“Diane’s Perfect Date” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 2/10/1983)
In which we meet a nice young man named Andy.
Todd VanDerWerff: “Diane’s Perfect Date” just might be one of my top 10 Cheers episodes ever. It’s certainly one of the most famous, with Andy Andy (yes, I know that’s not his name, but I love calling him that) being a character that came back a handful of times (including in the final season, when the show gave many of its recurring players from over the years grand sendoffs). Here’s a show that really has the tone of these first few seasons nailed down: The stories can be silly and farcical, but the emotions of the characters and the Sam and Diane flirtation are treated completely seriously.
The plot setup is fairly sitcom typical: One character challenges another to set them up with their dream date and vice versa. Naturally enough, one character—Diane—puts thought into this, while the other shrugs it off for a stupid reason. (In this case, Sam is stupid and egotistical enough to believe that Diane will offer herself up as his date and is so certain he doesn’t bother finding anybody.) What makes the episode work is the creation of Andy Andy, who’s both way over the top—the moment where he says he doesn’t want to go to the restaurant because he once killed a waitress there—and sort of a believable sad sack. He feels like the sort of criminal who might hang out at Cheers, and that, perversely, makes him almost lovable. There should be menace emanating off of Andy Andy, and most other shows would make something of this. But because we never seem him outside of the confines of the bar here, he mostly works as an easygoing killer, if such a thing can exist.
I can see where this would be problematic to some, but the episode’s writer, David Lloyd, is a guy who did exceedingly well at this sort of low-key farce. Of all of the legendary writers to arise out of the MTM Productions writers rooms in the ‘70s, he might be the most legendary, largely because he a.) wrote the spec script that got him hired on Mary Tyler Moore solely based on descriptions of the characters told to him by one of his kids (or so the legend goes) and b.) wrote that show’s “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” which should be on anybody’s short list of best sitcom episodes ever. Lloyd excelled at taking typical sitcom situations—two characters set each other up, there’s a funeral for a tertiary character—and making them deeply, deeply weird, and “Diane’s Perfect Date” really gets rolling in that final act, when the couples return from their double date. Andy Andy keeps saying such innocuous things, but the other characters react to him so crazily that you become instantly aware of what that date must have been like. Lloyd often pitches the wackiness from the regulars, as they react to the low-key weirdoes who’ve wandered into their orbit, instead of making the guest stars crazy bugnuts. (This doesn’t always work; Lloyd also wrote “The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One.”)
But what really makes this one work for me is that final scene, when Sam admits that, yeah, he didn’t get a date for Diane because he expected that she would offer up herself as his date. I love the way Diane makes fun of him and the way the rest of the bar gets drawn into which of the two is more hung up on the other. It gives the show a real sense of fun to imagine that Norm and Cliff have been debating all this time which of these two would make the first move or to sense that the other characters are just as hung up on watching these two perform their mating dance as we are. That last scene re-grounds the story—which has been exceedingly weird—in the reality of the bar, and it brings everything in for a perfect landing.
Phil Nugent: This episode is a favorite of mine, for all the reasons Todd mentioned, but I think it's especially notable as a great moment in the evolution of the Sam-and-Diane relationship. There's a hallowed tradition in screwball romantic comedy of grown-up, sexily sophisticated people acting like 10-year-olds (which is both funny and a metaphor for how helpless we all feel when we're in the grip of strong emotions and things start to go wrong), and there's a lot of that here, even before Diane starts quoting from the book of Pee-wee Herman and runs out of the room chanting, "You love me! You love me!" I love that both of them got dressed to the nines for their "big date" in order to regress to a state this silly. And I appreciate the grace note that it's Sam, the confident alpha male stud (and boss), who winds up exposed and vulnerable, all as a result of thinking that he could get to the next rung with her without actually stepping out onto the ledge. At the end, when the people in the bar are debating what's really going on with those two, it's like an acknowledgment that it's what people in other bars were talking about, so why not?
Noel Murray: "Diane's Perfect Date" is a favorite of mine too, because it starts from such a sturdy story idea, the ol' matchmaker bit, and throws in that great piece of crossed-signals farce when Sam thinks that Diane is setting him up with her. Since you've already tipped your cap to David Lloyd, Todd, I'll pass around some kudos to the crack comic timing of the supporting cast: Derek McGrath as the erudite-but-creepy Andy Andy (so funny that he rightly gets the rare round of applause from the Cheers studio audience), Gretchen Corbett as the only person who could make sports sound boring to an ex-jock, and even Doug Sheehan as Diane's letter-counting weekend companion Walter. That letter-counting bit is a prime example of how well-constructed this episode is. The creative team gets every laugh they can from it, from the way Sheehan stares carefully at everyone's faces as they talk, clearly concentrating on counting and not on what they're actually saying, to Sam turning Walter's compulsion into a way to rag on Diane. ("How many days did it seen like?" "24." "How was Diane on a scale of 100?" "29.") I also dug the way that Diane cracks a little smile when Sam counts the letters in one of her sentences. And then, of course, there's the ending, with Sam and Diane showing the juvenile streak that will later come to define the way they relate to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. Just really sharp all around.
