“And Coachie Makes Three” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 1/19/1984)
In which, well, Coachie makes three
Ryan McGee: We’ve seen a lot of interactions between the denizens of Cheers within the confines of the bar. But we haven’t seen a lot of what happens if and when they congregate outside of it. “And Coachie Makes Three” explores that dynamic by inserting Coach into the Sam/Diane mix outside of business hours, and the results are about as uncomfortable as you can imagine. We’ve seen some episodes recently in which we’ve seen the darker side of previously lovable characters such as Norm. Will this be the episode that turns Coach evil?
Well, luckily that’s not the case, but that’s not to say that a lot of the resulting discomfort is top-notch Cheers, either. What’s notable at the outset of the episode is how downright calm the relationship between Sam and Diane is. They’re enjoying a quiet night at home, eating dinner and sipping coffee out of what appears to be fine China. Sure, Sam isn’t sure what any of the food is called, but he seems content all the same. Too content, as far as Diane is concerned: When he instantly leaps from the table to check the scores on television, she worries that they have hit a rut in the relationship.
Enter Coach, literally. He barges into the apartment in order to watch the Robert Mitchum film Thunder Road. Sam and Coach have a long-running tradition of watching Mitchum films together, and what starts out as a one-night attempt to make a lonely man happy turns into a month of three-person hangouts. Neither Sam nor Diane have the heart to kick Coach out of their dates, but both are pulling out their hair trying to figure out how to let him down easy. “You shaved off your Pantuso,” Diane wryly notes in a rare moment the two share alone. Carla ends up suggesting an out for the duo: setting Coach up with the teller from a local bank about whom he’s always crooning. This leads to probably the strongest sequence of the episode: a farcical sequence in which Coach’s porous memory sends nearly half the bar on a wild goose chase.
Under the guise of Diane knowing teller Katherine, the four go on a double-date. Coach’s innocent befuddlement actually works in his favor, as his non-sequiturs and misunderstandings charm the socks off of Katherine. But when an opportunity arises to escort her home, he balks at the chance. “She’s like a fourth wheel!” he cries, at which point Sam and Diane tell Coach the truth…,by selling each other up the river. Normally, such a series of backstabbing maneuvers would annoy me. But come on: who wants to disappoint Coach?
The duo finally telling Coach he needs to allow them more alone time ends up working out: He finds Katherine at the bus station, and they have a wonderful night. But as Sam and Diane both try to claim victory for his happiness, Coach turns to Norm and reveals that the befuddled old man maybe has a few more marbles left in him.
So my question for you all: Is there any chance that Coach’s demeanor that is less than 100 percent honest all the time? Or is that just my cold, cynical heart refusing to believe in his purity?
Donna Bowman: Ryan, “And Coachie Makes Three” is a bit too farcical for me as well, although I think nearly every piece of it works on its own. Somehow, it just doesn’t cohere; the pieces don’t flow naturally into each other. During the third-act setpiece where Sam and Diane are trying to pass off blame for Coach’s ouster to each other (then switch to claiming credit for it), I checked out of the sequence for a moment to wonder why these two care so much about Coach’s opinion of them, when he’s such a kindly and forgetful soul that it’s hard to imagine there being any lasting grudge or animus (or extra beneficence). Then I found myself disturbed by the very fact that I had been so disengaged as to have that thought. It’s as if the farce had been dropped on top of these characters as something to play, rather than arising from their personalities and the situation.
But I’m coming to understand that it’s almost always the little things with Cheers, rather than whether the 20 minutes hang together. When they do, there’s a huge boost to the laughs; when they don’t, there’s almost always still plenty to enjoy. Diane dancing through her apartment as she plans her lingerie surprise for Sam; the instantaneousness of Sam’s flip against Coach when Diane gives him a peek behind her bedroom door; Katherine’s genuine laughter at Coach’s comments; Diane explaining “honesty was our only recourse.” Sheer delight in all those moments quite offsets the seams showing in this patchwork of farce.
Meredith Blake: Last week, Erik suggested that Cheers was beginning to strain within the confines of the bar, and I agreed, which is why it’s refreshing that so much of “And Coachie Makes Three” takes place outside the usual setting. There’s something almost experimental about the episode, which, in a sign of its relative novelty, begins not in the bar but in Diane’s apartment. I like the shifting center of action, and the corresponding focus on Sam and Diane’s more mundane moments together—until now, we’ve mostly seen them either fighting or groping each other, sometimes both, so it’s a bit of a revelation seeing them as a bored but happy couple.
