A while ago I started a rewatch of Cheers on Netflix. It’s a show I saw a lot of as a kid because my father watched it whenever it was on (including reruns), but I don’t remember a lot of specifics about it. It’s a great sitcom, masterfully written, acted, and shot. The first thing that stuck out to me is its forward momentum and how it varies its use of a single location. The entirety of the first season takes place in the bar itself, only leaving the main bar area for the pool room or (in one episode) a bathroom a few times. But it holds your interest.
I was also struck by the ability of the actors to improvise. There are some comedic greats on the show, like Rhea Perlman, Shelley Long, John Ratzenberger, and George Wendt. Wendt, in particular, brings a lot to his role as Norm. And there is a character moment he shares with Ted Danson in the season two episode “Norman’s Conquest” that I think illustrates what he added to the role.
Throughout the series Norm is constantly joking about how terrible his marriage is to anyone that will listen. For a long period of time, he and his wife, Vera, are even separated. So when Norm, who is an accountant, brings an attractive client to the bar and she shows an interest in him, nearly everyone in the bar pushes him to cheat on his wife. Of course, hijinks ensue.
But the character moment that most stood out to me, while a direct result of that conflict, doesn’t hinge on it. At the climax of the episode, Norm and the bar’s owner, Sam, a former pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, are discussing Norm’s feelings for his wife in the pool room. Norm is leaning on the pool table, holding a pool ball, while Sam paces around the room. In the middle of their discussion, without changing topics or acknowledging what he’s doing, Norm turns his wrist like he’s pitching a baseball. Sam stops, adjusts his fingers, and then mimes the correct way to add english to the ball, all without missing a beat of their conversation.
This speaks volumes about the characters and their relationship, despite the action not relating to the substance of the conversation. Norm looks up to Sam, wants to be like him in a lot of ways (including being a womanizer until Norm admits that he loves his wife), and unconsciously treating a pool ball as a baseball in a moment of distress illustrates this desire. Sam taking a moment to correct Norm’s form plays into this. The way the action plays out is a minor thing without bearing on the situation at hand, but is so perfectly in character for both of them. My hunch is that this was totally improvised by George Wendt and Ted Danson.
For me, the lesson is that there are conscious and unconscious ways to communicate character and relationship to an audience. Conscious ways are big, broad actions and conversations. Whether or not a character saves a kitten stuck in a tree. An argument with a loved one about one being emotionally distant. These are big moments that illustrate, broadly, who someone is.
The small moments might be the way a character leaves a dirty glass in the sink as opposed to the dishwasher or just washing it immediately. Whether or not they make their bed in the morning. If they smile at a child while waiting in line at the grocery store while having a conversation with the clerk. Little things that we all do unconsciously everyday that illustrate the types of people we are.
If done right, these tiny actions might better communicate a character than any broad, dramatic argument.