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Video: ‘Cheers’ star battles TODAY hosts in beer pong

  1. Closed captioning of: ‘Cheers’ star battles TODAY hosts in beer pong

    >>> only goes by one name, and it's normally shouted --

    >> norm!

    >> america's favorite bar patron and "cheers" star george wendt has written a tribute to the frothy beverage.

    drinking with george: a bar stool professional's guide to beer." george wendt , good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> nice to see you.

    >> thank you.

    >> how did you develop, of all people, a taste for beer?

    >> you know, my grandfather used to send me to the kitchen for beer, and i used to pop open the can, and my reward for bringing it to him was a nice little sip.

    >> a nice little sip.

    >> yeah.

    >> and you developed a love story , is that how it happened?

    >> yeah, just took off from there, yeah.

    >> one thing you don't mention in the book is your favorite beer.

    >> yeah.

    >> why do you hold back from that? you'd get crateloads sent to your house.

    >> i love all beer. you know, asking me to choose a favorite beer is like asking me to choose my favorite child, you know.

    >> you can't do it.

    >> no.

    >> one of the things george recommends -- when you're in a bar -- okay, this is a tip straight from norm.

    >> yes.

    >> establish a beachhead. what do you mean by that?

    >> well, if you're in a crowded bar and there's a party of four or five people with you, you can't just all get to the bar. so if one person can kind of, you know, get in to just get an order in, then it's much like the allies at normandy, you arrange for supply lines back. but i cover bar theory in several chapters in the book.

    >> extensively.

    >> yeah.

    >> is there a proper way to taste beer or just swill it on back? you know, like wine?

    >> you know, there are probably some craft brew enthusiasts who could tell you you've got to be in the right vessel and the right temperature and everything, but i just enjoy it. it's fun.

    >> yeah. by the way, it's one thing to be a beer enthusiast and another thing to have a drinking problem . and how have you managed to stay on the right side of the line there?

    >> faking it a lot? i don't know. denial?

    >> no, no, no. that's not true.

    >> no, no.

    >> let's have fun. first of all, george is going to show us one of his favorite things here. this is the rainbow cone?

    >> rainbow cone. named it after an ice cream shop from my old neighborhood.

    >> we've asked a few members of our crew to help out.

    >> okay.

    >> erin. erin burnett --

    >> normally, this is done in a bar with a tap.

    >> yeah. you see a row of taps and you just ask them to open up all the tapes for what's underneath.

    >> okay.

    >> for example --

    >> okay.

    >> and the idea here, george , is to what, get kind of a mish mash ?

    >> yeah.

    >> it's a mad house out here.

    >> you don't want to be drinking just one beer. this is surprising.

    >> go ahead.

    >> go ahead.

    >> okay.

    >> chug, chug, chug, chug!

    >> memories come flooding back. just as healthy.

    >> fun, right?

    >> it's actually pretty good. you want a taste?

    >> and you say you hate a warm six-pack, right?

    >> yeah.

    >> but there's -- you've developed one way to really get it cold fast.

    >> the fastest way i know is with a fire extinguisher . yeah.

    >> you use a fire extinguisher ?

    >> well, yeah. then you've got to, of course, have another one on hand in case there's a fire.

    >> you might want to do that in your own home, not at a restaurant or something.

    >> or at a picnic or something.

    >> when you're in a bar, do people always yell norm?

    >> no. just on the "today" show.

    >> by the way, i understand in german --

    >> yeah?

    >> -- norm is helmet.

    >> yeah, yeah. my character was called helmet. and sam was called hubert. hubert and helmet, yeah. i don't know why.

    >> that's nice.

    >> natalie wants to play beer pong with you.

    >> volunteer --

    >> i just have a newscast to do a little bit later.

    >> you've been waiting all your life --

    >> i haven't done this since college and i was good in college. come on, erin, you have to join me.

    >> quickly, we have 30 seconds left.

    >> what are we doing? you first.

    >> oh, wind. i didn't check for the wind.

    >> so, the idea is to get it into the cup and it eliminates --

    >> come on, nat. oh, she almost got it.

    >> double bounce.

    >> oh!

    >> oh!

    >> come on! somebody's got to get something on here! throw them all down!

    >> yeah!

    >> yeah!

    >> all right, natalie, you've got to drink.

    >> you've got to drink.

    >> george , congratulations.

    >> oh!

    >> nice to have you here. good luck with the book. we're back in a moment.

TODAY books
updated 10/21/2009 9:54:18 AM ET 2009-10-21T13:54:18

George Wendt and beer have shared a lot over the years: good times, great stories, endless trivia and a successful show-business career. In his new book “Drinking With George: A Barstool Professional’s Guide to Beer,” George Wendt invites readers to crack open a cold one and pull up a seat at the bar as he celebrates his favorite beverage. Readers who saddle up with him hear stories from the time Wendt spent on “Cheers,” “Saturday Night Live” and other shows. In this excerpt, Wendt shares insights into the origins of the hit series “Cheers.”

Sam: What do you say, Norm?

Norm: Any cheap, tawdry thing that’ll get me a beer.