Even still, you can almost sense the writers’ frustrations with the narrow scope of the Cheers universe so far. The long gag about Coach’s memory, as obviously farcical as it is, also works as a very clever way of keeping the action at the bar. As long as Coach struggles to remember the name of the teller he has a crush on—Katherine, as it turns out—we have to stay right there with him at Cheers. I’d be curious to hear from the Cheers writing staff whether these physical limitations hampered—or maybe even encouraged—their creativity, especially in these early seasons.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: This isn’t a great episode: I only laughed out loud once, at the climax to the drink-switching routine that ends with Norm’s spit take. I can take or leave Katherine’s assumption (or her insistence) that Coach must be kidding when he says stupid shit, but when he really gets rolling and launches into that checklist of things he doesn’t understand about banks, it’s as if he’s channeling George Carlin on an off night. But I continue to be amazed at how gracefully the show manages to go to potentially tear-jerking places without ever sinking to bathos or inventing cringe comedy. At its best, this is a humane, honest 20-odd minutes of comedy about the fine line between the responsibilities that come with genuine friendship and demeaning pity, based on the common but hard-to-talk-about insight that it’s possible for the people we love to overstep their bounds and work our last nerve. Which does make it something to see. It’s also good to know that the rules governing hospitality for a semi-professional barfly like Norm are sort of similar to those for vampires.
Erik Adams: You’re on to something about the experimental nature of “And Coachie Makes Three,” Meredith. Where the show seems to be testing itself the most is in the editing of the cold open, which picks up right where it left off before the theme song—John Ratzenberger could be in the middle of the same take when the camera returns to the scene of his and Norm’s romantic strikeout. Even at regular length, the cold open overstays its welcome, so I have to wonder what the impetus for extending it was—beyond the desire to see how far the show’s established elements will stretch.
In response to your question, Ryan, Coach’s surprise streak of wisdom doesn’t strike me as the show waving away his absent-mindedness—it’s more of an assurance that he’s going to get along just fine without Sam and Diane’s company/pity. As much as the writers paint Coach as a well-meaning oaf, there’s never any suggestion that he’s gotten this far solely through the assistance of other people. When he really needs them, his full mental facilities kick in—as when he finally picks up on Sam and Diane’s cues and tracks down Katherine. And as the episode’s final line shows, the guy’s smart enough to see some of the cracks forming in Sam and Diane’s relationship.
Noel Murray: This wasn’t my favorite episode either, but it is a fine showcase for Coach, who gets all the best lines, delivered in his usual amusing-without-realizing it way. (My favorites: ”Well, you really were a drunk, Sam,” and “Spaghetti for four.”) Nicholas Colasanto even sells the escalating farce in the scene where Coach can’t remember which teller he likes at his bank. It’s so obvious where this joke is going, and yet as one employee and customer after another races out the door to find Coach’s woman, his confusion gets funnier and funnier, right up to the inevitable, “Wrong bank.” Sometimes, knowing exactly what’s coming can be as satisfying as surprise.
Todd VanDerWerff: I’ve been watching a lot of I Love Lucy for an article going up next week, and what strikes me about both that show and this episode is that both are basically long strings of comedic sketches, sort of held together by a plot, except when they’re not. I’ll agree that the moments in this episode when everyone’s genuinely worried for Coach’s feelings are touching, but I also like the more broadly comic bits, particularly that long sequence with everybody running out of the bar. This sort of sketch-based comedy doesn’t exist as much nowadays. In fact, it was mostly on its way out by the time the ‘60s rolled around. But there’s a pleasant, throwback quality to “And Coachie Makes Three,” a quality that I enjoyed, even as I could point out the flaws in the overarching story. A sitcom can be good through sheer craftsmanship, and there are few shows that prove that more than Cheers.
- RM: Norm being unable to cross over the threshold of the bar without Sam and Diane shouting his name was such a remarkable moment. It should be sad and pathetic, but somehow, it’s endearing.
