The Story Behind The Cheers Theme
In the fall of 1981, Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart were at a crossroads in their respective lives. Gary was in between songwriting partners and had just been fired as a staff writer for a major music publisher, and Judy had recently enrolled the youngest of her three kids in the first grade. One night Judy was out to dinner and found herself seated next to a Broadway producer who was looking for someone to compose the score for his new musical.
Almost on a whim, Portnoy and Hart decided to take a shot at collaborating on the songs for the musical entitled “Preppies”. (Gary had never written for the theatre before and Judy had never written a song!) They began the project with low expectations (but very high spirits!)
Working on an upright piano in the bedroom of Judy’s Central Park West apartment, they composed the opening musical number to “Preppies”. The song was called “People Like Us”. It had a lilting melody and its lyrics poked fun at the lifestyle of decadent old-money WASPs.
Several months later Gary and Judy were contacted by a Hollywood producer. It seemed that he had heard a tape of “People Like Us” and was calling to tell them that even though they did not know it, they had written the theme song to “Cheers”, a new show that would be debuting on NBC the following fall. The producer told Gary and Judy that all they needed to do to seal the deal was re-write the words to “People Like Us” and make the new lyrics relate to a bunch of likeable losers who populated a certain bar in Boston.
The new songwriting team was ecstatic over this unlikely turn of events- this “gift” that had fallen into their laps seemingly from out of nowhere. For Gary, it was a struggling songwriter’s fantasy come-to-life. However, when the producers of “Preppies” heard that the opening number from their Broadway musical was about to be revoked, re-written, and offered up as the theme song to a TV sitcom, all hell broke loose. They had a binding contract and “People Like Us” was not going anywhere. “It is ours!” they declared. And legally, so it was. Check out “People Like Us” by clicking the player below.
BACK TO SQUARE ONE
Portnoy and Hart were disheartened beyond words at having lost the chance to have a theme song on national television. They approached the producers of “Cheers” who encouraged them to take a shot at composing another song for their new sit-com.
At first, it was very frustrating (and somewhat depressing) for Gary and Judy to sit down and attempt to write a Theme for Cheers, when they had already written The Theme From Cheers without even knowing it. So they opted to do what neither of them had ever done before or since: copy their own song!! What resulted was a composition called “My Kind Of People”, a somewhat transparent (but not unpleasant) alter ego of “People Like Us”. Listen to “My Kind Of People”
The new song was promptly rejected by the producers of “Cheers”, who suggested to the songwriting duo that they let go of what was gone (“People Like Us”) and follow wherever their creative muse might lead them. They also then sent the two songwriters the script to the first episode of Cheers.
Even though neither of them had had any experience “reading” sit-coms, Gary had spent most of his chubby childhood watching them, and both he and Judy were immediately blown away by what they found within the pages of the “Cheers” script entitled “Give Me A Ring Sometime”. The writing was clever and crisp, the characters were sharply drawn, the humor was honest and unforced, and the bar setting offered limitless dramatic and comedic possibilities. “Cheers” was a ten. Maybe even an eleven!!
More determined than ever, the two friends again convened at the upright Yamaha and set about to try to capture in a theme the essence of what they had read in that incredible script. The result was a song called “Another Day” and, while it contained one lyric line that the “Cheers” guys really loved (“There are times when it’s fun to take the long way home”), like its predecessor, “Another Day” was quickly dismissed. Listen to “Another Day”
That was the bad news.
The good news was that at some point in the course of this creative process Glen and Les Charles, the writer/producers of “Cheers”, had become convinced that Portnoy and Hart were the right people to write their theme song for them, and they were determined to work with the two of them for as long as they could before either time ran out or NBC brought in other songwriters.
Despite this vote of confidence, Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart were losing hope. Even with all the encouragement that they were getting from the powers-that-be at “Cheers”, the bottom line was that everything they had written since “People Like Us” had been rejected. The fact that the two songwriters loved the show so much (and that NBC had committed to air at least thirteen episodes) only added to the pressure they felt as winter turned to the spring of 1982.
Gary and Judy sat down at the piano yet again, but this time with less confidence than before. It seemed like they were running out of fresh ways to approach the theme from “Cheers”; everything they tried sounded or felt wrong to them. They began to second-guess themselves. The fact that Gary was nursing a bit of a broken heart at this point in time did not help matters either. Or did it?
