“Give Me A Ring Sometime” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 9/30/1982)
In which a girl walks into a bar
Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve often said that Cheers boasts the best comedy pilot I’ve ever seen. As we’ve reiterated frequently here in the last few months, it’s hard to do a comedy pilot correctly, because good TV comedy so often relies on character interaction, and it’s hard to get meaningful interaction between people we’ve just met. But every so often, a pilot comes along that nails down certain comedic types so perfectly that it seems to uncover something new to say with them. There’s absolutely nothing new in the Cheers pilot: There’s a super-masculine cad, a hyper-intelligent woman, an angry waitress, a dim-bulb bartender, and a sad-sack regular. The setting is the typical workplace sitcom setting: a place where odd people can walk through the door at any moment, where the action comes to you, rather than you having to go to the action. And the basic theme of the show—about a bunch of losers who band together to make a place where they all feel accepted—is time-tested.
But this first episode takes all of that, adds a romantic sheen, and makes it feel new, like this is the first time you’re seeing any of these types, even if countless shows before and since have taken these people and put different spins on them. In fact, if Cheers had somehow debuted in 2011, it wouldn’t have seemed particularly out-of-date or old-fashioned. Sure, you’d have to nix the references to the Patriots never winning the Super Bowl, and Diane would probably call Sumner on her cell phone instead of simply waiting for him to return. But the basic story and the simple set-ups are as potent as they were in 1982, and the show isn’t afraid to go long stretches without punchlines, believing that if we care about these characters and their basic dramatic situations, that will open things up for more comedy down the road.
I’ll be referencing Vince Waldron’s great book Classic Sitcoms many times throughout this series, I imagine (particularly since much of the text of it is available online), but in the section on how the show came to be, Waldron cites how the creators—Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows (who directed nearly every one of the 250-plus episodes)—were given a degree of freedom and security by NBC, which was desperate to get into the quality comedy game. And with that security and time, the Charles brothers and Burrows obviously had opportunity to think long and hard about how to introduce these characters and this world. Look at how they introduce the regulars one by one, so we get to know them one at a time, instead of in a clump. Look at how the action never leaves the central bar set, so it starts to feel like home. And look at how they’re not afraid to emphasize character beats over hard jokes. (Waldron also points out that the casting process—particularly for Sam and Diane—took forever, something that also shows.)
So let me start off this discussion by asking this: Do you agree about the pilot’s timelessness? And are there other lessons from how it’s structured or set up that modern sitcoms could learn from?
Ryan McGee: What struck me when rewatching this pilot was the incredible patience the show exhibits in introducing its characters. For anyone watching it for the first time, it probably seems wildly experimental. The first few minutes are essentially a chamber play between Sam and the under-aged customer: Would ANY major network air a comedy pilot that starts this low-key nowadays?
The benefits of this approach, however, become apparent as the empty bar fills up over the course of this episode. We get some key character introductions, to be sure. But I couldn't help but marvel at seeing the bare set suddenly filled with people without me consciously realizing a steady stream of customers had been streaming in all along. That technique suggested that while we had met a few key denizens of this bar, there were far more that we had yet to meet.
Anyone else get that impression? Or am I too focused on the frenzied nature of today's comedies?
Phil Nugent: Ryan, you magnificent pagan beast, I agree that the quiet, unhurried atmosphere is key to what makes the show both appealing and, for a network sitcom, more daring than it might appear to be. It's also what makes it, as Todd says, timeless. I think that's a big part of its position in the history of the form. Cheers premiered at a time when a lot of TV critics had started writing about how sitcoms were dead. One reason they seemed to be dead was that, for the past decade, TV comedy had been dominated by the message-heavy shows from the Norman Lear factory, which seemed anachronistic in the candy-coated 1980s, and the shows from MTM Productions, which by 1982 had started having better luck with hour-long dramas. Cheers is reminiscent of MTM's workplace comedies, except that the bar isn't primarily a workplace: Other than Carla, even the characters who work there would be someplace else, if they weren't part of Sam's orbit. It's a refuge from work, and the show presents itself to the viewer as its own refuge, both from real-world pressures and the noisy aggravation of most of what else is on TV. It's a hang-out show, and nobody wants to be rushed or yelled at when they're hanging out.
