Last Call for Cheers The Boston bar is just a sitcom set, but for viewers it has become a real place, Where friends hang out David Zurawik

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Los Angeles--The taps pour real beer. But the stuff in the glass on the bar in front of where Norm sits and drinks and drinks and drinks is the non-alcoholic kind.

The yellow-and-red Wurlitzer jukebox plays real tunes: "The In Crowd" by Dobie Gray, "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" by the Platters and "I Fall to Pieces" by Patsy Cline. But the stairs behind it are fake and go nowhere. There is no Melville's fine seafood restaurant upstairs, as the sign promises.

And Sam Malone, in the person of Ted Danson, is standing right there behind the bar, pulling the lever to pour the beer and talking loudly. But the big hair is missing. There's a bald spot at the back of his head, and the rest of what's up there is mainly gray. And he's wearing glasses. Not the kind of glasses actors wear for looks when they want to appear smart. No, the lenses in Sammy Boy's glasses are really thick -- thick enough for him to be a high school physics teacher.

Welcome to Cheers, where everybody knows your name.

The pilgrimage to Soundstage 25 at Paramount Studios in Hollywood, the dream factory where "Cheers" is made, was a must once it was announced that Thursday night's show -- the 274th episode of "Cheers" -- would be the last.

It's not so much the 111 Emmy nominations (the most ever for a TV series) and the 26 Emmys (second only to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show") "Cheers" has racked up in the last 10 years that made the trip so important. Emmys are mostly an indication of how the TV industry itself, not the viewers, feel.

It's "Cheers' " popularity. For the last eight years, the story of America's favorite bar has ranked among television's top 10 shows. And, since it went into syndication five years ago, more than 80 million viewers have watched it every week. The numbers are huge and suggest "Cheers" has taken up residence in the public mind in a way only a handful of series -- including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "M*A*S*H" -- have ever done.

Now, "Cheers' " final episode becomes a landmark in the popular culture of our lives and times.

"It's definitely the end of something, but I don't know what," says Danson, during an interview on the Paramount set of "Cheers." "You're asking me all these questions about what it means and why it appeals to so many people, and I don't know the answers.

"I'll tell you, no one will ask me anything two or three years from now, but I'll be in a much better position to answer these questions, because I'm still in it. I'm still in this no-brainy, unexamined process where after 11 years, you show up for work and you don't even think. So, I don't know how to answer these questions."

Danson is the main reason "Cheers" has its farewell toast this week. He says it was "definitely" his idea to call it quits at the end of this season, although the producers and others in the cast wanted to continue one more year.

"I'm not leaving this to go off and do something better," says Danson, who reportedly earns $450,000 an episode. "I'm not stupid. But I decided I had to stop doing 'Cheers' and take time to look inside of me and decide what I want to do next with my life."

As to that next step, Danson admits, "I haven't an idea."

Nor does he claim to have many clues about skirt-chasing Sam Malone and his chemistry with love interests Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) and Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley).

"Well, OK, I'll tell you what I've been told," Danson says. "I think Sam and Diane had more of a love-hate relationship, so it's easier to write that sparky, battle, kind of dialog. And Kirstie and I seemed to be more similar. So, we seemed to be more romantic buddies. . . . But I don't know."

Did Sam change over the 11-year run of the series?

"He got older, you know. That was the one inevitable thing, he got older," Danson says, smiling to himself.

"They tried to make him Sammy again," he adds. "But he's 45 now. I'm 45. It's OK to be chasing around when you're 37. But when you're 45, it's kind of sad to be chasing around that way. So, again, I'm not sure. . . . I'm spewing all these one-liners and I have no idea what I'm saying."

A nice place to visit

Finally, Danson does come up with an explanation for the appeal of "Cheers."

"I think 'Cheers' was just a nice, relaxing place to be for viewers," he says. "That's too simple, though, I'll bet. Huh?"

It's not too simple at all. In fact, it echoes what Dr. Sheri Parks, who teaches television and popular culture at the University of Maryland at College Park, says about "Cheers," looking at it from the outside in.

" 'Cheers' was just a pleasant place to hang out," she says. "For me, it's kind of the end of an era -- that whole 'Cosby'-'Designing Women'-'Cheers' era is ending. They were all pleasant places to visit for a while.

"My husband consciously watches television like this," Dr. Parks adds. "He says, 'I want something safe and pleasant, so I can veg out for half an hour and then go do some work.' And increasingly he's using videotapes . . . because there are fewer and fewer places like that."

In that sense, "Cheers" is very much television of the '80s -- the last of that decade's. Just as Ronald Reagan's TV advertising reminded Americans of an earlier, simpler time and promised a return to romanticized small-town values, "Cheers" was a modern-day, video version of the neighborhood tavern where everyone really did know everyone else's name. While those corner bars still exist in a few cities, most have disappeared.

