Stream On: Bob Newhart had two legendary sitcoms—or did he?

By on July 30, 2020

Dr. Bob Hartley is a Chicago psychologist. From this simple premise flowed one of TV’s funniest sitcoms. (IMDb.com)

Bob Newhart (“Professor Proton” on The Big Bang Theory) got his start in comedy when he, then an advertising copywriter, and a co-worker entertained themselves by recording long phone calls about absurd scenarios. He developed some on his own and Dan Sorkin, a disk jockey he knew, introduced him to a talent scout at Warner Brothers Records. The new label signed him in 1959, and he began to release comedy albums (Amazon.com), notably The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, leveraging his straight-laced but tentative persona. This album was the first comedy album to reach No.1 on the Billboard Charts, and won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and Bob won Best New Artist.

His bits generally portrayed one side of a conversation, such as a speech-giver, an airplane pilot addressing the passengers (“The Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Company”—listen here), or a telephone user, which was acknowledged during the opening credits of his first sit-com in 1972.

THE BOB NEWHART SHOW (Amazon.com; Hulu; elsewhere) 1972-1978 [TVG]

Before Jerry Seinfeld did it (see this previous Stream On), another established stand-up comedian starred in a situation comedy surrounded by brilliant actors, marked by exceptional writing. Newhart played Dr. Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist who was not without his own quirks, but who mostly played straight man to a series of odd friends and neighbors.

The simple setup came complete with quirky patients, but didn’t stop there: Bob’s ridiculous neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Daily), an early Cosmo Kramer (Seinfeld) type, his colleagues in his medical suite, and his usually normal wife (Susanne Pleshette), his parents and parents-in-law, provided a rich vein of comedy.

The jokes came from the situations, and from people being people (and Howard being bizarrely clueless), but these jokes featured nested punchlines, as it were—when the laughter subsided after one, along would come another, funnier punchline, and often one or two more. Many came from Bob speaking into a phone, one of Newhart’s stand-up trademarks.

In 1977, the show received two Emmy nominations – for “Outstanding Comedy Series” and for Pleshette for “Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Comedy Series.” Bob Newhart was nominated twice for a Golden Globe Award as “Best TV Actor—Musical/Comedy.” In 1997, the episodes “Over the River and Through the Woods” and “Death Be My Destiny” were respectively ranked No. 9 and No. 50 on TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time. TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time listed it as No. 44. In 2007, Time placed the show on its unranked list of “100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME.” Bravo ranked Bob Hartley 84th on its list of the 100 greatest TV characters. In 2013, TV Guide ranked the series No. 49 on its list of the 60 Best Series of All Time (Wikipedia). A trailer from the DVD set can be seen here.

Dick Loudon, an author of do-it-yourself and travel books, and his wife Joanna move from New York City to a small town in rural Vermont to operate the 200-year-old Stratford Inn. (IMDb.com)

NEWHART (Amazon.com; YouTube) 1982-1990 [TVG]

The opening titles of Newhart, set to pastoral music, show the aerial view of a quaint town and follows a car approaching the Stratford Inn, somewhere in Vermont. The action begins as Dick and Joanna Loudon (Bob Newhart and Mary Frann) are shown into the country inn that they have just bought. Dick is the New York City-based author of travel and self-help books. The real estate agent (Jack Dodson, The Andy Griffith Show) tells them that the inn, built in 1774, once hosted James Madison as a tenant.

Dick says to Joanna, “That’s great! You see, just being here, we’re gonna know things about James Madison that we’d never know from any book.”

“Like what?”

Glancing around the dilapidated inn, Bob replies, “Well, uh, for one thing, he didn’t care where he slept.”

In comes the caretaker (Tom Poston, The Bob Newhart Show), a dimwit comparable to Howard Borden in the previous series. When Dick asks him what he’s currently working on, he says “You know that little doo-hickey on the furnace by the door under the screen? I’m working on the thing next to that.”

Newhart is once again the straight man to great characters, including the operator of the souvenir shop next door, who introduces himself and announces, “I’m an habitual liar … actually, that’s not true.” They hire a rich girl to help with the rooms, who says she’d like to find out what it’s like to be average, and encounter three strange and morbid handymen, led by Larry (William Sanderson, Deadwood), who introduces himself and then his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl.

When the first couple shows up to rent a room, Dick blows the dust off of the ledger, consults it, and says “That’ll be … a farthing. Just sign right here, under ‘John Hancock.’” When asked by the local Daughters of the War for Independence (“DWI”) to give a talk on the inn’s history, he finds that it was a bordello in the day, and summarizes, “You may not be so much daughters of the war for independence, as you are daughters of the three-day pass.”

Call-backs to Bob’s previous series abound: When Dick has occasion to see a psychologist, he runs into one of Dr. Bob Hartley’s most notable patients coming out of the doctor’s office. Dick stares at him as if he’s trying to place him and receives an insult much as the same patient (and same actor) would give to Hartley. “You have to forgive him,” the psychologist says, “It’s taking me a long time to undo the damage done to him by a quack in Chicago.”

The title of this column refers to perhaps the greatest call-back in television, which I won’t give away, but which can be enjoyed by watching the two series back-to-back chronologically (or searching the internet, if you’re impatient).

The series mixed the wit of The Bob Newhart Show with the fish-out-of-water situations of Green Acres, and bagged nominations for 25 Emmys and six Golden Globes, among other awards. A representative scene from Season Two, “Butch, the Angora Cat,” is here.

Next time, Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth? The Coen Bros. and Terrence Malick take on the book of Job.

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

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