Food Fight! The Messy True Story Behind the Classic 'Cheers' Episode, 'Thanksgiving Orphans'

Dave Nemetz
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There are good episodes of television, and there are great episodes of television. And then there are the All-Timers: those episodes that represent the very best the medium has to offer. In this ongoing series, Yahoo TV will delve into the histories behind these classic hours and half-hours from TV’s past and present, speaking with members of the casts and crews that brought them to life.

It’s that time of year again: time to gather with loved ones we’ve known for years, indulge in a sumptuous meal and laugh at old jokes, and give thanks for the things that matter most in life. Yes, it’s time to watch “Thanksgiving Orphans” again.

First airing on November 27, 1986 (Thanksgiving night, in fact), this essential Cheers episode was plenty funny the first time around, but has only grown in stature over the years. It’s now considered not only one of the best episodes of the NBC comedy’s eleven-season run, but one of TV’s greatest half-hours, period. And even if you don’t remember all the jokes, certainly you remember the climactic food fight, which saw the cast viciously pelting each other with Thanksgiving side dishes while the studio audience roared in approval.

To celebrate the episode’s enduring legacy, Yahoo TV spoke with director James Burrows, writers Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, and star Shelley Long (Diane) to get their memories of making “Thanksgiving Orphans,” from the initial concept of putting the Cheers gang in “the ultimate family situation” to the unholy mess created by staging a full-scale food fight on a Hollywood soundstage — not once, but twice. (This Thanksgiving, be thankful your TV doesn’t have Smell-O-Vision.)

“That dysfunctional, trapped family feeling…”

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“Thanksgiving Orphans” is an unusual episode of Cheers, simply because the show didn’t do a whole lot of traditional holiday episodes. And that wasn’t by accident, it turns out.

CHERI STEINKELLNER: “We did sign up [to write] holiday episodes, just because nobody else was going to. It was a little bit against policy, to have a Very Special blah blah blah."

BILL STEINKELLNER: "I always liked [‘Thanksgiving Orphans’] because personally, emotionally, that was my family at Thanksgiving. Except we didn’t have a fun food fight. We just had more depressing depressiveness."

CHERI: "And it was partly my family, too, because we were always forced to stand up and say what we were thankful for. That dysfunctional, trapped family feeling…”

James Burrows remembers a different starting point for the episode, though.

JAMES BURROWS: “We wanted to do a food fight, and you work back from that.”

CHERI: “I’m going to let that function as a recovered memory, and say, 'Sure!’ Because lo, decades later, Jimmy is still the boss.”

JAMES: “They’ll say things that I said happened didn’t happen… and maybe they didn’t happen. It’s been such a while.”

CHERI: “I think for us, the interesting seed that it germinated from was, we always thought of the people at Cheers as a family. 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.”

The episode is also unusual in that it mainly takes place outside of the bar: Sam, Diane, Carla, Woody, Frasier, Norm, and Cliff all gather at Carla’s new house for Thanksgiving dinner, with each of them not having anywhere better to spend the holiday.

CHERI: “You’ve got people who love you and accept you and hate you for what you are. And that means they have somewhere to go.”

BILL: “They have nowhere to go in every episode. That’s why they end up in that bar!”

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Diane had planned to spend the holiday with her literature professor in hopes of rubbing elbows with famed author William Styron. But after she learns she’s expected to serve food at the party, she opts to spend Thanksgiving with Sam Malone and the boys. She even cracks open a beer!

SHELLEY LONG: “I loved it that Diane got a few 'shots’ in for herself. That wasn’t ever written, before or after. They usually wrote Diane to rise above it all. Sometimes that was a big challenge.”

CHERI: “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. 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."

"Once they get gravy in their hair, there’s no going back"

The process of writing "Thanksgiving Orphans” was smooth, Bill and Cheri remember — remarkably so.

CHERI: “We won our first Emmy for an episode that we were up [writing] all night, every night. We were so exhausted, and so punchy. But this was not one of those weeks."

BILL: "This one was a dream.”

CHERI: “Everything changes. You find new jokes. But it was one of the episodes, in our career, that was considered a pleasure from table read to shoot night. So I’m going to say nothing drastic changed.”

