We’ve been amazed at the number of people who respond to our question about what makes for a good bar with the answer, “You know, like Cheers, where everybody knows your name.” The show premiered over three decades ago, but we’ve heard this response not just from geezers like ourselves but also from a number of millennials.
So why is this sitcom still part of the contemporary conversation in the same way that Seinfeld is, while shows like Happy Days and Different Strokes are not? Off the top of my head, here are ten reasons Cheers endures.
- The Theme Song - Not only have people told us what they want in a bar; occasionally they sing, “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.” There’s a reason the song plays on a continuous loop at the Cheers tourist attraction in Boston. The chorus of that song provides a wonderful picture of acceptance and openness even though the show was…
- Rarely sentimental - Before Seinfeld launched with its slogan of “No Hugs, No Learning,” Cheers captured the laughs first spirit when sitcoms felt the need to teach life lessons. It was never mawkish, but when the show shot for the heart (such as when Coach talked with his daughter about her mother’s beauty or when Norm admits Vera is the only woman he has ever loved), it’s a bull’s eye.
- It’s not about politics - Even though the show had cameos by such pols as Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and Tip O’Neil. Even though many of the actors and creators have been quite vocal about politics outside the show. The cast and crew members embraced quite different politics. Ted Dansen (Sam) spoke at the Democratic Convention and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) is one of the few well known Republicans in Hollywood. Woody Harrelson (Woody) has long been an outspoken champion of cannabis and Kristie Alley endorsed Trump. Show producer Rob Long now writes for the conservative National Review. So if there was ever a laugh to be found in politics (such as when Woody ran for office or Sam dated a politician) they’d go there, but the writers were looking to entertain and not to make partisan points.
- It’s not about religion - On occasion, characters talk to priests or pray. On occasion the absurdities of the characters are a source of humor (particularly Carla’s weird mix of Catholicism and superstition*), but God and faith are not mocked.
- It endured - The show lasted for eleven season and stayed funny. This is a remarkable achievement. Most shows, especially comedies, start repeating themselves after two or three seasons. The show also survived major cast changes. Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach, died after the second season. Shelley Long, who played Diane, left the show after five seasons to pursue a career on the big screen. Perhaps there is a link to the cast changes and the show’s freshness. New characters didn’t replace the old ones, but brought something utterly new.
- The actors have endured - Ted Danson, for instance, has been on a number of popular TV shows since Cheers ended, from Becker to CSI to Fargo. Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith) has a Tony winning career on Broadway. Kelsey Grammer’s spinoff to Cheers, Frasier, was nearly as acclaimed and long running as the original show. Woody Harrelson went on to become a major film star. And Pixar can’t make a film with John Ratzenberger. The continuing success of the cast (and creative staff) of the show is a mark of the show’s quality.
- Enduring one liners - Norm’s lines alone continue to be quoted for laughs: “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I’m wearing milkbone underwear.” “Women. You can’t live with them… Pass the beer nuts.” “Once the trust goes out of a relationship, it’s no fun lying anymore.”
- Characters as friends - Psychologists have coined the term “parasocial relationship” to describe the one-sided connectedness between real people and fictional characters. All things considered, the gang at Cheers are a fairly smart, witty, and usually kind group of people to hang with, in a meta sense.
- Introduced long term storytelling to sitcoms - Before Cheers, the characters on sitcoms and their relationships with other characters didn’t change much. They were set in stone. But this show, beginning with the relationship between Sam and Diane, set up stories that took many episodes, sometimes seasons, to play out. That’s not how TV used to work, but because of Cheers, it’s how it works now.
- It really is excellent - Amy Poehler (the creator of Parks and Recreation) claims “It’s the best show that’s ever been.” The show has fans in such diverse television notables as Dan Harmon (Community) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield). But I’ll quit with one other recommendation from the great novelist Kurt Vonnegut: “I would rather have written Cheers than anything I’ve written.”
While we were in Boston, we had the opportunity to visit the bar that was used for the exterior shots of Cheers. It used to be called The Bull and Finch, but they’ve given up on that now and call themselves Cheers. Because that’s really the bar everyone seems to want to go to.
*If you are looking to make the cheap joke that Catholicism and superstition are the same thing, that’s not where the show ever goes. Religion is treated with respect. Strangely, even superstition is often treated with respect.