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'Cheers’ turns 40! Why there won't be another show where everybody knows your name

The show started slowly, but became a critical hit beloved by audiences for more than a decade
/ Source: TODAY

There was a time, long before “streaming” was a word in our collective lexicon, when viewers hustled to their TV sets on Thursday nights, hunkering down for an evening of immense laughter on NBC when sitcom after sitcom brought joy to millions of viewers. One of the programs at the center of this long-running phenomenon was “Cheers,” a series so good that it would be an injustice to simply say it was fantastic.

During its 11-season run, “Cheers,” a comedy about life at a Boston bar, which premiered on Sept. 30, 1982, won 28 Emmys Awards, including four for best comedy series. It spawned not one, but two spinoffs (one of which worked, one of which didn’t), and deftly maneuvered around key cast changes. Not bad for a show that no one seemed to be interested in when it premiered.

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘This is the best,’ but I’ll say it, ‘OK?’ ‘Cheers’ was the best show ever,” Rhea Perlman, who played salty waitress Carla Tortelli, said while laughing in a phone interview with TODAY.

Her statement is not without merit.

Image: Cheers
The relationship between Shelley Long's Diane (left) and Ted Danson's Sam (right) was at the heart of "Cheers" before Long left the series.NBC

“Cheers” was nominated for outstanding comedy series each of the 11 seasons it aired and received 117 Emmy nominations. The show’s pilot and finale have the distinction of earning Emmy nominations, bookended proof that the series remained strong from beginning to end. The series finale in 1993 was a cultural touchpoint, seen by more than 93 million people, making it the most watched single episode of the decade.

Perlman won four Emmys, while Ted Danson and Bebe Neuwirth won two. Kirstie Alley, Woody Harrelson and Shelley Long claimed one apiece. George Wendt was nominated six times and John Ratzenberger was nominated twice. Nicholas Colasanto, who died before the fourth season, notched three nominations.

Aside from memorable performances, “Cheers” left its imprint with a combination of strong characters, fantastic chemistry and superior writing.

“I never looked at the script until I was sitting at the table with the rest of the cast because every time I turned the page, it was like Christmas,” Ratzenberger, who played know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin, told TODAY in a Zoom interview. “You’re just surprised because, for me the joy of ‘Cheers,’ one of the joys is, you never saw the joke coming.”

The stars of "Cheers." Every single actor would at least be nominated for an Emmy Award.NBC

“You know what the joke is going to be on most other sitcoms, never on ‘Cheers.’ It just hit you right in the back of the head like a two-by-four,” he added. “It was such a delight.”

“From its inception, ‘Cheers’ was an endeavor between good friends to create a show about good friends,” co-creator James Burrows wrote in his 2022 book, “Directed by James Burrows.” Burrows did indeed create the show, along with Glen and Les Charles, both of whom he worked with on “Taxi.”

One of the tenets of a sitcom is that it revolves around work, family or friends. “Cheers” managed to merge the idea that you could work with friends who are like family. It’s a simple premise: Recovering alcoholic and ladies’ man Sam Malone (Danson) a retired Boston Red Sox pitcher, owns a bar with a quirky cast of customers and employees, punctuated in the first half of its run by the on-again, off-again romance with his highbrow waitress, Diane (Long).

“I never looked at the script until I was sitting at the table with the rest of the cast because every time I turned the page, it was like Christmas.”

John ratzenberger

Buoyed by a supporting cast second to none, “Cheers” was funny from day one and had the benefit of NBC executives exercising patience to let the show find its footing when it struggled out of the gate in the ratings.

The show’s pilot finished in 60th place out of 63 shows. “Cheers” initially had trouble finding an audience, but was championed by NBC executives Grant Tinker, Brandon Tartikoff and Warren Littlefield, all of whom liked the series and gave it time to build an audience despite the low ratings.

