How Gary Portnoy Made 'Cheers' the Place 'Where Everybody Knows Your Name'
Here's a little-known fact: The "Cheers" theme song started out sounding much different than the one we know and love. In fact, it was a different song entirely.
It took a few false starts and countless revisions, but songwriters Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo eventually crafted a timeless theme song: "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," the sentimental, piano-driven bar ballad that preceded all 275 episodes of "Cheers."
With the "Cheers" theme heading into the Final Four of our Theme Song Thunderdome bracket, we spoke to Portnoy (who also sang the theme) this week about how "Where Everybody Knows Your Name" came to be. And he told us a story almost as long and convoluted as one of Cliff Clavin's meandering tales. But one that ends happily: with the creation of one of the best TV theme songs of all time.
From "Preppies" to "Cheers"
The story begins in the fall of 1981, when Portnoy and Hart Angelo were writing songs for a Broadway musical called "Preppies." One of those songs, "People Like Us," attracted the attention of a Hollywood producer, who reached out to them wanting to use it as the theme for a new NBC sitcom called "Cheers." To this day, Portnoy still doesn't know how the song made its way to that producer's desk: "About ten people have taken credit for that. I think that my co-writer had a friend at a television production company, and he was married to one of the producers. It was one of those weird Hollywood connections."
All Portnoy and Hart Angelo had to do was rewrite the lyrics, the producer said, and "People Like Us" would become the "Cheers" theme song. Great, right? There was just one problem: The producers of "Preppies" owned the rights to "People Like Us" and wouldn't let Portnoy and Hart Angelo take it elsewhere. The duo tried altering "People Like Us" just enough to avoid any legal issues, but the "Cheers" producers didn't like the result. They had no choice but to start from scratch.
But "Cheers" co-creators Glen and Les Charles (who were coming off a hit in "Taxi") weren't ready to give up. "Thankfully, the Charles brothers said, 'Take another try at it,'" Portnoy recalls. "They owed us nothing and had no reason to stick with us, but I guess they heard something they liked." As the songwriting pair continued chipping away at it, Portnoy found inspiration by reading the "Cheers" pilot script. "The writing was so crisp, and it was funny, but it was also insightful. I grew up on sitcoms, and it just seemed to be a class act from the first word."
"A smoky bar at 2 in the morning"
By the spring of 1982, though, Portnoy and Hart Angelo still hadn't quite nailed it, and time was running out. (The show was set to debut that fall.) One day, while recovering from a breakup, Portnoy started tinkling away on the piano and hit upon a sad little tune that wouldn't leave his head. And it seemed to fit what "Cheers" producers were looking for: "They wanted something that evoked a smoky bar at 2 in the morning. So right off the bat, I'm thinking Frank Sinatra's 'One More for the Road.'"
He and Hart Angelo came up with lyrics to match the melancholy melody and added a redemptive chorus about finding one place in the world "where everybody knows your name." Portnoy concedes that if the whole song had remained as downtrodden as that first verse, "it might have been a little morose. But fortunately, the chorus kicks in, and it seems to lift people's spirits. So it's sort of like the saving grace that let us get away with that verse."
Hear the "Cheers" theme song right here:
The now-iconic seven-note piano intro came later, as a way to call audiences back to the tube. "We were saying we need something that's going to get someone back from the refrigerator," Portnoy remembers. "If someone went to get a beer or a sandwich, we want something that says, 'We're here!' [The intro] wasn't that short at first. It was sort of like a trumpet fanfare. Somehow, we worked together to shorten it and make it more identifiable. It wasn't born in those seven notes, but fortunately it wound up in those seven notes."