“They Called Me Mayday” (season 2, episode 9; originally aired 12/1/1983)
In which Sam is a literary lion…
Todd VanDerWerff: A special guest star is a funny thing. Cheers was at that point in its life where it was starting to pick up a little ratings momentum, and having a guest star that viewers would recognize would help in that regard. (Having a special guest star on has less to do with lots and lots of people coming to a show because they just can’t bear to live without Dick Cavett in their lives and more to do with giving the network something to promote. Network promos are the sort of prize every struggling show longs to get, and when you have Dick Cavett on, that allows for that many more split second ads that say, “Then, Dick Cavett stops by on Cheers!” that will hopefully remind enough viewers the show’s on the air to keep you alive.) But special guest stars also tend to make everything all about them. They’re the kind of black hole that an episode’s story can’t quite escape from. Some shows call attention to this, as when 30 Rock had Oprah on or when Community had Jack Black on. Some shows just grit their teeth and get through it, as when How I Met Your Mother had Britney Spears on or when Raising Hope had Katy Perry on. And then there’s what Cheers does, which is mostly to put Dick Cavett at the level of any other guest star who might wander into the bar, like, say, Wally, the guy competing with Norm for Vera’s affections.
This doesn’t completely work. Cavett sucks the oxygen out of every scene he’s in, and there’s a little too much of the old, “Hey, look, everybody, it’s Dick Cavett!” dialogue for those scenes to really pop. But he’s not bad, and he provides a center to an episode that doesn’t really feature any storylines so much as it has the “fun vignettes set in a bar” structure the show turned to a few times in season one. Cavett’s a little stilted, but he kicks off enough fun that I’m not too bothered by how awkward the scenes with him are. It takes a little while for this one to get cracking, but I think that next-to-last scene in the bar really shows this series at the top of its talents. Cavett has convinced Sam to write a memoir of sorts, but he’s sad to say that his publisher has passed on it because the book’s just not sordid enough. (Diane, of course, actually wrote the book for Sam, under a ridiculous pen name.) Cavett suggests that if Sam played up the playboy aspects of his career, he might find a publisher who would be interested, though not Cavett’s, of course. Sam talks Diane into this in record time. (She might not be in favor of it, but Jessica Simpson-Bourget doesn’t mind.) The two disappear into the office to take their first crack at writing up Sam’s romantic exploits and mixing it in with his baseball and alcoholism tales.
While all of this has been going on, there have been a few other small stories sprinkled throughout. Coach, concerned about his health, has been trying to figure out the best way to get some exercise (including a very old gag about how he thinks he can do handstand push-ups until Sam tells him that was someone else who could). Norm has had his old high school pal Wally wander back into his life, and he’s concerned that Wally’s going to make a play for Vera. The episode feels a little scattered up until this point, with the Cavett scenes taking long enough that they rob the other establishing scenes of some of the space they need to really work. But once Sam convinces Diane to write up the more sordid aspects of his tale, everything clicks into place. Wally comes back and has a wrestling showdown with Norm for Vera’s hand (obliquely paying off the exercise runner). James Burrows blocks all of this so that we know the geography of exactly where this is all playing out (along with a great tracking shot of Sam and Diane disappearing into the office). And in the midst, David Angell’s script keeps weaving the other elements in and out, as when Diane comes out, asks for a glass of water, splashes herself in the face, and compliments her own writing abilities. It’s a great gag, made all the better by the way it’s so unexpected in the midst of two heavyset guys grappling somewhat pitifully on the floor.
“They Called Me Mayday” isn’t a great episode of the show, but I think those last few scenes are great scenes. They show how the series was able to pull its many strands together seemingly at will, even in an episode where the special guest star threw off the rhythm otherwise. It’s telling that I opened this capsule talking about the guest star and ended up talking about the great chemistry between the regulars. That’s a sign of a great sitcom.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: I agree that there’s a lot of good stuff here, but overall, Cavett is a deal breaker for me.
As a proud owner of all the Shout! Factory DVD box sets of his old talk shows, I don’t have a problem with Dick Cavett, except, you know, when I do. Given that he’s not a Boston-identified celebrity (like Tip O’Neill), and the fact that he’s treated as if he were a major star with a much greater degree of visibility than someone whose PBS series had ended a year earlier (after wearing out his welcome at two commercial networks), his being here is almost as bewildering as his being in Beetlejuice, and his self-consciously weak presence and the examples of the famous Cavett wit that he gets to deliver make me wish that they’d hired Rick Moranis to play him instead. This is a great shame, because the distraction he provides screws up a really promising story idea. It’s too bad that the show didn’t do more with it, because when Diane has to interrupt that writing session to cool herself down, it’s a great image that dares to suggest that writing can be sexy.
