This month, my children will start the school year at home. Instead of full days of 8th and 6th grade, they will have Zoom class for three hours in the morning.
If they were in the lower grades, I would be worried. But they’re strong readers, so the key battle has already been won. My favorite book in 7th grade was a 1,200-page family saga set in Wales and based on the Plantagenet family of Edward III. The Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch left an indelible mark on me as I absorbed its many lessons. What they taught in 7th grade history — a class called, for maximum drabness, “social studies” — I forget.
When not poring over the extramarital affairs of the Plantagenets, I watched TV, and that was where the real learning happened. The sitcom Cheers ran on NBC from 1982 to 1993, and my siblings and I watched every episode with rapt attention. The show’s creators, brothers Glen and Les Charles, seemed to me figures of immense national importance, our era’s Orville and Wilbur Wright.
Cheers was set in a Boston bar, owned by a guy whose drinking problem had destroyed his career as a professional baseball player. At age ten, this setup gave me a lot to chew on. But there was more: He carried on a flirtation with a blonde waitress, a former grad student whose book smarts were of little help in a pub setting. The shrewdest person on the show was the bar’s other waitress: a perennially angry single mom who started with four kids and proceeded to have four more with her ex-husband.
This was unlike anything in our real lives. We lived 2,000 miles from Boston in a small town surrounded by peanut fields. None of us had ever set foot inside a bar. The local watering hole was called Goober McCool’s — a place where, when I grew up, no one knew my name because it was not my scene.
So watching Cheers made us kids feel cosmopolitan and savvy. In short order, we learned that the Red Sox were a Boston baseball team and that, under the influence of alcohol, adults made foolish choices they came to regret. Meanwhile, our teachers were quizzing us on Eli Whitney. Pfft, who cared? Why study the cotton gin when you could watch Carla Tortelli slinging gin while saying:
“It was a magical moment. You know, it was like I was transported back in time. I wasn’t a tired old woman with six kids. I was a fresh young teenager with two kids.”
In fact, the wisest people on Cheers were often the ones who’d spent little time in school. A white-haired simpleton served as a sort of Zen master while polishing glasses behind the bar. (“Coach, I’m having blackouts!” “Kind of a nice break in the day, isn’t it, Sam?”)
Characters who lectured others from a position of superior knowledge were usually wrong. The clearest example was a mailman named Cliff who said things like: “It’s a little-known fact that cows were domesticated in Mesopotamia and were also used in China as guard animals for the Forbidden City.”
In fact, the Charles brothers, both of whom graduated from a small college near Los Angeles, seemed a bit jaded about people who spent half their lives in school. Their college-educated characters — writer Diane, psychiatrists Frazier and Lilith, and businesswoman Rebecca — had countless humbling interactions with the wait staff.
But the bar’s professional types were not above dishing it out, either. Lilith once described Carla as “a woman whose hair has never seen a greasy pot it couldn’t scrub clean.”
And, when introduced to Carla’s hockey player ex-husband, Frazier quipped: “Have we met? You wouldn’t, by any chance, be the bogus missing link exhibited at the Amsterdam World’s Fair?”
In the midst of this ongoing class warfare were simple drunks like Norm. One of the more wholesome role models on the show, he was an accountant who had no interests in life but drinking beer.
“Whatcha up to, Norm?” someone would say.
“My ideal weight if I were eleven feet tall.”
“What’s the story, Norm? “
“Boy meets beer. Boy drinks beer. Boy meets another beer.”
Norm advanced another of the show’s main themes: the battle of the sexes. He was always hiding out from his dreaded wife, Vera. Like Norm’s marriage, most Cheers romances were ambivalent, volatile, and steeped in mutual distrust. Here’s Sam describing his on-again, off-again relationship with Diane:
“You gotta get past this early infatuation and get to the point where you’re sick and tired of each other; then you’re ready for marriage. Look at Diane and me, we waited five years to get married. If it were up to me, we’d wait another five.”
“I thought you were seeing someone,” Diane once said to Carla, who unerringly took up with the wrong men.
“His fingerprints grew back. He had to leave the country.”
Still, the Cheers crowd clearly enjoyed, even sought out, each other’s company. Despite the characters’ differences, the bar’s overall mood was tolerant and gracious, as if the barflies sensed their troubles were all the same.
I didn’t learn algebra from Cheers, but over the years I acquired a working knowledge of how to be American. The ideal citizen was basically good-natured, willing to live and let live because one person’s foible was another one’s punchline and so contributed to the general hilarity. And everyone could drink to that.
Now, stuck at home, my daughter watches a lot of Parks and Recreation, a sitcom that ran from 2009 to 2017. Here’s the show’s most loveable character, Andy, who shines shoes for a living:
“I once forgot to brush my teeth for 5 weeks. I didn’t actually sell my car, I just forgot where I parked it. I don’t know who Al Gore is and at this point I’m too afraid to ask. When they say 2 percent milk I don’t know what the other 98 percent is. When I was a baby, my head was so big scientists did experiments on me. I once threw beer at a swan and then it attacked my niece, Rebecca.”
I’d say the ’20-’21 school year is very much in session.
Featured image: haymickey (pixabay)