By Roger Cormier
I’m going to miss Coach.
Nicholas Colasanto passed away in February 1985, sometime while the final few episodes of season three were being filmed. Knowing beforehand about the actor’s death (and noticing his gaunter face), it was incredibly depressing to watch episodes that explained away Coach’s absence, and even sadder when his disappearance was not addressed at all. Coach could never really be dismissed as a standard sitcom dimwit, but plenty of his successors on lesser shows only took the stupidity aspect and used it for easy jokes for as long as their series lasted. Coach Ernie Pantusso at least had a reason for not being all that intelligent, having discovered an uncanny ability to draw hit by pitches to get on base during his baseball playing days and exhibiting that talent a couple of times too many on the head.
The backstory significantly legitimized the character’s most defining trait of the first two seasons, and provided a few laughs when he insisted that Diane throw a ball down the Cheers hallway so he can prove that he still had his unique talent (he did.) In his final season I would say that Coach’s defining trait became his sweetness. He alone convinced Diane to return to the bar in the first place, and conceivably it only could have been him and his innocent kind heart that could have pulled that off, the real life closeness between Colasanto and Shelley Long really shining through.The counted out old man who actually pulls the strings behind the scenes on television these days is Pierce Hawthorne (well, not anymore…), who had slept with the substitute Spanish teacher in the penultimate episode of season one of Community to get his study group to pass (which nobody in the group ever found out about), and shot the fatal paintball blast to keep Greendale Community College afloat in the season two closer, but will mostly be remembered as a cantankerous, racist, and stupid senior citizen. Coach wasn’t bright, and jokes stemmed from the man taking things too literally, but sometimes resulting in accidentally profound quotations for a second wave and layer of comedy. The best example of this: after Diane recited the oft-quoted Thoreau line “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify, simplify!”, Coach wondered out loud why he didn’t just say simplify once, baffling and quieting Diane like Carla always dreamed.
Coach’s legacy will last a long time: Phoebe Buffay and Cosmo Kramer had a little Yogi Berra and Ringo Starr in them too. Parks and Recreation’s Andy Dwyer is a younger, spryer version of stupid and lovable Coach, and it’s embarrassingly easy to hear Chris Pratt’s line reading of another Coach classic that displayed his provincialism, when he met and was quickly fascinated with the criminally underrated Boggs, Diane’s mother’s posh butler. “How many pairs of socks do you figure that guy has?” was the first thing Mr. Pantusso thought to ask when the man was first out of earshot. I hear that a new, not too bright man is about to enter my Netflix viewing life for season four, but right now the decision by the writing staff to seemingly create another version of Coach seems downright insensitive to me. I wonder what people thought back then.
Thanks to Wikipedia and Kelsey Grammar’s memory, I do know how some/most fans felt about the first year of twenty that Dr. Frasier Crane graced us with his presence on television. “Are you that pin dick that plays Frasier?” was what one infamous human being spewed to Grammar on the street one day in 1986, a punishment for accepting paychecks for keeping Sam and Diane apart. I didn’t feel such passionate animosity for Frasier throughout the 25 episodes, so much as a slight and presently misguided concern that the now popular personality would alter the delicate and winning character chemistry for the worse.
It will probably if anything become necessary with the absence of Coach, as some late season episodes that found Frasier and Diane in Europe (to accommodate Long’s pregnancy) noticeably leaned too heavily on Sam and Carla running the bar. Grammar appeared in what seems in retrospect to be the perfect number of episodes in season three with showing his face approximately half the time, not too much to really get under the skin of some extroverted streetwalkers, but not too little to seem insignificant. Frasier is not a denizen of the bar just yet, but he did go through a hazing of sorts in “The Heart Is a Lonely Snipehunter” when the boys of Cheers let him tag along on a hunting trip, only to ditch Diane’s psychiatrist boyfriend. When Frasier was allowed to get the last laugh at the episode’s conclusion, he was officially initiated by the writers. Rightfully so, as Frasier Crane right from the start was a compelling and funny character, failing more than Diane in putting on airs to differentiate himself and seem superior from the less learned, probably because he doesn’t care as much about achieving that status. Frasier so desperately wants to be liked, so his odd and amusing laugh can be easily confused as phony.
Cheers began to really define their established characters. Cliff really had a rough year, repeatedly referred to by his closest friends as a “boob.” In “Fairy Tales Can Come True,” Cliff successfully met an interested, nice woman in a sweet episode. We never saw the woman again though, and the very next episode was when the mockery about Cliff living with his mother. Mr. Clavin was firmly established in these episodes as the cowardly weasel, a loser, and the bar’s punching bag. Sam and Diane went back to season one flirtations and lusting, and it was never more apparent than now that Sam’s stripes will never be changed. Even when he daydreamed about stopping Frasier and Diane’s wedding, literally whisking Diane off of her feet, he made sure Diane told him that she would be okay with him still seeing other women. Carla, like Rhea Perlman, got pregnant once again, to Frasier’s mentor, a benevolent, smart man, but after promising to provide financial support for their child it is understood by both that he is never to be seen again. Carla’s ex husband and father of her other children, the very weird Nick Tortelli, returned twice, to continue to mess with Carla’s feelings before leaving with Casey Kasem’s real life wife again. Nick is rarely seen but is the center of Carla’s universe, and it doesn’t look like that will change for awhile.
The change is coming from the setting, and from the most dedicated barfly. In season one I fixated on how Cheers never left the bar, and in season two only Diane’s living room was added. But in season three, the show ignored Thoreau’s advice and presented the world to a European restaurant and two hotel rooms, images of every character’s house or apartment, two dreams, and most shockingly of all, the men’s bathroom. The latter was introduced in “Executive Executor’s Hines,” when Norm’s new job as his company’s hatchet man gave him a kind of unoriginal nightmare where he was tasked with sending people to their literal deaths. It was just as surprising to witness the actual dream as it was the first time we left the bar, not just for the otherworldly nature of the fantasy but because Norm Peterson’s subconscious was something that we were being told is worth the airtime.
Norm is the Johnny Sixpack of the show, the Every Man we relate to, but it wasn’t until now that he was the subject of a fair number of A stories, and someone with a strong moral compass. Norm more than anyone on the show is capable of breaking his or her cycle, which is incredibly depressing considering that he is the customer that spends the most time at the bar, but of course, that means him and his wife Vera have the least to lose. I kind of wanted Norm to follow through on traversing the world after a health scare in “Peterson Crusoe,” knowing full well he wouldn’t, since the pull of the bar and its familiar faces is too strong. Diane acknowledged that Frasier is a nice security, and Sam is a volatile day-by-day gambit. Everyone at Cheers picks the security of the bar over the day-to-day crapshoot that is the outside world. Sometimes I think Cheers is the most depressing comedy that ever existed.