When I was a kid and watching a lot of Nickelodeon, Nick-at-Nite originally really miffed me. I didn’t want to watch tired old black and white shows or shows where everybody wore way too much polyester for anybody’s good; I wanted to watch more Rocko’s Modern Life, Ren & Stimpy, and You Can’t Do That on Television. I’m not sure when it happened, but I eventually calmed down enough to sit through reruns of classic I Love Lucy, I Dream of Jeannie, and Bewitched episodes. Soon I was also watching The Dick van Dyke Show and a host of other classic 60’s and 70’s sitcoms.
Somewhere in there Nick-at-Nite started airing a 70’s sitcom called The Bob Newhart Show. I’d always been a bit precocious and I’m sure my parents will tell you that my sense of humor almost always leaned toward the dry and sarcastic side, but I don’t know what made me actually sit down and watch it. Whatever the reason, when I did I was hooked.
Bob Newhart is, without question, my favorite comedian ever. I enjoy a good angry comedian (Lewis Black is particularly hilarious) and energetic comedians are usually pretty fun (Robin Williams killed me with his 2002 live stand up album) but I’ll almost always take dry wit and sarcasm when given a choice. There’s just something about deadpan delivery that sends me into hysterics. Bob Newhart can only be described as the god of deadpan delivery.
Bob Hartley (Bob Newhart) is a Chicago-area psychologist with a private practice, a wife (Emily), and a bachelor for a best friend (Jerry). He’s also got goofy patients (Mr. Carlin being the most notable; I’ll talk about him later), a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his parents, and a neighbor that spends more time in their apartment than his own (Howard). Unlike most other sitcoms featuring a married couple, there were no children in the picture, though Bob and Emily did talk about the family they would eventually have.
If I had to pick the perfect TV husband-wife combo, it would be the Hartleys. Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette had a genuine affection and respect for each other that translated incredibly well to the screen. I don’t care how good an actor is, if the chemistry isn’t there, the camera picks up on it. In this case, Newhart and Pleshette were a fantastic team and it showed. The relationship between Bob and Emily is interesting and it feels real to those watching, even 30+ years later.
One particular aspect of their relationship is especially refreshing to see: Bob is not a moron and Emily is not his savior. He doesn’t play clueless rube to Emily’s witty housewife/career woman. The norm nowadays is a Homer Simpson-type that looks and acts like a neanderthal but somehow has a sexy, independent, intelligent wife who has to bail him out of whatever stupid situation he’s gotten himself into. Don’t get me wrong, I love Homer Simpson – he’s my favorite Simpsons character – but he’s not meant to be a template for every male character on TV. I’ve had my share of thoughts regarding the stupidity of the male half of humanity (sorry guys), but I know they’re really not all un-evolved, posturing, alpha-male-mentality apes. Bob is an intelligent, responsible guy who has his moments, but those moments don’t last for 22 minutes broken up only by the occasional commercial break.
Oddly enough, if you do happen to run across an intelligent male character in any of the more recent sitcoms you will be watching a boring, one-dimensional character. The egghead types inevitably reject every typically male interest or pursuit. They don’t drink beer, they drink wine. They don’t watch football, they watch the History Channel, if they watch TV at all. They eschew action movies, instead preferring slower-paced intellectual films. Bob Hartley is an intelligent guy, but he’s three-dimensional. He drinks beer, watches football, and goes to basketball games. In other words, he’s a guy.
Bob’s wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), on the other hand, is definitely a woman. She takes her duties in the home seriously, taking care of Bob, keeping the apartment clean, and cooking but she also has a life outside the home. She’s a substitute teacher who eventually goes back to school in order to become a teacher full time. And she also went after what she wanted from Bob, which in itself was another area of the show that was brilliant.
The Bob Newhart Show was one of the first to acknowledge that married couples do more than fight, eat, and talk. The brilliant part: it did so without blatantly throwing sex in the viewers’ faces. It was innuendo, but it was never lewd. Parents could let their kids watch the show and not cringe at what was said; most of it would have gone right over the kids’ heads and by the time they were old enough to understand they’d have already stopped asking embarrassing questions in public anyway.
It really was a product of it’s time. Women’s lib was in full swing and social mores were in flux. This was visible through Carol’s dilemma in the first season regarding whether or not she should move in with her boyfriend. Howard and Jerry were both bachelors with revolving doors on their apartments as far as women were concerned. Still, it wasn’t shoved in your face like in so many of the current shows. Again, there’s nothing in this show that demands explaining to children (aside from why psychologist is spelled so funny 😉 ).