Ryan McGee: I think Todd hits on a key component of what makes this episode work: precisely what the episode chooses NOT to show. Had we left the bar and followed the foursome on their double date from hell, we would have gotten more Andy Andy. But here's a character where less is more, and what we can infer both from his background and the reaction of the other three makes a far greater impression. Just a single line ("Do you ever dream you have claws?") says volumes about the character, whom I choose to fashion into an X-Men loving nerd who just happened to also spend a decade in jail for manslaughter.
I also enjoyed the final moments in which everyone around the bar starts realizing they aren't the only ones who have been playing "will they or won't they" in their minds since Diane started working there. The structure of most episodes has been to play more intimate, emotional scenes either in Sam's office, the back pool room, or late at night in the main bar. But it's clear that despite these nominally secluded encounters, their chemistry is as ingrained into the fabric of the bar, traveling via osmosis to those who frequent the bar. To see Norm, Cliff, and others debate the very thing we at home have been doing forms an even tighter bond between those on either side of the small screen.
Donna Bowman: I'm coming to Cheers not as someone who watched all of these episodes first run, or even someone who's seen most of them in syndication; my knowledge of the show is definitely hit and miss and probably gets a little deeper in the post-Diane years (while remaining decidedly shallow). So Andy Andy hit me like a freight train, and not because he's the kind of outsized Latka Gravas character that networks decide to push as a breakout star. He's such a nondescript little dude, with his unfashionable haircut, coming out of the bathroom wiping his hands on his jeans. And he reacts to Sam's proposal without a hint of crazy. What's so great about this episode is that the crazy is almost all implied; as others have noted, it takes place almost entirely offscreen, with just a couple of lines to indicate its boundaries, and without any bug eyes or theatrical signifiers. When Andy comments that he can't go to a certain Italian restaurant because "that's bad memories for me; I killed a waitress there," it's almost thrown away, as he's walking out the door with his back to the audience, but that's what makes it such an explosive laugh.
Contrast "The Spy Who Came In For A Cold One," with its ultra-theatrical playing to the audience. Yes, the audience is the bar, not us, but it's still an instructive lesson on how to get laughs from a wild card character. Andy doesn't know he's the wild card, and neither do we, at first; everybody's dawning realization is what makes this episode build and break so hilariously.
Erik Adams: I don’t know—there’s something about Andy Andy that just didn’t stick with me. (Donna’s spot-on with the Latka comparison, though, particularly given the character’s name; naming him “Andy Kaufmanesk” would’ve been too on-the-nose, no?) I apparently enjoyed his eccentricities enough in the moment to jot down his two big lines, but the round of applause that follows his exit felt out of proportion to his impact on the episode. For a split second, I thought the audience was voicing its approval of and satisfaction with Diane’s swiftness at removing the fright wig she put on during the motorcycle ride back to Cheers.
That said, this one is definitely a highlight of the first season, with a lot of fun stuff around the edges (I’m starting to come around on Rhea Perlman as Carla; her cackling on the sidelines in the lead up to the date is like the court jester cracking himself up over catching the kind with his pants down) and Sam and Diane at the height of their comedically inflated senses of self-regard. The post-bar tête-à-tête between our reluctant lovebirds feels like a natural extension from the events of “Let Me Count The Ways,” and Shelley Long is especially good in the “little torch” (Double entendre, anyone?) exchange. Her coquettishness masks a gleeful malevolence as she watches Sam fall right into her verbal trap. I think we can safely call “Advantage: Chambers” at the end of this volley.
