Vulture is holding the ultimate Sitcom Smackdown to determine the greatest TV comedy of the past 30 years. Each day, a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 18. The semifinals begin today with a man who knows TV, The Shield and Terriers producer Shawn Ryan, deciding between Cheers and Roseanne. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket, which has already veered from our critics’ choices. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #sitcomsmackdown hashtag.
Sitcoms in the eighties had a difficult act to follow. In the previous decade, shows like All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and One Day at a Time not only made people laugh, but they also put the country’s most taboo topics smack dab in viewers’ living rooms for the first time. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Maude started the national conversation on women in the workplace, race, and even menopause. Throw in The Odd Couple, WKRP in Cincinnati, Barney Miller, and at least a dozen others and you had a veritable murderer’s row to live up to heading into Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America.
Writers Glen and Les Charles, along with director James Burrows, emerged from two of the best comedies in the seventies —Taxi and The Bob Newhart Show — as behind-the-camera stars on the come. What they delivered to a struggling NBC was Cheers, a show that embraced elements of the two dominant art forms of the time — workplace comedy and family comedy — but they expanded on those to highlight what people chose to do when they weren’t at work or with family. In this way, Cheers paved the way for Seinfeld, Friends, and The Big Bang Theory.
SAM MALONE: A real guy doesn’t have to jump on sharks and dodge poison darts to prove he’s a guy.
DIANE CHAMBERS: I’m astonished.
SAM MALONE: A real guy just needs to score heavy with the babes, that’s all.
At the core of Cheers were Sam and Diane, a couple for whom a fight was as good, if not better, than a kiss. A recovering alcoholic who paradoxically owned a bar, he was the womanizing ex-jock living off glory days as a good, but not great, relief pitcher for the hometown Red Sox. She was the fussy, well-meaning snob perpetually certain she was on the verge of climbing the social and academic ladder, yet fated to end her nights cleaning beer sweat off tables. Over five glorious seasons, Sam and Diane fell in and out of bed, nearly strangled each other, and got engaged twice, always to find the timing never quite worked. Unlike the characters they played, though, Ted Danson and Shelley Long’s timing was always exquisite, and it’s a credit to them that millions of viewers believed that a couple with such obvious differences could not only work, but was ultimately destined to succeed.
If Cheers were only about Sam and Diane it would still be in the pantheon of comedies. But it was so much more than that. Irascible Carla, blowhard Cliff, reliable sad sack Norm, lovable slow-wits Coach and Woody, and persnickety power couple Frasier and Lilith — when the ball was thrown to them, they all whacked it out of the park, forming one of the deepest and most talented character benches in TV history. It wasn’t a surprise when NBC tried to turn initially tertiary characters into network leads with results both bad and great.
When Shelley Long decided she had better things to do than Cheers, Kirstie Alley was brought in to replace her. Initial attempts to replicate the Sam-Diane magic were less successful than the Coach-Woody transition two years earlier, and even though Alley shared top billing with Danson, the show’s writers eventually realized that Rebecca Howe made a better supporting character than leading lady. Rebecca’s frequent exile to that week’s B story gave Alley time to grow into the role, and she ultimately became as comfortable in her high heels as the other Cheers actors were in their shoes; by the show’s final seasons, she was a real asset and go-to funny lady. But Rebecca never made us forget Diane Chambers, and she forever existed in her shadow.
Cheers is famous for its witty wordplay, but it also found laughs in unexpected physical humor (in college, my roommate and I continually rewound and rewatched the scene where Diane unknowingly knocks Frasier unconscious with a pair of skis). But the writers knew the great lesson of always leaving them wanting more. To this day, the buttons at the end of Cheers episodes are unmatched for their timing and punch. I challenge anyone to find a better final 30 seconds than at the end of season one’s “The Boys in the Bar.” After Norm and Cliff lead a small mob of regulars to throw out two patrons they think are homosexual (out of fear that Cheers will turn into a gay bar), Diane reveals that their prejudices and assumptions led them to expel the wrong people. The two true gay men each then kiss a stunned Norm on the cheek, and after a beat, Norm says, “Better than Vera.” Not only was it hysterical, but it was social commentary fifteen years ahead of its time.
Where Cheers can be faulted is in the ease with which we felt comfortable with its characters’ fates. The longer, non-syndicated version of the Cheers theme song warned us in the first part that there was sadness in the world before yielding to a second, more optimistic part that promised us an oasis from that unhappiness. (Note: Someone needs to bring back the melancholy sitcom theme song, à la Cheers and M*A*S*H). The show always lived up to this contract with the audience, and unless it was an actual untimely death (Nicholas Colasanto) or contract squabbles (Shelley Long), we knew relationships would change but ultimately our friends on the show would be okay. This made for great farce and wonderful character work, but often left our hearts immune to real pain.
Roseanne was a show that did not suffer that problem.
ROSEANNE CONNER (gleefully): Well, people have been saying it for years, but now with Dan going to jail and everything, we are officially poor white trash.
