“Personal Business”/“Homicidal Ham” S2 / E3-4
- A- Community Grade
“Personal Business” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 10/20/1983)
In which Diane and Vera leave…
Meredith Blake: At this point in the series, Diane’s been a barmaid at Cheers for more than a year. It took a while—most of last season, in fact—but she’s truly become a member of the family, someone who’s not merely tolerated by her peers, but beloved. Now that she’s dating Sam, Diane is essentially the First Lady of Cheers. Even still, she continues to view her job with obvious disdain—lecturing uninterested patrons about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and trying to weasel out of a shift so she can attend an Oriana Fallaci lecture. (But who among us hasn’t done that, amirite?) Carla, the one person at Cheers who remains skeptical of Diane, complains to Sam and, in an attempt to appear judicious, refuses to let Diane out of her shift.
Rather than lashing out at Sam, Diane decides it would be best for their relationship—and her mental state—to find a job more suited to her strengths. She tenders her resignation with a letter written in French (of course) and departs the bar with a wonderfully defiant farewell speech. “You all think I’m nothing but a hot-house orchid, unequipped to survive in anything but a rarified atmosphere. I’ll have you know there’s weed in me!” she proclaims, a line I’d like to have made into bumper stickers featuring Shelley Long’s likeness. Interesting, isn’t it, that Diane only leaves the bar as a way of proving herself to the gang? No wonder her efforts are doomed.
As act two opens, Diane returns to Cheers with some happy news: She’s been offered a proofreading gig with a small publisher. All she needs is a glowing recommendation from her most recent employer—a.k.a. Sam—in order to make it official. Here, of course, is where things start to get complicated. When her would-be boss, Mr. Hedges, calls, Sam sings Diane’s praises, but it turns out Mr. Hedges is only interested in one thing: what Diane looks like naked. As much as she wants to move on, Diane is frustrated that her potential employers are only interested in her body. It’s a reminder that, chronologically and culturally speaking, Cheers is a lot closer to the era of Mad Men than it is to the present day.
In its third act, “Personal Business” pulls a wonderful little switcheroo: Just when it seems like the episode is going to be all about Diane’s search for professional satisfaction, the focus instead becomes Sam and Diane’s overwhelming physical attraction to each other. When Sam refers to her as “the best combination girlfriend-waitress in the city,” Diane realizes that maybe he’s not all that different from Mr. Hedges. Sam tries a little reverse psychology, suggesting that Diane only accepted a job at Cheers because she “had a burning desire to discover and explore Mt. Sammy.” In order to re-establish a professional boundary, Diane proposes a one-month break from sex. Feigning a serious demeanor, Sam makes a counter offer: “Two weeks of strictly business and I’ll be back in peak shape.” Soon enough, the hiatus is whittled down to a mere 15 minutes—just long enough to get to Sam’s apartment. Here’s yet another moment that challenges my fuzzy adolescent memories of Cheers. I started watching in the Rebecca years and, though she loomed large in the show’s history, Diane always seemed prim and cerebral compared to Kirstie Alley’s lusty character. As a result, I suppose I never realized just how hot Sam and Diane were for each other.
As terrific as the Sam-Diane stuff is, there’s so much else to enjoy in this episode: Norm’s spat with Vera, Cliff’s reference to the “derogatory tense,” and even Carla’s histrionics. In the end, maybe my favorite thing about “Personal Business” is how effortlessly the whole thing flows together, moving seamlessly back and forth between the main story and the amusing side gags. I suppose that’s the simple genius of a sitcom set in a bar.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’d give this one a shaky “B.” After a very strong start to the new season, this episode shows the series actually trying to grapple with the implications of Sam and Diane’s employer-and-employee workplace romance, and I think it does a hit-or-miss job of it. It would be easy to complain about the logic that forces Diane back to the bar because every job offer she gets comes “with sexual strings attached.” It may seem like a cop out that she decides that it’s okay to be working under her boss (no snickers, please) anyway because she’s so warm for his form. It is funny, though, and it’s interesting that, at this fairly early stage in the romance, the show had already gone so far in defining Sam and Diane’s relationship as being at least 99.9 percent lust-based. (During roughly the same period at the Peacock Network, Frank Furillo and Joyce Davenport were starring in some famously steamy bedroom scenes, but they were able to talk to each other, too.) But my real problem with the episode is that I just think the joke-writing is disappointingly inconsistent. There are an unusual number of groaners, too many over-obvious setups for the sake of punchlines that hit the dirt with a thud, especially some of the slow balls Sam serves up to Coach. There are some great moments, though. So many of them derive from one-sided telephone conversations that I wonder if somebody in the writers’ room had just gotten a stack of old Bob Newhart records for his birthday.
