm: ‘A flashing sign in my gut that says, “Insert beer here”.’
Woody: ‘How’s it going, Mr Peterson?’
Woody: ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
Norm: ‘No, I mean “pour”.’
Woody: ‘Hey Mr Peterson, there’s a cold one waiting for you.’
Norm: ‘I know. If she calls, I’m not here.’
The butt of this joke is Norm’s wife Vera, who is constantly mentioned in disparaging terms but never makes an appearance.
Sam: ‘How’s life treating you?’
Norm: ‘It’s not, Sammy, but you can.’
Sam: ‘How’s about a beer, Norm?’
Norm: ‘That’s that amber sudsy stuff, right? I’ve heard good things about it.’
Sam: ‘What’s the story, Norm?’
Norm: ‘Boy meets beer. Boy drinks beer. Boy meets another beer.’
Sam: ‘Beer, Norm?’
Norm: ‘Have I gotten that predictable? Good.’
Sam: ‘Whatcha up to, Norm?’
Norm: ‘My ideal weight if I were 11ft tall.’
Sam: ‘What’s new, Norm?’
Norm: ‘Terrorists, Sam. They’ve taken over my stomach and they’re demanding beer.’
Sam: ‘What’ll you have, Normie?’
Norm: ‘Well, I’m in a gambling mood, Sammy. I’ll take a glass of whatever comes out of that tap.’
Sam: ‘Looks like beer, Norm.’
Norm: ‘Call me Mr Lucky.’
Sam: ‘Hey Norm, how’s the world been treating you?’
Norm: ‘Like a baby treats a diaper.’
Finally, Norm sits at the bar waxing philosophical. ‘Women,’ he says. ‘You can’t live with them . . . pass the beer nuts.’
Curiously, Norm’s character was not in the writers’ original plans. For the pilot programme, Wendt auditioned for a minor role as George, Diane Chambers’s first customer, shouting the single word: ‘Beer!’ His comic possibilities were quickly acknowledged, and Norm he became.
His chum Clifford C Clavin Jr, a postal worker, is a tragicomic character, forever imparting useless information and receiving ridicule as a result (Carla describes him as the first in his family not to be born with a tail). He is blunderingly inept with women but eventually strikes up a relationship with Margaret, a fellow postie. When she becomes pregnant by another man in 1993’s ‘Do Not Forsake Me O My Postman’, Cliff loyally offers to be the baby’s stepfather but Margaret goes back to the other bloke.
I will refrain from going through the rest of the cast one by one, although it is tempting, but will say that I find Rebecca Howe a more sympathetic character than Diane Chambers. Behind her confident façade, Kirstie Alley brings a childlike vulnerability to the role while Diane is for the most part merely annoying. In Kirstie’s own favourite scene, she gets so drunk that even the priapic Sam cannot bring himself to take advantage of her. I couldn’t find a clip of it but here are some other Rebecca highlights.
Both women feature in the grand finale, a triple-length episode which attracted an estimated US TV audience of 93million, some 40 per cent of the population. Cheers is widely and rightly acknowledged as one of the greatest series of all time. For me, it’s back to the beginning . . . just the 271 shows to go.
RIP Kirstie Alley, 1951-2022.
Songs for my funeral (1)
I hope it won’t be for a while yet, but I have already decided on the songs that will be played at my funeral. The first is Fairport Convention’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes. This beautiful piece, written and sung by Sandy Denny, is from the 1969 album Unhalfbricking and was voted Favourite Folk Track of All Time by Radio 2 listeners in 2007. I have read that it is one of the most-requested songs to be played at funerals and for once I am happy to go along with the mainstream.
A PS from PG
A dedication: To my daughter Leonora, without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.
PG Wodehouse: The Heart of a Goof