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Cheers: “Father Knows Last”/“The Boys In The Bar”

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“Father Knows Last”

In which, Marshall the nerd, you are… not the father!

Phil Nugent: This one probably deserves to be called “edgy.” It starts out with the news that Carla is pregnant—massively pregnant, in fact, but she hasn’t made an official announcement of that fact, and everyone in the bar is dancing around it. Thankfully, Carla finally gives the Cheers gang permission to acknowledge her condition, explaining that she’s been putting off telling them because because she wanted to first inform the baby daddy, who, she says, will be stopping by to accept their warmest congratulations and a few cold ones. It turns out that the proud papa is Marshall, the nerd from the previous episode who seemed to have a crush on Carla. In our discussion of that episode, the hope was expressed that poor Marshall was at least sufficiently connected to reality to not take Carla’s flirting with him seriously, but since then, he seems to have actually slipped a few rungs down the evolutionary hipness ladder, to the point that Rick Moranis’ character from Ghostbusters would make a meal of him in a game of dodgeball. In fact, Diane is able to do the math almost instantly: Diane confronts Carla with the accusation that, once she found out she was pregnant, she seduced Marshall and threw him a night of passion in order to trick him into thinking that’s he’s the father, because she figured he’d be up for supporting the child. Not only does Carla not deny it, she practically cackles triumphantly over her own ruthlessness.


With a story line like that, the episode is a sustained tightrope walk, and in the end, I was ready to go along with it for the simple reason that I found it especially funny, always a welcome quality in a comedy. I found an unusually high percentage of jokes here that I would call inspired, including throwaway bits such as Coach’s worrying that the people at the DMV who asked him if he wanted to be an organ donor might know something, Norm’s line about how he and his wife can’t conceive a child (“I look at Vera, and I just can’t”), to the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” number at the end. Some of these jokes are pretty mean-spirited, which I’m not complaining about—comic ruthlessness also being something to encourage in a sitcom. The production number at the end helps to balance that out, since the underlying theme is that Cheers itself is enough of a family to help Carla raise her new addition. As Hillary Clinton never said, it takes a village watering hole.

How well the episode as a whole works for you may come down to whether you think it’s funny enough to make up for the show’s treatment of Marshall. As far as Cheers is concerned, the important thing about Carla’s ruse is that it threatens to move her past being an amusingly nasty dispenser of insults into a moral red zone that would render her beyond the pale and permanently unlikable. She has to be made to see that what she’s doing is wrong, and agree with Diane that she can’t bring herself to sink that low. So far, so good, but then the show has to figure out how to get rid of Marshall without risking an ugly scene, and the best solution they could come up with was to have Sam tell him that financially supporting Carla isn’t good enough—Marshall is to either marry her or slink out and find a rock to live under. Sam’s bluff works: Marshall’s selfless decency doesn’t extend that far, and he skulks away, never to return.  It leaves a bad taste in the mouth, and suggests that the family vibe around Cheers is more exclusive than it seems: no clueless nerds with inconvenient crushes need apply. Did anybody else have that reaction to the shaming of Marshall, and did anyone else have more trouble than me shrugging it off?


Noel Murray: I have a love-hate relationship with Marshall as a character too, as I mentioned the last time he appeared. He’s very much in that ’80s “nerd” mold, which is a fascinating type to me, especially given how ascendant real-life nerds have been in popular culture over the past decade. I don’t think the writers fully understood the possibilities of the character, though; I would’ve loved to have seen more of Marshall with Diane, a different kind of intellectual. I don’t think Sam is exiling Marshall from the group, though. When Carla breaks the news, Marshall is about to flee in shame; Sam just makes it so that Marshall can leave and not think of himself as so much of a sucker. It didn’t bother me.

I do agree that the episode was especially funny, with a few great Coach lines—like him suggesting that the bloated Carla might just have gas—and some great Carla ones as well. (“I’m gonna need a couple of hours off at the end of April.”) And that closing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is such a great moment; one that I’ve always remembered fondly. It starts out goofy, then becomes legitimately sweet by the time the credits roll.

