Cheers‘ first gay-centric episode is all about judging a book by its cover — literally. What looks like a bawdy baseball memoir full of drunken exploits is, in fact, a coming out memoir. This fictional book kicks off a wave of gay panic in Cheers, the bar where everyone knows your name and also your sexuality — or so the regulars think.
Halfway into the first season of Cheers, writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs used the real life coming out of Los Angeles Dodgers and Oakland Athletics player Glenn Burke as inspiration to tackle homophobia in an episode titled “The Boys in the Bar.” The January 1983 episode was deemed “risky” by NBC, but the writers stuck by their script and series lead Ted Danson reportedly cheered them on. “The Boys in the Bar” didn’t even land in the top 40 shows that week. What viewers missed at the time (and have no doubt seen in the following years via syndication and streaming) was an episode structured to deconstruct the notion of stereotypes. On a larger scale, this Season One episode confirms that while some of the regulars may not be open-minded, Cheers is a bar for everyone.
The episode starts with a press conference at Cheers for a memoir written by Sam Malone’s (Danson) old teammate Tom Kenderson (Alan Autry). When it’s revealed that Catcher’s Mask is about Kenderson’s double life as a womanizing athlete and closeted gay man, the bar becomes home to a major moment for Boston’s gay community. Once the photos of bar-owner Sam with major league gay Tom hit newspapers, the regulars —led by Norm (George Wendt) and Cliff (John Ratzenberger)— fear that Cheers will become a gay bar. The boys in the bar don’t want boys coming to the bar looking for boys.
Norm worries that Cheers will go the way of Vito’s Pub, a bar that came out after they hosted one Gays for the Metric System meeting. Norm, who brags about having gaydar, surveys the bar and sees no gay men: “Looks like a straight crowd to me. Too ugly to be gay.” Diane (Shelley Long) points out that you can’t judge a man’s sexuality by their mustache. After all, as she explains, Cheers has always been frequented by gay men — and there are two in the bar at that very moment. The regulars then go full “Twilight Zone” and start accusing each other. The panic intensifies when a pair of plausibly gay men (mustache, leather vest, skinny tie) enters the bar. It turns out that those aren’t the boys Diane meant, and she reveals that the two gay men “have had a wonderful time watching [the regulars] make complete idiots of yourselves.” The two men flanking Norm lean in and kiss him, and the episode ends.
“The Boys in the Bar” wanted to challenge its 1983 audience. A big baseball player can be gay (much to Carla’s disappointment), and those mustached guys in skinny ties might just be really into Hall & Oates. Norm’s “spot ’em a mile away” gaydar doesn’t work because it’s powered by uninformed stereotypes. Additionally, Cliff, Norm and Carla’s gay panic stems from their insecurity. Norm and Cliff, two schlubby guys that don’t exactly meet the hyper-masculine ideal, puff out their chests when their (faulty) gaydar pings. They lob accusations about each other’s virility and they test the maybe-gays by shouting about “bagonzas” on TV. Carla gripes that gay men are competition for her: “If guys keep coming out of the closet, there isn’t going to be anybody left to date and I’m gonna have to start dating girls.”
Norm, Carla and Cliff give into gay panic because gay people are what they whisper about, if they consider them at all. The fate of Vito’s Pub is even treated like an urban legend, and an “it happened” from Cliff is treated like undeniable proof. Gay people have come and gone in Cheers, a bar these guys are in every single day, and none of them noticed. It’s also inconceivable to Norm that a gay man might actually prefer Cheers’ sports bar aesthetic over — as he says with a shudder — “ferns.”
It’s tricky now to depict three beloved characters as homophobic. It was less tricky in 1983, when odds are a huge chunk of Cheers then-tiny viewing audience agreed with Norm, Cliff and Carla. Two lines in particular, though, really highlight just how totally awful the usually lovable regulars are acting. After the presumed gay men fail to notice the aforementioned “bagonzas” on TV, Diane puts on a macho voice and says, “They’re not watching. Let’s string them up.” Here, Diane highlights how disproportionate the men’s frenzied reaction is compared to the perceived “crime” of being gay in a bar — and the writers are doing it by conjuring up images of public hangings. This line still hits hard.
A little later, Norm preps to lead the regulars to another bar called Clancy’s. Norm says they’ll check back in on Cheers in a couple weeks, just to make sure it’s still the kind of bar where a single woman can “be assured of being harassed and hit on.” That line draws a mixed reaction from the crowd, a half-gasp leading into the usual chuckles. The line is so self-aware and on the nose, it’s hard not to see it as the writers’ way of highlighting how mean-spirited the guys are being. They want a Cheers where it’s okay to exclude gay people and harass women.
Sam, Diane and Coach are on the other side of the argument. Diane, the episode’s moral center, is incredibly disappointed with her regulars and lets them know. When Cliff begs Sam to kick the new guys out, Diane suggests Sam say, “We’re a group of sniveling bigots and we don’t care for your kind.” Still, Diane’s role within the Cheers ecosystem generally makes her more of a spoilsport. It would be easy for audiences to see this as Diane ruining some good ol’ boy fun, thus learning no lessons.
That’s why Sam’s placement on the pro-gay team — a side he joins after a talk with Diane — underlines this episode’s message. At the top of the episode, Sam wails to Diane that “guys should be guys.” But Diane gets through to Sam by telling him that Tom is still the same man he used to “tinkle off balconies with,” and that Tom needs his support. Sam sticks up for Tom and only slightly wavers in his newfound conviction once. Sam pointedly agrees with Coach that yes, those fashionable guys are okay. Sam only hesitates when he’s confronted with potentially losing all his regulars (as well as a steady flow of single ladies). But Sam doesn’t back down; he serves the guys drinks on the house and proudly says, “Those guys are staying. [Cheers] is not gonna turn into the kinda bar I have to throw people out of.” Sam is the hyper masculine lead of the show, the kinda guy that plenty of straight male viewers (and also Cliff and Norm) idolized. If super macho Sam fought his discomfort, changed his perception and stood up for what was right, then viewers could — and should — too.
As progressive as this episode is for 1983, it still falls short in the same ways that most sitcoms of the 20th century did when handling LGBT issues. There are no regular LGBT characters in the cast, so Cliff, Norm and Carla aren’t challenged to grow after this episode. Sam’s friend Tom disappears after the press conference, never to be seen again. Even the supposedly gay guys turn out to probably not be gay. In the absence of any actual dynamic gay characters, it’s Diane that takes on the ally role and acts as the voice of gay rights.
With “The Boys in the Bar,” Cheers challenged a lot of commonly held perceptions at the time, as well as its early ’80s audience. Whatever ambiguity might have been present upon its initial airing has only been clarified by the passage of time. It’s also an episode about gay rights that doesn’t really give any gay characters a voice. This episode, or at least a later one, should have had one of the regulars come out, too; recurring character Paul almost did in the final season, but that plotline never ended up going anywhere. Instead, any gay characters in the Cheersuniverse presumably kept their tabs open at Vito’s, even after Sam’s photo-op. But during this one episode, there was room at the bar for all of the boys.
By Brett White a comedy writer living in New York City. His work can be heard at Left Handed Radio and seen at UCB1. He watches old sitcoms and tweets about them at @brettwhite.