Quirks, Neurosis, Irrational Behavior and ‘The Bob Newhart Show’

[27 May 2014]

By David Maine

The Bob Newhart Show was the brainchild of the same team that had created the wildly successful Mary Tyler Moore Show, and in many ways it’s easy to see the two shows’ shared DNA. The title character is affable and low-key, lives in a midwestern city not typically featured on TV’s NY-and-LA-centric landscape (Minneapolis, Chicago), and holds down an unusual job that offers limitless comic possibilities (Mary’s newsroom, Bob’s psychologist’s office).

Both shows also featured a strong supporting cast of brilliant comic actors, and if The Bob Newhart Show couldn’t quite match the brilliance of Mary’s ensemble – one that included Ed Asner, Valerie Harper, Betty White, Cloris Leachman and Ted Knight – he still did all right. Suzanne Pleshette, Peter Bonerz, Bill Daily and Marcia Wallace provided enough laughs to keep the momentum going. And that doesn’t even mention Bob’s patients.

The show originally ran from 1972 to 1978, and looking back on it 40 years later, it remains a strikingly smart, funny, snappy series, albeit with some flaws. Newhart is the star, of course, but his presence raises questions as to what being a “star” even means. Newhart’s brilliance was in his reactions to things, or as often as not his non-reactions. Faced with absurdity, Newhart responded with a blank look, a bit of a stutter, a hesitant pause. The other guys got all the funny lines, but somehow Newhart got the laughs. And he never raised his voice.

Newhart had already established his reputation by the early ‘60s, when his stand-up comedy albums were topping the charts. He was famous for his telephone monologues, like the one in which he takes a call from Sir Walter “Nutty Walt” Raleigh in the 1600s. Trying to understand Raleigh’s excitement about sending home ships stuffed with tobacco, Newhart hesitantly does his best to understand: “Let me get this straight now, Walt. You bought 80 tons of leaves? ...  See, Walt, I think you’re going to have a tough time selling people on sticking burning leaves into their mouths.”

There are plenty of telephone monologues on The Bob Newhart Shows, albeit brief ones, which show off the comedian’s knack for mining comedy out of the slightest of responses. But it took ten years for the transition from standup to television, largely because Newhart never felt comfortable with TV after his first, brief foray into variety-show oblivion in the early ‘60s. When the producers came up with the right concept, though, he was all for it.

Much of the show’s success comes from the chemistry of its players, with the affable Newhart bring the center around which the others revolve. There is Suzanne Pleshette, Bob’s stylish housewife, whose tongue can launch a quip as easily as anyone; high-strung neighbor Howard, office-space sharing dentist Jerry, and sardonic receptionist Carol, whose self-deprecating comments are among the show’s highlights. As with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the producers wisely felt no need to introduce children into the Newhart household, which minimized the saccharine element of family life as portrayed on the TV screen, while allowing for some (slightly) more adult-oriented jokes to sneak into the mix.

Shout! Factory’s newly-released edition of The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Series is a boon to fans who have been waiting for this ever since the show’s sixth and final season ended in 1978. Eighteen discs contain all 142 episodes of the show, along with a bonus disc containing numerous bonus features. The picture has been cleaned up, the sound is fine, and every episode is here: “Fly the Unfriendly Skies”, in which Bob’s wife Emily reveals that she’s afraid to fly; “The Last TV Show”, in which Bob’s group therapy group goes on live television; “Ship of Shrinks”, in which Bob attends a psychologist’s convention in Hawaii; “My Business Is Shrinking”, in which Bob decides to see a psychiatrist; “Emily Hits the Ceiling”, in which Emily opens a summer camp for children; and on and on and on. Summarizing each of the 142 episodes would take from now until Thanksgiving, so we won’t bother.

Unsurprisingly, the show grew in confidence as it matured into its final seasons, though it never moved too far beyond its basic conflict-complication-resolution structure. Everybody has their share of good lines, with the extras in Bob’s practice adding a frisson of surrealism that owes as much to Monty Python as to anything on American TV at the time. Those group-therapy sessions, played as they are for laughs, often skirt a fine line of being offensive – making fun of people with mental problems is a little dicey, after all – but never quite cross that line. Mainly this is because the mental discomfort being presented is more silly than scary (there is a reference to the doctor’s “fear of humidity” group), and partly it’s because the characters are so clearly not realistic individuals.