Along with shows like "Cosby" and "The Wonder Years" -- which aired the last episode of its six-year run on Tuesday -- "Cheers" was a product of the 1980s' culture industry that addressed present-day feelings of need or loss with a fondly remembered institution from the past. "Cheers" spoke to the needs of those who physically moved away from their roots. It made life in the new apartment in the new city feel a little less cold, impersonal and lonely on Thursday nights.

That's one reason airports bought those life-size replicas of Cliff, Norm and others from the "Cheers" gang and placed them on bar stools in airport lounges -- to make one of the most impersonal places in the universe, the airport bar, seem more familiar and friendly.

Sexism at the bar

Lest we forget, "Cheers" also embodied some of the worst aspects of the 1980s. It was often sexist and consistently anti-intellectual.

Much of the humor, for example, came from Sam and the bar's male patrons mocking Diane's academic aspirations and Rebecca's desire to move up the corporate ladder.

Carla, on the other hand, was not mocked in that manner. Why? Because Carla was a woman who knew her place; she accepted her status as waitress. She was allowed to smart off, as long as she never really challenged the traditional male-female status quo in the fundamental ways that Diane and Rebecca did.

The show's anti-intellectualism and sexist tendencies came together in the depiction of Lilith: the producers' vision of what happens when you let a woman get too much education.

Norm mocked Vera. Cliff mocked "mom." While the show fed off the energy of changing notions of gender roles in the larger society during the last decade, it's view was always male and often retro.

A survey released this month by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that twice as many men as women picked "Cheers" as their favorite all-time comedy. That's not surprising.

"Cheers" started out in the minds of NBC executives in the early '80s as a sitcom that would play off the success of the Miller Lite beer commercials featuring retired athletes in barroom settings. Coach (the late Nick Colasanto) and Sam, the woman-chasing, ex-big-league pitcher, were the results of that vision. And, while both became great comic characters, at its worst, "Cheers" was the sitcom as beer commercial, with Sam pitching the "Why ask why?" philosophy heard in beer commercials today.

Something non-'80s

But there was also something very non-'80s about "Cheers," and that may have been the best thing of all about it. In an era that celebrated money, conspicuous consumption and scaling the corporate ladder, none of the regulars at "Cheers" traveled on the fast track.

Professionally, all were either on the way down (Sam and Frasier), wannabes (Diane and Rebecca) or never-really-trieds (Norm and Cliff). Like Ralph Kramden, who watched from his cramped apartment while the rest of America rode the wave of post-war prosperity into suburbia, the "Cheers" gang didn't play in the great decade-of-greed board game.

In the end, "Cheers" triumphed over most of its own worst tendencies and became something more than even a great sitcom. Like the WJM newsroom in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" the "M*A*S*H" compound, it became a real place that brought real pleasure to millions of visiting viewers. When TV fantasy becomes that real and pleasurable, it's important to be reminded that the stairs behind the jukebox at Cheers lead nowhere and that George Wendt's Norm drinks non-alcoholic beer.

"I think it has become a real place," Dr. Parks says. "People make pilgrimages to that bar in Boston [Bull & Finch] and buy the T-shirts. There are certain places like the 'Cosby' living room and that bar in 'Cheers' that become real places in our public mind. I think the bar Cheers has become a real place, and I don't think we have a whole lot of other real places like that left."

THE FINAL EPISODE

Thursday NBC toasts the final episode of "Cheers" (WMAR-Channel 2).

* 9 p.m.: "Cheers" retrospective, "Last Call! A Cheers Celebration," with host Bob Costas

* 9:24 p.m.: The 90-minute-plus finale, marking the return of Shelley Long as the intellectual waitress Diane Chambers

* 11:35 p.m.: The "Cheers" cast appears with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show," which will originate from Boston's Bull & Finch Pub -- the real-life model for "Cheers."

The best in bar barbs: For 11 cheery years, wit flowed as freely as beer

"Cheers" is one of the few shows on television with writing so fine that you remember the dialog long after the final credits roll. There was a crackle to the one-liners and comebacks that survives even in print. The comebacks and put-downs were one way the emotionally maimed regulars at "Cheers" told each they cared.

Among the finer moments:

Sam: Wait, a thought just crossed my mind.

Diane: A thought can't cross your mind, Sam. The bridge is out.

*

Diane: Carla, guess why I'm here.

Carla: Generations of inbreeding?

*

4 Cliff: Clifford Clavin has the soul of a winner.

Carla: That's pronounced wiener.

*

Sam: Hey, Norm, how's life in the fast lane?

Norm: Beats me. I can't find the on-ramp.

*

Woody: I'm at wit's end.

Carla: How would you know?

*

Diane: Sam, what would you call an evening out with a woman when you had no hope of any physical involvement whatsoever?

Sam: A first.

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