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Do we still want to go where everybody knows our names?
Radio might be the most intimate medium but TV is the most sociable; a convivial presence in every living room we’ve ever known, ready with gossip, information, comfort or distraction. In The Friend in the Corner we return to significant TV shows to find out what they did for us, and how they pulled it off.
Friend in the corner: Cheers
Decade-long (1982-93) US sitcom set in the Boston bar ‘Cheers’, owned by ex-baseball star Sam Malone and staffed by nerd Diane, spitfire Carla and profound dimwit Coach (and then later Woody and Rebecca). The bar is home-away-from-home for a cast of regulars, including Norm (Norm!), Cliff, Frasier and an audience of millions.
The very first episode of Cheers, ‘Give me a ring sometime’, tells the story of how Diane - a serial academic and intellectual snob - ends up working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. Right at the end, just before the credits, there’s a little throwaway scene in which Diane serves her first customers.
Hi, welcome to Cheers. My name is Diane and I'll be your waitress. Right this way please. I might tell you, parenthetically, that you're the first people I've ever served.
(SHE SEATS THEM AT A TABLE)
In fact, if anyone had told me a week ago I'd be doing this, I'd have thought them insane. When Sam over there offered me the job I laughed in his face.(SHE SITS DOWN NEXT TO THEM)
But then it occurred to me, here I am, a student, not just in the academic sense, but a student of life. And what better place is there in which to study life in all its many facets than here? People meet in bars. They part, they rejoice, they suffer. And they come here to be with their kind.
(SAM RINGS THE BELL BEHIND THE BAR. DIANE JUMPS UP)
What'll it be?
(CONSULTING A BERLITZ GUIDE; WITH HEAVY FOREIGN ACCENT)
Where is police? We have lost our luggage.
And in that one little epilogue we get a perfect encapsulation of the whole series: how it worked, why it worked and what it was like to watch it working.
I might tell you, parenthetically,
that you're the first people I've ever served.
‘Parenthetically’. In one word, Diane’s precise character is confirmed. She is not only the sort of person to whom the word ‘parenthetically’ is casually available; she is the sort of person whose utterances - whose thought processes - require brackets. The word itself packs a comic punch in its nerdily correct usage, and in the context of a waitress doing her job. (Anyone who’s lived in a large city or university town is used to being served burgers by people with PhDs, but it's still a silly situation.) And Shelley Long kills it. She just throws the word away, showing us that for Diane, delighted by her own cleverness, this is just normal speech.
‘Parenthetically’ gave parched British viewers in 1982 a glimpse of the American network precision machine. You can almost hear the writers debating which word would be the funniest and the most fitting, and then having stand-up arguments with the producers about keeping it in the script despite its difficulty. ‘Parenthetically’ refuses to underestimate the audience, a tendency that was carried over (and much further) into the spin-off series Frasier.
The whole of the first episode is like this. It’s a whirlwind of zingers, but each of them is employed in the service of character. Everyone is introduced, and all of them are funny in their own peculiar ways. Not every joke is an absolute killer, but each one earns the right to be there by telling you something about somebody.
The interplay between joke and character is what powers a good mainstream sitcom; the job of the cast is to smooth over the joins. When Shelley Long sits down next to the bemused customers (having delivered her parenthetical musings) she doesn’t do it with overt physical comedy, but with the unconscious movement of someone so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she has lost all apprehension of the external world.
People meet in bars. They part, they rejoice, they suffer.
And they come here to be with their kind.
They make a joke of it, of course, putting it in the verbose mouth of pretentious Diane and then undercutting it (‘their kind’), but they’re saying the theme out loud.
It is noticeable that very few people get drunk in ‘Cheers’. Even Norm, who sits at that bar for hours every single day, never falls off his stool or is sick in his glass. This is a bar - run by a recovering alcoholic - where drunkenness is barely mentioned. It is a fantasy ‘local’, a warm and happy place where you can leave the day behind, be funny and amused, enlivened and revelatory; where having a cheering beer or two is entirely by-the-by.
