Glen and Les Charles watched television comedies in the early 1970s,
they saw more than just clever entertainment and escape--they saw
an opportunity to leave their unsatisfying jobs and become part
of show business. While many people might share this dream, the
Charles brothers had the talent, dedication, and luck to move from
their sofa to behind the scenes of some of the most successful comedies
in television history.
Charles were raised Mormon near Las Vegas, exposed to the glitz
of their hometown while absorbing their family's emphasis on education.
They both received a liberal arts education at University of Redlands
in Los Angeles. Les Charles followed in his mother's footsteps by
teaching public school, while Glen Charles attended law school and
eventually worked as an advertising copywriter. Neither brother
was content in his job and both dreamed of something more. So on
a Saturday night in 1974, they were watching their favorite night
of television and they became inspired--instead of just watching
CBS's Saturday line-up of All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Bob
Newhart Show, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, they would
write episodes for these television comedies.
started by writing an episode of their favorite, The Mary Tyler
Moore Show, and sending it to MTM Productions. After receiving
no response, they persisted, writing a sample episode of every television
comedy they enjoyed and sending it to the producers on spec. Confident
in their talents, they both quit their jobs to dedicate more time
to their writing; Les Charles and his wife were living out of their
van when the Charles brothers received notification of their first
sold script. They lived off the money and excitement generated from
seeing their episode of M*A*S*H on the air, but no jobs followed
immediately. Finally after two years and dozens of unsolicited scripts,
they received the phone call they'd been waiting for--the producers
at MTM had read their first script at last and offered Glen and
Les jobs as staff writers on the spin-off Phyllis.
Often referred to as MTM Television University, MTM Productions
was a training ground for young writers in the 1970s, offering a
supportive atmosphere that emphasized talent and quality over commercial
success and popularity. The Charles brothers quickly climbed up
the ranks in MTM, moving from story editors to producers at Phyllis
and eventually getting the opportunity to produce one of the programs
that had first inspired them, The Bob Newhart Show. While
at Phyllis, the brothers met a colleague with whom they would
form a long fruitful working partnership--James Burrows. The Charles
brothers and Burrows "graduated" from MTM together when four MTM
veterans created Taxi and hired this team to oversee the
daily production of the show. Glen and Les left MTM to become writer/producers
for Taxi while Burrows directed the series.
brought both success and acclaim to the Charles brothers, winning
Emmy awards for their writing in addition to TV's top honor in their
category--Outstanding Comedy Series. But Glen, Les, and Jim Burrows
all felt an itch to work on a series that was uniquely their own,
not the concept of other writers and producers. So after three highly
successful years at Taxi, the trio left the show to form
Charles Burrows Charles Productions and create their own signature
brand of television comedy. Luckily for them, Grant Tinker had just
taken over NBC and was looking for "quality" programming to fill
out the last-place network's schedule. Without even a concept or
script in hand, Tinker gave Charles Burrows Charles a deal to produce
a new comedy for NBC.
three partners were fans of the British comedy Fawlty Towers
and thought that setting the series in a hotel would be a good choice.
Like the British series, theirs would feature odd guests passing
through and associating with the series regulars. But after sketching
out their ideas, they realized that most scenes took place in the
hotel bar and they could streamline the show by eliminating the
hotel altogether. Unlike the seedy atmosphere commonly associated
with bars, they envisioned a classy neighborhood tavern based on
a Boston pub. To avoid any implication that they were glorifying
drinking they made the owner of the bar a recovering alcoholic.
After casting a group of unknowns, many of whom had been guest stars
on Taxi, Cheers was born.
While Cheers certainly bore many of the marks of MTM shows
and Taxi, there were aspects distinct to Charles Burrows
Charles. Unlike most MTM shows, there were no well-known actors
on the show, which relyied solely on the comedic talent of the cast
and writing to draw in audiences. While Taxi had moved away
from the middle-class and optimistic settings of MTM programs and
toward a grittier and more pessimistic view of the world, Cheers
found a middle-ground--while no characters were truly happy with
their jobs or circumstances, there was a contentedness in the bar
where "everybody knew your name" that was never present in Taxi.
The major adjustment the Charles brothers brought to Cheers
was the presence of a long-term narrative arc concerning the tempestuous
romance between Sam Malone and Diane Chambers; Glen and Les wrote
this aspect of the series in direct reaction to the static relationship
between Mary Richards and Lou Grant, which never changed through
the course of the Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Luckily for the Charles brothers, Tinker was willing to give Cheers
a chance to develop this long-term arc. The program's first season
ratings were horrible (77th place), but both Tinker and his programming
head Brandon Tartikoff were fans of Cheers and subsequently
gave the show another chance. Emmy awards followed, word of mouth
grew, and the show gained in the ratings, but it wasn't until The
Cosby Show found its place in the lead-off slot of NBC's Thursday
night line-up that Cheers turned into a blockbuster show.
The Charles brothers moved away from writing individual episodes
and served as general overseers of the program from their executive
producer chairs. They attempted to develop a stable of programs
by introducing the Cheers spin-off The Tortellis and
All is Forgiven, but both shows bombed; after this failure,
Glen and Les Charles decided that they were not the "comedy factory"
type of producers. They needed direct day-to-day control of their
programs. They stuck with Cheers as executive producers throughout
its eleven-year run and returned to the writing table to script
the series' final episode. Since Cheers, the Charles brothers
have been fairly inactive, working on a few unproduced film scripts
and other projects. But even if Glen and Les never write another
script for television, their rise from comedy fans to creators of
one of the most successful and acclaimed television series ever
should be enough for a valued place in television history.
CHARLES. Born in Henderson, Nevada, U.S.A. Attended Univerity
of Redlands, California, B.A. in English; San Francisco State University.
Advertising copywriter; began television career with brother, Les
Charles; writer-producer The Bob Newhart Show; formed Charles-Burrows-Charles
production company with television director, James Burrows; creator-producer
LES CHARLES. Born in Henderson, Nevada, U.S.A. Attended University
of Redlands, California, B.A. in English. High-School English teacher;
began television career as writer with brother, Glen Charles; writer-producer,
The Bob Newhart Show; formed Charles-Burrows-Charles production
company with television director James Burrows, 1977; creator-producer,
(Glen and Les Charles)
The Bob Newhart Show (writer-producers) 1972-83 M*A*S*H
1975-77 Phyllis (writers)
1978-83 Taxi (writers, co-producers)
1982-93 Cheers (writers, co-producers)
1986 All is Forgiven (co-producers)
1987 The Tortellis (co-producers)
Greenberg, Keith Elliot. Charles, Burrows & Charles: TV's Top
Producers (children's book). Woodbridge, Connecticut: Blackbirch
Jeff. The Taxi Book. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
Vince. Classic Sitcom. New York: MacMillan, 1987.