Nobody made a one-sided phone conversation as consistently hilarious as Bob Newhart, who parlayed this stand-up routine into a very successful and consistently funny TV sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, which ran for six seasons between 1972-1978. It was another in a long line of 1970s-era sitcoms that revolutionized the format and became monster hits. Pitched by creators Lorenzo Music and David Davis to be a series to follow The Mary Tyler Moore Show on CBS’ Saturday night line-up and showcase the talents of Newhart, the series turned into a ratings juggernaut and a fan favorite. So much comedy was mined from a relatively simple concept.
The premise of the series is straightforward: Dr. Robert Hartley (Newhart) is a happily married psychiatrist who sees patients in his office every day. Not especially groundbreaking, but the humor derives from Newhart’s persona. He’s a Midwest guy (the series takes place in Chicago) and everyone around him is crazy, so he can be easily scandalized but has to remain professional and/or courteous. He’s smart and likable so we side with him every time one of the myriad loonies he sees (both in and out of the office) again puts him on his back foot.
And it really isn’t merely his patients; his friends are all kind of nuts too. These include his wife Emily, played by Suzanne Pleshette, who seems by all accounts like a with-it and together modern gal. However, in the series’ first episode, we learn that she has a debilitating and totally irrational fear of flying in airplanes, to the point where she has the pilot turn the plane around on more than one occasion, leaving Bob in a bit of a bind seeing as they were on the plane in order to help a group of patients get over their fear of flying.
The supporting characters, all professional people, have their own foibles as well. The Hartleys’ neighbor, Howard (Bill Daily) is a friendly if oblivious airline navigator who has a crushing fear of speaking to more than 5 people at a time. Bob’s friend in the office, orthodontist Jerry (Peter Bonerz) is intensely cynical about everything, and their receptionist Carol (Marcia Wallace) is forever telling horrible jokes to her own amusement. Bob deals with everybody the same way, which is with a calmness with confusion/dismay bubbling just underneath.
Perhaps the best and most consistently funny bits of the series feature Bob conducting group therapy sessions with regular patients. Everybody seems so normal until they start talking and a new random and ridiculous phobia or psychosis rears its head. The obvious standout of these patients is the deadpan and kind of jerky Mr. Carlin played by the hilarious Jack Riley (who was the voice of Stu Pickles on Rugrats, fun fact). He’s got more wrong with his brain than any living person but he always looks so calm and collected, but then he says something that is always catching Bob off guard. (“Nothing major today, doctor, just one thing. This morning I met the Devil.”)
The series has an edge to it that a lot of ’70s sitcoms didn’t, despite its overall good nature, and the writing, while very of its time, does produce a lot of really great bits. Newhart is a comic genius and watching this series, the first of his three primetime shows, is testament to that.
The Complete Series Set by Shout! Factory brings together all 142 episodes on 18 discs. It also features a separate disc with extras. These include the original pilot episode, which was completely different from the pilot that eventually brought the show to series, the 1991 19th Anniversary Reunion Special which saw the return of all the actors to reprise their roles in TV movie format, and, most impressively, a new roundtable discussion featuring Newhart, Bonerz, Daily, Riley, and associate producer and director Michael Zinberg. (Suzanne Pleshette passed away in 2008 and Marcia Wallace passed away late last year.) This 45-minute discussion of the series and its legacy is absolutely fascinating, engaging, and enjoyable. Newhart hasn’t lost any of his wit or timing and talks a lot about how different the series in the ’70s was from the way sitcoms are done now, like The Big Bang Theory which he’s regularly on. If you’re a fan of TV history and picking apart comedy, this is easily the best thing you’ll watch in a while.
The Bob Newhart Show was a pillar of well-writting, well-acted, well-crafted television comedy for the better part of a decade and it’s still very funny today. Stuttering consternation never loses its charm.