Erik Adams: Though, to be fair, Phil, Norm Peterson wants to be yelled at while he’s hanging out—as we see when he receives the first of many, many “NORM!” salutes while sauntering to what’s obviously his permanent seat at the bar. Part of what makes the world of Cheers (the series) so inviting so quickly is that it really seems like Cheers (the bar) existed long before Diane, Sumner, or that kid with the fake ID walked through its door. It’s a place with established customs and a little bit of a history, almost as much a character as any of its regulars. “Give Me A Ring Sometime” has to explain a few things to Diane—Sam’s baseball career, his relationship with Coach, Carla’s home life—but it doesn’t waste a lot of time with exposition. It gives the viewer an entry point through Diane and then gets down to the business of letting the characters bounce off one another, weaving casual conversation about Boston sports and “the sweatiest movie ever made” around Diane’s slowly dissolving romance. And by episode’s end, both she and we feel comfortable enough with this motley crew to stick around—until movie-stardom beckons, of course. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves…
RM: Wait, what? Who leaves for movies? Are we already into spoilers here? Oh man. I need a beer or something.
Noel Murray: I actually watched this episode when it originally aired—I even remember NBC's evocative little teaser ads, with two beer glasses smashing together—and I do remember finding it immediately inviting, even for a 12-year-old. Maybe the credit is due to the theme song and opening credits, which are so soft and sweet and unlike anything else that was on TV at the time, or maybe I was having premature nostalgia for the early '70s sitcoms I grew up with, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, both of which Cheers resembled in its staging and its filmed look. Mainly though, I agree with Erik that what works right away in Cheers is the way Burrows and the Charles brothers establish the world of the bar, by showing how everyone interacts with Sam. He's a little bit different with each of his employees and customers, being exactly what they need him to be: a confidant, a helper, a God... whatever. That's what makes his interactions with Diane so interesting. Her, he needles. It's as though he knows she needs someone to irritate her.
Two more quick observations: During the "sweatiest movie" debate, the editor cuts to a reaction shot of Sam when Norm yells out "Body Heat," which is a clever little inside joke, given that Ted Danson had a fairly substantial supporting role in that movie. Also, while Diane finds the whole conversation silly, Sumner jumps in with "Cool Hand Luke," in a moment that's almost Frasier-like. He's an intellectual, but he's still a guy.
Donna Bowman: What strikes me in this pilot is Ted Danson's awesomeness. I didn't start watching Cheers from the beginning when it aired, and though I've seen a lot of it over the years, I only watched a season or two as a regular viewer during its original run, and never religiously. So Danson's appeal was never quite clear to me. As a cocky horndog, he seemed to verge on cliche; as an actor, he might not have any other mode, as far as I could tell. I heard Danson on Fresh Air a few weeks ago confessing that he suspected he'd ridden the half-hour comedy horse too long in his career, and certainly for me it was not until his breathtaking work on Damages (and now on Bored To Death) that I realized his immense talent, ranging far beyond Sam Malone. Now, looking at his first appearance on Cheers, I regret that I dismissed him for so long. Look at his effortless charisma throughout the episode; check out how he underplays in the cold open, maybe the best first scene of a comedy pilot ever, telling you everything you need to know about this place and this show without providing any backstory whatsoever. Long series runs have this downside—all of the principals become so identified with their roles that we can't imagine them doing anything else. For me, at least, this leads to a criminal underestimation of their talent. I'm sure Danson is only one among many great performers that I've failed to appreciate for this reason.
Meredith Blake: Donna, I'll drink to that. I was in middle school when Cheers went off the air, and not quite sophisticated enough to understand Ted Danson's unique appeal. Now I do, though I confess his hair color still confuses me (seriously, was he using henna?). Sam is immediately established as a bit of a cad, but he's also surprisingly sweet; I was touched by how protective he was of Diane, despite her haughtiness.
Like Erik, I appreciate how the pilot wastes little time on exposition and more or less plops us down in a place that already has its own history. This approach gives the show (and the bar) a lived-in, yet inviting feel. Another thing that really stands out about the pilot is that each character has his or her own distinct comedic voice. I feel like the characters in many contemporary sitcoms speak in the same snarky voice, and sound like TV writers, rather than "real people." Delivering the punchline has become more important than creating great characters, but Cheers has its priorities straight. The humor is breezy and conversational, the bi-product of wonderfully realized characters.