The Steinkellners still have the original script to “Thanksgiving Orphans” in their files, and graciously shared pages from it with Yahoo TV:

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One joke that Cheri remembers the writing staff tinkering with: Diane’s long-winded toast to her artistic inspirations, starting with Caravaggio and Emily Dickinson and ending with “Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop!”

CHERI: “Now that’s probably a joke that went through fifteen passes. Until we either just got exhausted or wore each other down from trying things out. That seems like a joke where we’re constantly looking to top the punchline."

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Bill and Cheri were also on set as the episode filmed ("before a live studio audience,” of course), ready to supply a fresh punchline in case one fell flat.

CHERI: “Being down on the floor, having someone say 'Birdzilla’ and the whole audience bursts into laughter… we just would sit there and go, 'They get it!’ This was one of those weeks where every joke landed. You’ve got a lot of jokes on deck, ready to go, just in case something doesn’t fly with the audience."

BILL: "But it had to be all set before that food fight. We had to film everything…”

CHERI: “Because once they get gravy in their hair, there’s no going back."

"There was definitely a major odor on that set”

And now we come to the episode’s signature sequence: A day of simmering tension waiting for Norm’s enormous turkey to cook explodes into a no-holds-barred food fight, set off by Sam flinging a glob of cranberry sauce at Diane and staining her immaculate Pilgrim costume.

JAMES: “I can’t believe Teddy [Danson], with that cranberry sauce, hit her right on the Pilgrim outfit. Amazing. It was the perfect shot.”

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BILL: “I just love that big expanse of white. That was such a great choice. It’s like someone wearing white in an action movie. You’re like, 'Uh-oh… we’re gonna see blood spurting all over that thing pretty soon.’”

JAMES: “We had to do [the food fight] twice. We cleaned it up, and did it again. You always want to do it twice, if you can. Just so you can get different coverage and different reactions.”

But getting two takes of a massive food fight can have other unintended consequences as well.

JAMES: “There was definitely a major odor on that set. You can try to clean up as much as you can, but still… old food goes bad really fast."

SHELLEY: "The smell of the food fight was unbelievable. Who would have guessed that the smell of all that food mixed together would be as bad as other food mixed together? If you know what I mean. But it was worth it!”

JAMES: “I remember the cast — and you probably see it — as soon as the food started flying, the floor became really slippery.”

CHERI: “I was so afraid someone was going to break something vital. And I think they had the whole floor covered in plastic tarp, so that made it worse."

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JAMES: "And it was not choreographed. Once the cranberry sauce hit Shelley, everything was a free-for-all. You can’t choreograph that."

BILL: "Once she says, 'Kiss your butt goodbye!’ they just fling it hither and yon. It was mayhem. The audience was just nuts. Plus, Cheers was supposed to be a classy show, and this is about as unclassy as you can get, to have a food fight. But I think that’s part of what makes it work."

CHERI: "William Styron and mashed potatoes.”

The Cheers producers actually got a few angry letters following the episode’s airing, criticizing them for wasting food at a time when world hunger was a political cause du jour.

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.’”

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And the episode’s final gag: Norm finally brings his never-seen wife Vera in to meet everyone… only Diane hurls a pumpkin pie and accidentally hits Vera, obscuring her face. We never get a good look at her, but the person underneath the pie was a member of the Cheers family.

CHERI: “That was Bernadette Birkett, who in real life is married to George Wendt. The voice is Bernadette.”

JAMES: “I don’t know if it’s Bernadette there or the stand-in. Maybe it was the stand-in.”

BILL: “It’s always Bernadette, every time you hear Vera.”

Nearly three decades later, “Thanksgiving Orphans” stands out to fans as one of the very best episodes of Cheers. But does it still stand out to the people who made it?

JAMES: “Well, it was certainly one of the wildest.”

SHELLEY: “The Thanksgiving show was very special. It seemed to capture so many of the characters’ reputations and then reveal a few surprises.”

CHERI: “For us, it was a career high, the week of Thanksgiving, to be sitting at the horseshoe-shaped bar at a TGI Friday’s in, I think, Palm Desert. And strangers around the bar were discussing last night’s episode of Cheers, and they were quoting us back to ourselves… without knowing that we were us! It was fantastic."

All eleven seasons of Cheers are streaming now on Netflix and Hulu.