- MB: Technologically speaking, this is easily the most dated episode of Cheers we’ve seen: First, Sam has to plug in Diane’s pokey television set and fuss with the antennae in order to check the score, then Coach comes over with a copy of TV Guide in hand. Even though I’m old enough to remember the days before my family even had a VCR, it’s easy to forgot just how committed TV viewers had to be back in the day.
- PDN: So, did Robert Mitchum play Mothra or Godzilla? I’m kind of afraid to check at IMDB.
- NM: I was glad this episode made a point to show us that Carla is minding the bar while Coach and Sam watch Thunder Road with Diane. But who’s waitressing?
- NM: The best thing about Sam and Diane’s perfunctory “Norm!” is that Diane still tacks on a “Norman.” The customer is always right, after all—even if he’s a little OCD.
- TV: Speaking of that cold open and the extension into the episode proper, how about that dissolve between scenes? I felt like I was in an homage episode of Moonlighting.
- TV: As to your question about Coach’s savvy, Ryan, I think it’s a tough road the Cheers writers walked in that particular regard. It’s always hard to do a character who’s so naïve and keep him believable, so little moments like the one that closes out this episode are necessary to let us all know that he’s smarter than he lets on sometimes. That gives us the ability to believe he can live out in the world, when we’re not watching him, which lets the suspension of disbelief keep rolling right along.
“Cliff’s Rocky Moment” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 1/26/1984)
In which Cliff makes an enemy.
RM: We’ve already seen Cheers try to experiment with form and tone to varying degrees of success. Sometimes, experiments backfire. Back in season one, “Friends, Romans, Accountants” brought a whole host of new people into the bar and managed to suck the very life out of the place. Here, in “Cliff’s Rocky Moment,” it only takes one person to rob the show of its energy, charm, and wit. People like Victor Shapone undoubtedly reside in every watering hole in the country, past or present. But why did he have to show up in this bar?
Cliff’s blowhard nature has always been played for laughs, but we’ve also seen it deployed in judicious measure in the episodes since the producers elevated his role. In a recent interview on this very site, John Ratzenberger mentioned how he suggested the show having a resident know-it-all. Well, that’s all well and good for a sitcom audience… but what if you had to listen to him drone on each night while you tried to drink in silence? It’s not a bad concept for an episode, but the execution is all wrong here. Rather than having an escalating sense of tension, things start off at Defcon 1 and really never go anywhere. Moreover, Victor’s annoyance is sleepy, almost as if Cliff is boring him to death rather than raising his blood pressure.
Victor challenges Cliff to a fight, which Cliff promptly avoids by ducking upstairs through Melville’s. Our favorite postman returns the next day, accompanied by fellow government employee Lewis. Cliff tries to play Lewis off as a longtime friend, but it turns out Lewis merely answered a bulletin board ad for someone with fighting experience to help save Cliff’s bacon back at the bar. Lewis initially stands in between the pair, but quickly leaves after realizing that Cliff’s monologuing is as annoying at work as at the bar. That leads to an uncomfortable moment when Victor calls Cliff out one more time with a final choice: Fight, admit he’s a coward, or just leave the bar. It feels like forever before Cliff turns silently and walks out the door. Sam admonishes Victor, who seems perplexed that Cliff could turn him into such an ugly person.
Just when the entire endeavor feels like a riff on The Iceman Cometh, Cliff returns, bearing bricks, planks of wood, and other items from a local construction site. (Apparently, the Big Dig started even earlier than I remembered.) Throughout the episode, Cliff has claimed that he’s been practicing karate for the past few years, and simply wants to avoid violence at all costs in order to achieve “spiritual attainment.” In order to save face, he quickly breaks the wood with his bare foot and the brick with his forehead, to thunderous applause and disbelief from the other patrons. But in the final moments, he confesses to Diane (the only one that believed in his karate training) that, in fact, he needs to go to the emergency room immediately. While Cliff undoubtedly read up on the martial arts, it turns out he’s never practiced them before his desperate attempt to maintain his dignity in the bar.
There’s something to be said about the desperation in Cliff’s psyche that forces him to prove himself after Victor’s conquest. And seeing Diane carry him up the stairs on her shoulders is certainly a funny image. But it all feels far too little, far too late. This show can do drama at the drop of a hat. But I’m not sure it can convey ugliness in a convincing manner. Or, perhaps, that ugliness was too convincing, and that’s my real issue with this episode.
