‘Heart’ of an Author
Former ‘Cheers’ writer-producer Phoef Sutton is following his true passion as a novelist, with an appearance at Vroman’s on Tuesday
By Carl Kozlowski 11/10/2016
Phoef Sutton had a TV career that most writers would kill for, as a writer-producer for the all-time classic sitcom “Cheers.” Then, the 28-year Pasadena resident decided to pursue his bigger dream of becoming a novelist.
Sutton has written five comic thrillers on his own and two collaborative novels with well-known mystery writer Janet Evanovich. His latest, “Heart Attack and Vine,” is the second in a series about a Los Angeles bodyguard/bouncer named Crush and focuses on the character being drawn into a criminal mess.
Sutton, who was actually born Robert Christopher and was bestowed the nickname Phoef (Pronounced Feef) by his brothers as a toddler, will be discussing and signing the book on Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena. He recently took time to discuss both the book and his work on “Cheers.”
PW: How did you get into novel writing after such a long career in television?
Phoef Sutton: I wrote short stories in high school, plays in college that I got to put on and was in them, which is quite an experience because you have no one to blame when you’re in a play written by you. You can’t say, “Who wrote this shit?”
Then I thought I wanted to write a novel, but I got into television writing. That’s like a play, with entrances, exits, and distinct scenes. Finally I wrote a novel, and now I’ve slowly done more and more, and now I’m pretty much doing that full time.
These are more mystery novels than comedic ones. How did that happen?
I just look at the world from a comic slant, I guess. My first couple of novels, you couldn’t say what genre they were, but with the novel “Crush” I said let me just write a straight on, hardboiled mystery with a detective who’s not really a detective, a Travis McGee kind of a character. Most of my characters were just like me, so I wrote the opposite: a big, tough, handsome guy who runs into trouble situations while I’d run out.
What makes “Cheers” stand the test of time?
It was the lowest-rated show its first year, so It shouldn’t have lasted, but it got good reviews and won an Emmy its first season and [NBC executives] Grant Tinker and Brandon Tartikoff really liked it and left it on. There was a slow build, and it took until the fourth season to break into the top 10 shows. One of the reasons they got [lead characters] Sam and Diane together at the end of the first season is they thought that was it. The whole thing was about their relationship, so when it got saved, the writers had to do all kinds of variations to keep it going.
Yet the show had a remarkable ability to thrive, even after cast changes.
Those were sad accidents. The cast kept changing throughout the course of the show. Coach, played by Nick Colasanto, died, and Woody Harrelson came in to replace him just as Shelly [Long] left the show without Diane. Frasier and Lilith were brought in to be the new intellectuals in Diane’s absence.
Frasier could do the high-falutin’ opera jokes we liked, and one of the reasons the show doesn’t age as much as a lot of shows was that [creators] Les and Glen Charles were adamant that we’d never do any pop culture references about things going on right there and in that time. They figured it would date it in reruns. And we couldn’t do a lot of very explicit sex jokes because of the time were on in the ’80s and ’90s. You could say boink, but that’s as much as we could say. If you told a young comedy writer today you can’t do any pop culture references or dick jokes, they’d say “There’s no comedy there!” But we managed to do it.
Phoef Sutton discusses and signs “Heart Attack and Vine” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320 or visit vromans.com.