Turns Out, 1980s Midwesterners Didn’t Want Their Sitcoms Set in Boston Bars
Cheers Director James Burrows on Creating a Warm Set... Where Everybody Knows Your Name
From its inception, Cheers was an endeavor between good friends to create a show about good friends. Our agent, Bob Broder, negotiated a development deal for Glen Charles, Les Charles, and me with Paramount Pictures. (I first met the Brothers while directing Phyllis, and I tend to refer to them as “the Brothers,” not only for brevity but because over time they also became my brothers, and that is the way I feel about them.)
It was one of the first true financial partnerships between a studio and creators. We got a small office on the Paramount lot, and we started talking about what kind of show we wanted to do.
We all loved Fawlty Towers, a British show set at an English hotel. Monty Python co-founder John Cleese got the idea for the show after he and the Pythons stayed at a hotel on the English Riviera. Co-created with Connie Booth, John starred as Basil Fawlty, the glib and frustrated hotel manager, who dealt with a variety of demanding guests and eccentric staff.
We loved the outrageousness of it. I was not that big a fan of Monty Python, but I adored Fawlty Towers, because that character was so brazen. This was not sketch comedy. There were no dead parrots or Ministers of Silly Walks. Here, John was committed to one character and was a center for other characters.
I have always been a big fan of British humor. It’s much more sophisticated, intellectual, and unexpected than most of American humor. There’s an amazing blend of edginess and silliness. You don’t know where they’re going with it. You can say the worst curse words in the world and they sound refined. I went to see Beyond the Fringe on Broadway in 1962 with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennett.
(Side story: When I got to the box office with my tickets, the agent said my seats had been changed. I asked why, but they enigmatically wouldn’t tell me. We’d been moved to the second row. Right before the show began, I looked back to see who had our tickets—it was President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy.)
I watched the show and roared. I had never seen anything like this. I was so in love with these guys, who were Monty Python before Monty Python, maybe a tad more intellectual. They were way ahead of their time. At Yale Drama, when I had to do a required scene in acting class, I did one of their monologues: “I could have been a judge, but I never had the Latin.” I got roars.
When it came to agreeing on an idea for the show, the Brothers and I knew that most everybody loved bars, especially sports bars. The Brothers had grown up in Las Vegas, and one of our earliest ideas was to set the bar in Barstow, California, because we thought about its proximity to Las Vegas and how the guests on the show would stop over in Barstow en route to or from Vegas. The main action would take place in the hotel bar. The structure was similar to that of Fawlty Towers in that the stories would walk into the bar.
Once we settled on a sports bar, we ruled out New York City as a setting, not only because it had been overdone but, more important, because it had multiple teams for the same sport. We considered Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit, where local fans really love their sports and everyone roots for the same team. We decided on Boston because there was an accent and because it was such a distinctive town—working-class and cosmopolitan at the same time.
We spent two months going to bars to study the atmosphere. Glen called me one night at 1 am my time, which was 4 am in Boston, and said, “I found our place.” It was the Bull and Finch, a bar located below street level. We used it as a model. The downstairs aspect gave us a lot of creative opportunity. We used the image of feet on the staircase a lot during the run.
Setting the show in a bar was controversial. We got a lot of letters from the Midwest, where temperance was the prime tenet of local towns. The network had some reservations because, until that time, everybody thought of a bar as a depressing place where helpless people went to drown their sorrows.
We did everything we could to counteract that perception and the attendant trepidation and make Cheers look like a British pub where people from all strata of society came and had a good time together. Our goal was to make it a place that was welcome and safe, where people could feel comfortable and be excited to go to every Thursday night.
We tried to speak to the issue of alcoholism. There was a deliberate effort on our part to emphasize responsibility and safety on your way home. The pilot was the only episode where Norm gets so drunk that Coach has to take him home. Sam was a recovering alcoholic, somebody who didn’t touch it anymore but was dealing with his demons every day.
In “Endless Slumper,” Sam lends his lucky bottle cap to a fellow pitcher, Rick (Christopher McDonald), who’s in a slump. Rick’s slump ends, and when Sam asks for the cap back, Rick says he lost it in Kansas City. Sam explains its significance to Diane: “It’s the cap off the last bottle of beer I ever drank, last anything I ever drank. I remember holding on to that bottle cap during some pretty rough nights. I’d wake up in the morning and I had its imprint in my palm. I mean, it was flat because I was squeezing it so hard. When I was tempted to have a drink, sometimes I’d look at the bottle cap and it would stop me.”
