The Bob Newhart Show
The Complete First Season (1971-1972) (MTM-2005)
Just 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 confidence).
As a 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 overwhelmingly dated.
Is 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?
In 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.
It’s 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.
The 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.
In 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