“Without Grant, Brandon and Warren, ‘Cheers’ might not have made it on the air past a couple of episodes,” Burrows wrote.

Shelley Long, Rhea Perlman, Ted Danson and Nicholas Colasanto were the original staff of Cheers.NBC

The show, of course, did catch on and became a staple on NBC and conquered the Nielsens. TV shows are often a product of its time, so it prompts the question: Would “Cheers” work today? Would a character like Sam be embraced in these modern times?

“I think they would respond to a version of it. Not that exact thing,” Perlman said.

“I think there would be a version that would work. You’d have to change it. It would be a different kind of Lothario. There’s still Lotharios around, you know, but Sam was a very kind-hearted person,” she added.

Image: Cheers
Diane wasn't the only one laughing when "Cheers" was on.NBC

“Cheers” premiered about a week after “Family Ties,” portending the era of what became known as “Must See TV,” a block of Thursday night programming on NBC that really solidified with “The Cosby Show” and would go on to feature such favorites as “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” “Will & Grace,” “Night Court” and “Mad About You.”

It was the pinnacle of a time when you had to tune in to watch a show when it aired. Unless you taped the episode on a VCR, you were plum out of luck. Will we ever see a kind of lineup where viewers have to get to their TVs again at a specific time to watch these type of shows the way we did with “Cheers” and that Thursday night lineup?

“Aside from the Super Bowl, or something like that? No, I don’t think we will. I don’t see how we can go back,” Perlman said.

“We now know we don’t need to have to be in a certain place at a certain time,” she added.

“It’s hard for me to say, ‘This is the best,’ but I’ll say it, ‘OK?’ ‘Cheers’ was the best show ever.”

rhea perlman

The fact is there are so many things about “Cheers” you can point to when discussing it: the way everyone shouted “Norm!” when he walked into the bar and the way he always had a joke at the ready, the recurring storyline about the bar’s rivalry with Gary Olde Town Tavern, Carla’s disdain for Cliff ... and Diane ... and Rebecca and the iconic theme song that captured the essence of the show. The series stuck in the American consciousness so much that the Bull & Finch Pub in Boston, which served as the inspiration for the show, rebranded as a Cheers and has become a tourist destination.

It was also one of the first sitcoms to create arcs, with the same storyline in multiple episodes.

“Back in the old days, there was a rule that every TV episode had to be complete in itself, so you could tune into a television show for the first time and be able to enjoy that show and know where you were,” Les Charles told GQ in 2012.

Kelsey Grammer (left) would take his Frasier to incredible heights. His character debuted in the third season and would remain for the duration of the show's run before he played the character for another 11 years on "Frasier."NBC

“And we started doing continuing stories and cliffhangers and evolving relationships and so on, and we may have been partly responsible for what’s going on now, where if you miss the first episode or two, you are lost. You have to wait until you can get the whole thing on DVD and catch up with it. If that blood is on our hands, I feel kind of badly about it. It can be very frustrating.”

“Cheers” also introduced another great comedy when it spun off Kelsey Grammer’s pompous Frasier in a sitcom of the same name. That show would go on to achieve its own greatness and came years after the show’s first attempt at a spinoff, “The Tortellis,” focusing on Carla’s sleazy ex-husband, Nick, didn’t pan out.

The “Cheers” universe endured for more than a decade with “Frasier,” but he wasn’t the only character who almost lived on after “Cheers” signed off.

Movies with Norm and Cliff? John Ratzenberger said it the idea came up.NBC

“We were approached towards the end of the show by a producer on the lot at Paramount about doing a series of movies like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope did. Like, ‘Norm and Cliff Go to Sea,’ ‘Cliff and Norm and Cliff Go to the Moon,’ ‘Norm and Cliff and Dracula,’” Ratzenberger said. “We were thrilled, said sure, but the producers wouldn’t allow it because they owned the characters, obviously.”

“Cheers” conveyed a sense of warmth and being in a bar with people who understand you. It was escapism for people who longed for acceptance after a rough day.

