I knew a lot of Bob Newharts growing up. Midwesterners are known for being friendly, down-to-earth people, but this friendliness is strictly enforced at the expense of allowing outward expressions of difficult emotions, particularly in men. The acceptable way of getting around this psychological barricade is to make jokes, since laughter recognizes but also defuses pain. From this passive-aggressive emotional landscape has developed a rich tradition of distinctly dry, reserved, slightly absurd, WASPy comic sensibility, counting Johnny Carson, Bill Murray, Jean Shepherd, Charles Schultz, and of course Bob Newhart, among its practitioners.
Newhart was raised in the Chicago suburbs. While working as an accountant he developed a low-key, neurotic persona that sent up the white-collar businessmen of the same middle class suburbs in which I was raised. Outwardly, Newhart is an affable everyman, but the bloodhound bags under his eyes reflect deeper troubles. He combines the clean-cut frustrated straight man of Dick Smothers with the stutters and hesitation of Woody Allen, albeit with far more repression. To convey sorrow and turmoil, Newhart relies on his nearly immobile face. With the subtlest shift of his eyes he conveys exasperation, befuddlement, amusement, wariness, and desperation. I saw those expressions on many “Newhart” faces in my Midwestern youth.
Learning how to read these signals can take some getting used to, so it’s somewhat surprising how consistently successful Newhart has been. His The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the first comedy album to chart at #1, he’s the only comedian to win a Best New Artist Grammy, and he’s had two successful sitcoms over the course of twenty years. The first season of his first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, has just been released on DVD after twenty-seven years off the air and almost zero exposure in syndication.
It might seem odd that such an uptight personality was chosen to play Windy City psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley, but the temperamental gap between empathy and selfishness illuminates the secret of Newhart’s success. The show tackled adulthood with maturity rarely seen in network sitcoms today. The running theme is the loneliness and frustration of single, divorced, and generally overanxious middle-age urbanites of the early ‘70s. Bob’s wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) is afraid of flying, his secretary Carol (Marcia Wallace) is afraid of being single, and his friend Jerry (Peter Bonerz) is afraid of growing older. The main characters drink cocktails, go out every night, date actively, but aren’t particularly attractive. Never fully comfortable in the swinging city, they yearn for stability. At one point Carol wails, “I’m stuck between two generations here and I don’t get the good parts of either one.”
The irony is that Dr. Hartley is also annoyed and fed up with everyone’s problems and unable to verbalize his aggravations or inability to help himself or others. His friends frequently solve their problems on their own and Hartley’s patients never seem to get better. Newhart never tells his friends when they are annoying him, he just shift his eyes slightly and says: “It’s no problem, Jerry.”
Strangely, Bob’s patients remain largely anonymous. None of them (including notorious self-hating crank Elliot Carlin [Jack Riley]) would develop as memorable characters until subsequent seasons. Patient sessions are frequently used as comic bits preceding the plot, except for a couple of occasions in which group therapy sessions are used to drive the story forward. That the writers didn’t seek to incorporate this aspect of Dr. Hartley’s life, an obvious source of material, is mind-boggling and the main aspect of the show left undeveloped in the first season.
More often than not it is Bob’s friends who end up on the couch, both literally and figuratively. Howard Borden, exuberantly played by Bill Daily, is a divorced airline pilot who lives across the hall from Bob and Emily. He is childish and caring, sociable, gawky, and terribly lonely. Flying around the world at all hours seems to have left his life perpetually off-kilter. Though he refers to an active dating life, we never see him in a happy relationship. Storylines about his troubles are invariably touching: he fears that his son doesn’t like him, is overprotective of his sister, is alone on Christmas Eve, and a bore on a date with Carol. Bob and Emily have practically adopted him as their overgrown son, and his friendship with Bob forms the most complex relationship of the series.
If only 20th Century Fox had given Newhart’s show the DVD treatment it deserves. Technically, the series is presented in decent condition but the discs are devoid of any special features. Perhaps this is the tradeoff for paying less than $30 for twenty-four episodes, but the package feels rushed: the onscreen menus are cheap and cheesy looking, and the lack of any commentary tracks is hugely disappointing.
Buying first seasons of sitcoms often means putting up with a lot of faltering. Comedic timing and chemistry take time to develop. Accordingly, the pilot here is generically broad, a style that clashes with Newhart’s persona. After that the players and writers gel quickly. However, the ‘70s sitcom-style pacing, repetitive structure, and over reliance on predictable jokes remain part of its DNA and can make watching multiple episodes in a row quite tedious. That this comedy was once part of a revolutionary shift towards adult-oriented sitcoms that included All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show may seem hard to believe now, and saying that doesn’t necessarily help to erase its hackneyed faults.
Yet The Bob Newhart Show manages to rise above generic formulas, mostly through Newhart’s offbeat timing and subtle physicality. The Bob Newharts I knew usually used humor to construct another emotional barricade. In the character of Dr. Hartley, Newhart developed his comic persona from the stuttering, inept professional to one that at least recognizes and tries to overcome his faults. He strives to coax his gaggle of grown-up repressives into opening up at a time when psychology was largely associated with East Coast intellectuals, not Midwestern men. This original and gentle exploration of loneliness, companionship, communication, and anxiety resonated with viewers and made Newhart a television star. In revisiting the show, every “Hi Bob” still sounds poignant today.