Why Was Cheers’ Classic Thanksgiving Episode Protested?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: Cheers received protests over their famous Thanksgiving episode, “Thanksgiving Orphans.”

One of the all-time great episode of Cheers occurred in the fifth season of the series, Shelley Long’s final season on the show. Titled “Thanksgiving Orphans,” the episode was written by Cheri Eichen and Bill Steinkellner (they are married and Eichen now goes by Cheri Steinkellner, but I don’t know if they were married at the time that they wrote this episode together). The concept of the episode is that due to various events, pretty much all of the gang from Cheers are alone on Thanksgiving. Cliff’s mother is feeding the homeless, and Cliff wasn’t interested in doing that this year. Norm’s wife, Vera, was visiting her family and Norm did not want to go. Woody decided not to travel to Indiana to spend the holiday with his family. Sam’s girlfriend at the time had her sister in town and they didn’t want to spend the holiday with Sam’s friends. Carla’s kids were spending the holiday with her ex-husband, Nick, and his new wife, Loretta. Diane had been invited to a party by one of her professors, but discovered that he intended for his graduate students to work as servers at the party. Finally, Frasier was just plain lonely. So everyone joined together for dinner at Carla’s new home.

However, a screw-up with the turkey led to dinner being so late that all of the side dishes got cold and the guests all got heated. A little food was thrown and then suddenly, everyone was ready for a food fight when Diane walked in on them from the kitchen, where she had just been checking on the turkey…

She exhorts them to all calm down and it looks like she might be succeeding…when Sam suddenly hits her right in her face with some cranberry sauce and so the food fight began!

You can watch a clip of it all here…

Anyhow, total classic episode, especially when they sit back down and actually finish dinner (while they were fighting, the turkey finally finished cooking) and then Diane, hoping to get Sam back, throws a pie at him, but instead hits Vera in the face, who showed up to surprise her husband. This was Vera’s only appearance on the series (her voice was heard a number of times) and her face was covered in pie (Norm’s portrayer, George Wendt, had his real life wife, Bernadette Birkett, play Vera for the scene).

The scene was dangerous since there was food all over the floor and the actors were legitimately slipping all over the place.

Okay, so the episode comes out (on Thanksgiving Day 1986) and it was a big hit.

So what went wrong?

Well, as you might remember, the mid-1980s was a period in time when the world briefly gave a hoot about world hunger. 1985 had just seen Live Aid, for instance, fighting famine in Ethiopia.

Ken Levine (then a Cheers writer) wrote on his blog, “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.”

Speaking about the episode to Yahoo! TV and specifically the protests, James Burrows (who directed the episode) and Cheri Steinkellner recalled:

JAMES: “We sent the food we didn’t use to the mission. But you know what? You get complaints no matter what you do.”

CHERI: “We thought, ‘Oh no, we’re not wasting it! 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.’”

Obviously, it was not some lasting protest, but it is still pretty hilarious the things that you never expect are going to offend people.

The legend is…


Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of TV. Click here for more legends specifically about Cheers.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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