Wouldn’t You Like to Get Away: Cheers to Despair

Cheers
In 1982, Les and Glen Charles hired Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo to write the theme song for their new upcoming sitcom, Cheers. After a few rejected attempts, Portnoy and Angela produced the now iconic song, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.
You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.

It’s a song now so familiar to the cultural conscious, the implications of the lyrics have likely fallen to the wayside. Despite the chorus’ upbeat tempo, it’s a depressing song. The opening line in particular strikes me—“Making your way in the world today takes everything you got.” Living, perhaps merely existing, is such an arduous task that it requires every muscle in your body, every bit of resilience you can muster, perhaps even all of your hard-earned money, to simply keep on living. Perhaps, even, to not kill yourself.

Although Cheers holds a prestigious place in the pantheon of situational comedies, at its core, it’s a dark show that speaks to existential despair.1 If we look at the main characters, we see that they lead relatively pitiful, if not depressing, lives that appear to be going nowhere.2

Take, for example, Sam Malone. A washed-up relief pitcher cut from the Red Sox due to his out-of-control alcoholism. As a recovering alcoholic, Sam evolves into a modern-day Don Juan, endlessly seeking sexual conquests to fill the emptiness he feels. When he finally meets a woman (Diane) he decides to commit himself to, she makes him miserable and vice versa.

Amid the frustrations and the tedium of daily life, they struggle to find purpose, which is part of the overwhelming difficulty of making their way in the world. As Sam Malone said, “I keep asking myself, what is the point to life?”3

In order to cope with their malaise, they go to Cheers—the place where everybody knows their names. The bar is their safe haven from despair. Considering that these characters more or less live at Cheers, their lives seem that much more miserable, the despair so intense that they need to seek refuge at the bar for most of their waking hours.

It’s interesting that the place where they want to take a break from all their worries is simply a place where everybody knows their names, not a place where everybody likes them: consider Cliff, Diane, and even Frasier, who was frequently mocked during his early years at the bar. It’s not the being liked that’s crucial, but rather, being known. This speaks to an even greater crisis than the struggle to find happiness and meaning—the struggle to forge a personal identity. You need to be where people know who you are in order to confirm your potentially precarious self-created identity; perhaps to even confirm your existence and prevent you from fading from this world to the oblivion of others.

Sam MaloneThrough the majority of the series, these characters remain more or less stagnant—perhaps they’re the original sitcom family locked in arrested development. This is best exemplified by Sam, who, every time he sets out to change his life, winds up back at Cheers. After Diane leaves him at the end of season five, he sells Cheers, buys a boat, and sets out to sail around the world. But his quest for change, for progress, is stymied when he crashes his boat. He returns to Cheers as an underpaid bartender. Soon it becomes his mission to buy back the bar, because he realizes Cheers is the only thing that has ever offered him solace from the stress of life, and the only thing that ever will.

In the series finale, Sam, once again, attempts and fails to change his situation. Reunited with Diane after six years, he decides to move to Los Angeles and marry her. When the gang derides him for his decision, he speaks to the very despair the theme song and entire series had subtly been hinting at for eleven years:

“It’s time for me to move on, face new challenges. . . .I think you’re turning on me cuz I just wanna get my life going here. I mean look at me. What’ve I got? No family, no future, nothing to look forward to. . . .I need more than this! You should need more than this!”

But in the end, he returns to Cheers to continue on the same path he’s been on for the eleven years the show endured. But this time, Sam realizes it’s not simply because Cheers offers him comfort in a chaotic existence. In the finale, Norm suggests that love is what gives life meaning, and he implies that Cheers is Sam’s one true love.

Interestingly, when Sam yells that he needs more than Cheers, he ends his tirade with these words: “I am not your mother! This is not your home!” But being more or less a mother-figure who creates a home for those in need of emotional support is exactly what he both wants and needs. Owning Cheers allows Sam to offer friends and strangers alike a safe haven from an often cruel, unfulfilling world.

Part of the arduous struggle of making your way in the world is to decide for yourself what life means to you. While Cheers is a refuge for the rest, for Sam, Cheers is what offers him meaning. It just takes him eleven years to both understand and accept this self-created purpose.

Whether or not you find such a purpose lackluster, Sam offers us hope for finding meaning amid the frustration of daily life—to even find purpose in the frustration.

Cheers

I’ll also say that while the need to escape to a bar day after day may seem pathetic to some, at least these characters had Cheers. At least they had a welcoming place to go to and seek temporary relief from the taxing world lingering just outside the bar’s brick walls. At least they had each other—perhaps they even found value in being there for one another.

