‘Cheers’: Many of John Ratzenberger’s Lines Were Complete Lies
Few sitcoms in history boasted a more memorable cast than Cheers did. Taking advantage of its setting, a small neighborhood bar in Boston, the TV show revolved around the patrons of the titular bar and the stories that they brought with them.
Many of these stories were believable. However, when the pub’s resident mailman, John Ratzenberger’s Cliff, opened his mouth, the stories became less plausible.
Who is John Ratzenberger?
According to his IMDB page, Ratzenberger started as an improv comic but quickly set his sights on something bigger. In 1976, he made his screen debut on The Ritz. However, while that role is now obsolete, Ratzenberger’s early work shows a man who aimed big from the beginning. From an unnamed role in Superman to a similar one in The Empire Strikes Back, Ratzenberger got the ear of Hollywood’s biggest names.
By 1982, he had his breakout moment. Ratzenberger secured the role of Cliff on Cheers. He entered the titular bar that year and stayed there for 11 years.
After Cheers left the air, Ratzenberger started taking voice work. Now, modern audiences might recognize his face from a slew of television roles since the show that made him famous. Still, his voice-work in nearly every Pixar project since Toy Story has given younger audiences a different reason to appreciate him.
Despite his success as a voice actor, Ratzenberger’s defining role remains the neighborhood mailman on Cheers.
Ratzenberger goes postal
While Cheers embraced standard sitcom tropes, its premise hinged on human interactions. Yes, it occasionally went to some bizarre places and situations. Still, its cast was a series of believable characters whom audiences could relate to even when the conditions got strange. According to Ratzenberger, this was the draw not only for fans but for the cast, too. Ratzenberger spoke about this dynamic with The Hollywood Reporter.
“I can remember sitting there,” he says, referring to his regular mark on the set of Cheers, “and saying to [Norm actor] George Wendt, ‘Do you realize that we get paid to sit at a bar and crack jokes? That’s our job.’ And we just sort of laughed at, well, the dreamlike quality of it.”
Cliff had a relatively uninteresting background. Despite a steady job as a mailman, he lives with his mother and has a penchant for telling lies, half-truths, and outright stories. As the series progressed, Cliff doubled down and became an unabashed know-it-all. This dynamic was a natural way of showing all the places that he went as a mailman. However, as the series went on, Cliff began to speak to hear his voice.
Ratzenberger takes the wheel
Cliff’s authority on the subjects he spoke on initially had some merit. Coach, in particular, often looked at Cliff as a bastion of knowledge that he could rely on any time he had a question. However, as the series went on, Cliff’s motives became a little bit clearer.
“In the beginning, Cliff was more a font of knowledge…” Ratzenberger told The Hollywood Reporter.” I enjoyed playing the character because it really comes from the premise that if you say something with enough authority, people will believe you. So I always got a chuckle out of that. And then later, down the line, Cliff became less of a perceived expert as someone who just interrupted conversations, who was more of an annoyance.”
Ratzenberger had a background in improv. As such, the writers let him play a little jazz when it came to his lines. After characters were on to Cliff’s grift, the makers decided to embrace the actor’s penchant for believably telling a ridiculous story that nobody believed. The results were often hilarious. According to Mental Floss, however, the stories he told were meant to be silly. Part of this was for comedic effect, but it also helped improve his co-stars’ reactions and caught their genuine disbelief.
It must have worked. Now, Ratzenberger’s voice work has kept him in the spotlight, but his role as Cliff remains his proudest moment. Cheers remains a beloved sitcom decades after it left the air. To this day, Ratzenberger, Ted Danson, and several other cast members remain in the public eye. This is not only a testament to the show but to the talent that made it a solely unique experience.