Where Everybody Knows You’re Men: NBC’s Cheers & White American Masculinity

It felt weird to be writing something about Cheers—one of the whitest sitcoms of the 1980s—during Black History Month but, since whiteness is a simultaneously guarded and fluid identity invented as a bulwark against blackness, it is valuable to take a critical look at how whiteness sees itself in various contexts and March is as good a month as any for that. I decided late in 2017 to re-watch the whole series—all 11 seasons! I had not seen any of it for nearly two decades, so I had a murky memory of what I was pretty sure was a show mired in an exaggerated and retrograde straight white masculinity, frequently expressed through gay panic and misogyny. I had a back of my mind goal of re-watching this all as a potential subject to write about, but once I started actually watching I was overwhelmed. There was so much to chew on. While a surface read of the show gives countless reasons to reject it, despite its repeated willingness to rely on the most basic and infantile tropes of manhood and sexism, over time it develops a subversive or satirical quality in how it portrays these (mostly) middle-aged white men. Nevertheless, this subversive quality can only ever do so much within the necessary mainstream prime time NBC sitcom framework, and ultimately it almost always undercuts itself in terms of being a catalyst for critical re-imagining of that masculinity. As such, while I like the show as a subject of study and conversation, and while frequently it was well-written and acted and even funny, I cannot actually recommend Cheers unless you are interested in doing that chewing. And I would understand anyone deciding to spit it out after not too long.

For those who are unfamiliar, Cheers was an NBC sitcom that ran from 1982 to 1993 and that served as an anchor for their “Must See TV” line-up of Thursday shows (built on the success of the Cosby Show) until Seinfeld took the mantle. Set in a working-class Boston sports bar, the first five seasons revolved around the will they/won’t they on-and-off relationship of bar owner (and former MLB relief pitcher) Sam “Mayday” Malone (Ted Danson) and waitress Diane Chambers (Shelley Long), a grad student and would-be artist, novelist, actress, or poet (her flightiness and lack of talent in those arts is a recurring gag). The next six seasons mostly involved Sam working to get his bar back after impulsively selling it to a corporation and returning penniless to find it under the management of career-climbing Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), who seems able to resist his charms, but is kind enough to offer him a job bartending. As with any long-running serial, looking back at that overview it seems woefully incomplete, but that just about covers it, save for the supporting cast of employees and bar regulars who serve mostly to comment on those relationships and/or provide b-plot fodder.

Cliff Clavin (John Ratzenberger), icon of the “well, actually. . .”

But the point is there is a lot of Cheers to potentially discuss, so rather than pick a specific theme or character to write about, I decided to write about one episode that seems to capture the essence of Cheers in a way that only a self-aware late-season episode can. This does not mean that I would not be interested in exploring the countless other things about the show that kept me masticating. And they do seem countless: the class-conflicts between Diane and Sam and the rest of the bar patrons, the figure of Carla (Rhea Perlman) both as hyper-fertile working class waitress/single-mom and in terms of her role as “one of the guys,” who seems to have as much invested in vicariously living through Sam’s sexual conquests as the male bar regulars, the infamous quips by Norm Peterson (George Wendt) at his unseen wife Vera’s expense, that work in the tradition of wife-hating jokes I associate with Henny Youngman, the degree to which threats of male violence against women like Diane and Lilith (Frasier’s wife, played by the always fabulous, Bebe Neuwirth) are used for humorous effect, or the attitude evident in postman Cliff Clavin’s (John Ratzenberger) dubious trivia and mansplaining as a 1980s manifestation of what would today be called the manosphere (with the toxic cocktail of so-called Men’s Rights Activists, MGTOW losers, and sad pick-up artists). There is still more: the fact that despite the show airing throughout the height of the AIDS crisis, condoms are never explicitly mentioned, and are simply alluded to as a joke a couple of times, and most disappointing of all, is the trajectory of Rebecca Howe. She quickly transforms, turning from a 1980s savvy businesswoman who can stand up to Sam into a gold-digging, whining, perpetual loser who only “succeeds” when in the season finale, she learns to just accept her fate and settle down with a plumber.

