From Getty Images:
(L-R, Gary Hart and Ted Danson on Cheers)
It is no secret that the toxicity of contemporary politics is at an all-time high. So much so that your average network sitcom would probably not dare to touch political issues or politicians for fear of alienating half of their audience. That was not always the case and you do not have to look much further than an unlikely source: Cheers.
The beloved NBC sitcom ran for eleven seasons and was one of the most successful television comedies of all-time. I am currently on a Netflix odyssey that is slowly making its way through Season Five of Cheers. It is clear that the writing still holds up and the series does not feel dated. Like all good comedies the characters and jokes are timeless. One aspect of the sitcom that does feel a little old-fashioned is the show’s willingness to even mention politics, something that I can’t imagine seeing on the Big Bang Theory.
Through the first four seasons Cheers has featured two cameos and some generic political discussion. Then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill stopped in long enough for Norm Peterson to make a “horse’s butt” out of himself after making a little political chit-cat. Then-Senator Gary Hart (and eventual 1988 Democratic presidential candidate) made a brief cameo in an episode ironically entitled Strange Bedfellows: Part Two.
Know-it-all mailman Cliff Clavin even hysterically dropped his 1984 presidential predictions (future winner: Yelnick McWawa). During the scene Norm Peterson and another regular floated the names Reagan and Mondale. No one is abrasive, no agenda is hidden within the joke, and it is organic to the show. It feels like a completely different time. Other stories include Sam Malone dating a Boston city councilwoman and Diane Chambers campaigning in a local election.
Each of these instances fit in with the show. People talk politics in a bar. Strangers wander into a bar for a cold one. They fit with the larger narrative of the series and also allowed for interesting cameos. It would be hard to imagine a current mainstream network sitcom allowing Paul Ryan or Chuck Schumer to stop in for a brief appearance. Their mere presence could threaten ratings chaos and cancellation.
From the NY Daily News:
(L-R Tip O’Neill and George Wendt on Cheers)
Aside from Saturday Night Live, which has made politics a staple of their program for decades, no other contemporary network show would ever address politics in the current climate. Parks and Rec was probably the most recent network program to feature politicians so frequently. John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Joe Biden, Barbara Boxer, and Olympia Snowe all guest-starred on the series. Like Cheers, the premise of Parks and Rec also offered a natural story for these figures to be on the show.
Watching these moments on Cheers is a refreshing look at a yesteryear of television that is not that long ago, but also feels like a completely different time. That probably says something about a shift in how audiences digest entertainment more than a change in comedy. It is a different generation of political icons and era of television, but people still hang out at a bar and discuss news and politics. Yelnick McWawa’s candidacy was only floated before an audience of millions prior to an election in 1984, but so much has changed since then. A McWawa 2020 joke would probably go viral for all the wrong reasons and that is a sad indictment of how politics, audiences entertainment currently view each other.