‘Cheers’ Robots in Airport Bars Were the Original Comedy A.I.
Experiencing a long flight delay sucked just a little bit less in the 1990s. That’s because at 13 airports around the country, you could spend your layover in a replica of the bar from Cheers, the Emmy Award-winning sitcom. But that’s not the best part. In addition to downing overpriced airport lager and purchasing Cheers-themed swag like shot glasses and T-shirts, you could share the rail with robot replicas of everyone’s favorite comedy barflies: Norm and Cliff.
Flight crew still an hour away from the gate? Chow down on a Sam’s Submarine Sandwich or Woody’s Polish Hot Dog. Throw back a few steins of Norm’s Big Brewski, all the while striking up a conversation with the animatronic alcoholics on the stool next to you. Yeah, the robots talked, but not on any schedule that made sense, with jokes written by people who design airport restaurants:
“Didn’t the doc tell you to watch what you eat?”
“I am. I’m watching to make sure I don’t eat anything healthy.”
“Everything here in the bar was meant to remind the American traveler not of home, but of a series that appears each week on television,” according to a review by the Chicago Tribune’s Bob Greene.
Which probably sounded great for John Ratzenberger and George Wendt, the actors whom the robots were clearly meant to resemble. Why not have mechanical duplicates appearing around the country, raking in that sweet personal-appearance-fee cash? One problem: There was no such cash. There wasn’t even a Norm and Cliff — instead, it was “Bob” and “Hank,” two robots who looked something like the actual Cheers cast members but hopefully not enough for Wendt and Ratzenberger to get paid.
The Chuck E. Cheese-meets-Bizarro World-meets-Must See TV concept was a hit, and Wendt and Ratzenberger took their robotic cousins to court. The humans lost the first round since federal law says studios like Paramount Pictures have the legal right to use characters they created. That sucks, argued lawyers — that meant studios could dress up robots like Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine and have them sell toilet paper, beer or anything they wanted.
On appeal, another judge said Ratzenberger and Wendt could sue. A series of challenges followed as the case became the first involving Cheers robots ever to appear before the Supreme Court. Finally, in October 2000, the Court ruled against Paramount, opening the door for Wendt and Ratzenberger to sue for damages. The lawsuit was settled out of court and “Bob” and “Hank” were out of business. (By 2000, Cheers was no longer a popular TV show so they were due to retire anyway.)
You’d think that would have been the end of people recreating virtual sitcom favorites without compensating the original actors, but there’s Watch Me Forever, the A.I.-created Seinfeld episode on Twitch that might just run into infinity. The creators are getting away with it by naming the main character “Larry Feinberg” and we’re actually okay with Seinfeld not milking any more cash of this. But for the love of God, please keep Feinberg off the corner stage at the airport Applebee’s.