The Shrugging Subversive
Lady patient addressing Bob: “Wouldn’t it be a shame if what happened to my husband happened to you?”
Carlin: “What happened to him?”
Lady patient: “He died.”
Bob Hartley: “That would be a shame.”
Lady patient: “Well, it was because he worked too hard and didn’t stop to smell the roses. And I never could understand that. He was a florist.”
In a recent PBS special on Bob Newhart, Tom Smothers informs the viewers that Newhart could have been quite political had he so desired. This statement is followed by a rejoinder from Newhart himself wherein he claims to have strong political views but to have always maintained that these views were to be kept separate from his entertainment.
The Bob Newhart Show
The Complete Third Season
US DVD: 11 Apr 2006
Well, the meaning of the term “political” has expanded quite a bit since the heyday of the Smothers Brothers and it might be properly said that Newhart in his quiet, insecure manner, represents something of a shrugging mode of subversion. You wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at him but watch carefully. There is always something lurking just beneath the surface of that stiff grin of his and those ever-watching eyes, something that belies his stuttering innocence.
Not that Season Three of The Bob Newhart Show tackles any overtly political themes. Indeed, in his staunchly conservative attitude toward sexuality (he recommends that his wife, who plans to shop for a new bikini, should try to imagine what Freud’s wife would have worn), Newhart’s character, the psychologist Bob Hartley, might strike one as a rather retrograde figure. Married to the radiantly beautiful Emily (performed by Suzanne Pleshette who manages to miraculously combine incisive wit with genuine human warmth), surrounded by a motley crew of wacky secondary characters, and firmly installed in an occupation wherein it is his job to demonstrate to others how far they diverge from “normal” behavior (while devising strategies to help them cope), Bob Hartley should be a paragon of well-adjusted rationality. One might expect him to exemplify self-awareness and self-assurance, right? Wrong, so wrong!
As much as he might try to act the part of the stable center that firmly anchors the erratic conduct of those in orbit around him, Bob continually exhibits the very neuroses that he is called upon to diagnose and cure. More and more, the people who revolve around Bob seem to become externalized embodiments of his own insecurities, his own fugitive desires. When he advises two of his patients to practice honesty at all costs, they goad him into acting accordingly, leading to disastrously antisocial behavior. When trying to counsel a child, Bob himself winds up on the couch. He harbors hostility, refuses to relinquish childhood resentments, and avoids confrontation only to lash out later at the most inopportune moments. Never has the saying been more apropos: Physician, heal thyself!
And yet it is his inability to practice what he preaches that makes Bob Hartley such a compelling character, a believable psychologist (oddly enough), and a subversive presence. Who cannot identify with a man who is better at giving advice than taking it? Who wouldn’t want a psychologist who continually tests his life (wittingly or not) against the lives of those he counsels? Bob demonstrates that “knowing” what is best does not instantaneously translate into right action, that life (even in the idealized, well-intentioned world Bob inhabits) is chaotic and beyond the reach of rational control (“You can’t analyze a marriage”, Emily warns, “it just works”).
This is not chaos on a grand scale but rather the seemingly inconsequential muddles that arise in quotidian life. This is the chaos of going to work and coming home, of relationships with friends and lovers, of maintaining a home, of meeting new acquaintances. Bob Hartley vividly illustrates the irremediable prevalence of disorder. But he manages to show that disorder, when approached with humor and love, need not be so terrifying after all; in fact, it might even be rather fun.
I can think of no other television series that features an opening sequence better suited to the show it introduces. Bob closes the door of his office and the scene cuts to the streets of Chicago (looking marvelously charismatic with its soaring skyline and the subtle asymmetry of the bridges crossing the river) where Bob is seen walking toward the subway. The music suddenly switches from the raucous to the serene as Bob travels between the world of his job and the domestic space of his apartment where his wife Emily—the only other character shown in the opening sequence—awaits his return sporting a plaid dress and a glowing smile. This is a striking schematic presentation of the premise of the show.
Bob inhabits two worlds: on the one hand, there is the office with his efficient receptionist Carol (Marcia Wallace) and his bumbling friend cum officemate Jerry (Peter Bonerz); and on the other hand there is his apartment with his efficient wife Emily and his bumbling friend cum adopted child Howard (Bill Daily). And yet these are not separate, discreet spaces. Bob brings his work home with him (literally in the case of two episodes wherein Bob treats his patients in his apartment) and his officemates are all informed about and concerned with his marriage. Home invades work and work invades the home: just like life. It is the manner in which one sphere bleeds into the other that makes the show work as well as it does.
The third season presents many difficulties for Bob on both the occupational and domestic fronts. At work, our good doctor must contend with an inept temporary sexagenarian secretary (“perhaps you could make her ept”, muses one patient), a female empowerment group that decides that Bob is part of the problem, a tantalizing job offer from an insurance company (that is, until he makes the employees too happy and well-adjusted), and, of course, Mr. Elliott Carlin (Jack Riley). Mr. Carlin attends most of Bob’s group sessions, including the group for people over 60 even though he is only 35, because he has “difficulty relating to people of all ages.” He reminds one elderly man of his son (“he was a vicious little punk, too”) while another patient finds him “pleasant in a repulsive sort of way.” During one session, he claims to be relieved that he only has one problem (possession by the devil) while during another he berates a fellow patient because “she’s too sensitive about being overweight; and she’s too fat.” Unpredictable and misanthropic, Carlin may be one of the best reasons to watch the show.
At home, Bob faces contention between his parents and those of his wife during Thanksgiving, Emily’s absorption with her attempt to earn her Master’s degree, and the engagement between his sister Ellen (Pat Finley) and Howard. The latter situation serves as a thread that more or less ties the entire season together. Although they had met during the second season, Howard and Ellen truly become an issue for Bob during this season. The first episode explores Bob’s discomfort at the idea of his sister moving in with the formerly swinging Howard, while a later episode deals with the return of Ellen’s old boyfriend (Fred Willard). And yet somehow The Bob Newhart Show manages to avoid alternating between work-related episodes and home-related episodes; instead most episodes succeed in integrating Bob’s two worlds, revealing that one aspect of Bob’s life simply does not exist without the other.
Inasmuch as this DVD set actually has extras (a true rarity among sets of older television shows), they are a nice addition. There is a “Making-of” featurette; this really only amounts to a brief discussion by Bob Newhart but he is such a charming presence that it makes it worth viewing. Five episodes contain commentaries. For the most part, these are forgettable efforts. Newhart and his co-commentators obviously had not seen these episodes for some time and the majority of the commentary consists of silence as they watch the show and sometimes giggle. At times, Newhart even shushes a fellow commentator so as not to obscure the joke in the episode. This is a telling trait: a comedian knows that comedy is ultimately inexplicable; it has to be experienced in its vitality and immediacy. Newhart’s understanding of this fact makes great comedy but pretty lousy commentary.
There is one interesting discussion between Newhart and Bonerz (who, in addition to playing Jerry, directed some episodes) concerning the role of the live audience. While Bonerz seems to consider the audience something of a hindrance, Newhart considers it absolutely central to the genre of television situation comedy. Newhart asserts that the audience tells you what works and what does not. Television is an extension of live performance and comedy demands interaction not just among the players but also between the performers and the viewers. In the end, Newhart’s views concerning the audience perfectly mirror what makes the series so engaging. The Bob Newhart Show involves you in the concerns of a man’s life and you identify with that life (and laugh at the foibles of the man living it) because it is not so far removed from your own.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article