Finding Truth in the Fictional TV Bar

From I Love Lucy to Cheers to It's Always Sunny, Jennifer Cacicio pieces together 75 years of small-screen drinking to find out what the bar on television says about America's intoxicated past, and present.

bars in television illustration

In the first few moments of I Love Lucy (1951-1957), the camera travels into the UES apartment of Lucy and Ricky to find them sleeping. It’s 11a.m. The alarm sounds, and Ricky stretches to reveal the angry ox face on the back of his pajama top before tossing it on Lucy’s vanity and heading to the shower. When Lucy wakes, she finds an animal spouting smoke from its nostrils where her face should be.

“He looks like he got in later than I did,” she says.

Television has a long tradition of setting its shows in various eateries. From Arnold’s Drive-In (Happy Days) to The Peach Pit (Beverly Hills: 90210) to Monk’s Café (Seinfeld), America loves a show that offers that second set, a familiar place where the whole gang can gather in episode after episode. But what about shows set in bars? What does a character’s drinking habits reveal about the rest of us?

Take Lucy and Ricky. While most 1950s TV families—Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver—spend their suburban evenings at home with pot roasts and multiple children, Lucy and Ricky stay up late and sleep in. They’re industry people. Ricky works nights, leading the band at The Tropicana Club, where the tablecloths are white and the patrons are dressed glamorously, sipping champagne from stylish coupes.

Off-camera, real-life couple Lucy and Desi were regular patrons of the now-defunct Stork Club, where the tablecloths were also white, the patrons were dressed glamorously, and the champagne sipped from stylish coupes. The Stork Club was the epitome of post-Prohibition glamour—overflowing with writers, mobsters, celebrities, politicians and, most importantly, alcohol. As televisions made their way into living rooms across America, The Tropicana Club provided a family-friendly view into the glamorous world of drinking in New York.

On America’s opposite coast, another cocktail movement was reaching the height of its post-WWII popularity: the tropical world of tiki. Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) lacked a proper bar, but we should probably cut them some slack because of the whole marooned on an island thing. Each time the castaways gather round their table piled high with coconuts and pineapples to eat seared fish and sip punch (“This dunch is almost pone,” Gilligan slurs after making a batch), they’re basically one step away from dining at Don the Beachcomber’s, the iconic LA tiki spot that spawned it all.

The ’90s were all about getting real: hip-hop, Nirvana, oval office blowjobs, Seinfeld, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, multiculturalism, Dolly the Sheep, the Internet. It’s no wonder people were over drinking in neon nightclubs and homey pubs. Shit was getting dark.

Of course, the world of tiki might be a tad guilty of turning Polynesian culture into pop, but at heart it’s all about good vibes, fresh flowers, ocean sunsets and strong drinks, which could’ve been the tagline for Gilligan’s Island in the first place.

By the 1970s, many tiki bars were calling it quits, and west coasters began to find their watering holes in the European-style pubs popping up in beach towns along the coast. Dark wood pubs filled with whiskey, ale, and men had been staples of east coast culture since Paul Revere, but they were a recent addition to California. In the second episode of Three’s Company (1977-1984), Mrs. Roper invites new tenant Jack down to the Regal Beagle for a drink. “It’s a pub,” Chrissy explains, “just like they have in England.”  “Yeah,” Janet pipes in, “they’ve been opening up all over the area.”

But there’s little point in discussing any television pub other than Cheers (1982-93), the most iconic television bar of all time. More than 30 years after its debut, there remains something undeniably timeless about Cheers, not only because its comedy still holds up, but because it gets at something very true about drinking in the city of Boston.

The pilot begins with Sam, the Red Sox relief pitcher turned sober bar owner, pouring Moët for Diane, the snooty BU graduate student who will be his new waitress by the end of the episode. The bar fills with the usual characters—Coach, Carla, Norm—all of them discussing the recent Patriots’ draft—and its patrons order what can only be described as drinks that are totally ’80s: “two vodka gimlets, one straight up, one blended rocks; Chivas, rocks, soda; Comfort Manhattan, hold the cherry; white wine spritzer with a twist; Old Bushmill Irish decaf, hold the sugar.”

