Cheers: Gary's Olde Towne Tavern

In many ways, the Gary's Olde Towne Tavern episodes (aka the Bar Wars episodes) epitomize both the good and the bad of the later seasons of Cheers

For those unfamiliar with them, these episodes detail the rivalry between the gang at Cheers and the bar down the way, Gary's Olde Towne Tavern. The rivalry was pretty one-sided; at the time of the first Bar Wars episode, the record stood at 173-to-1 in favor of Gary. (How either bar found the time to stage 174 sporting competitions is never explained.) With one memorable exception, sports were left to one side after the first episode in favor of increasingly complicated pranks and practical jokes, and in this arena, despite some major humiliations, Cheers eventually proved triumphant.

Says Ken Levine: "We had two actors who played Gary, in no particular order. Joel Polis played him (the first time the character appeared) in 1985 episode." 

One of those actors you've seen all over the place but might not place the name. Or if you're like me, you may have seen him in a movie you've seen a thousand times (John Carpenter's The Thing) and not even realized it was the same guy.
"When we wrote the first Bar Wars episode (1988) Joel wasn’t available. It was the very end of the season. We had no other scripts so we just had to recast. Robert Desiderio became Gary."

Veteran of dozens of shows and soaps. Married to Judith Light.
"For Bar Wars II we went back to Joel Polis and used him one other time. Otherwise, it was Robert Desiderio. Confusing? I don’t understand why we did it either. Hopefully this mystery will be tackled in Inception."

Adding a further wrinkle? The titles. The first "Bar Wars" is in Season 6, but Gary first appears in:

Season 4, Episode 9. Directed by James Burrows. Written by Peter Casey and David Lee.
This is the episode where Sam on Carla's suggestion challenges Gary to a game of bowling. Carla's thinking is fairly airtight:

"All of those other sports required real athletic ability, but with bowling, we got the makings of a great team. You go to any bowling alley, what do you see? A bunch of out-of-shape couch potatoes who do nothing but sit around and swill beer."

The plot revolves around trying to get Woody, a bowling prodigy who swore off the pins after maiming a man in a bowling alley accident back in Hanover, to join the team. He is unable to overcome his PTSD, but luckily Diane is a secret prodigy herself and with her help the Cheers gang wins the day. 

At the bowling alley Sam naturally macs on one of Gary's waitresses:

Despite being given a name (Tawny) in the script, Kim Waltrip is credited simply as "Woman" in the credits. Go figure. She went on to have a pretty successful career as a producer, one of the vice-chairs of Kim and Jim Productions.

This episode sets the stage for all the Bar Wars episodes to come, but watching them altogether as I just finished doing, it really stands apart. This is primarily due to the difference between the Sam and Diane years and the Cheers A.D. years i.e. both the Cheers gang and Gary himself are more cartoonish in the latter. But this produces an unintentionally realistic evolution common to a lot of real-world rivalries: you start off just wanting to win, then you don't just want to win, you want to avenge your losses, and then you become obsessed. It's the Red Sox / Yankees in microcosm.

The next time Gary appears is in:

Season 6, Episode 23. Directed by James Burrows. Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs.
While this could more accurately be called "Bar Wars: Gary, pt. 2," that's not the direction they elected to take.
In addition to setting the template for all subsequent Bar Wars eps, Al Rosen gets some memorable lines.

"Holy mackerel, this isn't Cheers?"
"Pretty weenie." (He delivers this line in two different spots.)
Either Ken Levine or David Isaacs must be a Dante Gabriel Rosetti fan. He's referenced in two separate Bar Wars eps.

First in this one when Norm and Cliff hijack Gary's satelite feed during a boxing match to read poetry to Gary's incensed patrons.
And later in Season 10's "Bar Wars: The Final Judgment."
This opening salvo in the now officially designated Bar Wars saga is probably best known for two things: the sheep-in-Rebecca's-office prank

and the guest appearance of notorious drunk legendary Red Sox player:

"It was only a couple of years later when his mistress Margot Adams wrote a big expose in Playboy magazine detailing their affair. In her article she mentions how thrilled they were when this Cheers gig came up because it meant a free trip to a three day tryst. He’d have guested on Agriculture This Week if they popped for a first class plane ticket.