It shouldn’t work, turning psychiatric patients into cartoons; it should be more more offensive than it is. Somehow, though, it all just ends up being good for a laugh. Maybe it’s because the non-patients often exhibit quirks and neuroses that are just as irrational.

For all that the show was good entertainment and even a little bit envelope-pushing in its day. There are still squirm-inducing reminders that it is very much of its time, however. This is especially true in terms of its women characters: Emily, the housewife, and Carol, the secretary. As mentioned, Emily has nothing to do all day, and is rarely shown to be dissatisfied with this arrangement. She is the ideal housewife: sexy, stylish, doting, undemanding. No wonder Bob loves her!

While it’s doubtless true that such women did (and do) exist, they simply don’t make for very interesting television characters. While there is plenty of sexist humor on shows like Friends or Seinfeld or Sex in the City, but it is also undeniable that just 15 years after The Bob Newhart Show went off the air, women sitcom characters were expected to have their own lives separate from the concerns of their men.

In fairness to the show, the issue is addressed at times, as in the Season 3 episode “We Love You… Goodbye”, wherein Newhart moderates a woman-only consciousness-raising group, which promptly kicks him out. Emily’s role is key to all this, in the form of her commenting on their lopsided marriage. Although the episode is played for laughs (of course), it also serves as a de facto acknowledgment that TV personas like Emily’s “ideal housewife” were really only ideal from a particular point of view.

Elsewhere, the show’s often-stealthy sexism is reinforced with a more overt strain at times, as with the unfortunate episode “Anything Happen While I Was Gone?”, in which good-natured Jerry gets engaged to a beautiful dental hygienist who is also a hen-pecking harpy. Nobody likes her, of course, because she is too demanding of poor Jerry.

In one of the show’s more unfortunate monologues, Newhart (a psychologist, remember), states quite seriously that “It’s not healthy for a relationship between a man and a woman for the woman to be stronger than the man. I mean, there are very few instances where a man wants a woman as strong as he is.” He then gets a laugh by being unable to slide a table into place, requiring Emily’s help to do so, but the laugh comes because he is, at that moment, weak and unmanly – not because he is wrong.

For some viewers, such reminders of our not-too-enlightened recent past won’t be anything to worry about. Heck, they might not even be noticed. But pop culture both reflects and reinforces the wider culture that creates it, and there’s nothing constructive to come out of sentiments such as “women are weaker than men and need men to take charge”. It’s too bad, because there are a lot of laughs here. It’s up to the viewer to decide whether it’s worth sifting through the cultural dross in order to find them.

The extra features in this set are numerous and impressive. A 40-page booklet contains a brief essay on the genesis of the show as well as brief descriptions of every episode here; in a perfect world, this would be the standard for such multi-disc sets. The extra disc, meanwhile, contains a lengthy roundtable discussion, recorded in 2014, with participants including Newhart himself, Peter Bonerz, Jack Riley, Bill Daily and Michael Zinberg. It’s good fun to hear these guys reminisce about the old days, though bittersweet due to the absence of Pleshette, who died in 2008, and Marcia Wallace, who passed away just last year.

Other bonus features on the disc include the previously unaired first pilot for the show, which contains some crucial casting changes (as well as a second job for Bob!), and the 1991 Bob Newhart Anniversary Show, which brought the main cast into the early ‘90s. There are also audio commentaries with many of the cast, though not Newhart himself (but including Pleshette), as well as a gag reel. In all, it’s a solid offering that adds value to an already-generous package. There is more than 53 hours of content here, so it’ll keep you busy for a while.

Despite its occasional datedness, particularly in regard to gender roles, The Bob Newhart Show remains a solid experience in TV comedy. Is it perfect? No. Is it consistently funny, and occasionally hilarious? Yes. Fans of classic TV are likely to be delighted by the classy presentation and bonus content here.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/181794-bob-newhart/