In the cutthroat environment of the prime-time landscape, it’s not unheard of for a series to make its debut and receive its walking papers within the same week. For a sitcom to end its first season rated #74 out of 77 shows yet still survive to see a second season, that’s nothing short of miraculous. Yet that’s exactly what happened with “Cheers” — and look how things worked out: Not only did this conceptually simple show about a Boston bar owned and its stable of regulars find its way out of its ratings doldrums, it became the top-rated television series in America, carrying on for eleven seasons before anyone said, “Last call!”
When “Cheers” closed its doors on May 20, 1993, NBC pulled out all the stops, promoting the finale so vociferously that any series would’ve had trouble living up to the hype. Thankfully, the episode was every bit the ratings blockbuster that the network had hoped it would be, watched in an estimated 42.4 million households across the country.
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the finale, Variety spoke with five figures who were key in bringing it to fruition: series co-creators and executive producers Glen Charles and Les Charles, who co-wrote the final episode; series co-creator James Burrows, who directed the episode; co-executive producer Rob Long; and longtime series writer Ken Levine, who also served as a creative consultant on the finale.
The Beginning of the End
Glen Charles: I remember the year before, after we’d finished a decade, thinking, “Ten seasons, that seems like a nice round number: five seasons with Shelley [Long], five with Kirstie [Alley].” But then you go, “Well, it puts a lot of people out of work. …Let’s give it one more year!” And then a few months later, after we’d committed to another year, Ted popped up and said this would be his last year, that he wanted to try other things.
James Burrows: We talked about doing another season, but he was firm. He felt he had played that character and wanted to move on.
Rob Long: Knowing that we were going into our 11th season, we were sort of prepared, although it turned out to be one of those things where you think you’re prepared, but you’re never really prepared.
Les Charles: I think everybody kind of had a feeling. I wouldn’t say that Cheers had run its course — it was still a very popular show, and there was a lot of energy to it — but I don’t think we would’ve called it quits just because of Ted. That was certainly the death blow, for sure, once he was pulling out. But I think we all felt it was kind of time.
Long: These things, as much as we love them, they have a life cycle.
Burrows: The Charles brothers and myself talked for half an hour, maybe an hour, about trying to do the show without Sam Malone. But we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to go out on top.
Ken Levine: Ted at least gave us half a season, so we were able to prepare for the end. In fact, Glen and Les came back and more or less guided the ship through probably the last third of the season.
Les: We wanted to do it for personal reasons, but we sort of felt like it’d be a good idea to end it ourselves. If somebody was going to do it, it should be us.
Glen: We felt like if we wrote the first episode, we should write the last one.
Long: Glen and Les had this brilliant idea for the end of the season that each team that had run the show would write one episode, and it would be kind of dealing with the characters in a way that was kind of sending them off.
Burrows: We did a couple of major things before the final one. We had Sam reveal his toupee that nobody knew about. Teddy agreed to do that. And for the finale, we wanted to wrap things up as best we could. We knew we wanted to get Diane back in the bar, and we knew we wanted to try and make sure all the characters had a poignant moment.
Glen: We wanted to round off the Sam saga somehow and — I hate this word — sort of get some closure for Sam. We were kind of dealing with age in those last few episodes, about what happens when a young man starts to find some of his pleasures deserting him or aren’t healthy for him anymore. It sounds like sort of a downer, but I think we got some humor out of it. [laughs] Because of what was going on at the time on the sexual front, people were being more disciplined about sex. The sexual revolution was sort of running out of steam. So he couldn’t drink any more, and he couldn’t carouse as much as he did, so he had to find a way to move into a more mature part of his life.
One for the Road
Burrows: The boys wrote a great script. From the first reading to what was on the air, there were a lot of changes made and a lot of nuances added. You had the emotion of the actors also playing with you, since it was the final show, so you had the poignancy already built in. So the final show was really sad, but it was really wonderful.
Glen: For Rebecca, the idea was to give her the antithesis of what she thought she always wanted.
Les: The irony of her being a plumber’s wife. …We just couldn’t resist.
Burrows: We wanted her to say that line, “I’m marrying a plumber.” [laughs] We thought that was so definitive to her character.
Les: Bill Clinton was president then and sent us a communiqué that he wanted to appear in the final episode, so we actually wrote an entire segment that involved Bill Clinton coming into the bar. But then shortly before we were about to start filming, he had to back out.