In the article, Margot also maintains that Boggs asked her for a pair of panties because he had promised the guys on the team that he could come back with Kirstie Alley’s panties. I was on the stage when Kirstie read this. Her expression was priceless. Kirstie was very cool about stuff like that. From then on I would occasionally say to her, “Listen, Kirstie, I’m going to my high school reunion and at graduation I promised the guys that I would bring a pair of your panties to the reunion so if you wouldn’t mind…?” She always laughed and then told me to go fuck myself."

Speaking of Rebecca, this belt is very 80s.

Next up:

Season 7, Episode 10. Directed by James Burrows. Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs.
Here, Cheers and Gary's Olde Towne Tavern compete for the distinction of Boston's Best Bloody Mary. There's some fun disguise-and-misdirection comedy from Woody, as well as this well-worn-but-gets-me-everytime-gag:

(muffled speaking ) "What? What are you trying to say? He's trying to say something..."
"I said 'Don't rip off the tape!'" ( screams )
By the way - in case any people in charge of such things ever put eyes on this - my DVDs have several episodes in need of more consistent color correction. This is one of them.

I'm sure it has to do with the original film - maybe it deteriorated or something. And actually it adds kind of a surreal tint to things when it happens, as if someone has spliced in long-lost footage and not told anyone. Except the footage is what originally aired, or at least what I've seen in re-runs. Anyway. 

(And since my days of upgrading formats are pretty much done, I guess this is how the episode will look to me until every last DVD-capable device I have no longer functions. I have way too many DVD collections to replace them all with blu-rays or holograms and whatever else is coming down the home entertainment pike. But for the sake of future generations just thought I'd mention it.) 

Moving on to:

Season 8, Episode 21. Directed by James Burrows. Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs.
"Tecumseh" is the name of the cigar store Indian statue right near the front door featured prominently in every episode. It was never given a name before this episode. (The same thing happened the season 8 finale when the moose head on the wall suddenly was named  Dave the Moose.)

This is one of the two Bar Wars eps that doesn't feature Gary, either the Polis or Desiderio version. Convinced that Gary has stolen Tecumseh, the gang pranks Gary's only to discover Rebecca sent the statue out for cleaning. On high alert for Gary's anticipated revenge, they end up attacking the fire marshal when he arrives for an inspection:

His repeated "What are you doing?"s - despite it being perfectly obvious what they're doing - always crack me up. Also: Sam's sweater.
and decide to prank themselves as a show of good faith to head off any further escalation. 

I mentioned before that the Bar Wars eps epitomize elements of the Cheers A.D. years. I wouldn't say the A.D. years are "catchphrase comedy" years per se, at least in the negative sense of the term, but there was a discernible shift in humor away from character-based comedy and into situational comedy, sight gags, and lines easily recalled at water coolers and lunchrooms and buses the next morning. The fire marshal's "What are you doing?" was one of those lines. I think Cheers was a cut above most shows that relied on this approach, but it's worth mentioning.

Season 9, Episode 2. Directed by James Burrows. Written by Larry Balmagia.
One of my faves. Cheers hires Kevin McHale as a ringer for their basketball game with Gary's. We take hilarious guest spots and cameos by sports players on TV or in movies for granted nowadays - when Derek Jeter showed up at the end of The Other Guys, I remember thinking this; he showed up earlier in the film (obviously, if you've seen that one) but it's his reprise at the end that is the a-ha-genius! moment - but outside of the classic Simpsons episode "Homer at the Bat," no one in the early 90s did it better than Cheers with Kevin McHale.

The McHale/ Bird era of the Celtics is really the only one I ever watched faithfully. I kind of retired from caring about the sport altogether when that old gang broke up. So I'm biased, undoubtedly. But it's a fun episode, particularly the way the Cheers gang's machinations inevitably backfire.

YouTube does feature some of the funnier bits from this episode in a montage that Blogger absolutely refuses to let me embed for some reason, so here's a link. Everyone from Hanover knows French Lick is the doofus capital of Indiana.