Meredith Blake: The thing that I love so much about the Diane-Sam flirtation is how quickly their emotions turn from anger to vulnerability to attraction then back to anger once again. Their relationship is extremely volatile yet entirely predictable, if such a thing is possible. We've seen this pattern play out multiple times so far this season, in "Any Friend Of Diane's" and "Let Me Count The Ways" and probably several other episodes I'm forgetting. After a protracted farcical build-up, Sam finally admits to misinterpreting Diane's date challenge. It's obviously difficult for him to do; let's not forget, he was willing to let Diane go on a date with a killer rather than fess-up. Naturally, Diane seizes on this moment of vulnerability in order to gain the hand, as George Costanza might put it. Rather than admitting to her own attraction, Diane takes pity on Sam, a move that strikes right at his wounded ego. Feeling unusually insecure, Sam's game is off, and he falls right into Diane's trap. It's Diane 2, Sam 0. Or at least it is for now…
- PN: One regret about "Diane's Perfect Date" is that there isn't time for Gretchen Corbett (fondly remembered as Jim Rockford's favorite lawyer) to make as much of an impact as Derek McGrath does as Andy. For just a second there, when she asks Sam about having played "for the Sox,"there's a suggestion that she and Sam might actually have hit it off, which might have made the situation even funnier. As it is, he doesn't even get the chance to ask why she dresses like Woody Allen.
- PN: According to IMDB, Derek McGrath once did some voice work on an animated show called Iggy Arbuckle. I'd never even heard of it before, but I just felt like mentioning that "Iggy Arbuckle" would have been a perfect name for the guy.
- NM: Speaking of compulsion, I'm a little bit obsessed with what people eat and drink in old movies and TV shows, so during the opening I wasn't paying attention to Carla's exaggerated "cravings" lunch but to Diane's little round bottle of juice and baggie of carrot sticks. My dream is to start a blog called "What They Ate" in which all I do is catalog that stuff. Now who wants to pay me to do that?
- NM: Phil, you saw Gretchen as Woody Allen; I saw her more as Fran Lebowitz. Same difference, I guess.
- RM: Sam's hidden breath spray, kept between the overhead wine glasses, is a fantastic visual gag. One can only imagine the ways in which he's tricked out the bar to maximize any potential romantic encounter through the exploitation of hidden panels, loose floorboards, and hollow chair legs.
- DB: Andy will always be Andy Andy to me, partly because the mistake is funny, partly because I have a wonderful colleague named (swear to God) Amy Amy.
- MB: Andy Andy seemed more like a "Jon Lovitzy" to me than an "Andy Kaufmanesk," but point taken. Do you think maybe he's related to these guys?
“No Contest” (season 1, episode 18; originally aired 2/17/1983)
In which Diane is entered in a barmaid pageant
TV: Where “Diane’s Perfect Date” struck me as a lot of fun, this one struck me as a just a touch off. I still mostly enjoyed it, but if I were forced to pin down my disappointment with it, I’d say that the beauty pageant perhaps goes on a little long and relies heavily on characters we’ve never met before and characters the show isn’t really sure how to make funny. There are some interesting ideas here about how Diane wants to step up and make a big statement about how beauty pageants demean women—especially women who can’t compete, like Carla—and how she keeps getting distracted by the media attention and wonderful prizes, but they also don’t really gibe with the Diane we know. Would she really get this distracted by appearing on TV? Or by a vacation to the Bahamas? It’s just a weird scenario, and it feels like the writers got into a corner, then weren’t really sure how to get back out of it. There’s good stuff in the build-up to the pageant and in the aftermath (particularly when Sam offers to go along with Diane to the Bahamas), but the pageant itself is a snore.
That’s why I’d rather talk about the ways the show reflects the world it’s set in, namely 1983 America. Tip O’Neill turns up in the cold open here, in what’s surely one of the weirdest cameos in TV history (though Cheers was always a friend to the U.S. government, producing one short film about U.S. savings bonds and another about the postal service), and the show continues to subtly play up the fact that Norm’s unemployed. It wasn’t until watching these two episodes that I remembered that the U.S. was, at that time, suffering the worst unemployment it had seen since the Great Depression (a number that wouldn’t be eclipsed until, well, our current economic troubles). That unemployment informs the world of the show. It’s one of the reasons many thought Reagan didn’t stand a chance at re-election (see: the Kennedy speculation from a couple of weeks ago), and it’s a big part of the reasoning behind Norm’s storyline. Cheers wasn’t meant to be a topical sitcom—and losing your job is something that resonates throughout any era—but it couldn’t avoid the problems of 1983 from creeping around the door.
But it’s also indicative of the way that the show was trying out things with sitcom serialization beyond just Sam and Diane. The situations on this situation comedy change. They just change very slowly. The status quo will shift and grow and morph over the course of the show, until where we are at the end isn’t where we were at the beginning. It’s not as daring or adventurous as some shows today, and it wasn’t the first show to do this. (The great sitcoms of the ‘70s all played around with shifting the characters’ situations, and even I Love Lucy altered everything by giving Lucy and Desi a baby.) But all the same, it’s a show that plays around with who these people are and where they are at this point in their lives. In a sitcom world where most everything resets at the end of every episode—particularly in the ‘80s—that’s a nice reminder that even if life moves more slowly in Cheers, it does move.