They chose a bar for the setting not because it’s a place where you can buy alcohol, but because a bar is inherently democratic. Anyone can walk in, be welcomed and share in the common life. It’s right there in the lyrics of the theme tune:
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
This commonality is precisely the appeal of a British pub. In the UK at the time, the local was the communal front room (and now it’s the communal dining table). But Cheers isn’t a British pub. It's an American bar, a basement, all ‘70s Tiffany-style lampshades and mid-century brass and wood. For Brits, the layout and design was as foreign and opaque as the American class system on which the comedy rests; everything was strange and slightly off-kilter. Speaking of which…
But then it occurred to me, here I am, a student, not just in the academic sense, but a student of life. And what better place is there in which to study life in all its many facets than here?
If this was a British sitcom, Diane would hate working at Cheers, just like Basil Fawlty hates running Fawlty Towers and Tim hates working at Wernham Hogg. She would want to escape, in the way the younger Steptoe wants to escape his father, the scrapyard and his class, and Father Ted wants to get off Craggy Island. But this is America; they do things differently here.
Cheers illuminated another trans-Atlantic divide. A British show might have six or eight episodes in a series; US seasons are often three times as long. The explanation for this lies in the old structural differences between the TV networks in the UK and the US. Before streaming, commercial success in the States lay in ‘going into syndication’, being shown and repeated on multiple state and local channels across a giant nation. You needed enough episodes in a season to signal that you were a long-term good bet. There are more than 200 episodes of Cheers; you could put it on every Friday at ten o’clock and not repeat a show for five years. And in the UK, Channel 4 did.
Cheers on Channel 4 was a pleasing example of a premise coinciding neatly with the audience’s state of mind. This wasn’t ‘appointment TV’ - or, at least, it wasn’t initially intended to be appointment TV; it was intended to be the sort of show you watched after a few pints in your own local, perhaps with your own crew of mismatched colleagues. It assumed that you needed something undemanding and graspable by the beerfuddled as you spilt most of a kebab into your lap and then fell asleep, drooling onto the remote. This is precisely what Channel 4’s post-pub sitcom slot was for: easily understood, immediately recognisable, a respite, a consolation, a launch pad for the weekend.
Making your way in the world today takes everything you've got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
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In fact, if anyone had told me a week ago I'd be doing this,
I'd have thought them insane.
And there it is. Having spent the first episode setting up the bar and the characters, the episode ends by teeing up the situation bit of this situation comedy: Diane, an outsider, is now inside. And everyone is going to have to spend at least five years figuring out how that works.
This narrative drive is heightened by a feature that most sitcoms share: the reset button. Once the set-up has been delivered, the end of each episode must see the characters remaining largely where they were 30 minutes earlier. There are two main reasons why sitcoms do this. One is that much of the comic premise rests on the situation, so it must be preserved at nearly any cost. Another is that for a sitcom to be seriously successful in the long term, casual viewers stumbling over random re-runs on those near-infinite US networks - this was pre-binge and boxset, remember - must know what is going on.
Where is police? We have lost our luggage.
Diane might tell us out loud what the show is about, but this joke tells us what kind of show it is going to be. Other sitcoms might have taken the opportunity to humiliate Diane explicitly, mocking or embarrassing her, but this line goes in a very deliberate direction. It pokes fun, but not at her cleverness or her job or her ineptitude; it gently takes the piss out of her self-absorption. The customers haven’t understood a word she was saying, and Diane has completely failed to notice. The joke comes entirely out of her character, and is not at all unkind.
The tourist is asking for help; he has come to Cheers looking for aid and succour. We are pretty sure, by this point, that he is going to get it. And we are pretty sure the show is going to be funny, but not challenging; friendly, with a slight edge, but only a slight one. We are pretty sure that we are welcome along with all the other regulars. As the screen fades to black for the commercial break there we are, reflected in the TV, on our sofa against the background of the bar, at once in Cheers and in our own living rooms, where everybody knows our name and we’re always glad we came.
For more ‘90s comfort viewing: