By all accounts, Norm Peterson is one of the most pathetic specimens in television history. The Cheers barfly, played by actor George Wendt, is frequently unemployed, lacking any sense of ambition and spends his days sitting on a bar stool from open till close. As Norm himself so eloquently put it in the fourth season of the sitcom: “It’s a dog eat dog world, and I’m wearing Milk-Bone underwear.” He does, however, seem to have one thing going for him: limitless amounts of free beer.
Throughout the series, Norm’s unpaid bar tab, which was never assigned a specific amount, was one of the show’s most reliable running jokes. In one episode, it’s mentioned that his tab occupies “most of the memory” on the bar’s computer. In another, someone quips that Norm has a tab “the size of his pants.” Later, bar owner Sam Malone even refers to Norm’s tab as his “retirement plan.” “One of these days, you’ll start paying, and I can start thinking about retiring,” he explains. So the natural question — as posed on countless Reddit threads and Quora boards — is this: How much, precisely, was Norm’s tab on Cheers?
Well, I’ve examined all 275 episode scripts, plumbed the depths of the Cheers message boards and consulted an array of experts — including Wendt himself — and determined that the answer to this question is far more dizzying and complicated than I ever expected.
Obviously, the first thing I did when trying to discern Norm’s tab was Google it. Perhaps some diligent redditor had done the calculations, or some collegiate mathematician had published their dissertation on the subject online. I found a few noble attempts, but none had the scientific rigor to satisfy me. For example, a forum post from 2003 reasonably assumed Norm had 11 beers a day, every day, for 37 years (from 1966 — when Norm reached drinking age — to 2003). However, it assumed the price of beer was $2 for all of those years, regardless of inflation or brand, and it failed to account for specific shifts in Norm’s tab that occur in the series. Because of this, I concluded that their total of $260,149.22 was insufficient. Another post put the number at $32,032, but offered no reasoning as to why. Yet another claimed, “They say once on Letterman the actual number, but I forgot. I think it was like $360,000 or somethin’.” Of course, I found nothing on Google to support the idea that such an event occurred on any of David Letterman’s talk shows.
Next, I turned to writer and producer Tom Leopold, who worked on Cheers during the show’s final season (which, coincidentally, is when the “Norm’s tab” jokes became most rampant). Taking a wild guess, Leopold estimated $1.2 million. Unfortunately, that’s entirely unscientific and can’t be deemed official. Leopold also cautions me not to look too closely at Norm’s tab, explaining, “There are certain things you have to cheat on TV. Like, you never actually see any money change hands on Cheers, and part of the reason is that putting actual dollar amounts on things would date the show in the future thanks to inflation. The same can be said for Norm’s tab — a specific amount of money might seem quaint a few years later.”
Despite Leopold’s warning, I soldiered on. If the internet didn’t know and a Cheers writer was taking wild guesses, I figured that Wendt, who spent 11 years as Norm himself, might have some insight. Fortunately, Wendt is readily available via Cameo, so I posed the question to him there:
While he didn’t have an exact dollar amount at the ready, he did offer some help in what numbers to crunch. “The show ran for 11 seasons,” explains Wendt. “That’s 11 times 365 [at] 10 beers a day. I’ll let you do the math.” He also said he was 33 years old when Cheers began in 1982, and that Norm likely had been going there for 10 years prior to that.
Using Wendt’s numbers, I determined that Norm drank 3,652.5 beers every year — also accounting for leap years — from 1972 until when the show ended on May 20, 1993. I then found a website that gives the average price of a beer through those years. Assuming Norm never paid for a single beer — and that the tab just kept growing — I crunched Wendt’s numbers and found that Norm’s tab would have been $123,953.98
Norm’s tab at the end of Cheers, according to George Wendt: $123,953.98
But even as I crunched those numbers, I automatically knew that they didn’t account for specific aspects about Norm’s tab mentioned in the show. To note just a couple, it’s specifically stated that Norm has been coming to Cheers since at least the 1960s, perhaps even as early as 1966 (when he would have turned 18 and been able to drink legally in Massachusetts). There were also occasions where Norm’s tab was reduced, paid off and even wiped out, meaning Norm’s tab wasn’t an ever-growing number.
Unfortunately, this meant that I was going to have to do what I feared all along — consult all 275 episodes of Cheers for specific references to Norm’s tab. Fortunately, every single script of Cheers is online, ready to be searched and analyzed. One at a time, I searched the word “tab” in every episode of the show, and noted each mention of it. To my surprise, “Norm’s tab” jokes didn’t begin until Season Six, when Ted Danson’s Sam Malone sold the bar to a corporation and Kirstie Alley’s Rebecca Howe joined the cast as the new manager of Cheers (Sam soon returned as a bartender, but he didn’t regain ownership of Cheers until the beginning of Season Nine). This either means that Norm didn’t have a tab for the first five seasons of Cheers or, much more likely, that Sam didn’t haggle him about it.
