NBC's "Cheers" keeps getting more and more successful. But producing the show just gets more and more difficult.
Not "more difficult" as in "not any fun." The three executive producers of "Cheers"--brothers Glen and Les Charles and James Burrows--insist that making the series, which consistently places in the top five in the Nielsen ratings, is definitely fun.
But the trio say that somehow, the witty NBC comedy about the quirky personalities in a Boston bar just never evolved into the efficient, streamlined, well-oiled production machine one might expect of a show that has lasted six seasons, picking up 13 Emmys, including several for best comedy series, along the way.
Ted Danson, who stars as randy bartender Sam Malone, was only half-joking when he offered this assessment of the show's progress: "It takes longer, our concentration is poor, and it's a frightening thing."
Just down the road on the Paramount lot where "Cheers" is filmed, another long-running NBC comedy, "Family Ties," consistently completes its taping sessions in approximately 90 minutes. The filming of "Cheers" before a studio audience sometimes drags on for three hours or more.
"It just doesn't seem to get any shorter," a bemused Glen Charles, 44, said at the "Cheers" production offices. "After the audience goes home, we're still shooting till 1 in the morning."
Although none of them can figure out why they haven't managed to shorten the process over the years, one thing makes it easier: a loyal following. Unlike the early studio audiences, when the show was new and struggling in the ratings, today's crowds will stay for the duration, just to be in the studio with "Cheers."
The three producers, all veterans of MTM Enterprises and "Taxi," are also all similarly low-key, mild-mannered and self-deprecating ("We're sorry we're boring," Glen Charles said cheerfully after an interview). And they give an extremely modest reason for the show getting on the air and remaining on the schedule in the first place.
When "Cheers" made its debut in the fall of 1982, the ratings were low. But back then, NBC, now the No. 1 network, was in third place--and since it was on the bottom, it had nothing to lose by taking chances.
"They kept us on because they were committed to quality shows, and also because they didn't have much of anything else," Glen Charles said. "And because of the atmosphere, we were pretty much left alone to do the show we wanted to do."
What the team wanted to do was a romantic comedy at a time when comedy was considered dead by the networks--the most popular genre then was the prime-time soap opera. "Cheers" also broke the mold of the popular 1970s comedies such as "All in the Family," which opted for topical, satirical humor rather than tongue-in-cheek romance. At the time, nobody knew for sure if the television audience was ripe for something different.
"With 'Cheers,' it was the kind of show that was an acquired taste for the NBC audience," said NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff, whom the three producers credit with helping keep the show afloat.
"We did not have a lot of urban, sophisticated comedy (in 1982); it's not like we could put this show on after 'Diff'rent Strokes,' " Tartikoff said. "We knew we had to tough it out; our hope was that over time we would get the people who were not watching NBC, as well as the people who were not watching network television, period."
The strategy worked. Of course, the producers acknowledge that "Cheers" has benefited over the last several years from its 9 p.m. Thursday time slot in the golden "what's-on-after-'Cosby' " lineup. But they also credit their success to the show's quality writing and the fact that they happened to offer a dose of romantic comedy to an audience which had been starved for it. "I guess by the early '80s, people were ready for a little glamour and romance," said Les Charles, 39.
Not only did "Cheers" come along at the right time, Burrows gloated, but it also inspired some sincere and flattering TV imitations later down the line. Although the producers of "Moonlighting" might tell a different story, Burrows insists that "Cheers' " bantering lovers, Sam and hyper-intellectual waitress Diane, enjoyed another incarnation on ABC's sophisticated, quasi-comic detective series. " 'Moonlighting's' David and Maddie are really Sam and Diane," he said.
If the '70s were too early for "Cheers," the late '80s might have been too late, Glen Charles said. "I think if we came along now and tried to sell 'Cheers' to a network, we'd have a very hard time because of the anti-alcohol, anti-drug sentiment," he said. "It helped to come along when we did."
Even in 1982, the producers had to fight to get the network to allow real brand-name labels on the bottles in the Cheers bar.
The three producers believe that "Cheers" has been able to avoid wearing out its welcome because they have relied on character humor rather than gags, and the characters they created are people the audience likes to have visit their living rooms. "We don't do hard-and-fast jokes. They are not jokes that would necessarily be funny if you told them on the street, but they're funny when the character says them," Glen Charles said.
The producers said that this season's addition of a new character--the bar's new manager, Rebecca Howe, played by Kirstie Alley--has given the writers another avenue for fresh character humor.
But emphasis on character does not mean a de-emphasis on humor, the producers said. Though the jokes come from character, they'd better be funny. Les Charles bluntly sums up TV's current, critically acclaimed crop of comedy-drama hybrids, the "dramedies"--such as CBS' "Frank's Place" and ABC's "Hooperman"--as "comedies that aren't funny."
The way they gauge how funny the show is, is the reaction of the studio audience--which, like Norm and Cliff, will always be a fixture at "Cheers." "If you get rid of the audience, you do tend to become lazy about your jokes," said Glen Charles.
Added Burrows: "Laughter is a communal thing. You need the studio audience."
It is only after five seasons that Charles, Burrows and Charles have felt able to step back a little from "Cheers" this season to allow their writers more creative control. They say it took five years of training others to follow in their footsteps to be able to take that luxury.
"I think all of us are happy now that we don't have to work as hard as we did then," said Burrows, 46. "The show is in capable hands, and we're enjoying that."
The team said the show will probably end if the most important of those funny characters, Danson's Malone, leaves the series. Danson's contract expires at the end of this season, and he has hinted he may not return to the show so that he can pursue his blossoming film career ("Three Men and a Baby"), like his former co-star, Shelley Long, who played Diane. Long left at the end of last season.
But Danson has mixed feelings about leaving. "We do 13 hours of 'Cheers' a year, and out of those 13 hours, three hours are as good if not better than any writing you could find anywhere," he said. "You're in heaven--why would you want to run off and do something that's not as good?"
And the producers have mixed feelings about leaving "Cheers" as well--and don't plan to do so any sooner than they have to. Since creating "Cheers," the trio produced one spin-off comedy, "The Tortellis," which lasted only briefly as a mid-season replacement in January, 1987. Said Les Charles, "We've tried to do a few other shows, and the reason we weren't successful is that, physically and emotionally, we were still tied up in 'Cheers.' "