By Roger Cormier
I didn’t think it possible. I consider myself someone with an open mind, but I was steadfast in my beliefs of certain truths. You have to have some certain truths or you’ll go crazy. The thought of a malleable, chaotic universe where truly anything is possible is a frightening proposition if you think about it. But there it all was in the strangely titled “2 Good 2 Be 4 Real” season 4 episode of Cheers, staring me in the face and assaulting me in the eyes and ears–a plot that I had seen before on The Simpsons.
But long before The Simpsons did it.
South Park famously proved that every comedy in some way or the other has ripped off The Simpsons, a theory summed up in the line, “Simpsons did it!” But what if, just what if, The Simpsons was not the first comedy to air on television? Intellectually I always knew that there were predecessors, but like how you are aware that there were musical groups before The Beatles but wouldn’t fault a child for thinking otherwise, The Simpsons’ influence is so vast that talking about their influence is about as pointless and universally understood as saying The Beatles were an above average band.
So when “2 Good 2 Be 4 Real”’s plot was that the men of the bar decide to cheer up Carla by inventing a perfect man for her to correspond with after placing an unpopular personal ad in the local rag, it shook me to the core. Of course, there were differences to this and “Bart the Lover”: the picture the guys used was of some unseen male model found in wallets, and not Gordie Howe. Carla finds out about the deception when Sam feels guilty, while Bart, with some counseling from his family, decides to take the high road and let her down easy by way of a touching letter (spoiler?). It’s an argument I have made before in these columns and probably will again, and kind of the whole thesis to do this whole thing, which is that I suspect that Cheers is the spoken and unspoken, conscious and unconscious major influence in today’s television. “Bart the Lover” actually aired in 1992, a year before Cheers was even off the air. It wasn’t plagiarism, but a winking acknowledgment, or an unconscious, “reimagining” if you will. As far as the fact that a character with two lines in a later episode of season four goes by “Bert Simpson,” I just remember Simpsons creator Matt Groening claiming that he came up with the Bart character quickly in James L. Brooks’ office one fateful day in the late 80s. It was explained that Bart is an anagram of “Brat.” It’s hard to truly determine the etymology, unless the Bert on Cheers was named Bort.
It isn’t just television. The 1996 Farrelly brothers movie Kingpin starred Woody Harrelson as an ex-professional bowler who is forced to retire after suffering a terrible injury from the evil hands of Bill Murray, a fellow pinbeater. In the episode “From Beer to Eternity,” Cheers challenges another Boston bar that always defeats them to a game of bowling, after Carla discovers that Woody Boyd (Harrelson) used to bowl all the time in Indiana. Woody is reticent to compete, because he accidentally hurt someone while playing the sport. The Farrellys are far more likely to have consciously known about the episode, but outside of conducting the research to see if they ever commented on it, there’s again no way of knowing. On Cheers, Woody never actually bowls, forcing Diane to make a sitcom-y convenient revelation that she took up bowling in college and saves the day. Characters revealing hidden talents at just the right moment is a “you’re watching television” trope if there ever was one, only in this case saved by the fact that A)In 1986, it maybe wasn’t something everybody had seen before B)The joke that Diane has seemingly taken every possible college class and went after every single degree available has been established since the beginning of the series. There are many season four’s of comedies that have suffered from their very creations, resorting to writing lines that viewers would immediately reject as “out of character” and “acting broadly” when the well has seemingly run dry from getting jokes out of the character traits already established from episodes past.
But that wasn’t the case for Cheers, who aren’t afraid to really dive into their creations. Throughout season four, actually after the first ten episodes of the twenty six that were pretty much episodic, Sam Malone’s womanizing ways, and the dark realization that it will only grow more depressing the older he becomes, was a recurring theme. “Don Juan Is Hell,” the eleventh episode, found Diane writing “clinically” about Sam’s playa behavior for a class. Sam was flattered and boisterously joyful that he was such a perfect subject for Don Juanism, until he actually got around to reading the paper.
“Cheap and pathetic” were words that visibly stung Mayday Malone in particular. “Dark Imaginings” had Sam suddenly finding himself in competition with the younger, more athletic Woody over anything sports related and women, something that apparently actually happened according to a GQ oral history of the show. Sam ended up in the hospital with a hernia, forced to contemplate his own mortality. The episode concluded in a way I never thought a Cheers episode, or any comedy with a laugh track would, with Sam silently staring out of a window, watching the raindrops. (Friends would later do this a bunch of times, but with music, and sometimes humorously.) Sam suddenly became real, a walking tragedy, a man who would conceivably do what he did in the waning moments of the season finale, calling either his current girlfriend or Diane on the phone and proposing marriage. I don’t actually think Sam will change drastically, but most human beings don’t (that was what The Sopranos was about). It’ll be interesting to see if openly engaging in a conversation about how lonely a life of chasing fleeting happiness will end up shooting the show in the foot if it’s main character continually does it for another seven years.
But this has always been kind of a depressing show to begin with, as I fully realized during season three. Still, there is a lot of legitimately funny stuff in every episode, particularly from Norm and Woody’s mouths. Outside of Diane and Frasier, Norm is the most intelligent of the group, which combined with his “fuck it” attitude lets him say things like “it’s a dog eat dog world and I am wearing milkbone underwear” (the line of the season, if audience volume is any indication) and in a heated conversation about Wild E. Coyote that we sadly don’t hear much of, “Well I suppose that proves that the coyote is the antichrist!” Woody Boyd, who came to Boston from a small town in Indiana (probably a nod to Boston demigod Larry Bird) to meet his pen pal Coach , only to discover he had died months ago and take his job minutes later, isn’t as disturbingly and unbelievably dumb as Coach, so much as innocently simple, allowing him to take comments too literally for comedic effect but also possessing the ability to out-negotiate Sam over salary.
Cliff is now firmly entrenched as the loser of the bunch, although once or twice a season is when the writers feel sorry enough for him to put him in the spotlight and mess with his heart. This time around, Cliff’s father, who he barely knew, visited, only to turn out to be running from the government due to pesky fraud. John Ratzenberger’s line reading of calling “somebody in charge of rotten daddies” was impressive, because it was both depressing and funny. Last season featured a running gag that Cliff would always find a way to talk about Florida because he had recently gone on vacation there, and this time around he kept seeing celebrities in assorted vegetables, to the point where he acknowledged that he needed help. This would pave the way for Dr. Frasier Crane to get himself involved in a plot with an individual that wasn’t Diane. Frasier appeared in roughly half of the episodes this year, slowly but surely becoming a full-fledged member of the Cheers crew, and not wasting any of his opportunities. Frasier was the funniest character of all, spending the entire year angry at Diane, at times following her around to correct her grammar. Kelsey Grammer angry is one of the funniest things in television, because it sounds from his boisterous voice that what is happening here is a tremendous wrongdoing, yet it’s obvious he is speaking from some self-hatred and uncertainty in what he is in fact doing.
Next season will be Diane’s last on the show, as Shelley Long announced in the middle of season four that she would not be renewing her contract. To this day, Long doesn’t really regret that decision, still believing that there was no longer much for her character to do after 120 or so episodes. Usually, I would believe that, as I think most sitcoms go on for way too long. But as Cheers progresses without devolving, I’m maybe beginning to see why lesser shows believe they can last as long as the money keeps rolling in.