Cheers, which ran from 1982 to 1993, is considered by many comedy masters to be one of the best sitcoms ever made — if not the best. Ken Levine wrote thirty-six episodes of the show. Thirty-six! Not only is he a master of the craft, but one could argue, with that resume, he is the craft. So when he recently stopped by Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA to chat with host Aaron Tracy, he was sure to bring some solid comedy tips. Whether you’re starting your own pilot, or rewriting one, or just curious as to what makes comedy work, these four lessons gleaned from the episode are for you.
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1. Simplicity is your friend.
Cheers has a simple premise: it’s about the day-to-day shenanigans of people who work in a bar. While there remain simple-premised sitcoms on air today, many other shows elect to take on a high concept. For Levine, simple works better.
“I like the simplicity,” he says. “Because, to me, the best shows are about characters. And Cheers was pretty much just a setting. I like writing shows where the stars are the characters and their interaction and their relationships. Not having to go through all kinds of hoops in order to satisfy plot requirements. So, for me, it’s the kind of comedy that I prefer writing.”
2. There’s an art to great sexual tension.
A classic will-they-or-won’t-they is hard to pull off, but when it’s successful, it tends to be the best part of the show, and why people keep coming back. You have Jim and Pam from The Office, Ross and Rachel from Friends, and of course, Sam and Diane from Cheers. As Levine puts it, the Sam/Diane relationship “was kind of a fine dance.” He details that there’s a balance one has to hit in a back and forth relationship like that — a writer can easily veer off into annoy-the-audience territory.
“It wasn’t carefully plotted; it was generally plotted,” Levine says of the fictional relationship. “The first year, which to me was the best… there was a lot of sexual tension and we got a lot of mileage out of it but at some point, it’s diminishing returns because they’re adults… They’re two people in their early thirties. And if you keep doing the sexual tension and kind of holding off on it and everything, it starts to seem like junior high… we didn’t want to drag it on to where it just didn’t seem realistic.”
3. Mine comedy from character.
“There are no jokes, there are no punchlines,” Levine says when discussing much of the humor found in the show. “All of the humor comes out of the characters and the situation.” Of course, that’s not to say that setup and punchlines should be exed out of your script completely. But for a simple-premised show like Cheers, simple-premised humor was the way to go.
The comedy from character was best portrayed in the aforementioned Sam and Diane relationship. Levine says a situation like that always lends itself to comedy— a humorous battle of the sexes, in a way. What they’re fighting over? Power dynamic. “We know that they’re attracted to each other and they’re trying to deny it and yet they’re playing the attraction and yet based on who they are, they are always trying to maintain the power position in the relationship,” Levine says.
4. A studio audience keeps you on your toes — so pretend you have one.
When asked if Cheers could have worked without a studio audience, in the vein of something like 30 Rock or The Office, Levine gives a simple “No.”
“I don’t think it nearly would’ve been as good,” he explains. “In a multi-camera show, the writers are held accountable. The jokes have to work. If the jokes don’t get laughs, then you know it. And you have to fix it.”
Levine goes on to detail his theory as to why so many recent single-camera comedies have not found success. “If you’re doing a single camera show — and to me, it’s why so many of these niche shows have not found a broad audience… because other than a very small section of the population, people don’t find this stuff funny, and you’re not held accountable. So if you as the showrunner and five of your best friends find something funny, then you go with it. But we had two hundred strangers every week sitting in bleachers — we had to make them laugh.”
The full episode has plenty of behind-the-scenes Cheers stories and Hollywood tidbits. You can also catch more of Ken on his own podcast, Hollywood & Levine.
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
Photo credit: Ken Levine and Crave TV