Let’s say you’re delivering a beloved product to a customer base that wants it to be fresh but also just wants more of the same? How do you keep surprising them, while still coloring within the lines?
That was the challenge as the writers entered what turned out to be the final season of Cheers. In some ways, Cheers was as “foolproof” as any show on TV can be. Rob Long, who was one of the Executive Producers when I was there, broke down the elements of the show for Variety:
Long: The thing with that show was that it had all these classic elements. You don’t really need to know about the time or the politics or what the popular music was. You go to any bar, and there’s always a guy who’s good with the ladies, an uptight woman, a professor or a blowhard, a guy in a uniform who wants to brag, a drunk at the end of the bar who just wants to drink beer, a sassy, wisecracking server. …These are timeless archetypes. They’re always there. A show like “Cheers” should always be on the air in some form — you don’t need a hook, you don’t need a special setup, you just need really great performers and pretty good writing. For us, I think the difference between the smash hit of “Cheers” and a reasonably good show is that we had just these insanely talented, gifted performers in every single role. There wasn’t a weak part on that screen. You can’t plan for that. That’s just lightning in a bottle.
Cheers had been created by two guys who trained as playwrights. (As had Long, btw.) They’d worked for MTM studios on the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. They built scripts that were meant to be performed, before a live audience. They REALLY knew what they were doing.
Over the years, the show never lost its attachment to those elements. In fact, I’d say it stayed fresh because it kept exploring those elements. You’d never see an episode that “Jumped the Shark” because Cliff or Norm entered a crazy contest. You WOULD see Cliff and Norm succumb to mayhem because Cliff would never admit he really didn’t know anything, and Norm just wanted to get back to drinking.
You stay fresh by continuing to explore the strengths and weaknesses of your product. What haven’t you thought of yet that is already “assumed” by the audience? What delight / joy / surprise could a small shift in one element or another create?
We were primed for that season with a new team. We had people trained as playwrights, joke writers and one writer who was, essentially, a comedy “engineer,” Dan O’Shannon. (He’s written a book about the craft called “What Are You Laughing At?”)
The first thing they did was burn down the bar. (I felt right at home.) We took the characters out of Cheers for a few episodes, and returned them with a sense of relief and gratitude, renewed for new adventures.
You ever see “The Player?” Go see it. Early on, a studio executive wonders aloud when they’ll see a time where they can make movies without actors.
Actors are gold, they’re essential, you can’t live without them. On the other hand… when they’re done, they’re DONE.
During this particular season, Ted Danson decided he wanted to move on. I went from having a job that looked like it would last for years to a job that was going to end within months.
There was one silver lining: The creators of the show, The Charles Brothers, returned with some of the original writers (David Lloyd, Levine & Isaacs, others) to write the final 4 or 5 episodes. (The finale was 90 minutes, a three-episode “arc” that played back to back.)
I was a lowly story editor on the show. (In the Garry Marshall model, I was a guy who had his own apartment, and thought maybe I should be running the show. I was wrong, by the way, but there you have it.) During lunch one day, I asked one of the Charles Brothers how they’d structured the different roles in the show (those “foolproof” types Rob refers to above).
He drew me a diagram, which I’ve never forgotten. At the middle of the diagram is Sam Malone. Sam embodies the heart, soul and idea of the show. In the case of Cheers, the idea is there’s a place where you can feel more yourself, more at home, than your own home and in your own family. Sam is there to create that place.
Every other character on the show is there to draw a piece of Sam out of himself. Diane (and later Rebecca) was there to show his womanizing. Coach was there to speak to his best self. Woody was the “little brother” in his family. Carla said the things Sam couldn’t say.
There are two things to take from that. One, obviously, is a way to create sitcoms that run forever. BUT.. for those of us who manage creative teams, there’s a bigger lesson.
EVERYONE OWNS PART OF THE STORY
All businesses and teams exist in an ecosystem. Everyone on a team, or in a company, has to “own” the story. They should work to fulfill the mission of the business, in a way that demonstrates to your “audience” (partners, customers, etc.) the essential qualities of your brand.
To watch those great writers craft the last episodes of the series was a huge privilege. The next “classroom” for me was onstage, where we watched James Burrows work.
If you’ve watched television, you’ve watched the results of Burrows’ work. He directed 50 TV pilots and created the “feel” of Friends, Frasier, Will & Grace and Cheers.
Burrows LITERALLY did it with his eyes closed. During many takes, he’d pace behind the cameras, eyes closed, listening to the actors. He knew what each camera was getting, where each cast member had to be, what it looked like and what he expected it to sound like. The shocker came when he yelled cut, looked up and said something like “Woody, you need to look more over to Norm when you say that.”
If you’re going to really manage creative people you need to know what each person is doing so well that you could close your eyes while they’re doing it and “hear” the result come together.
I realize that my Cheers experience is 25 years old. It’s amusing, humbling and a bit shocking to me when younger colleagues tell me “Hey, I just discovered Cheers! I was born after it was on!” And it’s great when they tell me how much they love it.