The Cheers episode Ken Levine's still writing in his head
by Keith McDuffee, posted Jul 8th 2008 1:04PM
One of our writers, Bob Sassone, introduced me to Ken Levine's blog a couple of years ago. Within a couple of weeks I had his RSS feed in my "Must Always Read" category, and there it remains.
If you don't know who Ken Levine is, if you're any sort of fan of television, it's likely you've seen something he's written: His credits include 36 episodes of Cheers, 16 episodes of M*A*S*H, seven episodes of Frasier, seven episodes of Becker, four episodes of Wings, two episodes of The Simpsons ... and a partridge in a pear tree. In short, the man knows how to write; he's won an Emmy for his writing and even sometimes offers a highly-regarded course on comedy writing, called The Sitcom Room.
Levine's blog is filled with stories from his days with the aforementioned shows, and they're sometimes hilarious, always fascinating. As a friend of TV Squad, and to celebrate the all-things Cheers week of Retro Squad, he's taken the time out to share a new story below. Enjoy!
The Cheers Episode I'm Still Writing in my Head
by Ken Levine
Sometimes you just never know.
David Isaacs and I wrote an episode of Cheers the first season called "The Boys in the Bar." We were also producing the show at the time with the Charles Brothers and Jim Burrows.
The subject matter was a little tricky. It had been reported in the papers that a former player for the Dodgers, Glenn Burke, admitted he was gay. We thought, what if Sam's roommate during his playing days made the same admission? It seemed like a great way to explore the homophobia you find in some sports bars. Okay...most.
So we came up with this story: When Sam's ex-roommate reveals he's gay, Sam must decide whether or not to support him. There is concern from the bar regulars that if Sam does, the bar will go gay. I never said these were smart bar regulars. Still, Sam does back his former roomy and the regulars are very on edge. The next day, when they suspect two patrons of being gay, they try in their clumsy oafish way to "encourage" them to leave. The suspects eventually do and Norm, Cliff, and the gang are feeling very good about themselves until they realize they chased out the wrong pair. The real gay guys are standing on either side of Norm and both kiss him at once.
There was concern from the get-go that this story might be a little too risky for a series that at the time was struggling to find an audience. (It's bad enough Cheers was losing to Simon & Simon at the time; it was getting its ass kicked by Tucker's Witch too.) We forged ahead anyway and wrote the draft.
Everyone seemed to like it but was still a little worried. To their credit, the Charles Brothers and Burrows did not back away. They put the show on the production schedule.
The first day of production a table reading is scheduled. The cast sits around a large conference table and reads the script aloud. Writers gauge how it's playing and begin rewriting the things that didn't appear to work. "The Boys in the Bar" seemed to go okay. Not through the roof but decent.
As I walked out of the room Ted Danson approached and said, "Don't change a word." I was a little overly defensive and didn't appreciate the sarcasm, "Hey, give me a break," I snapped, "We tried for something, okay?" He waved his hands. "No, no, I mean it. It's great. Don't change a word." Needless to say I felt like a giant ass... but was relieved.
The week of rehearsals went smoothly. Just a little tweaking here and there but no major rewrites.
Cheers, like most multi-camera shows, operated on a five-day production schedule. The first three for rehearsing with the cast alone, then on day four the camera crews come in the technical work is done. Finally, on day five, the show is shot in front of a live studio audience.
The crew is usually a good indicator of what works. We've now heard every joke nine times. Nothing is funny to us. They're hearing the material for the first time.
The crew LOVED "The Boys in the Bar." Big laughs all the way through. And by far the biggest was the last joke where the two guys flanking Norm kiss him. It was easily the biggest crew laugh of the year.
So we felt great heading into show night. Sure enough the audience was with us from the first minute. One joke (Sam telling Diane he should've known his roommate was gay; in a piano bar he once requested a show tune) got such a thunderous prolonged laugh that they had to stop cameras. Too much film was being wasted.
The show and the laughs barreled on. I was having the time of my life. There's nothing a writer craves more than hearing big laughs. Now we're at the end. The two gay guys lean in and kiss Norm, and...
Silence. Dead silence. You could hear crickets.
It wasn't like some people got it and others didn't. Nobody laughed. Not a single person.
I felt like Wile E. Coyote when he runs off a cliff and is in mid-air for a few seconds before he realizes it, then plummets to the ground. That was me and the rest of the staff.
We quickly huddled. No one had an explanation. The best we could come up with was that the audience didn't realize that was the end. They were waiting for something else. So we reshot the scene and after the kiss we added a line. Norm points to one and says, "Better than Vera." That got a sort-of laugh but was the best we could do. Cut to the closing credit and get the hell out.
We received an Emmy nomination for that show and won the Writers Guild Award for it. It's still one of my proudest episodes. But to this day I scratch my head.
The crew liked it! They all got it! What happened???