The first episode of Cheers, NBC’s beloved comedy about the staff and regulars at an unassuming bar in Boston, debuted on September 30, 1982.
While the series was initially a flop — albeit a critically-acclaimed one — Cheers eventually become one of the most popular shows on television. The show ran for eleven seasons, weathering several cast departures and additions. The key to its success? Besides a stellar cast (Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Rhea Pearlman, etc.) and an all-star creative team (James Burrows and Glen and Les Charles), it was the setting itself: A bar.
In my review of the disappointing film adaptation of J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar, I noted that the source material had presented a bar where the regulars acted as a surrogate family. The warmth and humor in Cheers came from this makeshift familial unit that occupied the bar stools and the people who served the Norms, Cliffs and Frasiers of the world, all of whom were often seen without their real families or significant others (for example, Norm’s wife Vera is occasionally heard but never actually seen).
It’s a pretty simple formula, and a good reason why bars work so well in fictional show or movie: You’re placing dysfunctional people in a static setting that’s nonetheless far more interesting and adult than, say, a living room. Add alcohol and you’ve given these characters a reason to be uninhibited. And at their best, these shows will make the bar distinctive enough that it becomes its own character.
Below, and in honor of the four decades since Cheers debuted with the “Give Me a Ring Sometime” pilot, we spotlight six great bars from TV comedy history and the best moments that involved the taverns themselves.
The namesake bar in the show was based on Cheers (previously the Bull & Finch Club), a real-life Beacon Hill pub that was used for exterior shots. As co-creator James Burrows noted, the challenge was making “Cheers look like a British pub where people from all strata of society came and had a good time together.” In season eight episode “The Stork Brings a Crane,” the history of the bar is revealed: It used to be a brothel for sailors in its early days, and the “Est. 1895” sign was made up due to Carla’s “numbers superstition phase.”
Best bar episode: “Home Is the Sailor” (season 6) where the old staff (Sam, Woody, etc.) attempts to get the stuffy new bartender Wayne fired by making up drinks like “The Screaming Viking.”
The Griffin, New Girl
The bar where Nick Miller (Jake Johnson) works and later co-owns is called The Griffin; in real life, it’s a combination of two Los Angeles-based bars. The exterior is a building in Atwater Village, while the interior takes place at The Prince in Koreatown (before that setting was recreated on a studio set). At the bar, Nick’s drinking words of wisdom are many, including this gem: “You treat an outside wound with rubbing alcohol. You treat an inside wound with drinking alcohol.”
Best bar episode: Although the best booze-related episode involves a drinking game called “True American,” that doesn’t take place at a bar. So we’ll go with season 2’s “Quick Hardening Caulk,” where Nick and Jess begin to admit their feelings for each other, but Nick also defends his bizarre bar themes (Guy’s Night, where drinks are free but nachos are $33) and his “take a drink, leave a drink” promotion.
Moe’s Tavern, The Simpsons
Yes, not technically a sitcom, but no TV comedy bar list is complete without the dimly lit and depressing vibe of Moe Szyslak’s hangout. Moe’s was loosely inspired by Tube Bar, a Jersey City dive owned by a threatening heavyweight boxer named Louis “Red” Deutsch, who was regularly phone pranked by two locals (John Elmo and Jim Davidson), which inspired the classic Moe-Bart phone calls (Seymour Butts, Al Coholic, etc.). Note: You can visit a replica of Moe’s at Universal Studios Florida and drink a real “Duff’s” beer, but the bar looks way too bright and shiny.
Best bar episode: Third season standout “Flaming Moe’s” finds Moe stealing Homer’s recipe for an alcoholic cough syrup cocktail, finding massive success and even enticing Aerosmith into his bar. It also serves up a parody of the Cheers theme song.
Three iterations of this unassuming Canadian bar — the only bar in a town of 5,000 people — have populated Letterkenny in its 10+ seasons (the first two burned down under mysterious circumstances on the show; in real life, the locations went out of business and were no longer available for filming). Run by Gail and featuring series regulars Glen and Bonnie McMurray as its waitstaff, the bar serves as the only place in town that sees the hicks, skids, hockey players and degens hang out together (if not amicably; there are many fights).
Best bar episode: Season three’s finale (“Bradley Is a Killer”) features pretty much every character lusting after Gail’s cousin (Katy: “It’s a slip and slide over here, boys.”), who comes to MoDean’s to work as a bouncer.
MacLaren’s, How I Met Your Mother
An Upper West Side staple of this long-running comedy, MacLaren’s is based on the Manhattan midtown pub McGee’s where creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas drank there during their days writing for David Letterman’s late-night show (other NYC bars, including Fez, McHale’s and Chumley’s, also served as inspiration).
Best bar episode: When an inebriated Marshall (Jason Segal) unexpectedly wins an election to the New York State Supreme Court, his victory speech at MacLaren’s includes a vow, as commissioner of Gotham City, to “make Batman work harder.”
Paddy’s Pub, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
The Irish bar in South Philly was inspired, in part, by the real-world Paddy’s Pub Old City, also in Philadelphia — though a lot of the outdoor shots are taken at The Nate Starkman Building in Los Angeles. On the show, Paddy’s is a sparsely populated (and horribly managed) dive that’s infested with rats and, occasionally, raccoons. It also has the world’s grossest toilet.
Best bar episode: In “The Gang Tries Desperately To Win An Award” (season 9), Dennis, Dee, Mac, Charlie and Frank attempt to win the Annual Bar Association Award. After visiting a popular local bar called Sudz, the gang attempts to add a fun, lighter vibe to Paddy’s. Unintended ejaculation jokes ensue.
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