Back in the summer while writing full time for Laughspin.com, I planned on doing a column titled “Watching TV With My Parents.” My idea was that every week, I would tackle a comedic TV show from the 50s-80s and analyze its humor. I would then interview my parents to hear their thoughts on the show. That didn’t end up happening. However, I did write one on Cheers and this is it.
Warning: This column may make you feel old.
So it goes like this. Every week, I’m going to binge watch a TV show from the 1950s-1990s (here’s where I plug Netflix Instant and Hulu.) After my brain can take no more of the same canned laughter, no more uttering of catchphrases and not another listen to the show’s theme song, I’m going to plop myself down at a coffee shop (recommendations?) and write up a brief reflection on the show’s humor. Coming from a millennial’s perspective, does the comedy hold up? Did I chuckle at the characters’ shenanigans or did I sit there with a blank expression on my face and three other tabs opened on my computer screen to keep myself amused?
And of course, my expensive college education (and years in therapy learning how to “dig deeper”) wouldn’t be worth it if I didn’t unpack my gut reactions. What about the comedy makes it last? What current shows were influenced by this older series? Or what newer shows’ comedic sensibility destroyed my ability to enjoy this ancient relic? Finally, to make the title of this column more than just a display of my ability to come up with good column titles, I’m going to briefly interview my parents to understand their thoughts on the show. What did they think of it when they first watched it “back in the day?”
So friends, readers, and those who unwittingly stumbled upon this page, that’s the plan. Feel free write TV show recommendations in the comments section (or actual comments) and check my twitter @weischoice on Sunday nights to learn about the upcoming column.
And now for Cheers (the show. I’m not telling you to applaud me. You can if you want. But it’s not mandatory.)
Cheers. Where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came. Where people are all the same, and they fit into the confines of classic archetypes and don’t really ever change. Before this week, I had seen one episode of Cheers. Coming back to it a few years later with an open mind and a jaded soul, I do see its appeal. The humor is comforting and predictable. While the characters’ may lack dimension (especially the supporting characters like Carla, Cliff, and Norm) and the jokes may fall into a simple pattern of setups immediately followed by obvious resolutions, there is something to be said for its overall inclusiveness.
Unlike many of today’s friend-group shows where the characters are slightly to extremely narcissistic and much of the humor relies on never explained inside jokes (I’m thinking something like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or The League), Cheers invites its viewers in and allows them to easily understand the group dynamic. The infrequent bar visitors serve as surrogates for the audience; their need for simplified updates on the life and times of the series regulars provides the writers with a natural mode of providing viewers with all necessary backstories. In this way, Cheers lacks the voyeuristic quality so common in today’s shows. Just as the bar is open to all who desire a drink and a person to talk to, the TV show is open to anyone who wants to watch. Very rarely does the dialogue include obscure pop culture references that may alienate the audience (and when it does, it’s often said by someone like Diane, whose propensity for throwing in an esoteric reference is a joke in itself).
But this brings me to one of my biggest problems with the show. It feels like from the beginning of the series, each character was assigned a set of superficial descriptors and throughout the show’s eleven season run, they never strayed. And yes, the same can be said of the characters on 30 Rock, but with a show that remains in one static setting, the narrow molds quickly become repetitive, exhausting, and like I said before, predictable. After the third episode, I knew the gist of what Carla Tortelli would say to Diane before she opened her mouth. Coach would make a joke that reflected the number of times he got hit in the head, and Sam would say something cocky. The pattern kept repeating. There were no surprises, and I’ve gotten used to surprises on television: a punchline that comes out of left field, or an innovative way to incorporate flashbacks or some sort of fantastical element.
At the same time, nothing about the humor is dated. When jokes are about the human experience, they hold up over time. I audibly laughed during the episode Showdown (Part 1 of 2) when Carla said “I’m always falling for the guys I hate. My whole life has been the wrong man, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong birth control device.” This is funny. It was funny when it aired in 1983, and it’s funny now. It’s non abrasive humor. It’s humor you can depend on, you can go to when you’re sad and need a shoulder to lean on. It may all be the same, but you’re always glad you came.