Keith Phipps: In a recent AVQA about TV theme songs, I wrote something about WKRP In Cincinnati that's no less true of Cheers when I called it a a show "about people who end up together while they wait for their dreams to come true, or put them on hold, or just give up on them altogether." Shows like that need a diverse array of characters, and I love the way this pilot shows how these particular characters end up spending so much time together. It's not just that the bar is a social leveler that brings in everyone from the regulars to senior citizens having a cocktail before heading upstairs to Melville's. It's that this bar has a particular kind of gravity that brings everyone, as Phil put it, into Sam's orbit. (And Carla, too, I'd argue, if only because Sam apparently has an especially lenient policy on tardiness.) It's a special place that's defined by the man behind the bar. Like Donna and Meredith, rewatching this has given me new appreciation for Danson's acting and for Sam as a character. I watched Cheers regularly through junior high and high school—it went off the air my freshman year of college, I think—and I mostly saw Sam's thickness. As someone who valued books and art and learning, my sympathies ran to Diane. But now I see that Sam's a grown-up and Diane's still kind of a kid. Sam may be a cad, but he's also someone who's picked up a lot of wisdom over the years, so maybe it's okay to keep one failing to call his own. And besides, maybe he was just waiting for the right girl to walk in the bar.
“Sam’s Women” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 10/7/1982)
In which Sam’s shtick would never work on an intelligent woman
TV: I’ll agree with all of you that Ted Danson is terrific as Sam Malone, creating a character who will be one for the ages in just a handful of moments. (In an interview with Vulture, Parks And Recreation co-creator Michael Schur points out how Danson and the writers had that character nailed from scene one, which is exceedingly rare in comedy, up there with Archie Bunker or Mary Richards.) But since this episode hinges much more on Diane’s reactions to Sam, let’s talk a bit about Shelley Long as Ms. Chambers.
Danson’s had a more successful post-Cheers career than Long has, which is really too bad. (I keep expecting Modern Family to do something interesting with her as Ed O’Neill’s trainwreck of an ex-wife, but that show seems uninterested in pushing its darker conflicts too far, which is fine but kind of a waste of a game comic actress.) One of the temptations when you have a Diane-esque character in a sitcom nowadays is to make her a bit too harsh, a bit too much of a buzzkill. Think back to the early days of, say, Community, where the Britta character was meant to be the Diane, but she was a little too self-satisfied in her role of being the one who was going to force the hero to grow and change. What sets Diane apart, I think, is that she—and Long, by extension—are willing to have as much fun as the guys in the cast are. Long tosses off the erudite dialogue and cultural references she’s handed very well, but she’s also game for a little bit of silly physical comedy, as when Sam tries to catch her having fun at his expense and Diane goes from smile to somber very quickly. It’s just a dumb little gag, but already the writers are showing us that Diane’s not our preconceptions about her, just as Sam’s not exclusively a big, dumb galoot.
I don’t think “Sam’s Women” is as successful as the pilot, but it does come at the problem of repeating the pilot’s conflicts (something all early episodes of comedies must do in some way) in an interesting way. It doesn’t repeat them directly; instead, it reconfirms who all of the characters are in one way or another. Sam’s an irrepressible cad, but he’s also got a big heart and a weakness for a certain blonde. Diane’s a wanna-be intellectual, but she’s not afraid of joining in the fun when need be. Carla’s abrasive, Coach is sweet but dumb, Norm’s everybody’s pal, and Cliff knows it all. The episode’s not as good—for one thing, the plot where Coach tries to give advice to a guy who’s driven in from Seattle to talk to the former owner, while fine in the sense that it continues to suggest this place has a history we weren’t privy to, mostly just reminds me of how this show had trouble with then-topical humor—but it reorients us within this world without calling too much attention to the fact that it’s doing that.
What did you all think of Shelley Long’s work as Diane? And Sam has an ex-wife? Huh?
RM: What's key to Long's work, especially in the early going, is her willingness to make her character as flawed as the other denizens of the bar. It's a character that in lesser shows could be a stand-in for "snobs" mocking the blue-collar class that largely populates the bar. Look at shows today such as The Big Bang Theory, where for a while it was unclear if the show actually liked any of its own characters. Cheers straight up loves everyone in that bar, and as we started to see tonight, everyone in that bar loves one another. I'll grant you, Todd, that stuff involving Coach is a little cringe-inducing, but the way in which the bar rallies around his desire to help Leo the way Gus used to do charmed the hell out of me.
What works for me about the Sam/Diane stuff isn't simply that she points out how airheaded most of his conquests are, but that she points out that getting women is something he does too easily. He points out that his dating life is no longer "fun" with Diane pointing out the flaws in his dates' intellect, but what she REALLY points out is that he hasn't had a challenge in his romantic life in far too long. The little game he plays near the end about the color of her eyes is a way to re-establish equilibrium between the pair, but it also marks the first time in quite a while that Sam has had to reach into that romantic reservoir of his in a meaningful manner. And if her smirk/stoneface routine worked for you, then her quick shot of vodka after Sam's wooing worked equally in showing the person behind the intellectual facade.
