Bob Newhart: Television Comedy

November 30, 2022
I had a page quota to meet, and little time in the day. I scribbled this stylized version of Bob Newhart (misspelled on the page—my spelling skills degrade late at night). Was I able to be so stylized because I’ve watched so much Newhart in all his manifestations? I feel badly for the kids who only know him from “Elf” and “The Big Bang Theory.” Those are great roles for Newhart. And he played them to perfection. But he was so much more for so long, his work deserves a second look.

Spoiler Alert, I am going to give something important away. I’m sorry in advance. I cannot help myself. If you’ve ever been nearby when I talk TV you’ll know how much this thing I’m going to mention means to me and the art of writing for TV. So just know this: if you haven’t watched the shows I’m going to write about now—I’m going to blow one of the big events in comedy history. I just have to talk about it.

For reasons we don’t need to explore right now I’ve been watching a lot of “older” sitcoms.

I wrote “older” but I was going to write “old time” because these are over 50 years old now, but I can’t write “old time” because there are even older TV sitcoms, (in re-run in Australia when I was even younger) and back in the US on the defunct, tiny, local TV stations that ran re-runs all day long when I was still young.

Let’s just say currently, again, for reasons we don’t need to go into right now, I’ve been re-watching 1970s TV.

“The Bob Newhart Show” is an amazing comedy show. Newhart, created a show about a psychologist in which he was free to use his deadpan, bemused, almost sad-sack stand-up comedy persona surrounded and supported by a cast that defined “ensemble cast”: Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Daily, Marcia Wallace, Peter Bonerz, and Jack Reilly (look them up! you need to know them).

I loved these shows when I was younger and saw them when they were first broadcast. It seemed to me these would be the types of people to surround yourself with when you were older because it would make life interesting.

Now because of covid and my own health issues I don’t have anyone to surround me so I’m finding these characters are even more satisfying.

Each show is self-contained. Something is going to happen, cause a ripple, and be resolved. Often the issue is Dr. Robert Hartly’s (Bob Newhart) own psychological confusion, and that’s of course part of the fun.

Usually the issue is something rather small on the surface, but something which touches greater insecurities or issues in people.

I could go on and on about Suzanne Pleshette and the nuance and glee she brings to this role, but I’m sure there are 10,000 websites devoted just to her, go find one. She was the perfect foil to Bob. 

My point in bringing this all up is that the series still holds up. It’s still funny. It’s even still relevant. (Which is a little sad when you stop and realize 50 years later we’re dealing with the same issues, again.)

Not everything I watched as a child is still interesting to me, but there is something about the MTM Enterprises (founded by Mary Tyler Moore and husband Grant Tinker) shows that still find and strike nerves—which is essential for comedy.

(I’m also working my way through the “Mary Tyler Moore Show.” There is a recognition of complexity in those characters and themes as well—Mr. Grant, Mary’s boss, can be at once what would be termed “sexist” today, while at the same time he can be totally non-creepy and invested in Mary’s well-being to the point of threatening one of her would-be suitors in a equally believable and also funny, but serious, way. He’s gruff, but he does look out for all his people, even Ted.)

You can find “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Mary Tyler Moore” right now streaming on Hulu. 

Now of course one could argue that part of my enjoyment now is that I know what happens to Dr. Hartley in the show, and beyond—because after TBNS ended Newhart went on to make another sitcom for 8 seasons called, simply, “Newhart.” 

But I’m enjoying each episode of TBNS too much for that to be the only reason. I’m looking forward to, and a savoring the character’s interactions.

In “Newhart” (which I haven’t started to rewatch, but probably will if I can find it streaming) Newhart plays Dick Loudon, an inn owner in a small rural town in Vermont. The setting and occupation give him ample access to eccentric characters, including “I’m Larry and this is my brother Darryl, and my other brother Darryl.” (Maybe you just need to watch a few episodes!) It’s sort of like “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres” rolled together with a whole lot of other things too.

In the “Newhart” series Mary Frann plays his wife. She’s softer, with no edges, compared to Pleshette, but still provided all the bounce back Newhart’s comedy persona needed.

Spoiler Alert: We’re Here:

The series finale of “Newhart” contains a lot that brings so much satisfaction, but the best is the final scene, when after escalating chaos and interaction, character Dick (played by Bob Newhart of course) wakes up in bed—the Dr. Hartly bed, in the Hartly’s bedroom— and turns to Emily (Pleshette) his original TV-wife, and tells her the nightmare he just woke from. (I’m leaving out a ton of little details that are also funny.)

Best. Series. Ending. Ever.

When a show is on for years, and you show up every week (or binge it now as is the case), there is nothing more satisfying than the kind of callback that rewards you and your attention to all the fun details the writers have put in place.

It’s precise and beautiful writing spanning two seasons, respecting the comic who was the backbone of both.

A callback like that defines for us and reminds us what comedy is when well played.

Life events like Covid, short-sightedness of network executives who cancel shows prematurely (like “Terriers” for instance), and the transition of writers from job to job, often make this satisfaction difficult to achieve, but MTM Enterprise shows were known for this. Their writers obviously saw tv writing as the highest calling. They showed up and they delivered to their family of viewers.

With new television shows still not in full production because of covid’s impact you might consider stepping into the MTM world. I love Marvel and the Metaverse, but the MTM world is a little more eccentric and nuanced; much copied since, but never equalled.

    • Christine
    • November 30, 2022

    Well, thank you for that! I just had to watch the Newhart finale on YouTube. I knew the ending but for some reason never saw that episode. I loved the ovation Suzanne Pleshette got from studio audience. Those shows were great fun because of their timing and the clever writers. Thanks again.

    1. Reply

      Nice to know the Newhart finale is on YouTube. So glad you enjoyed watched the episode!

    • Frank Bettendorf
    • November 30, 2022

    Seems we all had a funny bone in those days and it sure is missed. Thanks for reviving some wonderful memories for this very old guy!

    1. Reply

      Comedy is definitely under fire these days Frank, both as a practice (for the comedian) and for the public—in a sense of humor being strained. I’m glad you could think back on Newhart for a few moments!

    • Erika
    • December 1, 2022

    That was probably the only time a “But it was only a dream!” ending was perfect.

    1. Reply

      I think you’re right. I often wondered if the fact that an entire season of “Dallas” turned out to “be a dream” was in the minds of the writers of this show when they wrote that ending. Because that “Dallas” season ending happened before this and I know I can’t stop shaking my head in frustration and disappointment about that “Dallas” ending and I wasn’t even a “Dallas” fan! Some things are “a cheat,” and some things are a revelation. The ending to “Newhart” was a revelation of fun which expanded possibilities for the viewer.

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