One day as he sat at the keyboard feeling dejected, he started to “noodle around” a bit. He played a single note with his left hand followed by a chord with his right one … B flat to F … over and over again- just the way someone sad might absentmindedly fiddle around on an out-of-tune piano in a smoky bar at two in the morning. Gary and Judy started to hum a simple melody line over this chord progression. Then the following words began to slowly pour forth and fall into place.
- Singing the blues when the Red Sox lose
- It’s a crisis in your life
- On the run ’cause all your girlfriends
- Want to be your wife
- And the laundry ticket’s in the wash
- All those nights when you’ve got no lights
- The check is in the mail
- And your little angel
- Hung the cat up by its tail
- And your third fiancÈe didn’t show
The song they were writing was a lament. Musically it was almost mournful. Lyrically it was a loser’s tale of woe. Television themes were supposed to be peppy and zippy and “ear candy”. Surely, there was no way this melancholy piece was going to succeed in that capacity. Portnoy and Hart were ready to abandon it altogether and move on to Cheers Theme Number 5, but something about this sad little theme would not allow them to leave it. But where was it heading?
Hours went by as one chorus possibility after another was attempted and rejected. Then there came the moment when a simple four-word phrase was uttered and instantly changed the direction of the song. “Sometimes you wanna go”
But go where?
Where people with problems can forget about them for a while. Where people who have no one may find someone even if only for an hour or two. A place where someone who is invisible in the “real world” can suddenly be someone. A place where outcasts become insiders. A place where you matter… a place..
Where everybody knows your name!
And with that the quiet introspective music turned big and upbeat and hopeful. Almost joyous. The lyrics followed.
- Where everybody knows your name
- And they’re always glad you came
- You wanna be where you can see
- Our troubles are all the same
- You wanna go where everybody knows your name
The chorus of the song had been born in a burst of energy; it was almost as if it had written itself. Portnoy and Hart were still anything but convinced that they had written a television theme but, after fine-tuning it a bit, they were both emotionally bonded to their new creation, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”.
They came up with a piano intro da da-da-da-da da-da that they hoped might serve as an “announcement” for the show (and lure people from their kitchens back to their television sets!) That night they wrote a third verse in the hope that this one-minute theme might one day be able to have a life of its own as a full-length song. Like the opening verses it depicted life’s trials and tribulations, but the third verse was a bit more playful than the first two, probably because it followed the gleeful chorus.
- Roll out of bed- Mr. Coffee’s dead
- The morning’s looking bright
- And your shrink ran off to Europe
- And didn’t even write
- And your husband wants to be a girl
- Be glad there’s one place in the world.
(Little could Gary and Judy have known that Dr. Frasier Crane, the eminent psychiatrist would, in fact, run off to Europe at the end of the third season of “Cheers”!)
The two songwriters eagerly went into a recording studio the very next day to make a piano/vocal demo of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” and get it out to Hollywood in the overnight mail. Hear the original Cheers demo!
This recording is included on Gary’s EP Cheers (Music From The TV Series)
Everyone at “Cheers” shared Gary and Judy’s passion for the new song. However, the creative team behind the show wanted to make a major change to the theme that the two songwriters had submitted to them.
The life span of the vast majority of new television series is measured in weeks. However, the sense of optimism surrounding the launch of Cheers was so high that everyone involved with the show was thinking “long term.” Very long term. In fact, right from the start they truly believed that their show was going to run for at least the next ten years. With that in mind they wanted the opening words of their theme song to strike a “larger”, more universal chord than it initially did. Gary and Judy offered to change “Red Sox” to “home teams” (“Singing the blues when the home teams lose”) so that fans in sports bars the world over would be able to identify with it. (Even New York Yankee fans!) But the producers were adamant about wanting the lyrics for their opening credits to be less specific and more “global” in nature.
Gary and Judy favored the original opening lines, but this was non-negotiable. They booked studio time and were still hammering out the new lyrics in the taxi on the way to record the amended version of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”.