That’s something that I wish Cheers had done more with, because it’s one of the few times I remember the show implying that, even if Sam and Diane’s relationship was only fully successful in the bedroom, Diane the intellectual still brought something to it that Sam the satyr-jock couldn’t get from his usual bimbos. Mostly, the show was content to suggest that Sam gave Diane something she couldn’t get from mealy-mouthed brainiacs like Sumner and Frasier Crane, and that to achieve sexual bliss, she had to go limp, put her mind on hold, and allow Sam to drag her back to his cave.
Donna Bowman: Cavett shmavett. Todd has it right that he doesn’t get into the rhythm of the regulars as well as a real actor might, but I wouldn’t trade Diane’s egregious sucking-up to him for anything. It’s completely and utterly wonderful when she praises his new book, he asks if she’s read it, and she responds without a trace of embarrassment, “No, but I can only imagine!” And the cut to Diane in the full swing of reading her poem—“We ran together,” she intones as the camera finds her—is sheer genius, only topped by her self-diagnosis of the poem’s ambiguity leading into the dreaded words, “I think I solved that problem with ‘Ephemera 2.’ The sky was gossamer ...”
This is a top-notch episode, from Diane’s deflation that Sam gets a writing gig before her, to Norm’s haunted look as he mutters, “Married the hell out of her” and swigs his beer, to Diane’s sneering imitation of Sam’s accent as she mimics “You didn’t write ‘pretty good’” (followed by the priceless Ted Danson stutter: “You’re a pretty g— well writer”), to the gag with Coach doing handstand pushups behind the bar (love the way the stunt leg sways out to balance when he’s doing them one-handed), to—finally—that marvelous capper as Diane’s smutty alter ego works on Sam’s tell-all. When they emerge one after the other to douse their fires at the bar before diving back into the office, the staging evokes theatrical farce at its most robust. I’ve never been less bothered by a guest celebrity.
Meredith Blake: Maybe I’ve just been worn down by the endless parade of special guest appearances on 30 Rock and The Good Wife (I’m talking to you, Chris Matthews!), not to mention the weekly stilt-fest that is SNL, but I thought Dick Cavett was just fine. No, he’s no Ted Danson, but he’s certainly a charming enough guy, and I never found myself cringing or retroactively damning the executives at NBC. The only problem I see is that for most of his time onscreen, he’s playing something of a straight man, Sure, he gets in a few good lines, but mostly, he’s there to give straightforward feedback to Sam, rather than make erudite puns or quote at length from Oscar Wilde (or whatever). I’ve seen Dick Cavett onstage before, and the guy very clearly likes to be the one getting the laughs, so perhaps he was annoyed to be so obviously out-charmed by the Cheers regulars. In any case, I mostly enjoy Cavett’s guest appearance because it’s such a pure slice of early ’80s nostalgia. Sure, it’s a disruption to the insular little world of the bar, but it’s also a fun bit of pop-culture time travel, and it somehow adds to the pleasantly loosey-goosey feel of this episode.
Erik Adams: Donna, your observation about Diane’s impromptu reading gets at one of my favorite facets of this episode: It doesn’t feel the need to put a cap on either end of its stories. I haven’t watched far enough ahead to learn whether or not Sam’s tell-all is ever mentioned again, and I’m fine leaving it as a rough manuscript splotched with Sam and Diane’s residual face-water. Similarly, it’s a pleasant surprise that there’s no clear victor declared in Norm’s wrestling match with Wally. Maybe that’s a characteristic that modern, serialized comedies have trained me to expect, but it’s refreshing that this half-hour ends without any tangible resolution. There’s a slice-of-life quality to “They Called Me Mayday” that goes missing when you try to force An Ending on an episode that doesn’t need one.
Ryan McGee: If you read back over my takes on Cheers lately, you can tell I’m all about Norm in terms of my analysis. While I have a pretty good memory of the Sam/Diane arc, most of these early Norm stories are essentially new to me. So it’s been fascinating to see him hit “rock bottom,” as Cliff notes, in this episode. Part of the charm of this show lies in the fact that no one’s ever in serious harm (in that respect, Cougar Town owes a lot to Cheers), but it nevertheless treats its characters as having recognizable problems that they themselves don’t always know how to solve.
