Despite threat of war, 'Cheers' studio audience still wants, or needs, a laugh

Television's Midseason Report -- Michael Hill in L.A.

January 16, 1991|By Michael Hill

LOS ANGELES -- As midnight approached in the East, the deadline for the possibility of war, it was 9 p.m. in the West. Outside Stage 25 on the Paramount studio lot, a security guard huddled over his tiny portable television set.

Two other workers on the lot saw the blue glow and hurried over.

lTC "What's happening?" one asked.

"Nada," the guard replied.

Inside on the stage, the most popular television show in America was filming an episode, trying to make comedy around the bar set that the country knows as "Cheers."

It was the regular weekly filming of the sitcom before a studio audience, though some might have thought it was no time for laughter.

"We talked about it beforehand," Mark Legan, a stand-up comedian who as the warm-up act is responsible for getting the audience in the mood to laugh, and keeping them there during the two hours it takes to film the half-hour program.

"We just didn't know what people would ask. Everyone figured we wouldn't go to war right at 9 o'clock, but what if something did happen and someone in the audience asked about it then?

"How could you say, 'Yes, we're at war, now how about those twins?' " Legan said in an upbeat, announcer-style voice, referring to a scene in the show being filmed.

But no one did ask. And the audience seemed even more up for the show than most, according to Legan.

"In tough times, people turn to comedy. In the '30s during the Depression was when Mack Sennett and all the slapstick was popular. I think these people wanted to laugh, needed some release," he said.

Up in the dressing room of George Wendt, who plays bar regular Norm Peterson, a tiny television was on constantly, and was checked between scenes for the latest developments.

"We knew for days that the deadline was coming on Tuesday," Wendt said. "We knew we could do the work, the acting. You just go numb and do it."

A few people in the audience wore headsets, listening to all-news stations. "It was totally incongruous," one of them said.

"We've been talking about it constantly," said Woody Harrelson, who plays bartender Woody Boyd. "All of us are really upset about what's happening in the name of oil."

But, like Wendt, he said that when it came time to make people laugh, he could do the job even on a night like this.

"I found myself getting really angry [yesterday]," said Ted Danson, who stars in the show as Sam Malone. "I've been angry about the policy for some time, but [yesterday] I got angry because I gave up hope. I just felt so helpless.

"But I guess I can make the argument that it's OK to make people laugh, though right now it's pretty hard to get up the energy to make that argument," he said.

John Ratzenberger, who plays mailman Cliff Clavin, compared doing this show to an act he once did the night his father died.

"You just have to do it," he said. "It's just the way they're doing it in Saudi Arabia, I guess. And if they can get on with their job, then my job's a piece of cake."

As the night wore on and the deadline approached -- about 90 minutes after the beginning of filming -- more and more empty seats appeared in the audience as some members apparently opted for their radios and television sets.

And, when the filming was over -- before 10 p.m., early for "Cheers" -- the audience did clear out quickly, before Legan could even introduce the cast for their weekly bows.

Reality was waiting outside.

"The acting part's easy," Danson said of his night's work. "It's before you go on and when you get off that's tough."

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