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5 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets From Cheers

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Thirty years ago tonight, an ensemble comedy set in a Boston bar debuted on NBC. Cheers didn't exactly set the Nielsens on fire at first, but luckily the network gave the show a chance to find its audience. Thanks to consistently great scripts (Kurt Vonnegut Jr. stated in a 1991 interview "I would rather have written Cheers than anything I've written") and a quirky set of characters, the Bull and Finch Pub (the setting for the series) has joined Paul Revere's House and the Old North Church as must-see attractions for tourists. To celebrate the show's 30th anniversary, here is a peek behind the scenes of the place where everybody knows your name.

1. Sam Malone was almost a football player

The final two actors in contention for the role of ex-jock-turned-bar-owner Sam Malone were Fred Dryer and Ted Danson. The show’s original concept called for Sam to be a retired football player, and Dryer seemed perfect since he had spent 13 years as a defensive end in the NFL. But while Fred was new to acting, Ted had accumulated a handful of TV and film roles in the late 1970s and early 1980s. When Danson won the role, the back story was changed to make the character a former relief pitcher to better match Danson’s physique. Ted later revealed that he’d spent two weeks attending a bartending school in Burbank to prepare for his audition, only to find that (like most bartenders) most of his mixology was performed below sight level of the bar, out of camera range.

Dryer appeared on a few Cheers episodes as TV sportsman Dave Richards. In real life, Dryer tried his hand at sportscasting after leaving the NFL, but decided he wasn’t cut out for it. Although he missed out with Cheers, Fred embarked on his own long-running TV series a couple years later: Hunter.

2. The Secret Behind the Crack in the Bar

Designed by Richard Sylbert, the Cheers set was loosely based on Boston’s Bull and Finch bar. Look closely and you’ll notice a “seam” down the center of the bar; it was built on a hinge so that the right half could swing out, allowing the wall to slide open to reveal Sam’s office. Designers installed lights underneath the bar so that Nick “Coach” Colasanto (who had difficulty memorizing lines) could read the script pages taped to the counter. It took 30 to 40 extras to fill up the pub set as “customers”; any less and the bar looked too empty.

3. How Cliff Clavin Lobbied for his Job

John Ratzenberger originally auditioned for the role of barfly Norm Peterson. When he lost that role to George Wendt, Ratzenberger asked the producers if they had written a “resident know-it-all” into their show. All bars have one, he pointed out. Thanks to his persistence, the character of mail carrier Cliff Clavin became a regular Cheers patron. Likewise, psychiatrist Dr. Frasier Crane was brought in at the beginning of Season 3 as a plot device to further the relationship between Sam and Diane. While he wasn’t intended to become a permanent cast member, Kelsey Grammer had a knack for making even the most mundane dialog funny. The audience loved him, so it wasn’t long before Frasier became a regular on the show.

4. The Secret of Norm’s Brew

Although the Cheers bar was fully functional (and many NBC after-hours parties were held on the set), the suds served to George Wendt weren’t exactly a tasty microbrew. In fact, it was “near beer,” with an alcohol content of 3.2 percent, and a pinch of salt added so that the mug kept a foamy head under the hot studio lights.

5. Loose Lips Get You Killed by a Zamboni

Jay Thomas was the morning DJ at LA’s KPWR-Power 106 when he auditioned for (and won) the role of hockey star Eddie LeBec. He was brought back for several episodes in order to give Carla a story arc, and Eddie and Carla eventually wed on the show. Eddie might have made it to the series finale had Jay Thomas not taken a call on the air one morning asking him “What’s it like working on Cheers?” Thomas made several unflattering remarks about Rhea Perlman and having to kiss her… and Rhea happened to be listening to his show. Not surprisingly, a few weeks later Eddie LeBec was killed in a bizarre Zamboni accident.

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The Time Douglas Adams Met Jim Henson
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On September 13, 1983, Jim Henson and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams had dinner for the first time. Henson, who was born on this day in 1936, noted the event in his "Red Book" journal, in characteristic short-form style: "Dinner with Douglas Adams – 1st met." Over the next few years the men discussed how they might work together—they shared interests in technology, entertainment, and education, and ended up collaborating on several projects (including a Labyrinth video game). They also came up with the idea for a "Muppet Institute of Technology" project, a computer literacy TV special that was never produced. Henson historians described the project as follows:

Adams had been working with the Henson team that year on the Muppet Institute of Technology project. Collaborating with Digital Productions (the computer animation people), Chris Cerf, Jon Stone, Joe Bailey, Mark Salzman and Douglas Adams, Jim’s goal was to raise awareness about the potential for personal computer use and dispel fears about their complexity. In a one-hour television special, the familiar Muppets would (according to the pitch material), “spark the public’s interest in computing,” in an entertaining fashion, highlighting all sorts of hardware and software being used in special effects, digital animation, and robotics. Viewers would get a tour of the fictional institute – a series of computer-generated rooms manipulated by the dean, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and stumble on various characters taking advantage of computers’ capabilities. Fozzie, for example, would be hard at work in the “Department of Artificial Stupidity,” proving that computers are only as funny as the bears that program them. Hinting at what would come in The Jim Henson Hour, viewers, “…might even see Jim Henson himself using an input device called a ‘Waldo’ to manipulate a digitally-controlled puppet.”

While the show was never produced, the development process gave Jim and Douglas Adams a chance to get to know each other and explore a shared passion. It seems fitting that when production started on the 2005 film of Adams’s classic Hitchhiker’s Guide, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would create animatronic creatures like the slovenly Vogons, the Babel Fish, and Marvin the robot, perhaps a relative of the robot designed by Michael Frith for the MIT project.

You can read a bit on the project more from Muppet Wiki, largely based on the same article.

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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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