Ryan McGee: I’m annoyed you brought up Mad Men first, Meredith, because… um, well, I was gonna do that. But I do enjoy watching this show for an insight into the sexual mores of the time, and how much they resemble as much as differentiate themselves from AMC’s flagship show. If I may pull a Diane Chambers for a moment, I remember learning about the concept of “social energy” in college. As expounded by Stephen Greenblatt, social energy was a way to explain how cultural forces made their way into works of art, whether they might be theatre, sculpture, or in this case, the situation comedy. While it seems odd for things to be so obviously ass-backwards in terms of sexual mores at the point in time depicted in this episode, it’s couched in a truth that the show could exploit.
But while the episode exposes the social energy of the time, it also has some fun in manipulating it to create something new. In particular, I enjoyed how Sam turns the tables on Diane, offering himself up as a piece of meat for her to ravage. Considering how often she runs verbal circles around him, it’s fun to see Sam rise to the occasion (in more ways than one), using damsel-in-distress imagery to both cheer her up and even the playing field between them. While it’s hard for me at times to buy into the unbridled lust between them, I never doubt for a second that these two are equally matched in their ability to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each other.
Noel Murray: This one’s a little choppy, yes, but I liked it for a couple of reasons. Norm’s separation from Vera is good for a few good scenes and lines, including Norm circling the bar “on the prowl” and him waxing rhapsodic about Vera’s “famous” hickeys. And as you noted, Meredith, it’s fun to see Sam and Diane enjoying their couplehood—especially given what’s coming for them. The plot of this episode mostly continues the “What does it mean for these two people to be together?” explorations of the season première, as the writers deal directly with how Sam and Diane can operate in the workplace as boyfriend and girlfriend. But they follow the path where it leads, which is to Sam and Diane going all oogy for each other. And if nothing else, it’s a refreshing change of pace to watch an episode-ending Sam-and-Diane chitchat that isn’t a screaming match.
Todd VanDerWerff: Last week in comments, Larrybaby offered up a really interesting dissection of how the show in its early days was interested in the ways that the shifting sexual mores of the 1960s and ‘70s were affecting the dating scene of the early ‘80s, where everyone knew there were new freedoms but also felt to be on less solid ground than usual. This also played into the show’s subtle class distinctions, in Larrybaby’s thesis (a prepositional phrase I’ve always wanted to type), as Diane and Sam’s class differences also reflect how they would think about, say, women’s place in relationships. These sorts of things percolate throughout this episode as well, though it’s probably not as successful at delving into them as “Power Play.” (We’re back inside the bar exclusively again, which means we don’t get to meet the caddish man who tries to hire Diane.) The episode wanders right up to the edge of tipping over into Norman Lear-ville, by having Diane offer up a monologue or something about how hard it is to not be valued for her talents but, rather, her good looks, but it pulls away from that at the end. At all times, Cheers wants to tell character stories, and it veers here into an examination of Sam and Diane at their happiest. It shouldn’t really work, but it’s so sweet that it does, and it pulls the episode’s many disparate pieces together.