Throughout its whopping 11 seasons, Cheers holds out against countless industry challenges, including a smug, bow-tied bartender named Wayne who fancies himself a mixologist and claims an ability to make “any drink known to man.” (When Sam needs his job back, the regulars take Wayne down by getting the entire bar to order a made-up cocktail called the Screaming Viking.) But the beauty of Cheers is that, like the city it’s set in, it rarely changes. It’s a show about the comfort of being part of a community, the story of a bunch of blue collars who call a basement bar home.

If Cheers is the warm and fuzzy place where everyone knows your name, then Moe’s—of The Simpsons (1989—)—is the place where you go to forget it. Literally. One of Moe’s specialties is the “Forget-Me-Shot,” a recipe that includes Jägermeister, Sloe Gin, Triple Sec, Quadruple Sec, gunk from a dog’s eye, Absolut Pikl, the red stripe from Aquafresh toothpaste, and the venom of the Louisiana Loboto moth. (Put the ingredients in a glass, stir with a pregnancy test until it’s positive, and voilà!) Dirty, depressing, dive-y, and essentially windowless, Moe’s is owned by none other than Moe, a creepy bartender of indeterminate origin who keeps a makeshift shotgun behind the bar and calls designated drivers “cheapskates.”

Maybe the rest of America was flourishing in the 1990s, but even in its inception Springfield was a bit of the land that time forgot. After decades of glossy television drinking, it was high time that someone made a true dive bar for TV—a place with sticky floors, a cigarette machine, cheap drinks, darts and drunken losers, even if they were animated. After all, the ’90s were all about getting real: hip-hop, Nirvana, oval office blowjobs, Seinfeld, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, multiculturalism, Dolly the Sheep, the Internet. It’s no wonder people were over drinking in neon nightclubs and homey pubs. Shit was getting dark.

The aughts only brought us into darker territories, into the hilariously sick minds behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005—), a show set primarily in Paddy’s Pub. Here’s another dive bar with the requisite Xmas lights, plastic flags, pool table, and yes, cheap drinks—but Paddy’s offers something that Moe’s doesn’t: young people. The four characters who run Paddy’s—Dennis, Sweet Dee, Charlie and Mac, a.k.a. “the gang”—get into hijinks that put Homer to shame: making a fake Jihad video to skirt city zoning laws, trunk-kidnapping a journalist who deems Paddy’s “the worst bar in Philadelphia,” literally smoking crack in an attempt to quit bartending and qualify for welfare. These days, dive bars are associated with hipsters, but this is a show about people who are aimless, broke, selfish, barely employed and alcoholic—well, OK, maybe they are hipsters. Or maybe they’re just average dudes living in the aughties. How else could one survive aside from tequila, beer, and glue?

It’s hard to believe that It’s Always Sunny is somehow in the tradition of I Love Lucy, but certainly it is. They’re both half-hour comedies about hapless and hilarious young people who are just trying to make it in this world, who make ends meet by slaving away in the service industry. As time has bore on, Americans have grown less secretive, foregoing the 1950s-era perfection in favor of posting drunken selfies on Facebook. It only makes sense that television has done the same.

Only time will tell what our current decade will bring, whether we’ll go deeper into the darkness or swing back toward the light. Our only hint thus far is Mixology, a single-camera, mid-season replacement for ABC from the writers of The Hangover, which airs in late February. The concept? “One bar. One night. Ten single people. Welcome to Mix, a high-end bar in Manhattan’s trendy Meatpacking District…The question of the season is: who’s going home with whom?” Or perhaps the real question of the season is: who the hell is going to watch this show? I mean, besides me.

It seems TV bars exist to reveal the dark underbelly of life or to offer comedic relief from it. Either way, there’s a certain comfort found in the drinking establishment, whether you’re pulling up a stool or a couch cushion. At the end of the Cheers pilot, Diane over-shares with her first table and gets at what might be the heart of that comfort: “I’m a student, not just in an academic sense, but a student of life. And where better than here to study life and all its many facets? People meet in bars. They part. They rejoice, suffer. They come here to be with their own kind.”

Of course, the couple’s response is not so idealistic. “Where is police,” the man asks in broken English, “we have lost our luggage.” Oh, Cheers.

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