The NBC comedy Cheers adapted to necessary casting changes over the years. One constant was Norm Peterson (George Wendt). Every time he entered the bar, the whole bar would yell, “Norm!” Co-creator and director James Burrows said every time Norm responded to the bartender was a challenge for the writers, but writers Ken Levine and David Isaacs named the toughest Norm joke to write.
Levine and Isaacs spoke with Entertainment Weekly in 2020 for their series on perfect TV punchlines. Here’s the joke Levine called “so stressful,” and Isaacs’ pick for favorite Norm joke.
One ‘Cheers’ episode had more Norms than any other
Levine described an episode in which Norm enters the bar more than once. And more than twice. In Cheers, Norm enters hourly, though the episode only ran a half hour. Of course, everybody knows Norm’s name.
“We have a subplot going where they put parking meters out on the street,” Levine told EW. “So Frasier brings the baby to the bar and every hour, Norm has to go out and feed the meter. And so every time he comes back in, we had to do those Norm entrances. And we had four or five of them.”
Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) is with Lilith at the time and she does not approve of exposing their son to Cheers.
“She’s just horrified,” Levine said. “And then Norm comes in and the baby goes, ‘Norm.'”
Why that Norm joke stressed ‘Cheers’ writers
Levine was so relieved when the baby punchline worked. He realized how the whole Cheers episode was riding on one joke.
“It got a thunderous laugh,” Levine said. “I remember turning to David saying, ‘This is something I always wanted to do. I will never do this again. Because it was so stressful when you realize that you are building a whole show to one joke and if the joke doesn’t work, the whole episode dies. So it’s like, we did it, we got away with it. I will never do that again. But that’s one of my favorite punchlines.”
David Isaacs’ favorite Norm joke is simpler
Isaacs’ pick for favorite Norm joke was just a simple response to his entrance greeting. Burrows said the writers struggled with those ever since the pilot. Isaacs agreed.
“The writing with the greatest degree of difficulty was writing an entrance for Norm,” Isaacs said. “He would always come in and they’d say, ‘Hi, Norm,’ and then the running joke was the question, so: ‘How you doing?’ ‘What’s up?’ ‘What are you up to?’ And then you had to write a joke from Norm’s ‘my life is just nothing’ attitude to fit that, which is hard because it’s like writing a joke from nothing. You don’t get a running start because it’s not coming out of context, it’s not coming out of the conflict or situation, so you have to write a joke by itself.”
The one Norm joke Isaacs was most proud of was a simple one-liner, and he credits Levine.
“It was one of my favorite lines ever on Cheers,’” Isaacs said. “We said, ‘Okay, let’s try, What are you up to?’ And Ken just said, ‘My ideal weight if I was 11 feet tall.’ I said, ‘You just broke the bank. We’ll never top that.'”