Until that time, everybody thought of a bar as a depressing place where helpless people went to drown their sorrows.
Sam is terrified that the loss of the cap will cause him to backslide into drinking again. In a tense and poignant moment, Sam, alone at the bar with a nervous and supportive Diane, takes the cap off another bottle of beer, pours himself a tall glass, and stares at it for what seems like an eternity. Tempted to drink from it, he finally skillfully slides the glass around the corner of the bar and decides to make the just-removed cap his new lucky bottle cap.
The only time Sam falls off the wagon is when Diane leaves him at the end of the second season and he goes on a bender. It’s the only time he crashes and burns. When we found the opportunity to do something with a character that was unexpected, we did it. Sam is reacting to the love of his life running off with an artist. We thought that Diane leaving Sam would be too overwhelming for him because their connection was so deep. We felt Sam was very vulnerable at that point and would have a setback and the audience would understand that raw emotion and connect with it.
When it came to designing the set for Cheers, strong attention was paid to detail. More than anything else, we wanted class and warmth. We hired Richard Sylbert, an Academy Award–winning art director, to make the set look as beautiful and inviting as possible, since the characters were drinking what many in America still considered “devil’s brew.” Richard was very dignified, often decked out in a safari jacket while smoking a pipe. He had never worked on a television production before. He asked for a salary of 500 dollars for every show produced, which was unheard of. I told Paramount, “Pay him, even if you have to take it out of our share.”
His gorgeous design included a square bar, an office, and a pool room. It was twice the size of the original Bull and Finch. Richard devised a walkway behind Norm’s seat leading to the bathrooms and pool table with a front piece on wheels, a quadrangle. We would roll it out of the way to get to Sam’s office, and the restrooms would disappear. It was both beautiful and functional. On the Cheers set, there was linoleum on the floor to simulate tile. I had the faux tile laid from under the bar all the way to the audience, so they could feel like they were in the bar.You could take a date there and they would be impressed.
When it came to shooting, we liked the look of film. We were doing a bar, and we wanted it to look as pretty as possible. Film has a softness to it that videotape doesn’t offer. It showcased the beauty of the all-wood bar and the warm colors. It was clearly not a dive. Cheers was filmed in five-minute-long segments with four cameras recording various angles simultaneously.
Above the stage, 64 lights illuminated practically every area of the set. You couldn’t have light stands on the floor for a multi-camera shoot. We had clean, high-quality close-ups. I put the camera everywhere to see what the set would look like. One shot from the camera run-through is in the pilot, from the pool room into the bar when Coach comes out of the bathroom. I looked at every camera angle—I like maximizing whatever set I’m on. We used the pool room, Sam’s office, and the staircase to Melville’s, the fancy restaurant upstairs, which you rarely saw.
We trained the cast early on to “ABR/ABF”: Always Be Reacting/Always Be Funny; to always assume they were being watched. In theater, when one actor is speaking, another actor can take a beat. Here, there was a camera on everyone all the time. If we found a great reaction shot, we used it.
After the fourth episode, Les said, “Everything’s too bright.” I made a conscious effort to tone it down to make it moodier. There was no way I could shoot the bar to make it smaller or more intimate. It was a very appealing upscale neighborhood place. You could take a date there and they would be impressed.
The original Bull and Finch patrons hated us. We ruined their watering hole by making it famous and a place you had to visit when in Boston. Eddie Doyle was the bartender. Finally, he said, “Screw it, we’re doing great business.” Tom Kershaw owned the Hampshire House, the restaurant above. We had never asked him if we could use it for the exteriors. Tom was a Harvard MBA and owned the entire building. When we finally asked, he said, “Yes, on one condition—that you pay me a dollar a year.”
He knew what the merchandising revenue would be if the show was a hit. He changed the name of the Bull and Finch to Cheers, and he sold shirts. He was careful to put “Boston” under the Cheers logo, so as not to run afoul of Paramount’s copyright. The bar is still open under the Cheers name.
From the book DIRECTED BY JAMES BURROWS: Five Decades of Stories from the Legendary Director of Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, Friends, Will & Grace, and More by James Burrows, with Eddy Friedfeld. Copyright © 2022 by Placid Productions, Inc. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.