Donna Bowman: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” took me totally aback. I can’t think of very many sitcom moments that hit that exact tone. I kept waiting for the punchline, and there’s no doubt that we’re intended to smile at the parade of patrons mumbling along under Diane’s leadership, but Carla’s reception of the gesture transforms it into the sincere expression of support that was intended. When we see her continue up the stairs, the camera following her through the window, it’s a moment that reassures the audience in a very specific way. We know Carla’s children’s welfare is actually really important, the moment says. Carla’s, too. These people are trying to do a good thing. We’re going to let them do it. You can imagine a million jokes that would undercut that message for the sake of a laugh. But they don’t come. It’s like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval for our emotions: “Invest with confidence.”

As for Marshall, Noel suggested vis-à-vis his earlier appearance that I might not be as bothered by him this time around. I’m not, but only because nobody’s making explicit fun of him, and he’s so clearly thrilled about fatherhood, and there’s something fundamentally decent about him here, giant stuffed giraffe and all. Phil is right about how oddly the episode has to handle the business of his exit. I feel a little bad that Carla could have contemplated maintaining her deception with no qualms. But with a Norm moment like “That’s out now?” (in reference to Diane’s statement that little black books went out with getting girls drunk and having sex with them), this can hardly be anything but top-tier comedy.


Ryan McGee: One of the most fascinating aspects of the journey through Cheers has been the specific cultural moment in which we’re doing so. I’m not sure it’s any more or less important than any other moment, but it can’t help my color our judgement. And for me, what struck hardest was the way in which the bar rallied around Carla’s very real economic quandaries. Cheers is a place where everyone knows your name, but not everyone knows the state of your checking account. Carla’s single-motherhood has been played for character until this episode. But things turn real here, and they turn as quickly as Carla’s initial entrance abruptly changes our sense of how much time as passed since the last episode.

Through our current prism, it’s hard not to look at what transpires as the ideal of what should happen in our current economic hardships. I’m not looking to engender a political polemic here. I’m merely stating that the ethos established all along is that the bar is a living breathing entity, one that is as healthy as the sum total of its parts. The redistribution of wealth on display is akin to a physical body distributing white blood cells in order to fight illness. These people are organs linked together through commonality, whether they are primary players or background figures. I’m choosing to put aside Carla’s actions up until that point, primarily because you’ve all covered it quite thoroughly already. But long before Cheers treated Norm’s enormous bar tab as a running gag, it was making some smart, sharp observations about the economic status of its denizens.


Erik Adams: Piggybacking on Todd’s observation about “Let Me Count The Ways,” here’s another episode credited to Heide Perlman, who gives her big sis (along with Shelley Long) some fantastic material from which to work. We’ve noted the implied time jump between the last two episodes, but after watching “Father Knows Last,” doesn’t it feel like ages since “The Tortelli Tort?” Rhea Perlman handles herself with aplomb not only during “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (which, given her mock-heroic exit from the bar, I read as more absurd than wholly sincere; a loving-yet-parodic nod to the rendition of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” from The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s finale episode) but also during her monologue about the conception of the newest Tortelli-to-be. Like any good workplace/hangout sitcom, Cheers centers on a surrogate family—but it was a couple of actual siblings who helped elevate one of the trickier personalities in that brood.

Meredith Blake: There was a minute in this episode when I was sure I was going to hate it: Diane walks in to the back room to find Carla, lounging decadently across the pool table, her big, pregnant belly protruding upwards. It all seemed like such a grotesque, Reagan-era stereotype—the promiscuous single mother mooching off of others—but in the end I was converted and even moved by the gang’s willingness to (literally) rally around Carla.


Heide Perlman and the Cheers writing staff took two major risks with this storyline. There’s the obvious issue of Carla’s likability. However desperate Carla might be, lying to poor, sweet Marshall about her child’s paternity is a rotten thing to do, and it stretches our empathy to its farthest possible limits. Arguably the bigger risk, though, is the political one. This episode aired a full nine years before Dan Quayle blasted Murphy Brown for daring to acknowledge the existence of single mothers, and Carla’s a much more, shall we say, “challenging” character than affluent, successful Murphy ever was. I wonder if there was ever any conservative pushback against Cheers?

