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sitcom smackdown

The Best Sitcom of the Past 30 Years, Round One: Cheers vs. The Office

Well, this is unfortunate. Originally, I was assigned to write an essay about Cheers versus Married with Children. That’s a piece I could do in my sleep with one hand down my pants. (An Al Bundy reference, not a masturbation reference, just to be clear.) I was going to pretend to struggle with this alleged dilemma (Married with Children was so groundbreaking, so criminally underrated, a refreshing tonic to the sweetness of The Cosby Show, I’d claim), before “deciding” on Sam and Diane and friends.

But then my editor changed the assignment. The original bracket shrunk from 32 to 16 shows and somehow Married with Children did not make the final cut. I now have to write Cheers (1982–1993) versus The Office (2005–2013). Dammit. No more fake struggling. This is a genuine angst-causing, brain-hurting dilemma. These are two brilliant shows; my favorite from the 20th century pitted against my favorite from the 21st century (so far).

First off, I’m awed by their low concepts. The conceit for each is so simple and, frankly, boring. One is about a bunch of regulars at a Boston bar. The other is about some people who work at a Scranton paper company. In the early eighties, the era in which Cheers started, the top-rated shows included Mork & Mindy (he’s an alien, she’s a human — their love is out of this world!) and M*A*S*H (an anti-war polemic featuring wisecracking surgeons during the Korean War!). Mind you, I’m not opposed to high-concept entertainment. It’s how I make my living, after all.*

But there’s something admirable about a low-concept (or zero-concept) show that derives its humor from the characters, not the situations. It requires more patience on the part of the writer, the actor, the viewer, and the network executive. We all have to settle into the characters. In fact, let’s not call them sitcoms. Let’s call them chara-coms.

The center of Cheers — at least in the first five seasons — was Sam, played by Ted Danson, and Diane, played by Shelley Long. Their relationship was the best, wittiest, Tracy-Hepburniest example of sexual tension in TV history. Diane is hard to like but even harder to hate. She exasperates the viewer — and Sam — by being pretentious and condescending, dropping names such as “Schopenhauer” into everyday conversation. This is a person who once threw a come-as-your-favorite-Elizabethan-poet party, and enters the Cheers football pool by choosing teams based on whether the city had a foreign conductor. And yet, against all odds, we do like her, partly because she’s so pitiable. Diane enters the show having been recently dumped and humbled, works at a bar despite her multiple degrees, is adorably naïve, and wants to do the right thing (see “The Boys in the Bar,” a first-season episode in which she sticks up for gay people).

On paper, Sam is also no prize. He’s cocky, sexist, and willfully ignorant of book learnin’. He’s an unrepentant skirt-chaser (or puffy-shouldered blouse chaser, this being the eighties). But we can’t hate him either. Partly because he’s such a sad sack — a failed pitcher, an alcoholic, a lonely guy. (His name is, appropriately enough, a homonym for “Sam Alone,” as Danson’s son once pointed out.) And partly because he cares about his adopted family, the regulars at the bar.

Remarkably, even the lesser characters were layered: Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), the know-it-all who knows nothing. (This was before bar arguments could be settled with an iPhone Google search.) Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), the psychologist with more emotional issues than his patients. Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman), the waitress, who beneath her gruff exterior, had a heart of coal. And Woodrow Huckleberry Tiberius Boyd (Woody Harrelson), better known as Woody, the wise fool. Sample dialogue:

Sam: You know what, Woody? You just gave me something to think about. 

Woody: I’m sorry, Sam. I hate when someone does that to me.

I could go on (Norm! Lilith! Rebecca!), but you get the idea. Likewise, I could spend a couple thousand words just listing the wonderful one-liners. Like Cliff’s philosophical query, “How would the Civil War have changed if Abraham Lincoln had octopus tentacles instead of a beard?” Or Diane’s quote that “spontaneity has its time and place” — a notion that is positively Ionescan, as Diane herself would point out.

Instead, I want to wrap up my Cheers paean with an ode to the Arc. Most pre-Cheers sitcoms kept their characters’ lives static. You start the episode, wackiness ensues, resolution occurs, and the characters end up in the same place they did 22 minutes earlier. Cheers, on the other hand, mixed its comedy with a dash of soap opera. Sam and Diane. Or Frasier and Lilith. Carla and Eddie, the hockey player who was tragically killed by a Zamboni. Sam’s struggle with the bottle.

Cheers wasn’t the first TV comedy to introduce multi-episode arcs. But the show’s creators, Les Charles, Glen Charles, and Jimmy Burrows, took it to a new level. As Les Charles told GQ in a Cheers oral history, “We started doing continuing stories and cliffhangers and evolving relationships and so on, and we may have been partly responsible for what's going on now, where if you miss the first episode or two, you are lost. You have to wait until you can get the whole thing on DVD and catch up with it. If that blood is on our hands, I feel kind of badly about it.” We’ll forgive him.  

Like every sitcom (and major-league pitcher), Cheers went through slumps. I didn’t love it when the show veered into slapstick, which happened increasingly in the later years. Just try watching the 1986 Thanksgiving food fight — it’s painful. (To me, the phrase “jump the shark” would be more accurately renamed “throw the mashed potatoes.”) But overall, the quality remained amazingly high, even when Shelley Long left to become a big-screen superstar.

