Title of Work and its Form: “Give Me a Ring Sometime,” an episode of the television program Cheers
Authors: Written by Les Charles and Glen Charles, Directed by James Burrows
Date of Work: Originally broadcast September 30, 1982
Where the Work Can Be Found: This is the pilot episode of Cheers, one of the most popular and financially lucrative programs of all time. As of this writing, the program can be viewed on the streaming services and the series’ full run is available on DVD.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Narrative Structure
Glen and Les Charles, having already established themselves as sitcom titans with their work on Taxi and The Bob Newhart Show, teamed with director James Burrows to create a new program. They decided to set their new program in a bar: a felicitous choice for many reasons: bars are often populated by people with big problems, alcohol loosens the tongue, bartenders hear a lot of exposition…I could go on. The pilot episode begins as Cheers is opening for the day and Sam Malone, its owner, is preparing for his customers. In walks Diane and Sumner, a couple who are about to elope in the Caribbean. All is not well between the two; Sumner insists upon visiting his ex-wife to get his grandmother’s ring so he can give it to Diane. Sam, a prolific ladies’ man, is happy to keep an eye on Diane. The other employees and barflies trickle in, and the Charles’ script teaches us about each of them. Surprise, surprise…Sumner is not going to marry Diane, who is in denial until Sam hits her with the truth: “That goof is probably gonna be on a beach in Barbados tomorrow morning rubbing suntan oil on his ex-wife.” Diane has nowhere else to go and takes a waitress job at the bar.
The script makes so many smart choices. Isn’t it a good idea to begin the episode at the beginning of The Day Diane Arrives. (A day that will change the lives of everyone in the bar.) After all, our days start at the beginning, too. Diane is a fish-out-of-water, allowing the writers graceful ways of doling out exposition. It’s perfectly natural for Diane to ask questions about the people around her and it’s equally natural for the barflies to ask questions about her. Carla and Coach are introduced and characterized with admirable quickness; Coach’s endearing absentmindedness and Carla’s hotheadedness are instantly on display.
The episode, for the most part, adheres to the Aristotelian Unities. Unlike most contemporary TV shows, the Cheers pilot really could be the script of a play. The action takes place on one set. Sure, there are breaks in the action, but that’s perfectly natural. Who wants to sit around during the entire 90 minutes Sumner is away? So the Charleses just fade the lights and then bring them back up when the story is interesting again. And how can the viewer tell that time has passed? Oh, the Charleses don’t tell you…they SHOW you time has passed because there are more people in the bar and dirty glasses everywhere. The tone mixes comedy and tragedy in a way that Aristotle may not have appreciated, but the tone is very consistent. Each of the characters has their own problems and they try to deal with them with some modicum of good humor.
In the Cheers pilot, no line is wasted. Every single one has a distinct purpose: exposition, characterization or simply serving as a punchline. It’s not easy to do, but the jokes are stacked one after the other and often grow right out of the characters.
What Should We Steal?
- Answer questions before the audience has a chance to ask them. When Carla enters, the audience is likely to wonder who she is. Before they get a chance to wonder, she burns through an angry rant about her miserable life and her excuses for being late for work. In only a few seconds, we learn everything we need to know about Carla. The silent reactions given to us by Sam and Coach also tell us a lot about how they feel about her. No clunky exposition needed.
- Employ great contrast between your characters. Okay, the people who populate the bar have a lot in common. Most love beer, most love sports, most aren’t as successful as they would like to be. But a Norm line is very easily distinguishable from a Carla line because each character has great individuality. Carla can provide the anger needed in a scene. Sam’s recovery from alcoholism complicates his work and his life. Coach misunderstands a lot of things, allowing for an awful lot of punchlines. This contrast is particularly important because the story takes place on the one set.