A list of the 100 greatest jokes was released today by Vulture magazine. As far as lists go, it was superb and covered nearly all the important ones, and in case we took it for granted, it made us all sit up and realize just how much jokes have shaped everything about us. There were a few glaring omissions, but nothing from one TV show stood out above all the others, perhaps because it came from an era that was a TV wasteland.
If you hang out with people your own age, there are certain cultural references which we all have in common. Most people my age can trade Simpsons quotes for hours at a time, and often do. People my brothers' age can do the same with South Park. People ten years older than I don't seem to trade quotes from television so much as they can all sing the themesongs.
TV in the 80's was a sad place, so sad that the most memorable thing about the shows was the themesongs. In the entire decade, there were maybe half-a-dozen shows that hold up at all. The Golden Girls - in which four great veterans of Hollywood got to comically chew on each other like Joan Collins against Bette Davis. The Wonder Years, a comic nostalgia trip to the 60's in which the pathos feels at least partially earned. Night Court - a show about a whacky, loveable New York courthouse that stayed on the air much too long. Married with Children, the ultimate 'fuck you' to American optimism. Moonlighting, a show that went off the air after three years. And then there was Cheers....
The rest was the canned laughter and cheap-shot pathos of shows like Family Ties and The Facts of Life, or it was action shows whose action seems comically lame today like The A Team and Miami Vice. But amidst all that crap, a revolution in TV was brewing, and it was all due to Cheers.
Diane leaves. Genuine pathos.
Cheers is the first modern show - completely serialized from its third season on. It was a laboratory in which every major development of the Golden Age of television was tried out in its inception. It was on for eleven years, and at its all too consistently achieved best, the writing and acting on Cheers was pure music. In its laboratory, highbrow and lowbrow humor intermingled freely. Realism and surrealism. Humor with genuine, not forced, pathos and poignance.
At its center, of course, was Sam. The comic chemistry for the first five years was perfect. Sam, the misogynist slimy lowbrow who was too smart for his own good, and Diane, the highbrow who was nowhere near as smart as she thought.
The nose grab. Darkly comic perfection.
Followed by the perfect fight.
Looking at the clips of Sam and Diane, some moments make for extremely uncomfortable viewing in 2016. The misogynist thread in Cheers was all too unmistakable. But Cheers was never anything but honest about what it was. Cheers was the archetypal bar, a hive of lowlives, and no women but ones with severe self-esteem issues would ever countenance staying in there for more than a few minutes.
Cliff on Ingenuity
Norm and Cliff mac on women.
Cliff's Electric Button
Cliff Goes on Jeopardy
Cliff's Theory on Beer
Cliff's Shiny Shoes
Norm loses his stool
The barflies were united in their fear of women, but what separated them was class. Cheers could never take place in any city but Boston - perhaps the only city in America in which class is still a more important problem than race. Boston is easily the most racially homogenous big city in America, where the biggest divide was between educated Anglo-Saxon Brahmins and the low-class drunken Irishmen with whom they've been forced to rub shoulders with every day for three-hundred years. Perhaps that Boston, the Boston of the Bulger brothers, doesn't quite exist anymore. But if it doesn't, then Cheers is its great cultural artifact.
The Irish Lullaby
Cliff's Big Mouth
Frasier and Carla on a plane
Norm, Cliff, Frasier, lollipop
Carla's Mother's Death Dream, It's Time to Go
Frasier and Woody play chess
Sam and Diane - Cheese Whiz
But it was in that intermingling between self-loathing men and self-loathing women that made Cheers so special and honest about relationships in ways that perhaps no shows after Cheers ever could be. At the same time that it was heir to O'Neill and Hemingway in talking about alcohol and toxic masculinity, and heir to the Marx Brothers and Chaplin in how it made fun of class, it was the heir to the romantic comedies of Golden Age Hollywood, in which the ambiguous mixture of attraction and loathing between the sexes creates an unresolvable tension.
Sam and Diane - Meditation or Sex
Lilith and Frasier - Talkshow
Frasier and Lilith argue about Freud
Woody and Kelly - the Lutheran Problem
Sam and Rebecca want a baby
Norm loves his country
From Cheers, it's a straight shot to everything else. Of course, many of the old creative team went on to do Frasier. Dan O'Shannon, however, went on to do Modern Family. David Isaacs went on to do Becker as a vehicle for Ted Danson, which in turn launched the career of Matthew Weiner, who went on to be the creator of Mad Men and one of the key writers on The Sopranos. Sam Simon went on to be the co-creator of The Simpsons and The Drew Carey Show. It was Simon who forced Matt Groening to branch out from The Simpsons' nuclear family into the wider world of Springfield. Whether comedy or drama, the sensibility that dominates us all began with Cheers.