PN: I think that the reaction shots to Sam during the contest might constitute the least charming Ted Danson has ever been on camera; he mugs like an actor who's trying to be a team player and sell material that he doesn't have any confidence in, and the material may not deserve any more confidence than he could give it. It's not terrible, but it's really tired, with unthreatening piggish male behavior and a protest against the dehumanizing effect of beauty contests that's very The Odd Couple circa 1973. (The punchline, when Diane abandons her principles and turns into a squealing ninny because she got a prize she likes, is clearly visible while it's approaching centerstage from the next county.) It did make me realize that seeing that many jackasses crammed into the set makes me a little uncomfortable, maybe because I know that if I were coming down the stairs and looked in the window, I'd change my mind and go someplace else. (If I thought the emcee or any of those other everybodys knew my name, I'd adopt an alias.) The return of Carla's vicious, gleeful cackle, which was put to better use in the previous episode, makes me wonder if somebody thought it was going to catch on, with the force of Fonzie's "Ayyyyyyy!" Also, I can't watch "Paul's" big scene with Cliff ("Federal Express!") without picturing the now-gone "Jack" sitting at home, watching it himself, and crying his eyes out.
NM: Huh. I watched these two episodes back-to-back and came here to rave about what a roll the show got on here at the end of its first season and was taken aback to see you guys taking shots at "No Contest" (however mild). I loved this one about as much as "Diane's Perfect Date," and didn't see anything inconsistent in Diane's gleeful reaction to the trip to Bahamas. (Or, I should say, there is something inconsistent, but then that's what makes it funny.) I didn't find the pageant business dull either. I'm not a huge fan of '80s bimbo stereotypes, which are something Cheers over-indulges in at times, but I'll allow it when they're played by the fine character actress Tessa Richarde. Anyway, the way Diane soldiers on in the contest while trying to conceal her reasons for doing so is comic gold, culminating in her big speech defending her facial tic. (And then there's her playful flirtation with Sam in the final scene. Seriously guys, this episode is dealing aces from start to finish.)
DB: Maybe it's because I watched "No Contest" sitting next to Noel, but I, too, thought this episode was great stuff. What I liked about it was Diane's hunger for ever-bigger platforms from which to harangue the unenlightened. Her high-minded reasons for wanting a bully pulpit seem like a partially delusional cover for her deeper motivation: the fame to which she is entitled as a superior being. The scene where the contestants introduce themselves, with one slutty bimbo after another talking about their aspirations to travel and improve themselves (like beauty contestants everywhere, amirite?), and then Diane's perfect posture and enunciation by contrast, is a little masterpiece, capped off by the MC's tossed-off non-sequitur, "Diane Chambers, humanist!" And when Sam defends himself for looking through Diane's wallet to get her picture for the contest entry, it's got all the wonderful specificity that has marked their best fights so far. ("You by your car with your cat on your pony!") I also cracked up at the great visual gag when all the judges suddenly look serious and start marking their cards after Diane admits to her facial frailty. Yes, it's a bit broader than some of our favorite episodes so far, but broad has never been a dealbreaker with this show, and here it's leavened with perfectly pitched subtleties.
EA: I’m glad Phil brought up Cliff’s adamant defense of the good ol’ USPS, as it’s a standout character moment in an episode where a lot of the humor is predicated on characters not acting like their normal selves. It’s one of the first signs of Cliff’s unwavering devotion to his profession, and it fits nicely with the recession milieu that has Norm down in the dumps. (I mean, when the economy’s in the crapper, why wouldn’t people be dumping on the nearest available government employee?) There’s some really neat, theatrical work with Norm and Cliff in this week’s episodes, with their entrances and exits serving as seamless breaks in the main action. The writers are obviously catching onto the comedic gold mine they’ve got in the chattering mailman—John Ratzenberger even gets to preface the “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” voiceover with the soon to be familiar refrain “Little known fact… ”
RM: What struck me watching this episode weren't the gradual, glacial-like changes Todd describes at the outset so much as Sam's horny dial suddenly turning to 11 towards Diane. We've seen him as a lothario all along (by hearsay if not in actual practice), so it was a bit odd to see him so direct with her in the lead up to the contest at the heart of this episode. Maybe if I go back I'll see more of this on display, but most of his aggression toward her has been due to intellectual frustration rather than blue balls.
