The Tragicomedy of Sam Malone, Part 2

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Kurt Vonnegut gave the best writing advice. One of his maxims is you have to put your characters through bad things otherwise it isn’t a story. Indeed, he said, put your characters through as much as they can handle. This will reveal what they really are.

The characters of Cheers are all tragic but Sam Malone, its real main character, is the most tragic. Sam is a modern Don Juan (a tragedy in itself), but there is another dimension to the tragedy of Sam Malone. He is a retired Red Sox relief pitcher and recovering alcoholic. Already gone are the greatest days of his life. He therefore is a reminder that success is temporary.

The anti-climactic years of Sam’s life and his romance with Diane are what power the early seasons of Cheers. Much of it is funny goofing around type stuff. He flirtatiously butts heads with Diane; they insult one another, and the various characters in the bar riff off one another. Sam is vain. Diane is pompous.

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This is, in my opinion, where Cheers gains its true momentum. Seasons 1-5 are its strongest and funniest. The tragedy of Sam is hidden behind jokes and funny situations.

But then—

Spoiler alert.

After a romantically embattled season five, Diane leaves the bar to pursue writing a novel. What ensues is one of the most poignant scenes in all of Cheers. Diane is leaving under the auspices of return but Sam knows she won’t be back.

 

Seasons 6-11, and the introduction of Rebecca, highlight even more clearly the sadness of Sam’s life. He sells Cheers for a boat and then crashes and sinks the boat. He gets older and has less success hiding behind his Don Juan persona. In the last season, he even takes off his hair piece in front of Carla.

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This serves to remind us that even depressing events in the life of a story can be animate with parody and humor. Everything Sam has, he loses.

MAY 20, 1993. Another Thursday night. The last episode of Cheers aired—a three part special called “One for the Road”—but this time more than 40 million people were watching. Towards the end of that 90 minutes the entire cast met at the bar one last time with cigars, and they discussed the meaning of life.

“One by one I seem to be losing my thrills and, uh, tingles, ya know. I keep asking myself what is the point to life.” Sam said.

“Hoo, that’s a tough question,” Woody said.

“I got the answer,” Cliff said. “Comfortable shoes.”

“Shoes?” Frasier said.

“If you’re not wearing comfortable shoes, life is just chaos,” Cliff said.

“I’ll tell you what the point of life is. Having kids. Creating life. Sure it’s disappointing and painful; heartbreaking at times; sure, they can drive you crazy and make you think you just can’t get through another day…” Carla said. “Where was I going with this?”

“You know some would say the search for meaning is a waste of time. That all human life is just a cosmic accident: an arbitrary conglomeration of molecules evolved by chance into an organism with a brain stem, condemning it to ponder futilely the reason behind it all,” Frasier said.

“I know Dr. Crane is just trying to keep the conversation lively. All I know is that my life wouldn’t have been nothing if it weren’t for all of you. You people are as dear to me as my own family. More so, in fact,” Woody said.

“Well I don’t want to get all mushy but I do feel pretty lucky to have the friends I do,” Carla said.

“No one wants to be the first to say it but I am not ashamed to admit what I think we’re all feeling. Time goes by so fast. People move in and out of your life. You must never miss an opportunity to tell these people how much they mean to you. Well, I… I… I…” Frasier said.

“I keep coming back to that shoe thing,” Norm said.

The bar phone rings.

“O-o-h, that’s Vera,” Norm said.

“It’s Lilith,” Frasier said.

“Probably Kelly,” Woody said.

“Could be mom,” Cliff said.

“My kids,” Carla said.

“Don’t answer it. Just let whoever it is think we’re on our way,” Frasier said.

“Which is exactly where we should be,” Carla said.

All the characters clear out one by one sans Norm, who stays for a final beer.

“Sammy. I didn’t want to say this in front of the others but you know what I think the most important thing in life is? Love. Wanna know what I love?”Norm said.

“Beer, Norm?” Sam said.

“Yeah I’ll have a quick one,” Norm said.

Sam laughs and pours Norm his last beer.

“No, Sammy, I love that stool. If there’s a heaven I don’t want to go there unless my stool is waiting for me. And I tell you what, even God better not be on it,” Norm said.

“He wouldn’t dare,” Sam said.

“I don’t think it matters what you love, Sammy. Could be a person. Could be a thing. As long as you love it totally, completely, and without judgement,” Norm said.

 

Sam walks back down the same hallway he came through in the first episode, 11 years earlier. The camera angle is the same. But this time he is carrying nothing, the hallway is dark, the bar has been closed, and there is no music.

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