So, remember Cheers Month? Turns out, I may have underestimated the amount of time it would take to rewatch 11 seasons of 22+ episodes each. So we’re turning Cheers Month into Cheers Year, where we’ll be writing about Cheers throughout this television season to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its premiere.
Though Cheers is an all-time great show, it’s not without its flaws. Chief among them is the long-term handling off one Clifford Clavin, who began the series as the mildly annoying loudmouth but gradually became a cartoon on a show filled with three-dimensional characters.
As a whole, Cheers excelled at creating and maintaining well-rounded characters, which made the series unusual for its era. Yes, Sam Malone was a hound. But he was also emotionally complicated, prideful, kind, contradictory and sentimental. Yes, Frasier was an egghead. But he also had a sense of humor and showed significant character development across his run on the show. Yes, Coach and Woody were both dumb. But they also carried a host of other traits that made them more interesting than Generic Sitcom Dumb Person #37.
Cliff, though, is where the writers fell down on the job.
John Ratzenberger originally read for the role of Norm. According to legend, when it became apparent he wouldn’t get it, he pitched Glen and Les Charles on creating a new character for him — the bar know-it-all. The rest is history.
Ratzenberger’s role was microscopic early in Cheers’s first season. But as that season progressed, Ol’ Cliffie began to receive more and more screen time, well earned through Ratzenberger’s interesting portrayal and through the writers figuring out how to write jokes for Clavin.
It’s hard to believe, but the original conception of Cliff was fairly understated: he was a bit of a loser who hung around a bar with other alcoholics whenever he wasn’t working, and he hid his insecurity though real and fake knowledge of all things trivial. That characterization, combined with Ratzeberger’s Boston accent, was enough to make Cliff a believable, viable, likable sitcom character.
But, as is common with TV shows, longevity breeds familiarity which breeds desperation. The writers ran out of things to do with that version of Cliff, so they slowly turned him into a ridiculous caricature of a person.
Trouble signs first appeared in a season two episode in which a barroom bully challenged Cliff to a fight, and he was so extreme in his cowardice as to not be remotely believable. He pretended to know karate (!), and brought in a burly colleague named Lewis to intimidate the bad guy. (Incidentally, Lewis is one of the only recurring black characters to appear on Cheers, and his character can be succinctly described as Silent Mailman Thug. Not the proudest of moments for the show. Though for a show set in Boston, what did we expect?) Clavin’s cowardice in the episode is so over the top that the character might as well have been renamed Cliff Craven. And things got worse from there.
Beginning in season three, Cliff is no longer recognizable as a human being. The show takes what could have been interesting comedic traits and sensationalizes them until they’re ruined. Cliff being obsessed with his Florida vacation and boring the other bar patrons with stories of his trip and Florida trivia started out as an amusing conceit but quickly passed the point where it seemed possible anyone would even allow Cliff in the building.
We also learned that Cliff lived with his mom, and his pride in his postal position shifted from skewed to fucking insane. Instead of being shy around women, he started literally freezing upon meeting a female. Or babbling incoherently. This was no longer a person but an idea drafted in a writers’ room.
That eventually led to garbage like this:
After season three, things only got worse as Cliff moved further and further away from believable behavior. That’s not to say he couldn’t still contribute to the show — he had some great comedy moments, most notably his appearance on Jeopardy!:
But the character of Cliff became a consistent problem for the show, a thorn in its side. And he was also emblematic of the series itself getting broader as it went on. Cheers as a whole lagged a few seasons behind Cliff when it came to losing its subtlety; trouble signs didn’t begin to appear until well after Diane left at the end of season five. Cliff just served as the first indicator that eventually the show would run out of ways to be believable and funny at the same time.
And it’s a shame, because Ratzenberger was reliably great in the role. He deserved better than what the writers eventually gave him, and the show would have been better served sticking with the original conception of a mailman with a big mouth and minor confidence issues.