Donna Bowman: Because I have grown to love Diane so much, I can’t quibble with much of anything about this episode. “Men are beginning to really disgust me,” she moans after Mr. Hedges destroys her faith in the administrative staff of small publishing houses. “Even more than they did before.” That addition is so sweet, somehow, because it speaks to the fact that Diane’s political positions exist in an uneasy tension with her hopes and dreams. She’s supposed to be disgusted by men, and she tries, but her faith in art and culture sometimes make her forget that those worlds are also populated by slavering animals. There’s a master’s thesis somewhere in Diane’s ever-shifting distinction between angels and human beings—including herself.
But really, how can you have any serious problems with an episode that ends with Sam and Diane, in their politest, most businesslike manner, negotiating how brief their sexual hiatus is going to be? My smile got wider and wider as months became weeks, days, hours, and minutes. It’s not just the gag that’s funny; it’s the manners they adopt while executing it. When Sam invites Diane to sit so they can discuss the matter cordially, I just about lost it. When a sitcom can get such a huge reaction from a simple act of decorum, you know something extraordinary is going on.
Erik Adams: I’m glad you brought up those points about Diane, Donna, because my main worry about the early goings of “Personal Business” was that the episode might wreck the hypocrisies that make Diane such an amusing character. Those worries were unfounded—a character threatening to leave forever is one of the oldest tricks in the sitcom book—but it did get me thinking about how much I enjoy watching Shelley Long contradict herself. (And laugh at herself, a tendency that should be annoying but is ultimately funny because it’s so “Diane.”) She puts up such a good front, and that’s one of the reasons that final scene soars: Behind that hilariously prim-and-proper negotiation is the burning desire to do to Sam what all those potential employers wanted to do to Diane. Another advantage to setting a sitcom in a bar: It’s a setting where people are constantly lying to themselves.
DB: The line I’d like to get on a bumper sticker featuring Diane’s face is “We both find me adorable, ha ha!” But only if the image can somehow capture the way she tosses her head back to indicate self-deprecation through exaggerated vanity.
MB: I was hard on him last week, but Ted Danson is completely winning in this episode, isn’t he?
RM: The cold open “Blubberbutts” joke is semi-shocking, only because it’s crass and unclever in a way that the show would only stoop to in much later seasons.
NM: The evolving character of Cliff: from interjecting relevant, true facts in season one to being cockily wrong about Diane’s French in her resignation letter in season two.
TV: The woman from the “Blubberbutts” (which I’ll agree was a crude joke) turns up in the background of the scene where Norm is going to call Vera on the phone, and once you see her, you can’t unsee her. She keeps staring blatantly at the camera and smiling. It’s really unsettling.
NM: Is anyone ever going to put on that straw boater that’s hanging behind the bar? It’s like Chekhov’s hat back there.
“Homicidal Ham” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 10/27/1983)
In which there is an excerpt from The Tragedy Of Andy Andy, The Murderer Of Boston…
MB: I know we’ve only just begun the second season of Cheers so it’s probably too soon to make sweeping generalizations like this, but I’m going to throw caution to the wing and say that “Homicidal Ham” feels like a first-season episode of the show. Of course, a large part of that is due to the return of Andy “Andy Andy” Schroeder, the chinless, waitress-killing ex-con we first met in “Diane’s Perfect Date.” But it’s also because the scenario—Diane is punished for her highbrow, bleeding-heart ways—feels old hat. I suppose I was wrong to assume the hazing of Diane would cease just because she’s now Sam’s main squeeze.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. “Homicidal Ham” begins on a high note, as Andy Andy, the floppy-haired homicidal maniac, waltzes back in through the front door of Cheers. Diane panics at the sight of him, but Sam is all bravado. “Does he look dangerous to you?” he asks smugly. Perfectly on cue, Andy Andy brandishes a pistol and orders Sam to empty the cash register. With their hands up in the air, Norm and Cliff deliberate over what to do. “Statistics show that 33 percent of the time a guy carrying a gun will not use that gun if challenged,” Cliff claims. “So?” Norm replies, not impressed. “So, if he’s already shot two people today you’re in luck.” (George Wendt and John Ratzenberger really have found their rhythm, haven’t they?)