- Making your way in the world today
- Takes everything you’ve got
- Taking a break from all your worries
- Sure would help a lot
- Wouldn’t you like to get away
To their great relief, the new version of the song was received with great glee in Hollywood, and “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” was declared The Theme From Cheers!
WE WANT GARY TO SING
Several months later- in mid- August of 1982- Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo (now using her married name) were in East Haddam, Connecticut working on an “out-of-town” production of their musical, “Preppies”. One day Gary Portnoy received a call from an associate producer of “Cheers” that would change his life forever.
Unbeknownst to Gary, a battle had been raging behind the scenes for months over who should sing “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” Now “Cheers” was set to premier in less than a month and a decision had to be made on that and fast. On one side were those who felt that a “name” artist should be brought in to record the opening theme, especially since “Cheers” itself featured an ensemble of unknown actors. (Ted who? Shelley who?) On the other side were those who liked the feeling of the vocals that Gary had done on his “demo” recordings and wanted that to be what America would hear every Thursday night on NBC. The “Gary” group prevailed, and a few days later he and Judy were flown out to Los Angeles.
The recording session took place on a huge sound stage on the Paramount lot where “Cheers” was being filmed. It had been booked into a recording studio that was the size of two football fields and could easily have accommodated an entire symphony orchestra (which it often did when movies were being scored there.) But on this day, there were only four musicians present: a drummer, a guitarist, a bass player, and Gary on piano. (A clarinetist was brought in later to play over the closing credits.) Glen and Les Charles were adamant that the arrangement of the theme song be kept simple and “intimate”, in keeping with the character of the piano/voice demos that Gary had recorded in New York. And much to the amazement of everyone involved, they did not even attend the recording session, opting instead to give Portnoy and Hart total creative freedom.
After the musical tracks had been taped and the other musicians had left, it was time for Gary to sing “Where Everybody Knows Your Name”. The plan was for him to record the solo lead vocal (“Making your way in the world today ) and then to harmonize with himself to create the “group” sound on the chorus- exactly as he had on his demo recordings. As he stood there with the lights dimmed in front of a microphone- a solitary shadow in this cavernous room- he was blissfully unaware that the vocal he was about to record would transcend that studio, and Hollywood, and NBC, and the United States and would literally travel around the world- first weekly then on a daily basis,every day…for the next thirty years and counting. (Gary has said that had he known all of that, he might not have been able to open his mouth!)
This is the final NBC Thursday Night Cheers Theme that was recorded at Paramount Studios on August 13, 1982
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
“Cheers” premiered on NBC on September 30, 1982. It was launched to tremendous critical acclaim but nonetheless got off to a very slow start in the ratings. (One week it came in dead last- 66th out of 66 shows- and was in serious danger of being cancelled before it even completed its first season.) Right from the start the theme song had been receiving a lot of attention in the form of requests for sheet music and sound recordings. Before he even knew what was happening, Gary was whisked back into the studio to make a record of the full-length version of the “Cheers” theme.
This track is included on Gary’s Keeper CD and his EP CHEERS (Music From the TV Series)
Over the next several months, as Gary’s recording of “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” starting appearing on radio playlists from coast to coast, “Cheers” began to slowly work its way up in the all-important Nielson ratings. Some people felt at the time that the huge response to the theme song was leading people to find the television show; others said it was the other way around. All that really mattered was that “Cheers” was finding its audience- one that would remain ever loyal to it for the next eleven seasons on NBC and far beyond.
For Gary, as wonderful as it has been throughout the years to have “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” attached to as incredible a show as “Cheers”, it has been especially gratifying to see it gradually separate from the “mother ship” and flourish on its own- and be utilized and performed in so many different ways and places between 1982 and now. And ever since the dawning of the Internet Age, Gary has found great joy in the steady stream of appreciative messages that he has received from people -young and old and in between- from every corner of the Earth.
As for Gary’s and Judy’s musical “Preppies”, it opened at the Promenade Theater on Broadway in August of 1983 to mostly negative reviews. It ran for a couple of months before closing one night in October before an audience of 11. It was certainly painful to have what had been such a joyous creative experience come to so sad an end. (Except for the occasional unexpected high school or college performance, the show has never been heard from since.) However, the same cannot be said of a song called “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” which never would have existed were it not for “People Like Us” from “Preppies”.