To me, the pageant felt more like a Saturday Night Live skit that played off iteration rather than dramatic or comic progression. Diane's competitors didn't act as foils so much as distractions, however. They didn't bring anything really new to the table, and they didn't demonstrate anything new or interesting about Diane. They were just bits meant to extend the running time of the episode. They weren't awful, but they did seem like stalling techniques more than anything else.
Looks like we're pretty divided on this group as a whole. After being on nearly the same page for so long, I kind of enjoy us coming at it from opposite points of view without restoring to Cliff-esque violence to solve them. Thank God, since I'm cranky from carrying all those Sears catalogs…
MB: I'm with Donna and Noel on "No Contest," which I found quite enjoyable. Todd, you talk about the series as it reflects its time period, and one thing that's consistently interested me is how often these early Cheers episodes feel like products of the '70s rather than the '80s. I suppose they probably are; there's always a lag between the start of a decade and the cultural trends it later comes to signify. We saw a little of this, in a not-so-great way, in "Now Pitching, Sam Malone," but I really like how this episode dramatizes Diane's passionately held second-wave feminist beliefs. (It's also a showcase for her inner thespian; that Scarlett O'Hara speech was classic.) Diane is earnest and pretentious, sure, but she's not unsexy, and that, I think, is a vital distinction. And, yes, she might be a hypocrite for accepting a trip to Bermuda, but wouldn't it be worse if she were so joyless as to refuse it?
To be sure, there are a few cringey moments in "The Contest," like the unattractive mugging Sam does from the sidelines (seriously, he looked like one of those pageant moms from Toddlers & Tiaras) and poor Yvonne's "Irish coffee…or me?" double entendre, but I thought this episode on the whole worked quite well. It's also got two brief but spectacular Sam and Diane moments, including Diane's saucy "then forget it," and this one, my personal favorite:
Sam: "Stay in this contest, and we’re no longer friends."
Diane: "I'm staying in the contest."
Sam: "Go to bed with me tonight, and we're no longer friends."
- NM: My biggest beef with "No Contest?" The way a celebratory Diane whoops it up with each of the judges, then pulls back and slaps five with the black judge. I mean, it's not egregiously racist or anything; just something that seemed harmlessly funny and maybe even hip in 1983, but that now calls attention to race unnecessarily.
- NM: To me, the weirdest thing about the Tip O'Neill appearance is that it comes so early in the show's run, when it was still struggling in the ratings. What was the upside for a politician to appear on a show that so few people were watching?
- RM: Imagine if Cheers had come along later. Instead of Tip O'Neill, they might have had Barney Frank visit. That might have made "The Boys In The Bar" quite a different episode.
- MB: The Tip O'Neill cameo is an odd one, isn't it? It feels like something only a show like The Good Wife (or maybe 30 Rock) would do nowadays.
- TV: Ryan and Meredith: I kept trying to figure out which show John Boehner randomly popping up on in our modern era would be roughly equivalent to O’Neill here. The best I can do is Cougar Town. Readers? Can you do better?
Jay S. offers some thoughts on the show's treatment of its gay characters: "The key is that they made the allegedly gay characters they wanted Sam to evict about as average and non-stereotypical as they could be. If the new customers had been flaming and effeminate, there might be more of a concern about who the audience was really siding with. As it was portrayed, there was no question that the regulars were ill-informed fools. Thus, while some audience members might understand the concerns of the Cheers gang at some level about maintaining the environment of the bar, only the dullest of viewers could truly be rooting for the mob to prevail."
Carol Brown responds: "That's a great point about the lack of gay stereotypes; I suppose I watched this show through my fingers the first time I saw it (a couple years ago) because I was waiting for something like that. And that's why I agree with you: There's no way anyone who appreciated the show, then or now, would have considered Norm and the other nitwits right about wanting to get rid of perfectly normal people who belied every vicious stereotype leveled at them. So yeah, it's clear whose side the writers were on, and it would have been clear in 1983, too. I've said it here before, but what the hell, I'll say it again: The only thing I really hate about this episode is Norm, and that's because in later seasons he would never act like this. I guess it's first-season growing pains, since Norm is also a bit of a horndog in some of these early episodes, and he'd never be that way again, either. If we know one thing about Norm as the series progresses, it's that he's a live-and-let-live kind of guy with a pleasant disposition and very simple desires."
And we love Baked Bean Teeth's lengthy defense of the show's later seasons (and subsequent follow-ups), which can be read here.
Remember to keep commenting and discussing! We love your thoughts, and we'll keep linking to the best ones in the weeks to come.
Next week: Harry the Hat returns, and we meet the mother of one Diane Chambers.