They needn’t have worried: Andy Andy’s weapon wasn’t loaded, and the stickup was merely his attempt to get sent back to prison. As he explains to Diane, he is “worthless” in straight society, and the only thing he ever really wanted to do was act. Diane instantly falls for Andy Andy’s sob story and decides to become his drama coach; she even calls up her old professor from Bennington. It’s a perfect trap for Diane, a chance to prove she’s compassionate, well-connected, anda skilled thespian. How could she say no?
At first, Diane’s plan goes swimmingly. Andy Andy turns out to be a pretty good actor, and he doesn’t even try to kill Diane once. Of course, anyone who’s read Othello in high school could have predicted what comes next: Andy Andy catches Diane smooching Sam and is gripped by homicidal jealousy, just as they’re both about to take the stage at “Cheers Talent Night.” Diane explains the play to the unwashed masses assembled at the bar, “This is a story of a man driven by insane jealousy to murder the woman he loves because he believes that she’s in love with another man.” It’s only then that it dawns on her: Andy Andy is going to kill her.
“Homicidal Ham” asks us to suspend an awful lot of disbelief—wouldn’t it occur to someone as literate as Diane that staging a scene Othello with a convicted murderer might be a little awkward?— and I wish the writers didn’t insist on chastening her all the time. That said, this episode really is a lot of fun, and Norm and Cliff valiantly leap to Diane’s rescue in the end, so I shall suspend my hand-wringing forthwith.
I’ll leave with a question for the group. Though I enjoyed “Homicidal Ham” (with a title like that, how could you not?) I think I tend to prefer the insular episodes of Cheers to the ones that revolve around outsiders like Andy Andy or Harry The Hat. I wonder if this is one of those definitive TV binaries, like Ginger or Mary Ann? What say you?
PND: This is an especially cartoonish episode, and I imagine that some people will wonder what’s so funny about seeing somebody trying to choke the life out of Diane. So it may just be that I’m a sucker for theater jokes that I’d be willing to forgive any degree of contrivance so long as it got me to that moment when Diane screams, “Help, this psycho’s trying to kill me!” and everyone in the bar thinks they’re still watching a scene from Othello. (It probably goes without saying that I almost swooned with gratitude when the script went out of its way to set up a joke about Tiny Alice, mainly remembered as Edward Albee’s worst play, and remembered as that only by, of course, theater geeks.) In general, though, after the audibly grinding mechanical gears of some of the jokes in the previous episode, a lot of the lines here has a surreal edge to them that’s close to Steven Wright. (Diane: “He can spot an actor from a mile away.” Coach: “That must come in handy at drive-ins.”) Seeing Derek McGrath reprise his role as Andy made me realize that I’ve seen him in other guest spots on other TV shows and never found him particularly funny, so I guess he was put on Earth to play Diane’s weirdly phlegmatic, murderous stalker. But I’m still willing to bet that he got cast because he looks a little like the TV critic James Wolcott. (Wolcott had given the first season a mixed-to-pessimistic review, largely on the grounds that he thought Ted Danson seemed too intelligent to convincingly play a dumb ol’ ex-jock.)
RM: This felt more like a spec script than an actual episode of Cheers. It was as if someone watched the first season of the show and wrote this more as a theoretical episode rather than one that was part of the regular rotation. Andy Andy brings a bizarre energy to the show with this much screentime, almost as if he infects the entire bar with his lunacy. On one hand, we don’t believe he’ll actually cause Diane harm. On the other hand, why on Earth Diane thought that Othello would be an apt piece for her and Andy to perform is beyond me. Yes, she’s self-centered about her help toward_ him. But some level of awareness is required above and beyond what’s on display here. Rather than be a specific character who creates a situation, here’s a case where Diane serves the plot rather than the other way around. This was a sadly forgettable episode, one that left a slightly bad taste in my mouth by the time it ended.