Which brings me to our second chara-com, The Office. By which I mean the American version, which is currently wrapping up its eight-year run.

The British version, of course, is brilliant. And actually more groundbreaking, at least in format. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant shot The Office mockumentary-style, creating the first sitcom reality-TV parody. Their inspiration was the British spate of docu-soaps, which followed ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. Now, of course, mockumentary sitcoms are almost a cliché, as common as cable shows about pastries.

But for all the British version’s surgical genius, I prefer the Greg Daniels iteration. The American version has more heart, and I’m a sentimental middle-aged fool, so nowadays I crave a soft gooey center. (I can’t even watch one of my former favorites — Seinfeld — because it’s so unrepentantly misanthropic).

As with Cheers, the show is packed with amazing characters: the authority-obsessed beet farmer Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson); the cat-loving, backstabbing evangelical Christian Angela Martin (Angela Kinsey); the ditzy, Us Weekly–reading Kelly Kapoor (Mindy Kaling, a writer on the show). But I want to focus on the big cheese, Michael Scott, as played by Steve Carell. In the first season’s six episodes — which received decent but not stellar reviews, and below-decent ratings — Michael was a replica of Gervais’s David Brent. In fact, the American pilot is pretty much a word-for-word duplication of Gervais’s first episode, right down to Michael pretending to fire receptionist Pam Beesly (Jenna Fischer) for stealing Post-It notes.

But Daniels did a smart thing in season two. He made Michael likable. He was still inappropriate and clueless (he drove a PT Cruiser, after all), but he was also decent. And, like Sam and Diane, pitiable. He was so desperate to be liked, so eager to find love and become a father, that you couldn’t hate him. In the pilot, Michael says, “I’m a friend first. A boss second. And an entertainer third.” The line (also cut and pasted from Gervais’s pilot) was meant to show Michael at his most ridiculous and self-delusional. But by the time Carell left, that was accurate — Michael was a friend first. (With the hilarious exception of Toby, whom he treated like an intestinal parasite for reasons that were never entirely clear.)  It took years, but Michael Scott won over his staff. He brought out Pam’s protective side — she helped him navigate his love life, for one thing. And in the end, at their good-bye, Jim (John Krasinski) — the show’s conscience and reality check — gets choked up while telling Michael he is “the best boss [he] ever had.”

The Office’s romantic arcs were as smartly crafted as Sam and Diane’s. Just like the rest of America, I rooted for Pam and Jim. And for Andy and Erin. And even for Kelly and Ryan. But the arc I most cared about? Naturally, Michael’s. I put way too much psychological energy into the happiness of this lonely man. I channeled my grandmother. When is that Michael going to find his soul mate? He can do better than Jan! He’d make such a great dad! And when he finally found Holly Flax (Amy Ryan), who shared his awkward sense of humor and bad Yoda impressions, I was thrilled. I remember fretting to my wife: “They have to let them go off together, right? They can’t keep them apart, right?” 

After Carell left, The Office went into a nosedive. I was no fan of James Spader’s character Robert California, the aloof, mind-fucking one percenter who took over the company. Unlikable, unfunny, and unrealistic. Thankfully, in its current and last season, The Office has had some bright and funny episodes. Which I suppose is no surprise. Creator Greg Daniels has assembled one of the strongest writing staffs in TV history — avoiders of the standard setup-punch-line format, masters of the meta-joke, or humor about humor. Here’s Michael talking about his comedy philosophy.

There are certain topics that are off-limits to comedians: JFK, AIDS, the Holocaust. The Lincoln Assassination just recently became funny. “I need to see this play like I need a hole in the head.” And I hope to someday live in a world where a person could tell a hilarious AIDS joke. It's one of my dreams. 

Or recall the pilot, in which Michael utters the ancient Budweiser catchphrase “Wazzzzzupppp,” to which eternally deadpan Jim says to the camera, “Still funny seven years later.”

In later seasons, anytime the word hard or fast is mentioned, Michael says, “That’s what she said.” Until one episode when Michael swears off the “she said” trope. At which point Jim tortures him by serving up sentence after sentence of tantalizing phallic references.

So, speaking of comedy, let me return to the point of this exercise. Which is a better show: Cheers or The Office? Not to get lawyerly on you, but it depends what you mean by “better.” Does better mean the show I’d rather watch? Because If I had 22 minutes left in my life before I bled out from the Ebola virus, I’d watch an Office over a Cheers. The humor is more modern, more comfortable to me. 

But in terms of which sitcom was more important in the noble history of television comedy, which was more groundbreaking and influential? I have to go with Cheers. Of course, neither is as good as Married with Children.  

Winner: Cheers

*A.J. Jacobs is the author of such high-concept, nonfiction entertainments as The Know-It All, The Year of Living Biblically, and Drop Dead Healthy.

**Jacobs was once trapped in an L.A. hotel room for two days waiting for Jerry Seinfeld to grant an in-person interview for Entertainment Weekly. Seinfeld never agreed to meet him. We suspect this has something to do with Jacobs' antipathy for the show.