Bernadette and I decided to give it a go in Los Angeles. I picked up small parts in episodes of “Soap” and “Hart to Hart” and played an exterminator on “Taxi,” hired by Danny DeVito’s Louie de Palma to take down the world’s biggest cockroach. Then came a writers’ strike that shut down the town and ushered in what Bernadette and I would come to call the days of Generic Beer.

The strike ended after three months. And not long after, I caught a big break: a major supporting role in a new comedy. Soon people everywhere would know me as ... Gus!

The show was called “Making the Grade.” I played Gus Bertoia, a superjock gym teacher at a high school in St. Louis. CBS picked up the pilot, written by a talented guy named Gary David Goldberg (who would go on to create “Family Ties” and “Spin City”), for a mid-season tryout. There would be no more generic beer for the family Wendt. In the midst of the excitement, I got a call from my agent.

“George, honey, how are you, it’s Jinny.”

“I’m great! Really excited about the show. Gus is a perfect character for me. Maybe I’ll actually get back into shape.”

“That’s wonderful, George, really wonderful. Listen, honey, Jim Burrows called. He was wondering if you’d be available for a pilot he’s directing for NBC. Something he’s doing with the Charles brothers.”

The Charles brothers — Glen and Les — were great comedy writers. They’d written the episode of “Taxi” I appeared in, which also happened to be directed by Jim Burrows. I was flattered that they wanted to work with me again. But.

“Jinny, I’ve already got a job.”

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“It’s nothing, George, nothing. Just one line. One word. They really want you.”

Now I really couldn’t turn it down.

Beer to the rescue
According to the original script, I wasn’t supposed to appear until the end of the episode. By that time, one of the show’s stars — played by Shelley Long — has been dumped by her fiancé and taken a job as a waitress in a Boston bar. I was supposed to be George, her first customer. “I’m Diane,” she would introduce herself. “I’ll be your waitress.” Then would come a rambling monologue, a minute long, about all of the strange circumstances that had led up to her becoming a waitress. My job was to look impatient, until Diane finally remembered she was talking to a thirsty customer. “Oh!” she’d exclaim. “I should take your order. What can I get you?”

At which point I was to deliver my single line. My single word, actually: “Beer.”

“Beer, perfect!” she would reply, hurrying off to fill the order.

I had a lot of trouble believing that I was going to get paid to look like a guy who really wanted a beer. Talk about a job that matched up with the real me. My passion must have shown through, because almost immediately, my role began to expand. Sitcom scripts, especially pilots, are a fluid business. Until the actors are delivering lines — sometimes in front of a live studio audience — it’s impossible to know which jokes are going to work and which lines are going to fall flat. The writers are always working on the fly. What begins as a 50-page script on Monday might be 50 completely different pages on Friday.

By the end of the week in the bar, my character had a new entrance (I was the first regular customer to walk in) and a new point of view (I badgered Diane, rather than the other way around). I also had a new name: Norm Peterson. And when “Making the Grade” got canceled after just six episodes, I was happy to have a new job waiting for me.

A star series is born
“Cheers” premiered on NBC in 1982. nobody noticed, except for a couple of critics. We finished the season in last place, 77th out of 77 primetime programs. The show aired Thursday nights, which at that time meant it was being crushed by CBS’s unbeatable one-two: “Magnum, P.I.” and “Simon & Simon.”

We were lucky to have a lot of support from a boss who understood comedy. Back in my improv workshop days, before I made it into Second City, I used to help fold up the chairs after the more experienced students were done performing. One night one of my co-folders turned to me and said, “You know, George? That’s going to be us up on that stage someday.” He was half right. I made it. As for the co-folder, Brandon Tartikoff, he managed to do all right for himself. When “Cheers” began, he was the youngest-ever president of NBC’s entertainment division and, more important, he had our backs.

A few more people watched the show when the CBS behemoths went to reruns. We got a big boost from the Emmys — five in our first season, the winners including Shelley Long, Jim Burrows for directing, and the Charles brothers for writing the pilot. And the one for Outstanding Comedy Series probably helped. Our ratings got a little better the second season, especially after NBC moved “Family Ties” to the slot before us. Then, in season three, the network added a new sitcom called “The Cosby Show.” It turned out to be the perfect lead-in to what became “Must See Thursday”: “Cosby,” “Family Ties,” “Cheers,“ “Night Court” and “Hill Street Blues.”

Norm and me
One question I’m constantly asked is if I really like beer as much as Norm Peterson. “Nobody’s that good of an actor,” I tell them. Despite the obvious similarities, however, there are a couple of critical differences between Norm and me.

I actually like my wife; Norm, on the other hand, was a bit more ambivalent about his heard-but-never-seen wife, Vera (who, by the way, was voiced by my real wife, Bernadette Birkett). And when I drink a lot of beer, I will occasionally get drunk. Not so for Norm: It was very important to the network (and to my mother) that Norm never seem like he was getting loaded. They didn’t want him to appear pathetic. But the biggest difference? Norm had way better writers than I do.

From “Drinking with George: A Barstool Professional’s Guide to Beer” by George Wendt. Copyright © 2009. Reprinted by permission of Simon Spotlight Entertainment.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive

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