CHARLES, GLEN AND LES

U.S. Writer-Producers

When 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.

The 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.

They 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.

Taxi 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.

All 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.

-Jason Mittell

 

GLEN 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 Taxi, Cheers.

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, Taxi, Cheers.

TELEVISION (Glen and Les Charles)

1972-78 The Bob Newhart Show (writer-producers) 1972-83 M*A*S*H (writers)
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)

FURTHER READING

Greenberg, Keith Elliot. Charles, Burrows & Charles: TV's Top Producers (children's book). Woodbridge, Connecticut: Blackbirch Press, 1995.

Sorensen, Jeff. The Taxi Book. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcom. New York: MacMillan, 1987.

 

See also Cheers