DB: Now see, this premise I buy wholeheartedly. It’s probably because I am a blowhard know-it-all, and I am supremely annoyed by people like me, especially when they never shut up. So I realize immediately when Victor starts complaining that I only like Cliff because I already know him and have been primed to find his shtick endearing. If I were in Victor’s shoes, I’d be one more “little known fact” away from exploding, too. The one flaw in the execution of this all-too-plausible—inevitable, really—plotline is that the rest of the bar doesn’t stand up for Cliff and throw Victor out on his ear. Is it possible that they also realize that Victor has a point, even if he’s ugly about expressing it?
Everything else is just about perfect, from Diane’s barely-restrained delight at winning the football pool with strategies like “I went entirely with cities whose symphonies are led by foreign-born conductors,” to Cliff’s smug satisfaction with himself at recruiting a USPS colleague who happens to dabble in boxing as his new best pal and drinking buddy. The cut to that corner of the bar where the camera finds Norm already in deep trouble talking to Lewis—”How am I supposed to know Leslie Uggams?” Lewis demands with righteous indignation while Norm casts about desperately for an exit strategy that isn’t racist—is emblematic of what this episode does right, and with such economy and grace.
PDN: I enjoyed this one much more than Ryan did, but I think I see the problems with the climactic scene where the barroom bully (who looks like a housebroken Joey Buttafuocco) shames Cliff and drives him from the promised land. The procession of close-ups of embarrassed faces calls out for Ennio Morricone, and the bully himself is too dolefully serious when he apologizes for his behavior. (When he says that Cliff brings out the worst in him, he sounds like Lon Chaney, Jr., confessing that he has no say in what he does when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.) But up to that point, it’s a very funny episode, highlighted by a very clever spin on a very old joke (Leslie Uggams!) and the bully winning Lewis over to his side. At the heart of it all is a classic internal conflict: Cliff’s cowardice, we learn, is one of his most powerful qualities, but his need to maintain the respect of the bar crowd ultimately overrides his last vestiges of self-protective common sense. And that last shot of Cliff and Diane on the stairs shows just how much a great gag timed for the fade-out can do for a sitcom.
EA: This one hit close to home for me, but for different reasons from why it resonated with Donna: When Victor turns down Cliff’s offer of a beer with a curt “I don’t like you,” it stings as badly as hearing that phrase from a real person. It makes it harder to hear because we like Cliff a lot—if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be tuning in to watch him every week. Characters expressing outright, irreversible hostility toward one another is still a relatively new phenomenon on sitcoms; even Archie Bunker retracted his claws from Meathead sometimes. The impression “Cliff’s Rocky Moment” leaves is that the Cheers team had established this cast of characters that they really loved, but were nonetheless eager to play with an unknown element: someone who wouldn’t get along with the gang at the bar. It doesn’t work, but at least it shows that Cliff only blathers on and on so much because he wants people to like him.
NM: I’m in Donna’s camp on this one. “Cliff’s Rocky Moment” is a classic—another of those Cheers episodes that I remember in vivid detail from watching it in my youth. Any problems I have with this episode are related mainly to how it plays on my emotions, which only means that it’s working. I feel embarrassed for Cliff when he sneaks away through Melville’s to avoid fighting Victor. I feel annoyed at Carla for trying to force Cliff into a confrontation, and for basically letting him know he’s unwelcome in the bar if he refuses to stand up for himself. And I feel angry at Sam for not intervening sooner, and for letting one of his best customers get pushed around. Yet none of these things are out of character for any of these three. The crisis evolves naturally. (That Cliff’s dilemma reminds me of one of my favorite Andy Griffith Show episodes doesn’t hurt either.)
Also, how funny is Sam Scarber as Lewis? (Answer: So funny that we haven’t seen the last of him on this show.) What makes the Leslie Uggams line extra-funny is that Cheers so rarely addresses race, and here, in one brief scene, it’s willing to expose the casual racism of two of its most harmless characters, Norm and Cliff, and does so without diminishing or stereotyping one of the rare black faces we see in the bar. A neat trick, that.
