Some 2 1/2 months before the final "Cheers" episode is taped, the familiar bar set is a somber place.

Many of the cast members are on hand to answer questions from television critics, and amid the buzz of numerous interviews going on at once there isn't much laughter. This mock-bar, where innumerable laughs have been crafted over the past 11 years, is only a matter of weeks away from being sent to the Smithsonian Institution.Over at the bar, on a familiar stool, is George Wendt (Norm). But instead of cracking wise, he's issuing almost a lament.

"It's sad," Wendt said of the impending end of the series. "I don't really have a perspective yet. It's a quarter of my life. It's weird."

Off in a corner of the set is John Ratzenberger, who plays Norm's barmate, mailman/know-it-all Cliff Clavin.

"There've been glassy eyes already," Ratzenberger said. "We've done a lot of hugging."

On the other side of the bar, Ted Danson openly worries about Wendt.

"They are going to have to pry him loose from the stool," he said.

As for Danson himself, "I'm always about a month behind," he said. "I'll be outon the streets weeping about a month after we're done."

Rhea Perlman, the absolutely lovely, gracious actress who plays acerbic, combative waitress Carla, sort of cringes at a question about taping that final episode. "I don't even want to anticipate that. I'm scared," she said. "I hate endings. I'll probably just want to dis-ap-pear."

(The final 90-minute episode of "Cheers," which will air May 20, was taped last week. This week the cast and crew tape their last episode, which will air sometime before that date.)

Asked what she'll miss most about the show, Perlman doesn't hesitate.

"The people. It's coming in to play with a bunch of people that you love," she said. "It's another home."

And it's that feeling of another home that has kept Americans watching for 11 seasons. This is a show that survived - no, prospered - despite losing two of its original stars. Nicholas Colasanto (Coach) died during the third season, and Shelley Long (Diane Chambers) left after the fifth season. But the show didn't miss a beat with the additions of Woody Harrelson (Woody Boyd) and Kirstie Alley (Rebecca Howe).

As a matter of fact, the cast grew almost naturally through the years. Cliff was originally supposed to appear in only seven episodes the first season, but Ratzenberger did all but one. Dr. Frazier Crane (Kelsey Grammar) was only scheduled for a few episodes as well, and he's been there almost nine seasons.

And Dr. Lilith Sternin-Frazier (Bebe Neuwirth) turned what was supposed to be a single guest shot into almost six seasons.

All these characters will soon be headed for the eternity of probably unending reruns in syndication - a fact that has caused no little distress to "Cheers" fans.

"People stop me all the time. It's just amazing to me," Perlman said. "I know as much as I feel bad, there's all these people out there who feel really bad, too."

Originally, there weren't many fans. During its first season (1982-83), the show was a ratings disaster - actually finishing dead last in the Nielsen rankings one week.

"But even when we were way down in the ratings - way down - we all knew we had a special show," Perlman said. "It was never, like, coming into work and feeling down. It was always a positive feeling. We knew we were going to pull out of it."

And pull out they did. By its third season, "Cheers" was No. 12. And from 1985 through 1992, the show was never out of the top five - even finishing No. 1 for the 1990-91 season.

In its 11th season, the show is still No. 9.

The show has also won a total of 26 Emmys so far - second only to "The Mary Tyler Moore Show's" 29.

Danson is quick to credit the writing for the show's quality and longevity.

"And I think the bar," he said. "The bar itself is such a huge character. It seems to me that if the bar turns around and welcomes whoever walks in, and accepts them, then the audience accepts them."

Danson sparks somewhat at the suggestion that the "Cheers" characters have become a family - albeit a rather unusual family - down through the years.

"I like that. It's about total screw-ups who can't survive on their own getting together," Danson said. "Yeah, we are definitely a family."

An immediate family that will bid members of its millions-strong extended family farewell on May 20.

*****

(Additional information)

Write your own ending to `Cheers'

The cast of "Cheers" has been talking about ending the series for the past couple of seasons. And, during those talks, they've speculated on how the curtain might come down on Sam, Rebecca, Carla, Woody, Norm and Cliff.

"Well, we'd just goof around about how, `Wouldn't it be great if we all ended up with each other,' " said Rhea Perlman (Carla). "Which I know isn't going to happen, but wouldn't it be great?"

At the Deseret News, we'd like to know what you think would be a great ending for "Cheers" - so we're inviting you to write your own and enter our "Cheers to `Cheers' " contest.

So here's your chance. You tell us how you'd like to see "Cheers" wrap things up after 11 seasons on the air.

We know that Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) will reappear at the bar for the first time in six years in the final episode, and that the bar will remain open after the credits roll. (Reports that President Clinton will appear have not been confirmed.)

But you can take the characters any place you want. Write your mini-script in 500 words or less and send it to:

Deseret News

Cheers to "Cheers" contest

P.O. Box 1257

Salt Lake City, UT 84110

Entries must be postmarked no later than May 3, 1993, and will be judged by members of the Deseret News staff.

In addition to prizes - a $50 ZCMI gift certificate to the winner, Far Side mugs to 10 runners up - we'll print the winning entry in its entirety in the Deseret News, along with excerpts from the runners-up.

As for Perlman, she has only one hope for her character.

"I think I would just like to see her be in the exact same place where she started," she said. "With a few more kids."

(Carla had four kids when the series began; she now has eight.)

George Wendt, on the other hand, has a different ending in mind.

"For Norm, it'd probably be just like an endless dream," he said.

There have some reports that Norm's unseen wife, Vera, will make an appearance, but Wendt isn't crazy about that idea.

"Oooh. I don't think he'd go for that," he said. But he does know what Norm himself ought to do.

"He'd probably better go to A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous)," Wendt said.

John Ratzenberger knows exactly how he'd like to see his character, Cliff Clavin, make his exit.

"I'd like to see Cliff carried out in a strait jacket screaming about UFOs eating his liver," he said.

- Scott D. Pierce