Burrows: If you go back and watch that show, there are people in the back of the bar that you can’t believe. If you know art, Ross Bleckner is back there, who’s a wonderful painter. Garry Trudeau is in one scene. Brandon Tartikoff is in the show. We just used to put people in the back of the bar where I knew you would see them because of the traditional shots I had in the show. In fact, we actually used to auction off the opportunity to sit in the bar!
Les: Everybody who was associated with the show was sitting at that bar at one time or another. Every network executive and Paramount person, writers, producers. …Of course, they were lousy extras!
Glen: They probably should’ve stuck to their day jobs!
The infamous inclusion of “Hello, Diane.”
Long: It was a dream to have Diane come back. To have the show end the right way, you kind of needed to get some closure on that relationship. I think it was one of those things where people thought, “Well, the only thing we can do is ask [Shelley Long]. You can’t get a ‘yes’ until you ask a question.” But she was an incredible trooper about it.
Glen: There was no resistance. She was happy to come back.
Levine: When Shelley graciously agreed to come back and do that final episode, it just automatically gave that last episode some suspense and some gravity.
Long: It was one of those things where the audience really wanted to see these two people together. Not necessarily get together at the end, but they just wanted to see them together one more time on TV.
Levine: Of course, there’s the debate that’s still raging as to whether or not Sam and Diane should’ve gotten together at the end or not. I know there were a lot of people that were disappointed and were just kind of hoping for that fairytale ending of Sam and Diane riding off into the sunset happily ever after, but the decision was ultimately made for them to be apart, and I have to say that I agree with that decision.
Burrows: They were not the right person for one another. We knew that. That’s what made them great.
Wrapping up with “Sorry, we’re closed.”
Burrows: The last show we shot was not the last show. The last show we shot was Teddy taking his toupee off. And then after we shot that show, we shot the final scene of the last show, where they’re all sitting around smoking cigars, and that scene — it was everything I could do not to have the tears in the episode.
Long: The last scene was a decision that Glen and Les made. They didn’t want to wrap things up and have it be done. They wanted it to be just another episode. And I think that was really smart.
Levine: The final scene, where everybody is sitting in the bar and it’s just very reflective as they talk about their lives and everything. …I think that’s just an absolutely remarkable scene. And that was all Glen and Les. There’s not a word of that scene that wasn’t Glen and Les. And I just think it’s so beautiful and so poignant.
Glen: The last one to leave was, of course, Norm. We thought that was fitting.
Les: But there was one final customer, one who came along after the bar was closed and Sam wouldn’t let him in, and that was our agent, Bob Broder. He was the perfect guy to do it.
Long: Bob was my agent, too, and a fantastic guy, but until the last minute he was trying to figure out a way to keep the show going!
Glen: He was campaigning for at least twelve more seasons: “C’mon, let’s keep on going! You don’t need Ted Danson! You don’t need Woody Harrelson!” So we had him come up to the door at the end to try and get in, and Sam has to tell him, “Sorry, we’re closed.” You can’t tell, because he’s silhouetted, but there were tears streaming down his cheeks.
Burrows: We ended the show as we opened it. We just wanted to say that this was Sam. Sam was married to his bar. His bar was the love of his life.
The Hype Machine
Les: Someone once wrote in regards to another show’s closing out that the problem with last episodes is that they’re not typical episodes. They change. They do something different than they’ve done before. They’re usually longer. You take a half-hour form, for the most part, and turn it into an hour — or in our case, I think we went an hour and a half — and it really stretches your story. Everybody wants to see a typical “Cheers” episode. They don’t want it to all of a sudden be horribly dramatic or give you something out of context. But they want it to be special and to somehow be the best “Cheers” episode ever. Well, you know, every week you’re trying to do the best “Cheers” episode ever! So there’s just a lot of expectations placed on that particular episode of a series, and in a lot of cases people are disappointed. And it’s kind of understandable.
The great thing about “MASH’s” last episode was that they really did have something to conclude. They had the [Korean] war to conclude! [laughs] We didn’t quite have anything that monumental. We had a basic story that Diane was going to come back. That was one of the few things that was sort of unresolved in the series. That, and to give each character some kind of arc in regards to what they’d be doing with their lives. The one constant was Sam staying in his bar, where he felt happy and content in spite of the fact that people come and go. But the network kept asking for more time to sell more commercials, and I think we just became over-expanded.
