Laughter & Forgetting

THE final Cheers episode May 20 marks the end of the most popular TV show of the 1980s. Most sitcoms have a shorter life than a June bug. But Cheers captured both a nostalgia for simpler times and the breezy spirit of the era so well it ran for a decade. Its appeal was unprecedented. Some one million people visit the Cheers location on Boston's Beacon Street annually and spend $5 million on memorabilia. The show, whose reruns play three times a day, five days a week, will retire as a classic alongside ot her signature series such as "Mary Tyler Moore," and "M.A.S.H."

(Though set in a bar, Cheers regrettably never much addressed either the moral or social problems associated with alcohol.)

Cheers was part of the "feel good" times here in Beantown. It played off the "Massachusetts Miracle" and the Larry Bird era in sports. The banter between Sam and Diane got so popular that tourists asked not for Old North Church or Harvard Yard - but "Excuse me, where is Cheers?"

Certainly the ensemble cast worked off brilliant dialogue and unsparing, cheeky humor. It had a sitcom formula: Keep everything light, never let 15 seconds elapse without a laugh, have a happy ending. But that alone doesn't explain it.

Coming out of the "malaise" and self-doubt of the 1970s, Cheers was a place America could believe in again. It redefined a traditional mainstream - a friendly watering hole with real people who, though caught with foibles and weaknesses, ultimately stick together in a semblance of community. Was America more transient and impersonal? Were relationships more difficult to maintain? Come to a place where "everyone knows your name." Just tune in. The world outside may be in chaos. But Norm will be at his co rner seat. Sam will flirt. Woody will puzzle. Carla will grouse.

Actually, there is less community in Cheers than meets the eye. Regular guy Norm and postman Cliff are married, but we never see their wives. We almost never see anyone's home. In Cheers, there are few real problems, no sinister characters, no pain or want, and nothing that can't be redeemed with a joke. Of course not: As many who make the pilgrimage to Cheers find out, it isn't a real place.

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