Roseanne Barr was an overweight housewife turned comedienne who parlayed her stand-up act, along with high-profile appearances on The Tonight Show, into her own sitcom on ABC. Barr’s life, and especially her childhood, had been difficult, and she poured that pain directly into America’s TV sets in 1988, just as Reagan, and the optimism he inspired in many, was preparing to leave the presidency. Roseanne was less an actress than a personality in the beginning, but she understood herself and her traumas so well that she radiated immediate authenticity. Producers did Roseanne a huge favor when they surrounded her with heavyweight Midwestern theater actors John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, as well as major stars from both past (Estelle Parsons, Shelley Winters) and future (George Clooney).
While Roseanne premiered five years after Cheers, in many ways it seemed like its predecessor. It felt more like a comedy from the golden age of the seventies, something Norman Lear might have concocted while walking from the All in the Family stages over to the Sanford and Son set. No taboo subject was off limits, no scab left unripped. Other shows paid lip service to fly-over country by placing their shows in the Midwest, while essentially remaining generic about what was unique about life there (Happy Days, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show), a fact that undoubtedly helped fuel their national success. Roseanne, on the other hand, embraced its rust belt roots and dug its filthy claws deep into the fictional soil of Lanford, Illinois.
Having grown up in Rockford, Illinois (a city occasionally mentioned on Roseanne), I was shocked to see people I instantly recognized as my friends, cousins, and neighbors. Every family has secrets, and Roseanne Barr laid hers bare through the Conner family. She loved her children, but mocked and belittled them behind their backs and, even more startling, to their faces. She knew she was fat, loud, and obnoxious, and screw you if you didn’t like it. The actors who played the kids weren’t cherubic moppets who spewed out punch lines and catchphrases for audience approval. They fought, they hurt, they screamed. They were the kind of kids who piss off their teachers, get pregnant too young, and marry the wrong boys.
Roseanne was flat-out funny, somehow finding a sweet spot between The Cosby Show and Married with Children with its observations on the nuclear (meltdown) family. But when it wasn’t making you laugh, the show’s unvarnished honesty was lethally effective at making you shift uncomfortably in your seat. It excelled at that moment right before the shit hit the fan, when you feel the tension in your home and you know somebody might say something that could blow up your whole family. In television writers’ rooms we call this “stakes.” Everywhere else we call it life. When Dan Conner learns that Roseanne’s sister, Jackie, had been physically abused by her boyfriend, he stalks out of the house to confront the guy, with a menace more reminiscent of A Streetcar Named Desire’s Stanley Kowalski than The Honeymooners Ralph Kramden. When he ends up in jail after beating up the abuser, it only made us nod knowingly. Yep. That would happen.
Teen sexuality, pot smoking, and spousal abuse were just some of the rides on the devil’s playground tackled by Roseanne Barr and her writers. Ah, yes, Roseanne’s writers. Over time, Barr consolidated power on the show; show creator Matt Williams, as well as current television writer heavyweights Joss Whedon, Chuck Lorre, and Amy Sherman-Palladino, were either pushed out or ran screaming for the hills. It would be fascinating to see the show that might have resulted if Roseanne had embraced and empowered these talents. But that wasn’t her style. This was her life, her anguish, and after a lifetime of being a victim, she understandably grabbed the opportunity to exercise control over her professional life. The results were raw, visceral, and undeniable, and best exemplified in “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home,” the season-five episode where Roseanne is forced to deal with the death of her dad, a man she hated but struggles to let go of.
As Roseanne Barr lived longer with her new Hollywood power, as well as with fame and wealth, it became harder to see the poor white trash character on the screen. In real life, she went through three husbands during the course of the show, and even found a way to outrage an entire nation. This collective cry for help resulted in a final season that is hard to defend. The Conners win the lottery and we see Roseanne Conner luxuriate in her newfound wealth. I’m sure this mirrored Roseanne’s own life at the time and had meaning to her, but for many viewers it felt divorced from the characters and the struggle they had known and invested in. Even when Roseanne Barr pulled a reverse Dallas (it was all a dream and instead of Bobby being alive, Dan’s actually dead — MAJOR BUMMER!), it did little to explain or improve the episodes before it. But for the show’s first eight glorious seasons, Roseanne pulled the Band-Aid off America’s deteriorating lower-middle class wound and made us wait and watch in an overcrowded emergency room as she searched for a nonexistent insurance card.
So, who wins in a battle between Cheers and Roseanne? Cheers had the brains, and Roseanne had the heart. And while it certainly doesn’t pay to get into a brawl with Dan Conner, his feisty wife, or their children (who were all used to fighting dirty), ultimately my vote has to go to the place where everybody knows your name. Cheers represented writing, acting, and directing at the very highest levels, and Sam and Diane remain the gold standard for a complicated, fascinating relationship on TV. Many have tried to equal their chemistry. All have failed. Television may never see another Roseanne, but I find myself constantly yearning for another Cheers.
Shawn Ryan has been writing and producing for TV since 1990, on shows as diverse as Angel, Nash Bridges, The Unit, and Terriers. He created The Shield and The Chicago Code and co-created Last Resort. He is currently producing the pilot Beverly Hills Cop with Eddie Murphy for CBS.