In the episode I want to examine—“The Magnificent Six,” episode four of season 11 (you can watch it on Netflix or here)—Sam becomes embroiled in a competition to see who can acquire the most women’s phone numbers by midnight. The challenge pits Sam against Henrí (Anthony Cistaro), a recurring foil for bartender Woody (Woody Harrelson). Henrí is from France and a pick-up artist himself, having worked for a long time to steal Woody’s girlfriend, Kelly (though he ultimately failed). In “The Magnificent Six”—written by Sue Herring and directed by show co-creator, James Burrows—Woody is off on his honeymoon (having finally married Kelly) and Henrí serves as his temporary replacement. It seems the reason he remains in the States is because he enjoys taking advantage of the country’s “easy women.” The real conflict here, however, is between the “old Sam” and the “new Sam” (or at least the Sam he thinks he wants to become). The old Sam was a serial philanderer, a bedder of women and a harsh judge of their looks. He was an opportunistic and fickle liar. No trick was below his dignity. He was a pick-up artist whose peacocking involved his perfectly coiffed hair and the photo of him on the mound at Fenway that he keeps behind the bar. The new Sam is trying to be a better person, to not demean women (as much) and to not see them only as vistas to conquer. He even ends up attending a therapy group for those who suffer from sexual compulsion in the penultimate episode of the series, but at this moment early in the final season, he still wavers. At first unwilling to participate in the contest, he rejects the taunts of his would-be opponent and the disappointment of Carla and the bar regulars. Even Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer)—the psychiatrist regular who’d go on to 11 seasons of his own spin-off—despite outwardly encouraging Sam’s maturity for refusing to play, also privately expresses to the others that “the King of Babes is dead” and is disappointed that he cannot vicariously experience the saga of the aging lothario.

Henrí (Anthony Cistaro) announcing that “France has won!” while Norm (George Wendt) looks on in disapproval)

This vicarious living resonates with a particular form of gendered patriotism. Henrí’s role as Casanova and the game of sexual one-upmanship he plays with Sam is deeply entwined with narratives of geopolitics and nationalist identity. The braggadocio of both men (both in this episode and throughout the series) fulfills the stereotypes of the smooth French playboy and the rugged all-American athletic hunk. The first example of this nationalist aspect is apparent when Henrí is momentarily cowed by Norm’s response after asking the barfly to pay for the beer he’d ordered. Norm responds that Henrí should subtract the beer from the “enormous debt that you owe us.” He explains that since the U.S. “saved” France in World War I and World War II—a common refrain in American nationalist self-aggrandizement in regard to Europe—France is inferior to it. Of course, the real punch to the joke is when after getting his beer, Cliff observes that Norm had “come down pretty hard on [Henrí], and Norm responds, “Dammit, Cliffie, my dad was almost in the army!” The joke definitely works to puncture the puffed up and pathetic sense of American exceptionalism, but it also falls short of condemning the performed sentiment. The joke is really riffing off Norm’s recurring epic laziness and desire to get credit for even considering doing the absolute minimum. The notion ventriloquized isn’t laughable, but Norm’s attempt to leverage it is. Henrí ends up using this ridiculous sense of American self-importance to convince Sam to participate in the competition. When questioning Sam’s manhood alone does not work, he questions American manhood writ-large, which leads to a ridiculous moment when Cliff Clavin and other patrons—one of whom admits he is afraid to even talk to women—offer to take Sam’s place. Henrí says Americans are “fat, lazy, stupid” and “all [they] want to do is watch TV and eat fast food while [they’re] easy women are scooped up by handsome foreigners.” Called upon to stand in for the manhood of a nation, Sam finally agrees to participate.

The particular words Henrí is given to goad Sam into action through nationalist pride are important ones because earlier the same year the episode aired (1992) Yoshio Sakurauchi, Speaker of Japan’s lower house of Parliament, caused a stir in relations between the U.S. and Japan by claiming that the former’s economic woes were the result of the laziness of American workers and accused a third of them of being too dumb to even know how to read. The comments apparently echoed not only with a theme common to the Japanese industry press of the time, but with some inferiority complex for which Americans can frequently overcompensate. Even in its reportage of the comments and the response to it, the New York Times felt it was necessary to include a statistic about the very low percentage of illiterate Americans and cite statistics about the higher average productivity of American over Japanese workers. I remember this little kerfuffle. It was fodder for late night talk show hosts and Saturday Night Live—an opportunity for some national solidarity in puffing out chests and making vaguely racist assessments about Japan. And this was nothing new, the economic tensions between Japan and the United States had been around a long time. Heck, George Wendt even had a role in Gung Ho six years earlier, a film about a Japanese corporation acquiring a western Pennsylvania auto plant, that capitalized on the economic and cultural tensions between the countries.

It is not a stretch, given how much those comments got play in the press and other media, that the Cheers writers may have laced the comments of another foreigner with a similar assessment in order to really sell the provocation. But even if they did not intentionally evoke the sentiment, it was in the air and a part of the cultural moment of domestic defensiveness against negative foreign assessment.

Carla (Rhea Perlman) mans the tally board keeping track of the acquired phone numbers.