I quickly realized, though, that most of the “Norm’s tab” jokes had no basis in reality. For example, in Season Nine, Paul — a tertiary barfly played by actor Paul Willson — says, “Norm Peterson has a tab the size of his pants.” So I sent the clip to Deborah Fitzgerald, a tailor’s assistant. “Norm’s waistline in that clip is, at most, 42 inches,” she informs me. Which, I guess, would mean Norm’s bar tab was over $42 or $4,200 or $42,000 — there’s just no way of knowing. Luckily, there were certain, more specific references to the tab that could point to a real number. Below, I’ve broken them down season-by-season, beginning with Season Six.
The first useful reference to Norm’s tab is in the sixth episode of Season Six, when Rebecca mentions that Norm is precisely $837 over his credit limit. In the entire history of the series, this is the only time an actual numerical value is assigned to his tab. Even still, $837 over the limit doesn’t tell us what the limit was, though I was able to discern two possible answers. Way back in Season Four, Kelsey Grammer’s Frasier Crane was first becoming a regular at Cheers following his breakup with a woman named Diane Chambers. In episode two of that season, Sam tells Frasier that his tab has reached $500, which Sam explained was out of his comfort zone. Now, that was when Sam still owned the bar, but assuming Rebecca kept this policy years later, it could mean that in Season Six of Cheers, Norm’s tab was $837 over that $500 limit, making it $1,337.
Norm’s tab in early Season Six, assuming the Cheers tab limit is $500: $1,337
Still, it’s highly unlikely that Rebecca — who liked to think of herself as a tough, savvy business woman — would keep such a liberal policy. Given that, I decided to see if anyone from the real Cheers might be able to offer some insight. For those who don’t know, the bar in Cheers is based on a real bar in Boston that used to be named The Bull & Finch Pub, and is now called Cheers. It’s a popular tourist spot, so it’s unlikely that the current staff could shed light on what a tab limit might be at a neighborhood bar back in 1987 (when Season Six of Cheers began). So, I tracked down 79-year-old Eddie Doyle, a bartender at the real-life Cheers/Bull & Finch Pub from 1974 until 2009, and I asked him what kind of a limit might have been put on bar regulars back in the 1980s.
“We would extend tabs to the regulars,” Doyle tells me. “One time, one of the owners found the record the bartenders kept of what everybody owed, which I’d say totaled around $800. The owner was mad because he didn’t think we’d see that money.” But as far as one person’s limit is concerned, Doyle says that even a regular’s bar tab would not have gone past $50 or $60 before having to square up. This, to me, sounds more like a policy that Rebecca would have enforced — even if Norm was allowed to exceed it — which means that Norm’s tab in Season Six would have been $887 or $897.
Norm’s tab in early Season Six, assuming the Cheers tab limit is $50 or $60: $887 or $897
Unfortunately, this only applies during the early days of Season Six. In the episode where Rebecca mentions that Norm is over the limit, he works down his tab by painting the office in Cheers and Rebecca’s apartment. At the end of the episode, it’s unclear if Norm has paid off his entire tab or not, but, given the evidence, it’s possible that he did.
In the next episode, Norm is back on his stool, drinking like he always has, which means he’s no longer cut off. Also, for the rest of Season Six, Norm’s tab isn’t mentioned at all. The next mention of it is during Season Seven, Episode 12, when the following exchange takes place between Norm and Rebecca:
Rebecca: I’ve been going over the books, Norm, and I think it’s time to pay your tab.
Norm: Oh, gee, thanks, Rebecca.
Rebecca: I mean, it’s time for you to pay your tab.
Norm: Me? I paid it last month.
This implies that, at this point in the series, Norm has been paying his tab on a monthly basis. How long he kept this up is impossible to say, but it does mean his tab reached zero at least once or twice during early 1989 — it’s even possible that he’s been paying it monthly since late 1987, when Rebecca last cut him off. Perhaps that experience was so traumatizing to Norm that he managed to keep up with his bar bill for the next 18 months.
Norm’s tab in Season Seven: $0 (at least occasionally)
However, in Season Eight, it’s clear that Norm has once again let his bar tab pile up, because Rebecca accuses Norm of trying to erase his tab from the office computer. Norm’s delinquency is short-lived, however. When Sam buys back the bar at the beginning of Season Nine, he erases everyone’s tab, Norm’s included, bringing Norm’s tab, once again, down to $0.
