Uncle Sammy: The 'Cheers' Episode That Was Made As Government Propaganda

"What's that variable interest rate on the bonds again, Sammy?"
"What's that variable interest rate on the bonds again, Sammy?" / Paramount Home Entertainment

Sharp writing and impeccable comic timing made NBC’s Cheers (1982-1993) one of the biggest sitcom hits of recent memory. And while neither trait is commonly associated with the U.S. government, the show still has a peculiar connection to Uncle Sam.

The Boston-based bar in Cheers was owned by former Major League Baseball player Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and home to a variety of verbal sparring partners (Shelley Long, Kirstie Alley, George Wendt, John Ratzenberger, Rhea Perlman, Woody Harrelson, and Kelsey Grammer among them) whose beer consumption never seemed to inhibit their quick wit. While it needed time to find its audience—ranking 77th out of 100 shows in its first season—it eventually became the number one show on television.

Long before Cheers became a staple of NBC's Must See TV lineup, the show’s producers received a request from the United States Treasury. The government agency wanted the series to produce a short episode extolling the virtues of United States Savings Bonds. The securities, which were introduced in 1935, were a kind of citizen-to-government loan. People could buy the bonds, the government would get the money, and the bond could later be cashed out with interest. Owing to their importance during World War II in the 1940s, they were often referred to as “war bonds.”

After the war, the bonds grew to be a popular way of saving money for many Americans. The bonds were promoted throughout popular culture, both in comics like Superman and on shows like Mr. Ed and Leave It to Beaver. With “Uncle Sam Malone,” Cheers joined that illustrious lineup.

In the 1983 clip, which the episode’s writer, Ralph Phillips, uploaded to Vimeo, Cliff Clavin (Ratzenberger) lectures on the benefits of savings bonds, which have paid for a vacation to Tahiti.

“Cliff ol’ buddy, how can you afford a little trip like this?” Norm Peterson (Wendt) inquires.

“My ol’ Uncle Sammy’s helping me pay for this one,” Cliff says, teeing up a conversation about savings bonds. Sam (Danson) reveals he’s been reading up on bonds and has been considering acquiring some. Diane Chambers (Long) protests, claiming they’re “old-fashioned” and “out of date,” seemingly echoing public perception. Cliff argues they have variable interest rates and a minimum 7.5 percent return after five years. Discussion of the financial implications of owning bonds, including tax exemptions, continues through the rest of the episode. Faced with this deluge of peer pressure, Diane finally agrees the bonds sound like a wise investment.

Despite its short running time, the production has most of the trappings of a conventional Cheers episode, including a title sequence and Norm ambling up to the bar. The only aberration is what appears to be a conspicuous laugh track: Cheers was normally filmed in front of a live audience.

According to Cheers: A Cultural History, the government paid for the production of the mini-episode, which never aired on NBC and has not been included in any DVD or streaming offerings of the series.

So who was it really meant for? Employees. Advocates for bonds in the workplace who encouraged other employees to sign up for a payroll bond plan (which automatically deducted money for the investment) were treated to the Cheers production, as well as a handbook featuring Danson and Long that included information about bonds.

This wasn’t the only out-of-primetime foray made by the Cheers gang. The show also filmed a spot for a Disney special celebrating Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday in 1988 and aired a made-to-order scene for the 1983 Super Bowl XVII pregame show.

And, yes, you can still buy savings bonds—you’ll just have to do it electronically. Tell them Uncle Sam Malone sent you.