PN: I don’t think there ever was any major conservative blowback against Cheers, and I can think of a couple of reasons for that. The most obvious one is that someone like Dan Quayle (and his speechwriters) would have been less likely to notice, or see any possible advantage in going after, a show that presented itself as apolitical to one that had been using its liberal heroine as a mouthpiece to insult Republicans and family-values types for years. There’s something else, though. When the affluent, forty-something Murphy Brown decided to raise a child by herself, Quayle complained that it made getting pregnant seem like “just another lifestyle choice,” with the suggestion that impressionable young ladies across the country would watch the show and set out to get pregnant right away because it looked trendy. By contrast, Carla is a working-class woman with limited options who has been known to succumb to temptation, and she’s had to pay for her few minutes of pleasure by paying saddled with a houseful of kids who she supports by staying chained to a dead-end job. The Cheers creative team may not have seen it quite like that, but I can still imagine a family values cheerleader watching the show and taking comfort in that image.


Stray observations:

  • PN: I loved the whole “Tell-Tale Heart” routine, though guest actress Mary Ellen Trainor  briefly muffs it with her flaccid overacting. I remember noticing Trainor at some point in the ’80s, in movies like Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing The Stone (where she played Kathleen Turner’s sister) and wondering how the hell she got work. This mystery was partially solved when I learned that she was married to Robert Zemeckis.
  • NM: First two names in Sam’s little black book: “Arlene Abram” and “Angela Adams.” That’s one comprehensive book.
  • NM: Anyone else picture Dan Hedaya when Carla was describing Nick in his mesh shirt?
  • MB: I love the timelessness of Carla’s description of her ex: “He was wearing this black, fishnet t-shirt. I could see his panther tattoo through the little holes. No woman could resist.” Thirty years later a lot has changed, but mesh T-shirts will always be vile.
  • NM: I’ve always thought of the wooden Indian at Cheers—“Tecumseh,” we’ll learn someday—as a character on the show. Funny to hear him directly referenced for the first time.
  • RM: The little pat Coach gives Carla really sells the moment for me. It’s the instant in which charity turns into family. Even Carla can’t resist melting at Coach’s awkward yet earnest gesture.
  • EA: I’m hoping Carla deposited that money in a bank, or at least transferred it to a more discrete container. The newspaper article headlined “Boston woman carries pitcher of cash through city streets” doesn’t have a happy ending.

“The Boys In The Bar”

In which Sam unexpectedly strikes a blow for tolerance…

PN: This one feels to me like two different episodes grafted together, linked by the theme of tolerance for gays. In the first half, Sam is eagerly looking forward to seeing one of his old baseball buddies, who is in town as part of the book tour for a memoir he’s written about his days on the field. Not content with throwing back brewskis and catching up with his pal, Sam has arranged to turn their reunion into a media event, with reporters and photographers there to record the moment—something that I think seems way out of character for Sam, but let it pass. Naturally, Sam hasn’t so much as glanced at the book, so he’s caught off guard when his pal—played by that likable slab of beefcake, Alan Autry, probably best known for playing Bubba on In The Heat Of The Night—arrives and explains to him that the book is actually about his coming out of the closet after having lived a secret life all the time they were playing together. Sam is badly thrown by this news, but after retreating to the back room for some tough love from Diane, he comes to his senses and marches out to have his picture taken with his friend, even as reporters are hectoring him with questions about just how close they really were in the old days. For a minute it looks as if this is going to be Cheers’ version of “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”


In the second half, Autry is long gone (and much missed), but the regulars are still steaming and feeling the repercussions of his visit. Norm, in particular, has gotten deep in touch with his inner Archie Bunker and is warning Sam that, if a bar lets down its guard for even a minute, it can turn gay at the drop of a hat. In order to head trouble off at the pass, he and his fellow lovable homophobes devote all their energies to identifying which of the people in the bar are probably gay and finding a non-confrontational way to drive them from the establishment.

All this is well-meaning stuff, firmly on the side of the angels. Norm and the other guys in the throes of homosexual panic are meant to be ridiculous, albeit harmless, and at the end, Norm gets his comeuppance in a twist that is pure “Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie.” From a “changing mores” standpoint, there’s nothing here that sticks in my craw like that scene in the second episode where Donnelly Rhodes asks Coach for advice about how to deal with his gay son, and good ol’ Coach tells him that he should disown the little pervert and throw him out of the house. (The point of that scene turns out to be that Rhodes thinks Coach is trying to shock him into realizing that he loves his son too much to give in to his bigoted impulses. But since Coach is doing no such thing, it still chills my marrow a little.) But I have a big problem with this episode, which is that I just don’t find it funny. I’m not even sure that being funny was all that high on the priority list for “The Boys In The Bar.” Like many an episode of All In The Family, it feels as if it mostly exists to make a point, and that’s not what Cheers is about.


