“Cheers” sitcom writer shares her story

Feb. 4, 2014, 3:00 a.m.
SAMRA ADENI/The Stanford Daily
SAMRA ADENI/The Stanford Daily

Cheri Steinkellner, winner of four Emmys and three Golden Globes, spoke at Meyer Library on Monday evening, discussing her experiences as the writer for the sitcom “Cheers” as well as the intricacies of writing for television and her life and career as a writer.

The event was put on by Tom Kealey, a lecturer in the Creative Writing Program, who framed his invitation to Steinkellner as an opportunity to students to come into contact with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable raconteur.

“Quite frankly, we want people who are good storytellers, who can entertain and who are very approachable,” Kealey said.

Steinkellner began her story by admitting that her career was not without obstacles.

“In late 1985, in the space of one week, we [she and her husband] lost our jobs, found out I was pregnant and we didn’t know how we would pay for that house or that baby,” Steinkellner said.

The couple would write “spec” scripts, meaning they wrote speculatively without an assignment or pay.

“We would write an episode of an existing show and send it out to producers,” she said. “After three years, we were invited to come in and pitch stories for ‘The Jeffersons.’ And we ended up making five of six stories in one of the seasons.”

After the show ended, Steinkellner decided to take on the position of writer for “Cheers.” She noted that “Cheers” was designed to play like a play on a single-unit set, where the dialogue was heavy and the character voices very distinct.

“It was a joy for writers to be able to work on this show,” Steinkellner said. “We could play at the top of our game and be as smart as we could be. We had to learn in order to know how to talk in the voice of our various characters. We were trying to cover all comic possibilities.”

During her talk, Steinkellner also described the three different stages that a person goes through when writing and producing: the preproduction stage, in which stories are being written or edited; the on-the-stage show of that week; and finally post-production in which episodes are edited and prepared to go on air.

“The writing process works a number of different ways,” Steinkellner said. “Generally the writers will get together a couple of months before the actors come in. We will design an arc for the entire season and start breaking stories.”

Steinkellner also mentioned that she believed one of the greatest gifts in writing sitcom is learning to write fast and economically.

“I do like zooming through a first draft so that you can get all the way to the end because often you get to the end and it changes at the beginning,” she said. “But, you can’t know that until you get to the end. Keeping that perspective that none of this is that precious and that it can’t be changed is really helpful.”

Over 20 students attended the event, emerging largely appreciative of the experience. Lyric McHenry ’14 was one of those highly satisfied with Steinkellner’s presentation.

“She’s one of the best speakers I’ve heard in a long time,” McHenry said. “She was really engaging and really succinct, which is probably due to the fact that she’s a really good writer. She was funny, engaging and entertaining all at the same time.”


Contact Angelique Dakkak at angeldak ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.

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