As such, watching Cliff and Carla bolster Norm’s courage/bravado up to the point where he’s ready to fight Wally for Vera’s affections is both a fun series of comic moments but also some real acts of friendship. Carla isn’t exactly dialed down in this installment, but she certainly treats Norm differently than she does Diane. As such, she’s not trying to lure Norm into a situation in which he’ll be humiliated in the one place he can call home. Rather, she’s honestly attempting to get Norm out of his slump. And if a little impromptu sumo wrestling also occurs? Hey, no harm, no foul.
But Erik makes a good point: Things don’t really end per se in “They Called Me Mayday”. Norm gains a nominal victory, but it’s not like Vera was there to see him fighting for her. And the Sam/Diane collaboration is only just beginning. Were Cheers to air today, that manuscript would be the throughline for the entire season. But we’re just not used to having a long-term narrative in this show at this point. There’s emotional continuity, to be sure. But I quite enjoy the fact that life goes on for these people after the credits roll. I’ve always sensed that on some level, to be sure. But it’s nice to have it reinforced with the end of this episode.
Noel Murray: Here’s what I like about Dick Cavett in this episode: It signals what kind of show the Cheers creators were making. Given what I know about Cavett, he’d probably have just as eagerly accepted an invitation to appear on Gimme A Break!; nevertheless, his appearance on Cheers reinforced that this was a sitcom aimed at smart grown-ups. It’s also noteworthy as an example of how frequently Cheers referenced popular culture, in its early years especially. (And culture-culture as well, via Diane’s citations of poets of academics.) Even here in this episode, we get Cavett, and a joke about The Twilight Zone, and Norm citing the old Bell Telephone slogan “Reach Out And Touch Someone.” Though in Norm’s case it’s “reach out and nag someone,” since he’s referring to Vera calling him at the bar. These little nods to the real world date Cheers to some extent, but it also grounds the show. When I hear them I smile (“but just… a little”).
- TV: Sam’s joke about the show he liked to watch on PBS took me a bit to get. Nice one.
- MB: Whoa, Diane! Nice perm!
- RM: Cavett’s observations about the rapidly escalating tolerance for bad behavior seem downright prophetic in this day and age, no? If Sam’s boozing barely caused people to bat an eyelash at the time this episode aired, imagine what he would have to have done during his baseball career now in order to sell his story.
- NM: The “Coach is wise in his way” moment in this episode comes when Sam says he’s going into his office and that, “I don’t want to be bothered.” Coach just shrugs and says, “Who does?”
- TV: It’s an interesting point, Erik, about the show not having resolution, but I wonder if modern sitcoms don’t over-rely on this device. The Big Bang Theory, in particular, has many, many episodes that just sort of end, without even a hint of how things might turn out.
“How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Call You Back” (season 2, episode 10; originally aired 12/8/1983)
In which he loves her…
“I love you.” It’s a simple phrase that television characters attach so much weight to. I’ve always wondered: Is it really that big of a deal when it’s said for the first time in a relationship? Or do we think of it as a big deal because that’s what our pop culture has conditioned us to think? It’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing, really.
I’m not a fan of television plots about characters saying “I love you” for the first time. For starters, there’s rarely a way to tell a story like this that hasn’t been done a million times before. For another thing, it’s often very hard to give this any kind of dramatic stakes. One person wants to say “I love you,” and the other doesn’t, usually, and that’s silly. Don’t we tell the people we love that very fact through the way we treat them or the way we light up when they enter a room? Why do we ascribe so much power to some very simple, very short words?
I think “How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Call You Back” is a really terrific half-hour of television, and I think that’s probably because it gets at something central to the Sam and Diane relationship that’s also central to most successful relationships: When you boil things down as much as you possibly can, there isn’t any good reason for two people to cling to each other like they do. Love is fundamentally inexplicable. Sure, you can probably list a bunch of stuff that you and your significant other enjoy doing together or have in common (at least more than Sam and Diane can), but the fact still remains that when you dig down far enough, you’re still separate human beings, and there’s always going to be that slight disconnect that seems larger and larger the more you stare at it. How could you be with someone who (insert irritating habit A)? Or someone who (insert strange belief B)? Sam and Diane work as a couple because they’re an exaggeration of what every single one of us secretly fears about our relationships: We’re too different to really make this work.
The episode’s kicked off by something wonderfully small: Sam tells Diane he loves her after she gets him tickets to a prize fight he’s really been wanting to see. (The glee the others in the bar have over who will get to go with him is fun, but I find it a minor misstep that it’s Harry who wins the opportunity, since it feels a little cheap to bring in a non-regular for that part.) As he’s preparing to go out on the town, she comes in to tell him how much it means to her that he loves her. But he’s got something else to reveal: That’s just something he tells girls when he’s happy or wants to get them in the sack. It just slipped out because it was a line. And the more he tries to repair this, the less sincere he seems. Cue a drunken Diane singing “Just Like A Woman” alone in her apartment.