And don’t we watch Cheers for the same reason these characters return to the bar day after day—to take a break from our own worries? Many of us would likely inhabit that bar if we could. Because frankly, we all need respite now and again, and there’s nothing quite as comforting as being with people who know you and accept you. But as Cheers is a work of fiction, we remain on the outside looking in. We’ll forever remember the names and faces of the folks at Cheers, but they’ll never know ours, never know that we exist.

This piece also appeared on Vannevar


Notes

1. Which is what smart comedy does—most intelligent jokes speak to life’s absurdity in its myriad forms.

2. Norm Peterson: Spends most of his waking hours on a barstool at Cheers. More often than not he’s unemployed, and when he is employed, loathes the work he does. Perpetually broke, usually derisive of his wife, his only apparent interest seems to be drinking.

Cliff Clavin: Cliff’s only friends are at Cheers, yet, nobody really likes him; at best, they tolerate him. Largely incapable of talking to attractive women or pursing romantic relationships, he lives with his mom well into middle age and remains emotionally dependent on her. Incapable of acknowledging his disappointment with his life, he exaggerates the importance and prestige of his position as a mail carrier.

Carla Tortelli/LeBec: Career cocktail waitress with eight rowdy kids and doomed to independently support them with her insubstantial wages. Her first husband, Nick Tortelli, was a skuzzy adulterer. Although she finds a better man in hockey goalie Eddie LeBec, a Zamboni crushes him to death. Shortly after, Carla learns Eddie wasn’t a whole lot better than Nick—leading a double life, Eddie had a second family.

Rebecca Howe: An emotional train wreck, Rebecca frequently bemoans her plight, screeching, “I’m such a loser” as she bursts into tears. Even at the series’ end when she finally finds happiness with Don Santry, Rebecca wails about having just married a plumber when her life’s goal had been to marry a Donald-Trump type, and, ever a self-deprecating mess, she wails about the fact that the plumber  is, in fact, better than her.

Diane Chambers: Similar to Cliff, the folks at Cheers find her insufferable. She waitresses at Cheers for five years, letting her creative aspirations disintegrate as she engages in an on-again-off-again emotionally abusive relationship with Sam. However, Diane appears to escape the cycle of drudgery the others seem doomed to when she permanently leaves Cheers to pursue a career as a writer. Yet, if actress Shelly Long hadn’t wanted to leave the show, Diane would surely still be wasting away at Cheers. It’s also worth noting that in her guest appearance in the series finale, she still appears miserable, expressing to Sam the lonely, unfulfilling life she leads despite the success she’s found in her career.

Frasier Crane: Although he’s a moderately successfully psychotherapist, Frasier’s career doesn’t seem to offer him a real sense of fulfillment. Similar to Rebecca, he’s prone to outbursts and frustration. Stressed by his work and family life, he spends every hour he can drinking at Cheers.

Plus, he never seems to fully get over Diane or the pain she caused him when she left him at the altar, remaining hopelessly in love with her despite her emotional abusiveness toward him, and despite his marriage to Lilith (the series finale illustrates this well when Frasier loses his shit upon seeing Diane for the first time in six years, showing that he’s both still enamored with and bitter toward her. Gripping her arms, he becomes entranced: “That shining hair, those dancing eyes, those graceful, supple limbs.” When Woody comments that Diane’s “fiancé” seems nice, Frasier mutters, “She’ll make him pay for it. If she’s left him a shred of manhood, it’s only because she’s waiting for the right moment to flick it away, like the last, shriveled pea on her plate.”).

Frasier may, in fact, be the most miserable of them all, given his penchant to analyze every situation and subsequently, perpetually confront life’s chaos and lack of inherent value. As he says in the finale, “Some would say the search for meaning is a waste of time. That all human life is just a cosmic accident. An arbitrary conglomeration of molecules evolved by chance into an organism with a brain stem, condemning it to ponder, futilely, the reason behind it all.”

Woody Boyd and Ernie “Coach” Pantusso: Loved by all, but also the perpetual butts of jokes, given how dense and oblivious they are. However, it must be said that Coach and especially Woody might be the most content and, in many ways, the most successful of the lot. Woody is easy to please, finds love with Kelly, and even moves up the social ladder from his farm boy beginnings to become a city councilman. Never one to question life’s meaning, Woody is evidence that “ignorance is bliss” and potentially the secret to effectively dealing with (perhaps even avoiding) hardship.

3. From the series finale. Sam openly question’s the purpose of life after he says, “One by one I seem to be losing my thrills, my tingles.”

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