what the doctor ordered for the touchy-feely seventies, The Bob Newhart
Show was a powerful cog in the MTM Productions machine that cranked out
hit after hit (Mary Tyler Moore, for whom it was named, lead the way for
Bob). Part of the golden-goose Saturday night lineup on CBS (along with
Moore, there was All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Carol
Burnett Show), the Newhart series settled in for a comfortable
stay beginning in 1971.
Comfortable is the right word. The series, though never quite out-loud
funny, offered a sort of pleasing comfort zone. Concerning a professional,
childless couple (almost unheard of on television up to that time) living in
an upscale apartment building in Chicago, The Bob Newhart Show
showcases – even celebrates – ordinary people with cushy, secure jobs and
humble but contented lives. It’s pure workaday, down to the Rhoda-like
housewife/neighbor who provides comic relief by burning dinners and burning
laundry (this character would be quickly dropped when the writers, in their
determination to move away from typical sitcom domesticity, found their
psychologist, there is precious little evidence of Bob in action. He
occasionally converses with the tortured Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley, in a
career-making role) and the wimpy Mr. Peterson (played by veteran character
actor John Fiedler), and yet Bob consistently seems believable (no-nonsense,
buttoned down and sober); even his patients – who seem to be recruited right
out of a Jules Fieffer cartoon
– are comfortable – comfortably
wrestling with a sitcom version of dark torment: a “body hang-up,” and other
70s psychobabble. This is a tricky proposition for a comedy, but the writers
pull it off.
Though Bob’s specialty is group therapy, he resists the popular notions of
the day, such as requesting that his patients run naked through the
forest and hug trees. He even winces when someone refers to him as a shrink.
However, you’ll still get your fix of strong seventies – there is plenty of
shag carpeting, loud wallpaper and wide ties to go around (and let’s hear it
for those bed linens!). Yet, curiously, the series does not feel
everybody happy? In the end, it seems so. The bachelor-boy dentist, the hip,
spacey receptionist, the daffy airline navigator, the schoolteacher/wife
(who earns $3500 a year, by the way) are all snug as a bug in a rug, going
out to dinner, playing cards and watching the new phenomenon of Monday
Night Football. Life could be worse. And where else but on television
does it actually snow on Christmas Eve?
real life, Bob Newhart came to prominence a decade before, with a comedy
album (The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart) that became the
best-selling comedy album of all time. In it, Newhart displays his adeptness
at conducting one-sided phone conversations that tickle because he’s
repeating what the caller is saying and coming back with unlikely responses.
It’s all about the timing, and Newhart had it. He was given his own variety
show in 1961 (infamously, it won an Emmy after it was cancelled!), but his
befuddled-phone-call act was injected into this sitcom (“Walter, a lot of
your hostility comes from your inability to take criticism…hello?”). In
fact, his picking up a phone and saying, “hello” is the kickoff to the
kickass theme song.
a proto-type Frasier: cosmopolitan and more verbose than your average
bear. At 40 years old, Bob wants for nothing; he has it made. He calls what
he has with his wife a “liberal marriage.” They’re open and honest and meant
for each other, in a believable way that often falls short in sitcom
couplings (Bob admits to Emily, “When you cry, I have this overwhelming
desire to laugh.”). In fact, after marriage, his wife gets to keep her
teaching gig, unlike most other TV wives of that era who find that women’s
lib is fine for the outside world but tends to disrupt a happy home.
sexual innuendo is there, but it's
as mild as baby shampoo; Carol the
receptionist (played with nothing but originality by Marcia Wallace) sits
out the sexual revolution when she debates moving in with a boyfriend: “I’m
stuck between two generations and I’m not getting the fun part of either one
of them.” Also, watch Jerry the dentist work without surgical gloves.
the next decade, Newhart’s next series (Newhart) proved to be funnier
and sharper, with a much more interesting and out-there supporting cast. In
addition, Newhart’s acting chops seemed to have been more finely honed by
the 80s, and he offered us a more distinct personality as the lonesome
loser. Yet it seems that The Bob Newhart Show is the series that is
most beloved and considered classic (this notion must be reconsidered).
Still, you can’t help but think of the old college drinking game called “Hi,
Bob,” in which players, while watching The Bob Newhart Show, take a
swig of an alcoholic substance every time a character says, “Hi, Bob.”
Actually, the “hi, Bob’s” don’t happen as often as you remember (if you are
able to remember at all), but the series goes down smooth and satisfying. It
won’t get you drunk, but you may affect a happy buzz.
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved.
Posted: December 23, 2005