NM: I’m more with Phil on this one. This is an episode I remembered fondly from my youth, and Shelley Long’s comic timing in the big Othello scene was as crackerjack as I’d recalled. I agree though that the setup for “Homicidal Ham” is super-contrived. It was a fine idea to bring Andy Andy back, but the line between Andy sticking a gun at Sam and Diane helping Andy pick out a scene is drawm awfully short and straight. That said, despite the cliché of Diane and Andy doing a Shakespeare scene (Shakespeare is shorthand for “culture,” I know, but any show that can drop an Oriana Fallaci reference should be a little fresher, I think) and despite the way that the Diane-choking drags on a bit (from a funny bit of slapstick to something kind of disturbing), I could watch Long putter about in Elizabethan garb all day. Diane’s genuine enjoyment of the arts is infectious.
TV: David Lloyd’s first script of the second season returns the guest star from his best script of the first season. While I’m with Meredith on the sense that the whole setup here is a little strange (also: a bar would really do a staged reading of a Shakespeare scene to get a former convict a job in the theater?), I think the final setpiece is so much fun that I don’t really have a problem with the episode as a whole. I think it says something interesting about what we’ll accept from sitcoms in terms of stakes, too. We know, intellectually, that the regulars on our favorite shows (particularly comedies) aren’t going to be killed out of the blue for no real reason. It’s one of the things that’s most comforting about television. But the show seems to be working hard to generate some legitimate suspense in that final scene where Andy’s strangling Diane, and it never really earns it because it’s Cheers, y’know? The earlier stickup is played much better in this regard, simply because nobody really thinks Andy’s going to get any money. We all know the gun’s not loaded. Cheers, like many of the best TV shows ever made, is interested in the fact that to keep on the air, nobody’s ever going to be able to change all that much, and the fact that even a minor character like Andy has to abide by that rule makes for some good fun in the final act.
DB: Yep, this episode is a rickety set of scaffolding built around one irresistible idea: Andy Andy as Othello and Diane Chambers as his increasingly reluctant Desdemona. But what an idea, and what a scene! Andy’s brooding intensity as Diane stalls with an ever-lengthening introduction (“But first, a little background on the 16th century!”) is electric, the perfect foil to Diane’s nerves. The whole scene plays out as theater, in that the cutting doesn’t seem built into the framework, but almost comes off as spontaneous. When Burrows cuts to Andy glowering while Diane speaks, we feel like he has been glowering just like that in the background for the duration — like if we could have taken hold of the camera and whip-panned over to him at any moment, we would have seen the same. And didn’t we feel for Andy, too, with his enthusiasm for Diane’s improvement program shading into love fostered by the care she is lavishing on him? Murder’s going too far, sure, but his disappointment and even anger is something with which we can empathize. Which makes the scene into just desserts for Diane, at least before the actual strangulation starts. The only part of “Homicidal Ham” that falls flat for me, frankly, is Andy’s reference to hearing voices that gets a callback as he turns into the maniac at the end. That’s where the fabulous farce becomes the cartoon, but it hardly dims the luster of what came before.
EA: In response to Meredith’s query: When it comes to guests reshaping Cheers in their own image, I prefer for new image to incorporate the whole cast. “Pick A Con, Any Con” is such a blast because it involves all the regulars, and they each have a personal stake in the outcome of Harry’s card game. The beginning of “Homicidal Ham” is similar in that regard, and it earns some big laughs in showing us how, say, Carla’s reaction to being held at gunpoint differs from Cliff and Norm’s. (On a related note: Is it just me, or do the rest of the bar patrons carry on in that scene as if they’re not aware there’s a robbery in progress?) The rest of the episode boils down to the “Andy Andy And Diane Show,” which, seeing as Andy Andy is a such a domineering presence, is simply the “Andy Andy Show.” Recurring characters are necessary for making Cheers feel like a real bar and not the private domain of Sam and company; as such, it’s jarring and disappointing when someone like Andy turns up to temporarily turn the bar into a funhouse version of itself.
MB: Coach on Carla’s fake baby bump in the cold open: “You should tell her to get rid of it.” Sam: “I can’t. She’s Catholic.”
DB: Abortion humor! Good times. Phil, you got the Albee joke? I bow to your nerdiness, sir. (Seriously, though. “At Bennington they’re still talking about my Tiny Alice” — that’s an awesome line whether or not one has any idea what play is being referenced.)