NM: Oh, I think you’re being too hard on Coach, Phil. I never read that scene as Coach being bigoted; I read it as him telling the customer what he thinks the guy wants to hear. I mean, we are talking about a guy who in this episode believes Norm when he tells him that it’s time for the monthly “Vive Le Difference” night. Coach just sort of goes along.

I think you’re being too hard on “The Boys In The Bar,” too. It is a little disappointing how the bifurcated structure robs us of more Autry—there was more story to be had there, I think—but I like the “Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”-style gimmick of the second half. It’s a little uncomfortable at times, I’ll grant, because in order to make what was at the time a fairly enlightened plea for gay rights, the episode has to toss around some stereotypes that haven’t aged so well, and it has to put them in the mouths of characters that we’re supposed to think of as decent, likable dudes. That said, I actually don’t think this episode is as much about how the Cheers gang handles the prospect of homosexuals in their midst as it is about the macho pack mentality that they’ve developed. And that is a well that Cheers will go to many, many times in the future. (Think “snipe hunt.” Think “beard contest.” Et cetera.) I did find the escalating efforts of Norm and company to out-manly each other to be pretty funny. Vive le difference, I guess.


DB: I’ve been a little scared for this episode ever since somebody mentioned a few posts back that it was coming. What a relief to find that it’s all about posturing rather than prejudice. The only thing that bothers me about “The Boys In The Bar” is that the setup is so elaborate—it seems like this episode should be about one or the other story, not both.  Bifurcated, as Noel says. But assuming that its heart is in the post-“book party” stuff, I think it all comes together. When the boys crowd around Norm’s corner of the bar and tut-tut at all the unmanly behavior emanating from the strangers’ table, it’s best appreciated as an opportunity for snappy edits that highlight the mob mentality through juxtaposition. I’ll give it one demerit for not taking Diane down a peg, though. Side of the angels or not, that’s some serious smug self-righteousness.

RM: The structure of the episode almost feels like Louie, in terms of taking a theme and exploring it in two different ways rather than telling one continuous story. Sure, this doesn’t come close to having the experimental nature of Louis C.K.’s program, but here’s an episode in which theme dominates story. What would probably happen in today’s continuity-heavy world of television: The book signing would happen in the fall, and then the fear of Cheers turning into a gay bar would pop up in the spring with a “Previously on… ” alerting us to prepare for the callback.


What I can’t decide for the life of me is how much the audience is laughing at the buffoonery of Norm, Cliff, and their cohorts versus how much they are laughing with them. I won’t pretend for a minute to be an expert on the cultural temperature for homosexuality in 1983. But it’s telling that in the 28 years since that episode aired, the number of male professional athletes that have come out is staggeringly low, and the number of highly visible, well-known athletes to do is essentially zero. Progress has been made, but 28 years doesn’t feel like a very long time when it’s unclear how much the audience is behind Sam and Diane in this episode and how many of them are secretly siding with Norm the entire time. I have no doubt what side those making this episode are on. It’s those off-camera in the studio audience (and by extension, at home when this episode first aired) that give me slight pause.

MB: Geez Louise, who knew the first season of Cheers would be such a minefield of sexual politics? It’s interesting to me that “The Boys In The Bar” aired right after “Father Knows Last,” because the episodes feel so similar in terms of theme and narrative. Both indulge some negative stereotypes in order to make, as Noel put it, “enlightened pleas” for tolerance, and in both cases Diane acts as the agent of change. I tend to think “The Boys In The Bar” is not quite as successful, mostly because of the jarring disconnect between the first and the second half. I’m also put off by the mob mentality of the group, though I suppose that’s the inevitable downside to such a tight-knit community. Mostly, though I found myself impatient for more Sam and Diane interaction. After the veritable desert of “Fathers Knows Last,” we get just a morsel this time around. Sam says he doesn’t want to turn Cheers into the kind of bar people get thrown out of, and Diane issues a flirtatious back-handed compliment: “That’s the noblest preposition you’ve ever dangled.” I like how Diane’s school-marm-ish objection to dangling prepositions, a running joke since the first episode, has turned into a barometer of her feelings for Sam.