Season 10, Episode 7. Directed by James Burrows. Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs.
There were two Bar Wars eps in Season 10. This one sets up the other. To teach Sam a lesson, everyone at Cheers conspires with everyone at Gary's to make Sam believe Gary is dead. He isn't, obviously, but don't let knowing that spoil you. It's almost more fun to anticipate it. The reveal at the end is handled so well, and I'll go on record to say I'll give Robert Desiderio a lifetime pass for the way he delivers "DO YOU, MALONE?!"

Some of the pranks are a little on the ridiculous side:

but so is the whole fake-death-and-funeral thing, I guess, and who cares? This bit with the Halloween song playing unstoppably is fun.

"Hey, that's not 'Funkytown...'" Ahh, Phil.
It's definitely more Green Acres than Cheers had ever been before this. That annoyed the crap out of me at the time. Usually I get a kick out of such differences of opinion with my younger self, but this is one of those times where I wish I could get him to lighten the hell up.

Season 10, Episode 23. Directed by Rick Beren. (Who?) Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs.
Ken Levine thought this one was the weakest of them all. I've linked to this way too much in this post, but what the hell, here he is again:

"The gang thinks a wise guy buys Gary’s bar so a prank unleashes the Mafia after them. We were reaching. And sometimes too clever for our own good. In Bar Wars II, there’s a Bloody Mary contest. We had a number of twists and turns, and after turning in the script, the staff added a few more. By the end I think there were maybe six too many. It was the Big Sleep of Bar Wars episodes – no one alive can tell you exactly what happened."

I'm assuming he's contrasting the complexity of this episode to the simplicity of "Bar Wars 2." I can see that. But its spinning-off-the-rail-ness is pretty much my favorite thing about this entire Gary's Heimskringla to begin with.

Or maybe like I mentioned last time - I just love it when they shot outside the bar.


Season 11, Episode 19. Directed by James Burrows. Written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs.
The picture above is from my favorite bit of the episode. Sam hires an Irish band for St. Patrick's Day, but when they arrive their songs are either too aggressive ("Limey scum! Limey scum!") or too morose. They only get through the first line of their third number ("'Twas a baby's crib that floated by -") before Sam kicks them out in frustration.

"And everywhere I looked was death! death! death!" has been in my head since first hearing it, same as "Al-ban-i-a!" from Season 3's "Teacher's Pet." (It's the same link as last time. But any excuse.) Too funny. Anyway, yeah, these guys are the best. I wish YouTube was more cooperative. (There's this, but it's horrible quality.)

The last season of Cheers managed to maintain the status quo of previous seasons while taking a long, fond look back at itself. Without being too nostalgic, I should add. You can watch the entire 11th season and not even realize you're seeing sequels and wrap-ups to a Greatest Hits of Cheers episodes. "Bar Wars VII: The Naked Prey" wraps up the rivalry once and for all and reprises Harry the Hat.

"Face it, you're a bunch of losers. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's the way God made you. If it weren't for you guys, how would we know who the winners were?"

I was surprised this time around by how much is packed into this episode. Yet it doesn't feel stuffed (or as if they were "reaching," as mentioned above for pt. VI.) The very last line is delivered by Ted Danson pretty much perfectly. (It's not all that remarkable out of context.)

NEXT: The A.D. years, 10-ish faves.

Trivia note: In case I haven't mentioned Ken Levine enough in these remarks, this is the only episode he ever appears in. 

At the bar in a background shot post-credits.


  1. The one with the Irish singers is priceless.

    I think that even when I was first discovering the series, I somehow knew that many of the Gary's episodes were maybe a wee bit too outlandish. But I didn't mind, because that somehow seemed like the point of the joke: the bigger, the sillier, the crazier, the better. I might not look at it that way now, of course, but that's how I remember it seeming back then.

    I had no idea Gary was Fuchs! Pretty cool. I also think I may not have noticed that Gary was played by two different guys. Somehow, that makes the whole thing funnier.

    1. I wish that Irish band was an actual band that toured.

      Glad you agree on the escalation of silly that the Bar Wars represent. It's so entertaining. By the time you get to season 10, the war has splintered and the gang is no longer pranking itself but each other, then the ultimate razing of the temple altogether in season 11.