PN: It's worth remembering that when Cheers began, Long already had a burgeoning movie career, having won the heart of, respectively, Ringo Starr in the well-reviewed Caveman and Henry Winkler in Ron Howard's Night Shift. I happen to think that she did the show a favor by leaving when she did, because her performance had gotten locked-in and one-note. (And then, despite her protestations that she wanted to do something different, when she did leave, she kept basically playing Diane in movie after movie.) But in the first few years, she was wonderful, and she was also doing something very different from her performances in those movies, which were also wonderful. The main connective tissue is that all her romantic-comedy characters were achingly vulnerable, which is what saves Diane, at this stage of the game anyway, from being a pain. Her intellectual snobbery is so clearly her way of concealing her insecurity that it's rather touching. Incidentally, Danson and others who worked with Long on the show, and have the scars to prove it, have indicated that Diane was basically who Long was, and the fact that, once she played Diane, she couldn't seem to shake her off may be seen as evidence that she and the character had a lot in common. This somehow makes the performance that much more impressive to me; in interviews, Long often sounded like Diane, and came across as annoying to viewers as Diane was to Carla, but so long as she was playing a character, as an actress she instinctively knew how to make those same mannerisms seem charming.
Ditto on the scenes with Coach sympathizing with Doc Cottle over having a gay son who likes black guys: That stuff has not aged well. On the other hand, they didn't feel as dated to me as the moment in the pilot where Diane tells Sam that her boyfriend is such hot stuff that someday, his face will be on the cover of Saturday Review. I mean, who knew that they were still publishing Saturday Review in 1982?
RM: Wait, that was Doc Cottle? Aw crap. Do I have to start figuring out which denizens of the bar are Cylons now?
NM: I agree with Todd that "Sam's Women" isn't as sharp as the pilot, though it does have its fair share of notable Cheers firsts. We get the first Diane "Norman" after everyone else shouts "Norm"—her way of participating without losing her essential "Diane-ness." We get the first big Sam-Diane fight, which is also the first indication that the show is moving them towards a potential romance. And then there's Cliff, who's still mainly being used to fill in the background but is starting to come to the fore. But some things seem off-model too: Sam's "ex-wife," the way that Diane can't remember a drink order just one episode after her amazing memory helped convince her she could do the job, and, most of all, Norm running around like a doof when he sees a pretty lady. (That's a much higher level of giving a damn than the Norm I'm used to from later seasons.) That said, Norm does get off the line of the episode, when Diane asks what men would do if they ever got all the sex they wanted from a woman. "I'd help the poor," Norm shrugs.
By the way, like Sam, I also like hot dogs and game shows... but "fun women" scare me. I'd be more comfortable with a Diane—if not so much a Shelley Long. I think Phil's right that Long's public persona may have affected the way Cheers fans ultimately thought of the character, even though she found ways to ground Diane even at her shrillest.
DB: You're right, Noel, that the bar regulars only have the barest bits of comic personalities right now. But what seems like the biggest step forward for "Sam's Women" is the way the bar gets employed as a dramatic stage for the principals—with the regulars acting as a Greek chorus. They observe the action, comment on it, even provide helpful confirmation for Sam when he yells for backup from the pool room during his argument with Diane. They listen in. They tell us what to watch for. They distinguish between what's always happened and what might be new. And most touching of all, they cheer for Coach as he gamely attempts Gus the previous owner's specialty of solving patrons' problems. They're invested. And whether they're little more than extras who got a line this week, or Cliff Clavins who will come to own one of the regular seats (it bugs me a bit that he's on the wrong side of the square right now), they embody that "everybody knows your name," that belonging, that ownership. How beautifully it's woven into the episode—not in a fake "Hey, we're going to pretend these people all know each other's backstory while they parcel it out for you, the viewer!" way, but with real organic ingenuity. The place really felt lived in, from the very start.
KP: If I'd ever noticed it before, I'd forgotten about Sam's ex-wife. She gets banished to the same wasteland where Chuck Cunningham dwells, right? As for the episode, yes, it seems like a slight step down, but maybe only in light of what was to come. As for the Coach business, it does look a bit dated in 2011, but it surely looked fairly progressive in 1982, didn't it? It struck me as a little strange that the show would take on such hot-button issues until I remembered in 1982 the influence of Norman Lear was still present, if fading. (I know there's an episode in which Sam worries about Cheers becoming a gay bar coming up, and I'm curious to see how that looks today.) As for Long, I'm having the same reaction now as I had the last time I revisited Cheers: I'd forgotten how good she is in the part. Her persona got pretty calcified when she went to the movies—I've seen Troop Beverly Hills—but here she still seems vulnerable. You can still see the real woman beneath the archness.
