Nearly four decades after its premiere, NBC’s “Cheers” is regarded as a comedy juggernaut that helped launch the careers of Ted Danson, Kirstie Alley and Woody Harrelson, among other stars.
Given such a sterling legacy, it’s easy to forget that the show debuted to sluggish ratings in 1982, and for much of its first season, cancelation seemed imminent. So, when writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs chose to include an LGBTQ-inclusive story arc in an early episode, it was considered a risky move.
Danson, who last week wrapped a four-season run on NBC’s “The Good Place,” was a behind-the-scenes champion of Levine and Isaacs’ work on that 1983 “Cheers” episode, titled “The Boys in the Bar.” In the latest installment of his “Culture Cruise” video series, writer and editor Matt Baume takes an in-depth look at “The Boys in the Bar,” reflecting on how its depiction of gay issues was progressive for its time.
The Season 1 episode introduces viewers to Tom Kenderson (played by guest star Alan Autry), a former Boston Red Sox player who is a longtime pal of Cheers owner Sam Malone (Danson).
After Kenderson publishes a memoir in which he comes out as a gay man, he hosts a press conference celebrating his book’s release at the bar. The event leaves some Cheers regulars worried that their hangout will attract a gay clientele.
Many specifics of “The Boys in the Bar” are, of course, dated by today’s standards. A scene in which characters Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and Norm (George Wendt) exchange a “patty cake alert” when spotting customers they assume to be gay because of their mannerisms and clothing hasn’t aged well. But, as Baume explains, the episode ultimately sends a forward-thinking, if humorously presented, message about the pitfalls of relying on such stereotypes.
“The Boys in the Bar” also predated a more recent, albeit contentious, trend in the LGBTQ community: the concern that too many straight customers are overtaking queer-inclusive spaces.
“The difference, of course, is that straight people have a long track record of bad behavior when it comes to gay bars,” Baume told HuffPost. “That’s why the LGBTQ community has needed to maintain hangouts where we can escape from heteronormative society.”
He added: “As a minority, that hostility could return at any time ― and when it does, we’ll be glad we maintained queer spaces through the good times so they could protect us in the bad times.”
Based in Seattle, Baume is the author of the 2015 book “Defining Marriage: Voices From a Forty-Year Labor of Love.” He launched “Culture Cruise” in 2018, and since then, he’s revisted LGBTQ characters and storylines on classic TV shows, like “The Golden Girls” and “Murphy Brown.”
In January 2019, Baume’s series caught the eye of New York Times writer Margaret Lyons, who praised it as “thoughtful and thorough.”