Despite Henrí’s head start, Sam quickly catches up in acquiring phone numbers, and as midnight approaches, they are tied. Sam tries a corny line on a woman regarding looking for his Olympic gold medal under her table, but when quickly caught in his lie and then another, he apologizes for the attempt at a “sleazy bar pick-up,” respecting her wishes when she explains that she has just come off a bad break up and is feeling vulnerable and thus does not want to deal with someone trying to pick her up.

In that moment the clock strikes midnight and it turns out Henrí had collected one last phone number just under the wire. Sam has lost. Henrí’s crowing and the disappointment of Sam’s friends does not last long, however. Even as Carla finishes admonishing Sam for not being “the old Sammy anymore” who would have “kept on pushing until he got the number,” the woman he was honest with approaches him with an offer to join her and her friends on their night out. She explains that her line about being “vulnerable” was exactly that, a line, one she uses to find out “what kind of man [she is] dealing with.” Now that she knows he is “such a gentleman” she and her friends want to show him their appreciation.  The woman’s two friends join them, and the intimation is that he is going to get to sleep with all three of them at once. “There is one thing you should know,” one of the friends (only the second black woman in 11 seasons to have a speaking role on Cheers). “We do everything together.”

Sam mockingly congratulates the Frenchman on his win and moves to leave with all three women in his arms. Henrí looks on dejected as Carla and the regulars chant “U! S! A! U! S! A!” Sam is victorious and so is America. Roll credits.

It is explicitly absurd and thus funny. Simultaneously, however, it demonstrates the contingent nature of the critique made possible by the satirical exaggeration and its ability to reveal incongruent truths about gender. In other words, however willing Cheers writers might be to poke fun of masculinity, they also always make sure to re-establish it as ideal and laud its pleasures.

Of course, the real joke here should be that the type of masculinity Sam and Henrí perform can ever be trusted. The sad part is the degree to which the Nice Guy™ pose and a façade of honesty can be strategies in manipulation. The episode’s “heroic” ending with Sam leaving the bar with three horny women on his arms is just a sign of the tendency of masculinity to feel entitled to a reward for performing ethical behavior­—a reward that somehow coincidentally just happens to fulfill the very desires he is being rewarded for curbing.

I can’t help but think of Yunior in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and how I wrote about him in my dissertation project:

While in several parts of the narrative [Yunior] admits his serial infidelity, homophobia and misogyny, he also makes sure to express to the reader his “pure intentions” (199), regardless of his actual pattern of behavior. In fact, his exposure of his flaws itself becomes a means of making Yunior seem honest and even honorable.

In this way, Sam’s honesty with the woman he “fails” to pick up becomes a strategy for winning her. Unfortunately, it seems that this strategy Díaz develops through Yunior’s narration seems to also be functioning at a degree of remove to obfuscate the author’s own violations of this kind (if his own admissions and the accusations against him are to be believed – and I see no reason why they shouldn’t be). So much of masculine confidence is transparently about obscuring vulnerability and the non-normative that sometimes strategic revelation of those facets of masculinity function as a wedge to gain the trust more normative toxicity needs to make headway. There is a knot here that I have not quite yet untangled, wherein hypermasculine performance and queerness overlap. As Díaz himself said in a 2013 interview with Hilton Als at the Strand bookstore, “I can’t imagine masculinity without…its tissue that it uses to prevent itself from thinking about its own queerness.” In other words, only a delicate and ineffective cover—a tissue—disguises masculinity as a unified and easily defined criteria rather than a broad spectrum of gender possibilities. The flamboyance of the Don Juan does seem to me to have a bit of queerness connected to it through its reliance on the deceit more often associated with femininity and its wiles. This disjunction when thought about too closely by some men, rather than make them question their own claims of their virility, forces masculinity to fold back on itself. As such there exist absurd extremes in the minds of some men that equate being too into women as “gay” (as when in the Sopranos, Tony and his mobster friends contend that for a man to perform cunnilingus is to be “gay,” or pick-up artist and rape apologist Roosh V’s recent claim that a man’s admiration for women’s rear-ends and a desire for anal sex is a “gateway to homosexuality”).

Sam (Ted Danson) and his “Babe Kit.”

This episode of Cheers plays with this paradox when, after finally agreeing to compete, Sam retreats to his office to make use of his “Babe Kit” to prepare. The Babe Kit is a giant makeup kit of the type you might find at a movie shoot or a beauty pageant. The kit contains ludicrous props for his pick-up schtick: the “first edition” of his little black book, a Members Only jacket, an ornate hairbrush, and a “special blend” of outdated colognes (like Hai Karate and Old Spice). The delicate care with which Sam attends to his looks and especially his hair is much more in line with stereotypes of femininity than masculinity, but nonetheless, are not an uncommon part of maintaining the façade of a manly man.

