Lilith’s First Appearance on Cheers

Trying to get to sleep last night I wandered the halls of Youtube looking for the comfort of the eighties and found Lilith’s introduction to Cheers. A triumph. She’s a bullshit-sniper in this little scene, systematically stripping every action and utterance down to its naked social function. In a bar, where speech is basically ALL veneer, this has awesome and weird results.

This same episode introduces another character, an anti-Lilith by the name of Candi, who embodies the Cheers regular’s Platonic ideal of womanhood: speaks in a breathy little girl voice, takes an instant liking to whatever package of man she’s aimed at, is a sweet fluttering basket of accommodation and sex.

To its credit, the show exposes the gaps in that fantasy. It could have stuck with the spectrum it sketches out: Lilith’s frigid Freud act as the the counterpart to Candi’s hot bubblegum. It doesn’t, though. What assures Lilith’s survival on the show and saves her from caricature is her awareness of her affect. It’s not that she can’t do quippy one-liners, it’s that she just prefers not to indulge in this particular brand of human weakness. She’s a Bartleby. The comedic result is that Lilith can’t quite be laughed at (although the regulars try). To laugh at Lilith for being humorless is like laughing at a hipster for being weirdly dressed. The minute you laugh, you’ve missed the point.

There’s one moment I can’t figure out: when Sam calls her charming in this clip, Lilith turns her sharp blank face to him and calls his flattery “specious and obligatory.” He says, “Thanks,” and walks away. What’s the joke’s angle? Is it that Sam doesn’t understand words like “specious and obligatory”—his vocabulary is a long-running joke on Cheers—and is performing his barman act, charming the lady without being charmed? In that case, the grinning eyeroll as he walks away is about his lack of attraction to her, telegraphed in winks. Or does he understand what she’s said and realize that if she’s calling out his dashing dishonesty, he’s pretty much out of ammo? In which case, he’s beating a hasty retreat and laughing both at his limits and hers?

She looks befuddled at his response, but I can’t tell whether her confusion is bafflement at his stupidity or amazement that he had the panache to take a diss as praise. If it’s the latter, she might—in spite of herself—be admiring the social grace she’s made it her life’s work to expose.

That’s the strength of the writing, though: Sam isn’t reducible to the easy joke of his stupidity, and Lilith isn’t reducible to the easy joke of her frigidity. Comedy, it lives in the gaps.

M

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