Speaking of Jerry and Howard, both are bachelors popular with the ladies, but the similarity ends there. Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz) is an orthodontist with an office in the same building as Bob. He is constantly visiting Bob in his office or near Carol’s desk just outside it. Over the course of the show we learn he was adopted and that he had a younger brother who was also adopted. He loves sports and is often either at Bob’s house to watch football or on his way to a game – if he wasn’t on a date, of course. As far as women are concerned, he always seems to have a really hard time figuring out his place in the world. He’s a serial dater clearly unhappy with being a serial dater, but whenever he hits upon that realization he dismisses it off-hand, often remarking that that couldn’t be the problem and wondering why anybody would give up the bachelor life.
Howard Borden (Bill Daily) is a divorced airline navigator with a son that periodically visits him. Howard is a mystery: he is not what you could call intelligent, in fact he is quite simple-minded, but he still manages to somehow get through life – with plenty of lady-friends. And in stark contrast to the male characters today, his bumbling idiocy is actually endearing, not annoying. You really can’t help but laugh when he just gets in from navigating a flight out of Tokyo or Paris and then gets lost in the streets of Chicago. His mannerisms alone are bizarre and absolutely hilarious.
More friend than co-worker, secretary Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace) is often to be seen in Bob’s office asking for advice on what she should do to solve a myriad of problems. Everything from the office coffeemaker to her love life is in bounds as far as she’s concerned, no matter how much Bob doesn’t want anything to do with it. If she doesn’t get the answer she wants from Bob, she’ll make a beeline to Emily, hoping to get a different answer. (This occasionally results in problems for Bob, as when Carol was unhappy with her job and Emily unwittingly agreed that maybe Carol should quit.)
Bob’s patients are the weirdest, most neurotic, funniest bunch of people on the show. Particularly Elliot Carlin (Jack Riley). Mr. Carlin belongs to every single one of Bob’s groups, including the unemployed group and the over 60 group. He’s neither unemployed nor over 60. The reason he’s in those groups: he has a hard time relating to people of all ages and employment states. Mr. Carlin is a successful businessman with a knack for finding all the worst in life. He has a hairpiece (it was actually Jack Riley’s real hair, which made the whole thing funnier than it already was), he wears lifts because he feels short, and he’s constantly criticizing everybody around him, often telling them their actions are making him feel like they aren’t respecting him, even if what they’re doing has nothing to do with him. I’d have to say, of all the TV characters I’ve loved, he’s probably my favorite. It might have something to do with the fact that he can say things in perfect deadpan that any other person would most likely laugh or cry while expressing. As the TV Land website says:
Elliot Carlin is probably Bob’s most notable patient. He is a financially successful, morally bankrupt bundle of neuroses. He appears to suffer from both low self-esteem and narcissism simultaneously—no small feat for a man in a toupee and elevator shoes.
Aside from Mr. Carlin, Bob’s patients include Mr. Gianelli, a man who has a host of problems and is constantly putting down Mr. Peterson, a small high-voiced man who was, unbelievably, once a Marine. Michelle Nardo is a woman in her 20’s with severe father issues (mostly the fact that he won’t listen to her and let her spread her wings). And Mrs. Bakerman spends most of her time in group knitting and saying “Isn’t that nice” whenever anybody else talks about their problems.
I’m sure by now you can tell I love pretty much everything about this show, but one of my very favorite things about it is the theme song, “Home to Emily” by Lorenzo and Henrietta Music. Normally I skip past the opening themes of shows but with The Bob Newhart Show I don’t mind sitting through it. It’s upbeat and I love the drums. You’re more than welcome to take a listen below.
Verdict: A. Even though I’m in my late 20’s and had to learn about The Bob Newhart Show through Nick-at-Nite, it is one of my top 10 TV series of all time. The writing was great and watching Bob do his signature telephone conversations sometimes has me close to tears from laughing so hard. Bill Daily is an expert at playing the somewhat clueless friend; I realized that while watching I Dream of Jeannie and this show just solidified that realization. My one major hope is that 20th Century Fox finally gets around to releasing the final two seasons on DVD so that I can enjoy the whole series together.
I’m officially giving The Bob Newhart Show the “Ultimate Fix” award.
On a more morose note, I’d like to express my sadness at Suzanne Pleshette’s death in January this year. While I’ve never seen her in anything but The Bob Newhart Show I truly enjoyed her wit and sense of humor. She definitely deserved all the accolades she got as Emily Hartley and with at least the first four seasons of the show on DVD I’m deeply grateful that I get to see her shine even though she has passed on.