The scene really helps to reinforce the degree to which masculinity’s incoherence is evident. It also works to make the way such potentially toxic attitudes can be perpetuated even by men who claim to begin to see how “immature” and hurtful they can be. Carla asks Sam, when she has retrieved the Babe Kit for him, “If you’ve outgrown all this stuff why do you keep it?” To which, Sam replies, “I thought that maybe I’d have a son…” So, despite claiming to be ready to move on from his “Babe Hound” ways (what a gross expression!), he nevertheless aspired to indoctrinate his child into such an attitude (as an indirect reflection on patrilineal masculinity). It is funny how masculinity can sometimes—through its valorization of traditional masculine role models—seem to be aware that it is a performance that must be conditioned, practiced, and passed down. Though it simultaneously seems to know that to dwell on the consequences of that toxicity on both women and men is to endanger its dominance. As such, it also performs positional erasure as if to laud each man’s masculinity as self-generating, even as it supposedly constitutive of a nationalist manhood. In Anne McClintock’s crucial inquiry Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (1995) she explains that “all nationalisms are gendered,” but that “women are typically constructed as the symbolic bearers of the nation” (emphasis added, McClintock 352-4). In other words, while women are placed as central figures of the domestic space worth protecting and symbolizing the nation, what matters in fact and rhetoric are the relationships of men competing to dominate those spaces. A bar may be a public space, but Cheers highlights it as a para-domestic space where employees and patrons form a “family,” but its mostly masculine characters makes clear who the domestic space is really for. In “Manifest Domesticity” (from The Futures of American Studies, 2002), Amy Kaplan uses the play between the notions of home and domesticity and the terms “foreign” and “domestic.” Through this lens, it is easy to see how notions of the “foreign” help to define “home” and establish a shifting boundary that is policed. While Kaplan makes the claim, that as such “women, positioned at the center of the home, play a major role in defining the contours of the nation” (112), as McClintock suggests, such a role remains symbolic. The absence of women as agents in the para-domestic bar space casts doubt on the notion of how “major” that role really is. Instead, we can see it is constrained by the patriarchal demands for power and assertions of masculine pride that dismiss or valorize that symbolic role as needed. As we can see in the contest between Sam and Henrí, the women are mostly beside the point.

An episode of a sitcom like Cheers is a 24-minute dreamspace. Its lackadaisical attitude towards continuity and tendency to forget the events of a previous episode reminds me of how Umberto Eco described Superman comics of the 1950s and early 60s. The iterative structure he describes, a structure that values repetition and variation over progress, as it exists in shows like Cheers, provides a possibility to challenge and satirize American masculinity through exaggeration and repetition’s tendency towards absurdity. And yet, by an episode’s end, even if it does not resolve itself to reaffirm “proper” manhood and its desires (which it does in episodes like “The Magnificent Six”), the subversive possibilities are erased anyway, forgotten by the time the next episode comes around.

Sam (Ted Danson) and his “reward.”

Ultimately, Cheers’ reflection of 1980s America seems apt in how, despite its willingness to play around the edges of the subversive (it was recognized by GLAAD, for example, for including positive representations of male homosexuality in an episode or two), it most of all reinforces fairly conservative ideas, while asserting an apolitical community ideal based on “everybody know[ing] your name” (as the famous theme song praises). In the 1970s many sitcoms were explicitly political, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Jeffersons (for example) all challenged their audiences to consider the politics of race, family and war, but the Reagan Era and its paean to “Morning in America” declared itself as a clean break from the malaise of the 1970s with an unearned confidence I can only describe as masculine. As Bill Carter wrote in the New York Times as the show’s finale approached, “On Cheers, the lessons are incidental, and its subtext will have to be unearthed or imagined by the sociologists of the future. Rather, what the show’s creators aimed to do was deliver pure comedy that was sophisticated but not pretentious.” The notion of “pure comedy” that ends his evaluation seems at odds with his claim about a subtext, but then again “incidental” social themes are idealized by a mainstream white America who hates to be reminded of America’s gendered and racial legacy and will complain of being preached at. If repetition and its ensuing absurdity bring those inconsistencies of gender and racial identity to the surface, they also serve as a mechanism to normalize those inconsistencies through gross exaggerations and the ease with which they can be dismissed, rather than consider that what the funhouse mirrors of the sitcom framework reflects only looks funny in this context.

One last note: As I suggested in the introduction to this post, I may return to Cheers. Most likely by examining “Cliff’s Rocky Moment” (S2E16) and “I Call Your Name” (S3E3), both of which involve Cliff’s African-American coworker Lewis and the manipulation and fear of black masculinity by white men. I have also naturally followed watching all of Cheers with watching all of Frasier. I am less sure if I will ever write about that, but you never know. It already feels as 90s as Cheers felt 80s.

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