MB: I'm with Keith and thought the gay-marriage joke was actually progressive, in a retroactive kind of way. And I'm with just about everybody else in feeling like "Sam's Women" was "off" in several ways, but I find the messiness surprisingly pleasant. It's always fun to revisit the early days of a series you've grown to love, because you catch the show in the process of figuring itself out—trying to nail down a tone, fleshing out characters, sketching out their biographical detalis. As Donna points out, it's unsettling to see Cliff in the "wrong" spot at the bar, but it's also weirdly thrillling to see the show in its nascent form, as we do here. Another thing that strikes me about the show, especially this episode, is how Cheers feels more like a one-act play than a three-act sitcom. I'm sure the setting has something to do with that—we have yet to leave the bar at this point, and have only just ventured into the pool room—but the breezy storytelling also plays a part. One scene flows seamlessly into the next seamlessly, and most of the time, we're just watching people chew the fat. The final exchange between Sam and Diane is a nice reminder you can get big laughs without elaborate set-ups. All it takes is a little chemistry.
EA: Following the line of your observation, Meredith, I love the way the camera tracks Norm as he gets up from the bar near the end of the episode. It’s a nice bit of cinematography, and it provides an elegant transition between an inconsequential (but fun) side conversation and the conclusion of the episode’s Sam-Diane plot. Noel’s excellent Very Special Episode column on “Fortune And Men’s Weight” mentions the work co-creator and director James Burrows put into creating a unique visual vocabulary for Cheers; here’s evidence that he was working on that from the very start.
As for Shelley Long, I’m still warming up to her. Not to betray my relative inexperience among the group, but I was still several years out of the target demographic when Long left the series, so I’m more acquainted with Kirstie Alley playing the role of Sam’s female foil. That said, it’s nice to be able to take in the screwball comedy-esque beats of their early interactions with only the slightest knowledge of what’s to come—from the way Long downs that shot at the end of “Sam’s Women,” I’d guess these two have a lot more fun in store.
- TV: Well, I've blathered enough on this piece. I'd like to ask you guys for further thoughts or for questions you've got for the comments section. I'll start: My one concern here character-wise is that Coach seems really dumb. Is he too dumb to be realistic? And do you guys have any other thoughts?
- KP: Did Coach ever get smarter? I recall him always being this dim, but I never had a hard time believing it. He's someone with good, common-sense instincts to stay grounded even if anything beyond those common-sense instincts confounds him. "Realistic" is a loaded term, but I find him plausible within the world of the show.
- RM: To me, Coach's presence speaks to Sam's loyalty more than anything. So his dim but sweet nature work for me, even in these early episodes.
- MB: I like that the Coach-is-dumb jokes could have been pulled from an Amelia Bedelia book. (Diane: "Where's your bathroom?" Coach: "Next to my bedroom.")
- PN: Was Coach supposed to be just dumb? I can't specifically remember a scene or line of dialogue to support this, but I always thought there was meant to be something wrong with him: that he was punch-drunk, presumably from having been beaned a few too many times in his days as a player. If my read isn't totally off-the-wall, playing someone like that is a hard line to walk, so it was no small achievement that Nicholas Colasanto pulled it off so well. (It wasn't his typical performance, either. His second-best-known role is probably the gangster who decides who does and who doesn't get a shot at the heavyweight title in Raging Bull.) I'm not sure that he was able to make Coach consistently believable as a character, but he managed to do something even better, which was to make him beloved. I agree with Ryan that Coach serves as a token of Sam's loyalty; his presence in the bar is one more reminder that Sam the girl-chaser has a mile-deep romantic streak. But he has his own magical quality. Pauline Kael once likened him to one of those Damon Runyan characters who were totally in home in their little race track-crap game milieu but had no point of reference outside it.
- MB: One other, non-Coach thought: I love Diane's very trendy purple suit and pink blouse. (I am going to have to talk about the fashion from time to time. It is the '80s after all.)
- KP: One final bit of trivia: Did anyone else notice that "Customer #1" in "Sam's Women" was played by Keenen Wayans?
Some questions for you guys: Every week, we'll ask those of you following along at home, including some of you following for, hopefully, the very first time, questions about what you're thinking and how you feel about the series so far. We'll reprint our favorite responses for each week's column in this space in the next column. This week, we'd like to ask the following: We talked a lot about how the show chooses to eschew hard jokes in favor of character beats, but what were some things that made you laugh in these episodes? And for those of you just watching this for the first time, did it seem as timeless to you as it does to us?
Next week: Erik Adams takes the lead, as Carla steps to the show's fore in "The Tortelli Tort," and Sam realizes how much he misses fame in "Sam At Eleven."