EA: Sitting, perhaps, on my own Diane-like high horse, I too looked toward “The Boys In The Bar” with apprehension. I don’t know what I was expecting—Something as backward-thinking as the “Blue Oyster Bar” scenes from the Police Academy series?—but I should’ve trusted Cheers’ creative brain trust enough to know we weren’t heading into a half hour where the mere thought of a same-sex coupling is played for squeamish laughs.

And as far as reinforcing the bar’s sense of community and inclusiveness goes, it doesn’t get much better than the episode’s final reveal. Here the regulars are concerned about strangers upsetting the status quo, but those strangers have already assimilated to the place. We like to make references to the titular lyric of Cheers’ theme song in these discussions, but the line “You wanna go where people know / people are all the same” is just as important to the shape of the show. Norm and his drinking buddies may chafe at the presence of the occasional newcomer (with varying levels of hilarity), but as episodes like “Father Knows Last” and “The Boys In The Bar” posit, no matter their education level, team allegiance, or sexual preference, the allure of sharing a cold one and a conversation with your fellow human beings is one few can deny.


Stray observations:

  • PN: This episode marks the seventh and final appearance by Jack Knight in the role of Jack, who seems to have been there just so the writers had someone to interject the occasional line that wasn’t meant to be funny or tied to the personality of one of the regulars. I don’t know why the casting department lost his beeper number, but it might be worth noting that he seemed to get a little bit louder with every line reading, as if he thought that was the key to building himself a fan base and becoming essential to the show, eventually getting his own spin-off series. After his acting career hit the wall, Jack Knight returned to his home town, Opal City, where he opened a collectibles shop and, after the death of his brother David, finally came to terms with his family legacy and embraced his identity as Starman. No, actually, according to IMDB, he recently played an umpire in Moneyball. I saw Moneyball, and I specifically remember never thinking, “Wow, that guy who’s playing the umpire blows,” so he must have done a good job.
  • MB: Does Diane just have a closet full of ruffly teal blouses?
  • MB: I had no idea ferns were ever considered a “gay” thing. Funny how some stereotypes die away with age whereas others—e.g. show tunes—never do.

Your thoughts:

Every week, we’ll go back and pick out some of our favorite comments from the week before from those of you who picked up on stuff we missed, offered interesting counterpoints, or just said something that made us laugh.


The funny thing about reviewing a nearly 30-year-old show is that it prompts preemptive comments on coming episodes—like Ajax’s thoughtful reading of “The Boys In The Bar”: “Moreover, as the characters on the show explain their objection, there’s at least an attempt to make it not so much about OMG GAY PANIC! as it is about the fact that Cheers is a comfortable, homey atmosphere for the regulars, and they are worried about commercial pressure being brought to bear on their host to change the format and decor (“ferns, Sammy!”) to something more hip and upscale.

You can (and maybe should, at least in some cases) read that as a cover for knee-jerk homophobia, but I think it does fit into the show’s overall philosophy that Cheers is a refuge for the characters, a place they’ve made their own, and resistance to changes in its character is an instinctive act to them.”


hulk6785 pinpoints a major flaw of “Now Pitching, Sam Malone”: The utter vagueness of Sam and Lana’s relationship: “The problem with ‘Now Pitching, Sam Malone’ is that they don’t explain enough. They don’t give us Lana’s actual age. They don’t mention what kind of sex she likes. They don’t have Sam just come out and state what problem he has with their relationship (the age difference, she’s too freaky for him, or he just likes to be in control). Any one of those could help anyone get a better feeling of this episode.”

Card raised a question about Sam’s age—which as the thread progressed, naturally looped around to the unlikely longevity of Diane’s cat, the late Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “The age discussion for the first episode above reminds of something I’d been thinking about lately—I have no idea how old Sam is supposed to be. He’s a retired pitcher, but did he leave the game at approximately the normal age for a baseball player (i.e. 40-ish)? Or did he flame out early and leave at 30? Or younger, even? How long before the start of the series did he buy the bar? (I think he does say at one point in the first season—3 years, or something). But then they’ll mention some game he pitched in in 1975, or even ’72 or ’71, and it throws my mental timeline entirely off again. I’m guessing Sam’s supposed to be 35 at the youngest, but he could easily be 40 at the start of the series.”


Next week: Sam and Diane’s “Will they, won’t they” inches closer to “They will!” and Diane vies (in her unique way) for the distinction of “Miss Boston Barmaid.”