The Best Character On Cheers Was Also The Meanest: Ms. Carla Tortelli

Carla Tortelli hated her co-workers, her customers, and probably you. That's what made her the best.

Cheers hails from an era when the purpose of a sitcom was to fire jokes mercilessly at the audience. There'd be plots about prank wars, and even Very Special Episodes about learning to appreciate things, but they were all excuses for joke after joke after joke. And the most reliable joke machine on Cheers was Rhea Perlman as Carla Tortelli, which means she's one of the most reliable joke machines in television history.

Because Cheers was a great show, the jokes normally came from character. A Carla joke would be different from a joke told by someone else on the show, usually because it was meaner: Carla's role was "mean waitress." This positioned her well to bounce off Diane ("smart waitress"), Sam ("dumb lothario"), Coach ("dumb old guy"), Woody ("dumb young guy"), Cliff ("dumb guy who thinks he's smart"), Frasier ("dumb guy who actually is smart"), Norm ("drunk guy"), and Rebecca ("drunk...Kirstie Alley").

Carla was specifically mean. And sure, everyone on a gag-based sitcom is going to get off a few jokes at the expense of others: even if Ray Romano's wife allegedly loves him, she'll still razz him. But Carla meant everything she said. She genuinely disliked Diane. She had nothing but contempt for Frasier. And the drunks who hung out there every day? If anything, her visceral dislike for Cliff Claven was understated from what it actually would have been if both of them were real. If you want to imagine being at the beck and call of a know-it-all dope, just picture the internet, except it's your job to bring everyone drinks.

The set of Cheers was optimally designed to maximize Carla's effect. A lot of series don't seem like producers have put much thought into their sets: they stick a couch in the middle of a room, throw in some entrances and exits, and call it a day. But Cheers (the bar, not the show) had a lot of places for people to be. A discussion could be happening at either end of the bar, at a table, behind the bar, or just kind of standing around. And no matter where a discussion was taking place, Carla could plausibly walk past on her way to deliver a drink to someone, and she always had a punch line to deliver.

Sometimes, Carla wouldn't even slow down. As the stooges finished their setup lines, Carla would already be appearing on screen, and her insult would finish exactly as she vanished from view. The only logical conclusion is that she was constantly monitoring every conversation in the bar, so she'd know where to head next. She was working on another level from everyone else. Norm only had to be prepared with a gag when he entered the bar; Carla stayed on her feet the whole time. If a discussion looked like it was drifting in a direction that would allow a zinger, she had to start heading over there, just in case. We never really got to see it, but Carla must have been circling like a shark, constantly looking for victims.

Carla was so compelling that she was the choice for the first Cheers spinoff. But the problem was that she was too important to the show to be allowed to leave. And she was so entertaining that she created kind of a halo effect: just because Dan Hedaya had been funny in scenes with Carla, it was assumed that he could carry The Tortellis to glory. Instead, he carried it to an early cancellation, because it turned out the only Tortelli anyone cared about was the one who was funny.

Carla wasn't a character that inspired a lot of love. But without her, Cheers would have just been attractive people who couldn't decide whether they wanted to kiss each other. Comedies need their mean jerks, and she was the meanest jerk of them all.


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