PND: I’d forgotten that I’d ever seen this one before, until Norm and Cliff do their impression of the kind of brain-dead rubes Diane makes them out to be, and then it all came back to me. It made me realize that, for the past few decades, I’d been using that moment as the basis for my own fallback imitation of an especially stupid person, which I have used to great acclaim when telling stories about family reunions or previous employers.
NM: I think Cliff and Norm do that dumb-guy schtick a few more times during the series, so you may have seen it elsewhere.
RM: I never get sick of Sam’s beer tricks. Last season, we had the fancy round-the-bar pass. Now? We get a fun assembly line of beers that pushes towards the crowd in between rounds of the middleweight boxing match. How did Norm get around so often? Who knows? It’s Norm.
TV: Has any sitcom director staged large group scenes as well as James Burrows? And how come none of you have built me a beer train yet?
RM: I called dibs on “beer train” when we started this project. Sorry, Todd.
NM: The part of this episode I found hardest to believe was that, in the pre-TiVo era, the bar patrons would be so sanguine about Diane switching their boxing match “offoffoff.” Or maybe they’ve just been around her enough at this point that they know resistance is futile.
MB: Why is Sam always putting his feet up on the bar? Sooo unsanitary!
PND: Shout out to one of my favorite eccentric character actors, Severn Darden, who shows up as Diane’s old theater prof. He was probably past his prime by the time he was on Cheers; he was in his early 50s and looked older, and about the least challenging thing he could have done as an actor was to play one more character with the word “Professor” before his name. But anyone who’s seen The President’s Analyst will know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
EA: Darden’s great as the oblivious professor, and his commitment to THE THEATRE shines through his audible appreciation of Andy Andy’s “real, murderous intensity.” As big Bret Easton Ellis fans, my wife and I were both tickled to see that the Cheers writers apparently shared Ellis’ views about Bennington College’s myopic faculty.
The concept of Diane maintaining a small manaegerie of stuffed animals was hard for some readers to swallow, but thomasrhys sees it as a logical extension of Diane’s nostalgic streak:
“At this point she has been shown to have strong emotional/nostalgia connections that relate to her, apparently, being a lonely child raised by somewhat dysfunctional affluent parents. Possibly the cat and the stuff-toys are part of the same thing. (Yes I know cats are actually living things, but still)
Now it might make more sense, on that basis, for her to have the stuff-toys be something she normally keeps locked away and that she would decide to "show them" because they’re now getting closer so she’s opening up more of her past. Rather than be stuff she outright displays.”
“Something weird that I’m only realizing now that I’m watching the show in order: unless I’m totally misinterpreting how it’s used, when people talk about a Sam and Diane dynamic in a show they seem to mean a prolonged "will they/won’t they" dance.
But these two were only really about that in the first season (the one that hardly anybody was watching). The essential Sam and Diane, and the Sam and Diane that were a huge hit, is only just beginning to play out now: and it’s more about what happens after they’ve gotten together and can seriously get down to the business of driving each other batshit, as Phil perfectly put it. There’s so much fun ahead.”
Adding to the ranks of Cheers-based gimmick commenters, Clifford C Clavin Jr joined the conversation, offering insight into where his mind was at during the events of “Little Sister Don’t Cha.” Also: a theory about the disappearance of “Old Paul”:
“Collecting these memories, it strikes me that during this period at Cheers there was a real loudmouth know-it-all type, name of Paul, who never failed to disrespect the Postal Service. After a while he disappeared, which was great since it saved me having to take him outside a few times, but soon after another guy also named Paul became a fixture at the bar. The strange thing is, looking at a photo from this time, Old Paul is there next to New Paul - but I think New Paul was going by "Glenn". Is it possible that Glenn killed Old Paul and stole his identity? Murder/identity theft cases are more common than most people think, you know. [Drinks]”
Next week: Sumner Sloane walks back into the bar, while Carla romances a guy with a literal broken heart.