Why the ‘Cheers’ Thanksgiving Episode Resulted in Boycotts
On Thanksgiving Day 1986, Cheers aired “Thanksgiving Orphans,” an episode that garnered emphatic praise - and angry letters.
By this point, Cheers was one of the most-watched shows on television, earning a hoard of Emmy Awards on its way to becoming one of the most beloved sitcoms in television history.
The 1986 holiday episode started in the titular bar, as the gang revealed their respective Thanksgiving plans - or lack of plans, in some cases. Carla (Rhea Perlman), Frasier (Kelsey Grammer), Cliff (John Ratzenberger) and Woody (Woody Harrelson) would be spending the holiday alone; Sam (Ted Danson) had a date lined up, Diane (Shelley Long) was planning to attend a hoity-toity party hosted by her graduate professor and Norm was being forced to go to dinner at his in-laws.
Carla reluctantly agreed to host a potluck Thanksgiving at her place, inviting her fellow “orphans” to join. For the rest of the episode, the Cheers gang would no longer be in the bar - a move that was almost unheard of for the show.
Watch a Clip From the 'Cheers' 'Thanksgiving Orphans' Episode
“We always thought of the people at Cheers as a family,” recalled writer Cheri Steinkellner in a conversation with Yahoo! “In the sense of, no matter whether you like 'em or don’t like 'em, you still have to see them tomorrow. So I think it’s the idea of putting them in the ultimate family situation, which is, let’s have our family Thanksgiving.”
Sure enough, the sight of these friends outside of their natural habitat took a little getting used to. Still, as each character settled in, it became obvious they were a kind of family, despite being wildly different people. Slowly, every familiar face turned up. Sam’s date canceled, so the handsome former MLB pitcher decided to join his buddies. Norm ditched his in-laws to be with the group. Even Diane came, albeit only after she realized the professor had invited her to his party to work as waitstaff.
Like many holiday gatherings, this get-together soon took a turn. Norm, charged with cooking the turkey, couldn’t seem to get the bird fully baked; Diane, always the rule-follower, insisted that nobody eat until the turkey was ready.
“The idea was to give everybody a Thanksgiving issue, whether it’s food-related, game-related, parade-related, other-people-related. To just make a giant list of all the things about Thanksgiving that have the potential to make you crazy,” Steinkellner explained. “Because the expectation is so high that we’re all gonna have this wonderful day together. Of course, you just want to punch holes in that."
Watch the 'Cheers' Gang at Carla's House in the 'Thanksgiving Orphans' Episode
As hunger set in, the friends got snippy with each other. Diane tried to get calmer heads to prevail, but she instead was hit with a handful of cranberry sauce. Suddenly, a massive food fight broke out, with an entire Thanksgiving dinner strewn across Carla’s living room.
“Once the cranberry sauce hit Shelley, everything was a free-for-all,” noted the episode’s director, James Burrows. “You can’t choreograph that."
“It was mayhem,” added co-writer Bill Steinkellner. “The [studio] audience was just nuts. Plus, Cheers was supposed to be a classy show, and this is about as un-classy as you can get, to have a food fight. But I think that’s part of what makes it work."
Indeed, the lack of choreography made the hilarious moment feel organic. The sight of the actors struggling to stay upright while slipping on a gravy-covered floor only added to the comedic brilliance of the scene.
Watch the 'Cheers' Thanksgiving Food Fight
The episode closed with the Cheers gang gleefully enjoying what food wasn’t ruined, laughing about their unlikely friendship and even raising a glass to Coach, the show’s original bar owner and moral compass, who died in 1985.
“Thanksgiving Orphans” quickly became one of the most beloved episodes of Cheers, ranking No. 7 on TV Guide’s list of the greatest episodes of all time. Still, it was not without controversy, and many viewers were up in arms over that famous food fight.
“At the time, Cheers got a lot of flack for that episode because there was a big ‘stop world hunger’ campaign and the show was criticized for wasting food,” noted Ken Levine, a former consultant on the sitcom. Indeed, the Thanksgiving food fight aired at a time when famines in Africa were among the biggest global news stories. Outraged viewers claimed they’d boycott Cheers over the seemingly reckless display.
“We sent the food we didn’t use to the mission,” contended Burrows. “But you know what? You get complaints no matter what you do.”
“We thought, 'Oh no, we’re not wasting it!’” insisted Cheri Steinkellner. “They’re still going to eat it! They’re just going to eat up off the mantel and off their lap and off each other. So the food’s not going to waste.”