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Given a Chance by Circumstance, 'Cheers' Became an Institution


The hype-a-rama hoopla accompanying the departure of "Cheers" from our prime time lives this week stands in marked contrast to its arrival 11 years ago.

We critics didn't go crazy, but we were clearly impressed and tried to persuade viewers that NBC's so-called "Best night of television on television" -- "Fame," "Cheers," "Taxi" and "Hill Street Blues," if memory serves -- was actually that.

Viewers did not heed our call. They stuck with CBS' "Magnum P.I." early in the evening and trickled over only for "Hill Street." "Fame" soon went to syndication and "Taxi" played out its string. "Cheers" thudded to the bottom of the Nielsen numbers.

But NBC was in such dire ratings straits -- and in the hands of network president Grant Tinker, one of the class acts in the business -- that it knew that it would be foolish to dump a show as good as "Cheers" no matter what the ratings.

At one point, Mr. Tinker even said that he should be put in jail if he canceled "Cheers."

And so the show hung in there. "Family Ties" joined it on Thursdays and a few more people started watching. Then along came "The Cosby Show" and the country flocked to NBC on Thursdays, discovering this bunch of characters gathered around a Boston bar in the process. Eventually "Cheers" would become one of only two shows ever to rank last and then first in the ratings. ("Lou Grant" is the other one.)

Mr. Tinker's loyalty to "Cheers" is not solely attributable to his good taste. The show's creators, brothers Les and Glen Charles and Jim Burrows, trace their careers back to MTM Enterprises, the studio that spawned the classic sitcoms of the 1970s.

MTM stood for the star of the show that started it all, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Mr. Tinker was Mr. Mary Tyler Moore and head of the studio that bore her initials.

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show" provided the formula for the shows produced by MTM and its graduates, including "Rhoda," shows for Tony Randall and Bob Newhart, and "Taxi." The idea was to take a stable, essentially non-comedic character and surround him or her with a bunch of more eccentric, looney types.

That way the audience could identify with the central character, whose stories could carry some dramatic weight, while the script could always go to a member of the supporting cast for a laugh.

Bartender Sam Malone was the central figure in "Cheers." Around him were barmaid Carla Tortelli, fellow bartender Ernie "Coach" Pantusso, barflies Norm Peterson and Cliff Clavin, and, of course, out-of-her-element intellectual Diane Chambers.

In setting up a relationship of sexual tensions between ex-jock Malone and the ex-graduate student Chambers, "Cheers" tapped into an even older cinematic motif. Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell identified this in a series of classic 1930s films, such as "It Happened One Night," "The Philadelphia Story," "His Girl Friday," terming them "comedies of remarriage."

BTC Each had a set-up very much like the pilot of "Cheers," in which Diane was properly betrothed to someone of her ilk -- in this case, her professor -- but found herself inexorably, irrationally drawn to someone ostensibly beneath her social standing -- Sam. And, for Diane, not only someone, but something -- being a barmaid at "Cheers."

During those first unwatched years, the writers had a wonderful time playing around with this mismatched couple. The problem was that in the '30s movies, the tension was resolved with a wedding and "The End" came up on the screen. But if you've got a series on the air, you don't want it to end. And, as everyone who came out of MTM knew from the "Rhoda" experience, you didn't want a wedding. That gives you one good night of numbers, then everyone thinks the story's over and looks for something else to watch.

So the "Cheers" producers were doing comedic gymnastics to try to keep Sam and Diane sort of apart and sort of together for season after season. Then, an unexpectedly wonderful thing happened: Shelley Long, who was brilliant as Diane, decided that she was going to be a movie star and left the show.

Along came Rebecca Howe, played by Kirstie Alley, to take Diane's place behind the bar. She was envisioned as a hard-charging, money-making '80s type, but the writers just didn't know her as well as the vulnerable intellectual, Diane.

Luckily, they had the emerging characters of Frasier Crane and his wife Lilith, pompous psychiatrists who provided a lot of the laughs while they tried to find their way with Rebecca.

Frankly, in part because they never nailed Rebecca the way they did Diane, the show was never as good the last few years as it was at the beginning. But it didn't matter. It got more and more popular. As Mr. Burrows once said, it became like an old shoe, a comfortable place to be every Thursday.

The last comedy to be as popular at the ripe old age of 10 aCheers" was "The Andy Griffith Show," another program that exuded comfort, and hearkened back to a just-departed era.

But the sustained popularity of "Cheers" is, of course, due in large part to the sheer luck that has to be present for any show to become a hit, when that elusive combination of the right idea joins writing, acting and producing talent in a way that allows continued growth.

The people on "Cheers" got along well. Only Ms. Long left the cast, a rarity for a hit show. Many writers and others behind the scenes stayed around for years, too.

And much to its credit, the show never tried to be anything other than what it was, a comedy about people in a bar. It never got off its premise like, say, "Taxi" did when it ceased being a comedy about people driving cabs and became an Andy Kauffman comedy routine.

Only for the odd show here and there did "Cheers" leave its familiar set. Nor did it tack on character after character year after year, building a rickety structure in an effort at keeping things fresh.

But most important, "Cheers" always remembered the bottom line of comedy -- laughter. "Cheers" was rarely socially insightful or emotionally poignant or politically correct, but it was almost always funny. And to the American public, a good laugh every week is about as welcome as a cold glass of beer is to Norm Peterson.

So, farewell Sam and Diane, Rebecca and Lilith, Norm and Cliff, Coach and Woody, Carla and Frasier. Drive carefully on your way home.

Michael Hill, The Sun's correspondent in South Africa, was The Evening Sun's television critic.

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