TV: I, too, enjoyed this one, but for completely separate reasons from all of you, reasons that had little to do with the episode proper. Jaime Weinman recently had a post at his blog about TV episode types that have “disappeared,” and the one he pointed to was the episode where two of the characters get in the boxing ring, and we see a big, slapstick-y fight designed to build laughs. Usually, this was an episode turned to by an older sitcom, one that had run out of stock plots to plow through, so I was interested to see if Cheers would have a different spin on it. “Cliff’s Rocky Moment,” of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with boxing, and I ended up appreciating it because of that. It’s an episode that sees the stock sitcom plot opening up before it, but it’s also one that chooses to take a more scenic route, one that affords us a look at people who are genuinely mean to our main characters, exposing the ways we’d find them annoying in real life. That’s another rich sitcom tradition, and I need only say Frank Grimes to remind you of perhaps the most famous example. Say, I feel an Inventory comin’ on…
MB: I really enjoyed this one, which to me felt like a corrective to season one’s less successful “The Tortelli Tort,” right down to the fat, knuckle-dragging stranger who lumbers in the front door of Cheers. But whereas that episode grated on my nerves, this one played like a wonderful little character study. As Donna correctly points out, what works so well here is the tension between our affection for Cliff and our simultaneous awareness that what makes him endearing on television (his know-it-all-ish-ness) would actually kind of make him a nightmare in real life. Let’s be honest: Accusing someone of being a “Cliff Clavin” would hardly be a compliment. Cheers has never been afraid to explore the less flattering aspects of everyone’s personalities, like Carla’s belligerence, Diane’s prissiness, and even Sam’s occasional willingness to put business before friendship (which, by the way, is easily the most frustrating part of this episode—why doesn’t he just throw that bozo out?). For whatever reason, though, Cheers manages to make its characters deeply human without turning them into shrill cartoons. It’s quite a nimble feat.
The one thing that does give me pause, though, is the subplot involving Lewis. Is it meant expose Cliff’s casual racism, or is it symptomatic of the lingering prejudices of the era? In other words, is the joke on Cliff, or is the joke on Lewis? I’m not entirely sure.
- RM: The use of camera to shift focus from the back of the bar, where Cliff and Victor have their first conversation, to the foreground where Norm observes their interaction deserves to go into this show’s cinematography Hall of Fame.
- NM: Anyone else have a craving for one of Coach’s special Kon Tiki Tikis? (Unblended, though.)
- NM: The “symphonies with foreign-born conductors” is funny enough, Donna, but the best line in the Sam/Diane football-pool subplot is Sam’s mumbling explanation for why he hasn’t won for so long: “It was a decade of upsets.”
- TV: I was a little disappointed that Cliff didn’t turn out to be an actual karate master. Then again, that sort of thing would have gradually taken over the show. (See also: Fizbo.)
- NM: Looking ahead, next week is “Fortune And Men’s Weight,” a.k.a. the episode that marks the beginning of the end for Sam and Diane. It’s hard to believe that this arc is arriving so suddenly. They’re still such a happy couple right now.
What you said:
In an example of screen name prompting comment, chambersandmalone disapproves of Sam and Carla’s kiss in “Battle Of The Exes”
“Meredith and I are of the same mind on Exes. I think that kiss was sad, but not because of any wistful feelings for Carla. It’s sad because Carla or not, Sam kissed another woman while committed to Diane, and Carla took Diane’s sweet gesture and crossed a line with it. Neither one of them did right by a good woman, and that stinks. It makes me question their inherent decency, and I really loathe this episode because of it. Stuff like this should be left to fanfic.”
“Sitcoms love those ‘quick gotta do this wacky thing before X person arrives at the worst possible time’, and I was all prepared for that to happen in this episode, and then it just goes on into something that is kinda moving for Sam’s mention of ‘what could have been’, but it still feels wrong. As a big fan of Diane it is quite sad, and it also is a reminder of how she is never going to be right for Sam, cause that guy just never quite knows what is right for him whether that is in the moment or in the long-run.”
“I’d love to hear the tale of the Cat-Wrangler for that episode. I can imagine the director reading the script, laughing, and then saying, ‘There’s no friggin way.’”
Next week: The Sam and Diane pairing reaches an impasse in “Fortune And Men’s Weight” and “Snow Job.”