With Cheers in the Sitcom Smackdown championship round and more people caring about this than the World Baseball Classic, I’ve been asked to share a memory or two of my days on Cheers, where I was a writer for most of its run. I was there at the beginning and there at the end, and boy, what a difference.
Cheers premiered on September 30, 1982, with the same fanfare reserved for open mike night. Too bad there wasn’t a Nielsen box at Chasen’s restaurant, where we held our premiere party, because it was the only place in America where 30 people were watching the show. Eleven years later, the final episode’s airing on May 20, 1993, was a national phenomenon. 42.4 million households watched it. There’s a lesson in that: If a show bombs the first few weeks out, give it 275 episodes. It’ll find an audience.
Remember where you were the night you watched that last episode? I was in the Cheers bar in Boston for the final party, from where Jay Leno would broadcast the Tonight Show later that night. Be my belated guest and join me for all the celebration and humiliation on that fateful evening.
The Cheers bar you see on television (now called Cheers, but originally named the Bull & Finch) is owned by a guy named Tom Kershaw. He owns the entire building. Upstairs are lounges and libraries.
The festivities began around seven. Thousands of people gathered outside the building and watched the show on two giant Jumbotron TV screens specially set up for the event. My guess is one or both of them are now in Ryan Seacrest’s living room. It had poured earlier in the day, and even the threat of more heavy rain did not deter the crowds. You can’t call yourself a real Cheers fan unless you’re willing to be electrocuted. (To my knowledge, no one was. Or at least very few.)
We were not allowed downstairs in the actual bar, where technicians were setting up for The Tonight Show. And to be honest, there wasn’t much to see. Unlike the TV show, the real Cheers bar is tiny. The bar itself is up against the back wall. That night, it was filled with 30 guys in T-shirts toting walkie-talkies named Dave.
The party was on the second floor. It was packed with invited guests, VIPs, NBC execs … oh yeah, and a few people who worked on Cheers. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was behind me in line at the buffet. Former Red Sock (Sox?) Wade Boggs cut in front of me at the bar. I spent some time with Bob Costas, who I knew from my sportscasting life. There were so few people he knew in that throng that he was actually happy to hang with me. Large monitors were scattered around the room, and this is where most guests watched the show.
On the third floor there were two smaller lounges. That is where the cast, Cheers people, and studio and network honchos watched the program. I was sitting next to NBC chairman Bob Wright. Tried to talk him into letting me anchor the Olympics, but he wouldn’t go for it.
Whenever there would be a big joke, you could hear thousands of people laugh outside the window. At the time, I thought this is like Evita if Eva Peron told jokes instead of sang.
The show ended at eleven. The next half-hour was an emotional tsunami. Everyone was hugging and crying and doing a lot of drinking. We were all completely wrecked.
And at the very height of this, a rep from The Tonight Show popped her head in and said, “Okay, we’re ready.” The cast, in no condition to face anybody, much less 40 million people, dutifully trooped downstairs to do the live show. Us non-celeb types stayed back and watched on TV … in horror. They were so drunk they needed designated walkers. They giggled like schoolgirls over nothing, fired spitballs into each other’s mouths, squirted water guns, Woody Harrelson implied he gave oral sex to both Ted Danson and Oliver Stone, and Kirstie Alley sang a song where the only lyric was “dick, dick, dick.” But in fairness, the cast should not be held accountable for anything they said, sang, or did. Imagine you survived the flight from Flight and the minute you crawled out of the plane you had to take your LSATs. Also, I do believe that Jay’s inexperience with running the show at the time contributed to the whole thing falling apart. I’ve always maintained that Letterman would have kept things more in control.
When the actors returned, they were so blitzed they still didn’t realize what a train wreck the show was.
Two final memories: During the emotional half-hour from 11 to 11:30, the thousands of fans in the park remained and cheered. At one point, Ted Danson leaned out the window and waved. As a goof, I joined him. I said, “I have a feeling they’re waving for you.” And he said, “Yeah, but a year from now you’ll be working.” Obviously Ted scraped together one or two jobs since that night.
Second memory: My partner David Isaacs and I have what we call the “Prince of the City” theory. Simply put, it means the moment you think you’re hot shit is the moment you will be cut back down to size. It never fails.
So it’s about 2 a.m., I’m walking back to the hotel. It’s a bit chilly; I’m wearing a trench coat to protect against any more rain. And I’m reflecting on the night and how this little show I’ve been involved with had become a national phenomenon. And I allowed myself to think I must be a pretty damn good writer to be a part of it. Just at that moment, a passing truck roared through a big puddle and I got completely drenched. I mean, sopping wet, soaked to the bone. And I had to laugh. Hail to thee, Prince of the City.
Read Ken Levine’s blog about all things TV (and more) at … by Ken Levine.