Diane, of course, proposes that she and Sam take a little time to figure out exactly what their relationship means to each other. And I think the genius of Earl Pomerantz’s script is that the characters can never really decide that. You can’t, ultimately, put words on chemistry. You can steal them from a book (as Diane does) or hope inspiration strikes you in the moment, but we say “I love you” because it’s meant to stand in for a multitude of other things we can’t properly express. And that makes the inevitable scene where Sam can only get out “I lo—” even more genuine because it really does seem like he’s only started to realize the enormity of his feelings for this woman. That fundamental disconnect between the two would only grow larger as the season went on, but here, it seems almost as if there’s an underlying sweetness that suggests maybe these two kids really can make it.
PDN: It’s funny the little memory wormholes that an almost 30-year-old piece of pop culture can drop you down when you least expect it. The thing in this episode that I got the biggest kick out of seeing was the scene of Diane, drunk off her ass, singing “Just Like A Woman.” It takes me back to a moment in the 1980s when all the people on mainstream TV hits were asserting their hipness by demonstrating their attachment to the enduring music of the ’60s counterculture. (This would have been half a dozen years after a couple of lowly young new hires at CBS News had to convince a baffled but game Walter Cronkite that the death of a past-his-prime pop singer named Elvis Presley was a big story, and maybe a year before every car commercial on TV was scored to some song that had been hot around the time that the thickest, richest slice of the baby boomer demographic was in college. My favorite was the one where the woman yuppie quits her white-collar job, with all the insolent brio of Patrick McGoohan in the opening credits of The Prisoner, then hops in her expensive car and gets the hell out of Dodge, all while John Fogerty is bragging about how great it is to work on a paddleboat.) As for the last scene, it, too, has a period quality, coming from that moment when the show was still willing to entertain the notion that love is too powerfully mysterious a thing to be held to the laws of logic, which is something the people responsible for the show may have believed themselves until Shelley Long had thoroughly worked over everyone’s last nerve. For me, the sweetest moment may be Diane’s confession that she’s failed in her own mission to justify her relationship with Sam in her own words. When she convinces herself that this doesn’t matter, it’s a reminder that while Diane may have been the more intelligent one, she was never the greater realist.
DB: I was a bit more bothered by the by-the-numbers premise of “How Do I Love Thee?” than you guys. That push-in to Diane after Sam lets the three little words slip bugged me precisely because it doesn’t have the caught-in-the-background quality of Diane’s consternation over Sam’s book deal with Dick Cavett from the last episode (conveyed via a couple of cuts to medium shots of Diane filling bowls with beer nuts on the far side of the bar). How much more effective would it have been if life went on around her and we saw her motionless in the center, absorbing what she just heard?
I can quibble with the ending, too—as funny as it is for Sam to rattle off a tongue twister as proof that he should be able to say “I love you,” the gag of him not being able to get it out seems stale (if expertly performed). But for yet another electric confrontation in Sam’s office between Sam and Diane, I have to give this episode its propers. When Diane reels off her evaluation of their relationship, ending with “And that’s how I see it” and the most adorable little curtsey, the moment stands hilariously on its own. When she later confessed that she read it in a book and that “it sounds nice, but it’s not us, is it?,” and Sam consolingly admits, “I don’t know, I wasn’t listening,” it’s like cresting the second big hill on a roller coaster, sending the scene into a brand new climax.
RM: I’m glad we’re mostly all on board with a drunk Diane Chambers singing Bob Dylan. Holy hell, the crush I got watching that. Then I remembered I wasn’t in college anymore and got back to watching the episode.
What struck me most about the scene that followed, however, is something that Donna touched on a bit in her analysis. The fights between Sam and Diane feel different than those in episodes past, and I’d like to think those three words managed to soften the edges somehow. They should have made their struggles even spikier, but in many ways, the conversation between a post-fight Sam and a post-bottle-of-wine Diane ends up being their most sober to date. The histrionics slip away in favor of more careful deliberation, which retroactively gives their past spats something of a theatrical quality. I supposed Carla’s ex, who loves the “theatre,” would have appreciated those exchanges.
And just like last episode, we have another ending that really isn’t an ending. The poker game, and thus life, continues outside of Sam’s office. Inside, Sam still hasn’t managed to put the last two letters in his pronunciation of “love” but there’s every sense Diane will coach/coax it out of him. It’s a stunningly assured episode after what felt like a semi-laborious Cavett-filled endeavor. Sure, Cheers is a place where everybody knows your name. But it’s more fun when those denizens are largely anonymous to the world at large. They feel more like our friends, and thus we want to protect them as much as they want to protect each other.