Glen: The network not only gave us a lot more time to fill, they actually did a pre-show special with Bob Costas talking about what’s about to come and how wonderful it’s going to be. We, of course, had nothing to do with that. But they tried to turn it into the Super Bowl!
Burrows: NBC milked the crap out of it.
Levine: I know the network wanted to get as much mileage out of it as they possibly could, but I think that ultimately hurt the last episode.
Live from Boston
Glen: I remember we watched the [the final episode of the] show upstairs in the restaurant at the Bull & Finch, and we started early in the evening. They started to get kind of weird very early, and I said, “You know, we’ve got a long ways to go here…”
Burrows: I remember that night in Boston. Oof.
Levine: Everyone was hugging each other, everyone was crying, and it was just this huge emotional moment.
Burrows: We had finished the show about two or three months before that, and we were just in Boston having a good time. We were treated like a national championship team every time we went there. We’d gone there for the previous five or six years for a week of shooting, and it was crazy. You had a police escort, you had police protection. …It was like being in a rock and roll band! And that night was just glorious. Glorious but sad, because the show was ending. And what do you do when you’re sad? You drink!
Levine: And then at, like, 25 after 11 p.m., they came up and said, “Okay, time to go down for ‘The Tonight Show!'” And they were just in no emotional condition to go on live television. Although I also think that [Jay] Leno did a very poor job of handling that situation. I always maintained that if it were [David] Letterman, it probably would’ve been less of a train wreck.
From Goodbye to “Hello, Seattle: I’m listening.”
Long: NBC constantly wanted spinoffs of everything. They were in terrible shape at the time. They had nothing they felt confident about. The irony, of course, is that they did have the seed of their next big hit, Seinfeld, but they weren’t sure about it. I remember telling them how much we the writers loved that show, and they would always kind of roll their eyes and say, “We just didn’t get it.” So they didn’t really know what they had.
Burrows: There was always talk of a spinoff. One with Norm and Cliff, one with Carla. …Well, we sort of did one with Carla when we did “The Tortellis.” There was also talk of spinning off Rebecca.
Levine: We got approached several times to write a Norm and Cliff show. But we just didn’t want to do that. It’s a problem, especially with Norm, because you had a character who was blissfully happy just sitting in a bar doing nothing for 16 hours a day. Unless you have characters who have tremendous desires and goals and things they need to achieve, and you can throw hurdles to make it that much harder for them, it’s very difficult to come up with stories.
Les: I think Frasier and Woody were the two logical possibilities. Both good leading men, both funny, both terrific actors. I don’t know who else you could’ve based a series around who would’ve been an anchor to the series.
Glen: I think the network already had a deal with Kelsey Grammer to do a series, and Peter Casey, David Angell, and David Lee were going to do that series.
Burrows: Angel, Casey, and Lee came to us, and they said, “We’d like to spin off Kelsey.” They had done “Wings,” and they said, “We have this idea…” So that was all of their making. They wrote a wonderful script, and they spun the show off. I think it’s probably the most successful spinoff of a series ever. It ran 11 years.
Long: I’ve pitched a reboot ‘til I’m blue in the face. I’d love to do it. I’m not even trying to be cool about it. The cool thing to do is to go, “Oh, well, you know, we had our time…” But I do a three-minute commentary on KCRW here in L.A., and I pitched my “Cheers” reboot idea on the radio, hoping that someone would hear it! I’d love to sit in a room with the funniest people I know, like I did 25 years ago, and with incredibly gifted performers onstage. I’d be happy to do that for the next 25 years!
Burrows: Since I’m involved with the “Will & Grace” reboot, I’ve seen it work. But that was 10 years, and this would be 25 years. I think that’s too long. You want to make sure when you do a reboot that you remember the characters as they were when they were successful.
Glen: “Will & Grace” and “Roseanne” — those people don’t seem to have aged significantly. Our people, I know, have. So it just wouldn’t be the same. And I’m not quite sure what that story would be. An aging bartender chasing women would be very strange. It wouldn’t feel right.
Burrows: There’s this whole thing about meeting your first girlfriend 30 or 40 years later. You might be inquisitive and interested, but you’ll always have in your head what she looked like when she was 18 years old, and you kind of want to preserve that. Some people don’t care. But we want to preserve what we have.
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.