The characters were amazing. Norm, the regular who everyone knew who felt more affection for the bar than his oft-referenced, but never seen, wife, Vera. Cliff, the smarty pants postal carrier was a character that Ratzenberger himself created. Carla, the sassy waitress. Woody, the innocent Indiana farm boy transplanted to the big city. Frasier, the erudite psychiatrist and, later, his stern wife, Lilith, played with such aplomb by Neuwirth. And that’s not even mentioning the litany of guest stars: Harry Connick, Jr., Wade Boggs, Tip O’Neill, Robert Urich, Dick Cavett, Alex Trebek, John Cleese (whose performance netted him an Emmy Award), Johnny Carson and a pre-“Friends” Lisa Kudrow, to name but a few.

As feisty Carla, Rhea Perlman was quick to cut down anyone in the bar, especially Cliff, who spent countless hours at the bar with his best friend, Norm.NBC

The cast has long gone their separate ways, but remains very much in the public eye. Harrelson has become an Oscar-nominated star. Danson has remained a TV mainstay, starring in several successful shows. Ratzenberger provided his voice for the “Toy Story” movies. Grammer is getting ready to reboot "Frasier." Perlman recently starred in “13: The Musical,” and has roles in the upcoming films “Barbie” and the Jonah Hill-Kenya Barris comedy “You People,” as well as the upcoming Fox anthology series “Accused.”

The show also survived a pair of high profile cast changes. Colasanto, who played dim-witted, but lovable Coach, died after the third season. He was replaced by Woody, portrayed by Harrelson.

Long left the show after the fifth season and was replaced by Alley, who played Rebecca, representing a new character who seemed strong, but whose insecurities and failures to advance in the business world were bilked for laughs. Those changes propelled the series in new directions. Perhaps if Long stayed, there could’ve been episodes about Diane’s marriage to Sam and their family.

Image: Cheers
Kirstie Alley (left) steered "Cheers" in a different direction. The show would continue for six seasons with her.NBC

“I think it might’ve morphed and been a great show anyways, but I think that keeping it in the bar with these new people was brilliant,” Perlman said.

There are so many terrific episodes of “Cheers,” but Perlman singles out the fifth season episode in which the gang winds up at Carla’s house for Thanksgiving.

“I loved the Thanksgiving episode, which ended in a food fight at Carla’s house,” she said. “It was just so much fun to let loose like that and hit everyone with mashed potatoes.”

“Cheers” carried on in syndication and today can be streamed on Peacock. Perlman says it’s a throwback to a different time that strikes a chord with viewers, particularly those watching it for the first time.

Woody Harrelson played the dim-witted Woody Boyd, whose hokey manner made him a fish out of water in big city Boston.NBC

“Everybody says, especially new people who watch it, they’ll go, ‘Why can’t there be shows like that anymore?’” she said.

A successful and beloved show, “Cheers” lived on with sporadic appearances from the cast on “Frasier,” but the show itself bucked the reboot trend. Burrows said he was not interested in going down that road.

“There’s this whole thing about reconnecting with your first boyfriend or girlfriend 30 years later. You might be inquisitive and interested, but you’ll always have in your head what they looked and sounded like at 18, and you kind of want to preserve that youthful memory. We wanted to preserve what we had,” he wrote.

“I’m sorry we never got to do a little bit of a reunion year or something. But we had a great time when we did it,” Perlman said.

Ratzenberger, who lists the sixth season episode in which Cliff sells the guys in the bar squeaky shoes and the eighth season episode where Cliff appears on “Jeopardy!,” among his favorites, says he also was up for reuniting because the location is timeless.

“Only because the setting made sense. It’s not like the show took place in our high school when we were all 14 years old,” he said. “It took place in a bar in Boston, and you can very easily be 90 years old sitting at a bar in Boston. So, I think it could have worked.”