Why 'Cheers' favorite John Ratzenberger makes a rare TV appearance in 'Poker Face'

Ratzenberger has a key role in the second episode of the Peacock series

Natasha Lyonne and John Ratzenberger in Poker Face. (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)
Natasha Lyonne and John Ratzenberger in the second episode of Poker Face. (Photo: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock)

It's been 30 years since Boston's friendliest bar closed its doors, but everyone still knows John Ratzenberger's name. The Cheers star-turned-Pixar good luck charm makes an increasingly rare live-action onscreen appearance in Poker Face, the new "case of the week" crime series from Rian Johnson and Natasha Lyonne. In the tradition of classic detective shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote, every episode features guest appearances by famous faces from past and present movies and TV shows, and the now 75-year-old Ratzenberger is front and center in the show's second hour, currently streaming on Peacock.

"He's an absolute legend," Johnson raves of Cheers's resident random trivia master — and famous Jeopardy! flop. "He came out to Albuquerque, and was so happy to be there. He would crack us up on set." Lyonne confirms that Ratzenberger liked to keep the cast and crew laughing during his guest star stint with very particular comic stylings. "John would say some weird thing where you think he's not listening, and then he'd go off on this whole mini-riff," she remembers. "He's a funny, funny guy."

Johnson adds that Ratzenberger's presence in the second episode encapsulates the show's general approach to the deep bench of guest stars that will pop up over the course of the first season, including Judith Light, Tim Meadows and Ron Perlman. "It's about people coming onscreen that are gonna give you joy," he notes, adding that another Cheers cameo is planned for a future episode. "Rhea Perlman has a part later on, too, so we're slowly re-assembling the Cheers cast."

Watch our interview with the stars and creator of Poker Face on YouTube

Beyond setting the stage for future joy-giving cameos, Ratzenberger's episode also establishes the tone and structure of a typical Poker Face case after the Johnson-helmed series premiere does all the heavy world-building. The super-sized premiere depicts how Lyonne's former card sharp, Charlie Cale, is forced to flee Las Vegas after running afoul of a casino magnate and his dogged security chief, played by Benjamin Bratt — the only other regular cast member of the series besides Lyonne.

In the sophomore outing, Charlie pulls into a tiny middle-of-nowhere town... and promptly stumbles into a murder investigation. The conceit of Poker Face is that viewers know the identity of the killer right away, but Charlie has to piece together what happened using her Incredible Hulk-like superpower: the ability to catch anyone in a lie. In this particular case, Ratzenberg plays local mechanic Abe, who has a personal connection to the murderer.

Abe is also representative of the kind of characters that Johnson is making a point of featuring in Poker Face: working class, middle-of-the-country Americans who aren't typically featured on network crime shows or in big-screen detective yarns like the director's own Knives Out franchise. "That was a big part of the show, this notion of Charlie going into places that you don't see on a lot of TV shows," Johnson confirms. "It's not going to be high-rise buildings where she's taking down executives. It's gonna be regional dinner theaters and stock car races. Being able to do little deep dives into those corners of America is exciting."

"Our joke was that this show doesn't take place at the Four Seasons," adds Lilla Zuckerman, who serves as Poker Face's showrunner alongside her sister, Nora Zuckerman. "It takes place at Four Seasons Total Landscaping."

Poker Face also makes a point of revealing that those corners of America now boast a more diverse population than is often expected. That's of a piece with recent shows like the Apple TV+ anthology series, Little America — overseen by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon — which similarly seeks to dispel some of the long-held myths of what so-called "real America" looks like now. "There are micro-cultures all over our country," Zuckerman notes. "Our show is really a celebration of that."

Johnson says that Poker Face's onscreen diversity was also reflected in the writer's room. "We tried to put some work into the getting into those little worlds that we delve into," he explains. "We tried to get as close to the reality of it as we can. Obviously, it's not a Frederick Wiseman documentary — it's still a detective show. But we wanted to assemble a writer's room that had some degree of diversity in terms of backgrounds and also where people came from in the country."

Poker Face is currently streaming on Peacock