Norm’s Tab in Season Nine: $0 (This probably lasted 10 minutes tops)
Toward the end of Season Nine, “Norm’s tab” jokes begin to reappear, mostly as a point of contention for Sam, who seems a bit less forgiving of Norm than he was in the first five seasons. That said, Norm is the only patron at this time who has a tab, as Sam specifically states that no one else is allowed to have one. At the very end of Season Nine, we actually see Norm’s tab for the first time when he tricks Woody’s fiance — who’s waitressing at Cheers — into erasing much of it. At this point, Norm’s tab is kept in a thin black binder with maybe 30 to 50 pages in it.
At the beginning of Season 10, the binder appears again, and this time it says “NORM” on it in big red letters. Still, the amount of pages looks about the same.
Then, sometime in Season 10 — I don’t know quite when — something rather extraordinary happens. Using the Marvel-movie parlance of our times, this is when the main Cheers continuity branches off into another timeline in the vast Cheers multiverse. In this new reality, everything is exactly the same as it was before, except for Norm’s bar tab, which has gone from voluminous to outright cartoonish. Instead of a thin black binder with about 50 pages, it’s a thick black binder with hundreds of pages.
And no, it’s not possible that Norm racked up this much beer in Season 10 alone, because this new tab brings with it a number of Cheers continuity errors. For one, Sam says that the tab goes “All the way back to when we didn’t even know your name — ‘skinny guy at the end of the bar.’” But other episodes make it clear that Norm has been coming to Cheers well before Sam bought it in 1977. Also, Sam had wiped clean Norm’s tab at the beginning of Season Nine! Would Sammy renege on his word? No. That’s not who Sammy is, so this is clearly another reality where he never wiped Norm’s tab clean, Norm never worked off — or paid off — his tab under Rebecca and, perhaps, Norm has never paid for a single beer since he first arrived at Cheers in the 1960s.
Honestly, this is probably what people are looking for when they want to know how much Norm’s tab was. To them, Norm is like Wimpy from Popeye, who promises, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.” The joke is, of course, that Wimpy is never paying for that hamburger, and Norm, well, he’s never paid for a beer in his life. All of which really only leaves me with one option: To calculate what Norm’s tab is presuming that he never paid for a single beer.
To set some parameters here, I’m going to use Wendt’s number of 10 beers per day. While, respectfully, some of his other numbers were way off, I figure Wendt likely knows Norm’s tolerance and metabolism better than anyone else. Plus, 10 is a nice, even number to calculate with. I’m going to say he’s had 10 beers per day, every day since he turned legal drinking age on October 17, 1966 (using Wendt’s birthday). I’ll also figure out what Norm’s tab was at the beginning of the series, what it was at the end of Cheers, what it was when Norm appeared on Frasier in 2002 and even what it would be today (February 18, 2022).
As for the price of beer, I cannot, in good conscience use the “price of a beer” resource I was using earlier. I, much like Leopold, assumed that the price of beer was never specifically stated in the series. Yet, Coach — played by the late, great Nicholas Colasanto — specifically mentions that a beer is just a dollar during a 1982 episode. During that time, the average price for a beer was $1.59, which is quite a bit more. The next year, in 1983, Sam raised the price of a draft by a quarter, which, I assume, brought it up to $1.25. But in 1983, the average price of a beer was $1.65. Because of this, I’m saying that Sam charged a buck for a beer from 1977 until 1982 and $1.25 for a beer from 1983 to 1986, which is very much in keeping with Sam’s laid-back business decisions. When Rebecca took over, I’m going to assume she hiked the prices to the standard average beer price, and since she stays on as the manager at Cheers even after Sam buys the bar back, I’m going to assume she kept those prices up with the times. Even after she leaves the bar in the series finale, I’m going to guess Sam hired a competent replacement who also kept up with inflation.
Given all that, here’s what I came up with:
Assuming Norm never paid for a beer in his entire tenure at Cheers, at the end of 1966 — when beer was just 75 cents a glass — he would have owed Cheers a mere $562.50. When the show premiered — and Sam was charging just a dollar for beer — Norm’s tab had already reached $55,121.48. Finally, when Cheers ended on May 20, 1993, Norm’s tab would have been $124,406.90.
Norm’s tab at the end of Cheers, using a scientific method: $124,406.90
In a rather remarkable turn of events, this amount is stunningly close to what Wendt told me from the get go! Wendt’s math generated a total of $123,953.98, whereas my, much more complex answer was $124,406.90 — a difference of less than $500! Honestly, I never thought it made much sense that Norm was an accountant on Cheers until now. It’s really pretty extraordinary.
In truth, though, with the numerous, often contradictory details known about the tab, it’s clear that it’s not just one number, nor is it an ever-increasing amount. Norm’s tab, unlike Norm himself, isn’t a solid, unchanging, sedentary thing. Instead, it’s much more like the amount of beer Norm has in his glass. Sometimes it’s full, sometimes it’s empty and sometimes the set decorators make a continuity error and it changes without explanation.