MB: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I just love the breeziness of these vintage Cheers episodes. As much as I adore 30 Rock, watching the show can sometimes feel like a bizarre form of competitive spectatorship, because God forbid one of the clever references should go over my head. In its own way, Cheers is every bit as smart and allusive as today’s tightly wound comedies, yet it never makes me feel anxious. It’s light and airy, a lemon meringue pie rather than a gooey flourless chocolate cake. So much of this, I think, is because the writers are not afraid of loose ends. Given the over-familiarity of the accidental “I love you” premise, the open-ended, meandering quality of this episode surprised me somewhat. I expected a neat third-act resolution in which Sam unequivocally declared his love for Diane, but instead we get an episode that embraces narrative and romantic ambiguity. I tend to think of ’80s television as being obvious and formulaic in a way that quote-unquote good shows can’t get away with today, but Cheers really challenges this impression.
- TV: On the contrary, Donna. I think that little push in on Diane is one of James Burrows’ finest directorial moments thusfar. You know exactly what he’s doing, but he keeps it from being too overstated, allowing you to see how much this moment shocks and thrills Diane without really putting too big of a button on it.
- DB: Diane’s knit gray-and-red outfit in the last act is completely weird when she’s wearing the matching tube scarf, completely stunning when she takes off the jacket and reveals its awesome sweater-girl silhouette with just a hint of eighties shoulder pads.
- RM: I almost fell off my couch at the mention of Boston’s “Combat Zone,” which was our version of a pre-Guiliani 42nd Street here in Beantown. Now, there are few remnants of its hey-day, replaced by dormitories, movie theatres, and office buildings. And there’s even an opera house there now!
- NM: Hey Ryan, we know about The Combat Zone. We all listened to Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right” when we were kids.
- NM: Anyone else wonder if the bar was just closed while the gang went out clubbing?
- EA: Here’s one for everyone who hates when we draw lines between contemporary shows and Cheers: I was just remarking the other day how Community’s Gillian Jacobs excels at playing drunk (around my house, the most-quoted bit from the show’s run comes from Britta’s drunk dial in “Communication Studies”: “Jeffffffffff Winger, I am callin’… you”), and here comes Shelley Long to show us that the tradition of hilariously soused, self-serious blondes dates back to at least 1980s Boston. The key to effectively playing drunk is supposedly in overcompensation; Long’s stumble might be over-the-top, but her snappy comeback to Danson’s “Wow, you’re drunk”—“Wow, you’re stupid”—comes quick and barbed enough to count as the character attempting to make up for her compromised state.
- TV: If you liked this episode well enough, check out the blog of its writer, Earl Pomerantz, who publishes a lot of great classic TV stories.
What you said:
“[T]hey’re both obviously mismatched couples consisting of one person who’s an uptight intellectual and one who’s more sexually-adventurous and kind of an idiot. But the way that the two shows approach the couples couldn’t be more different. I’d say that Cheers season 2 is all about how terrible Sam and Diane are as a couple. Also, Sam managed to thrive as a character for six seasons after Shelly Long left the show, because he works just as well without Diane.
Friends, on the other hand, seemed convinced that Ross and Rachel were a wonderful couple. Lauren Tom’s Julie, for example, is a much better match for Ross than Rachel is, but we’re supposed to be on Rachel’s side when she experiences a petty fit of jealousy and causes them to break up. Meanwhile, ‘Old Flames,’ Sam and Diane have been together for eight episodes, and it’s entirely unsurprising that Sam’s going back to his old ways.”
noelrk considered how the show looks different when you watch it outside the confines of a syndication package:
“But the pleasures of re-watching it now, and with ‘Manager Coach’ in particular, have me reevaluating my ‘syndication bias’, and looking forward to more from Colasanto. The other pleasure from the episode is seeing Colasanto move beyond the character who probably took too many balls to the head to another aspect of Coach’s personality in a comedically believable way.
And now it has me attempting to figure out what other syndication biases I have not only about Cheers (Long’s Diane is not nearly as frustrating as I recall her being), but other shows I’ve only ever seen in syndication.”
Norm Peterson sauntered into the comments at a later hour than usual, causing much consternation and concern for his wellbeing. Where was he all that time? “Watching ‘Ghandi’ with a girl from work,” of course. While everyone waited, Clifford C Clavin Jr filled the gimmick-commenter quota by decrying the “tragedy” of the U.S. Postal Service’s forever stamps.
Next week: Someone leaves a bunch of money to the gang, and… stop us if you’ve heard this one, okay?