Bob Newhart: Laughing Through Life

This month I wanted to honor one of our most beloved television comedians: Bob Newhart. Next week we’ll spend some time learning more about The Bob Newhart Show.

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Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in 1929 in Oak Park, IL. He grew up in a typical midwestern family where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply company, and his mom was a housewife. As a young boy, he always wanted to be called Bob. He had a Catholic education and went on to Loyola University of Chicago in 1947. Graduating in 1952 with a business degree, he was soon drafted into the US Army in the Korean war where he stayed until 1954. He considered getting a law degree and went back to Loyola. He decided not to pursue that; some sources site that he was asked to behave unethically during an internship which led him down a different career path.

He worked as an accountant and as an unemployment office clerk. In 1958 he was hired as a copywriter for Fred Niles who was a television producer in Chicago. It was while working here that Newhart and a colleague began entertaining each other by making telephone calls about absurd scenarios. They sent these to radio stations as audition tapes. A radio station disc jockey Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to a Warner Brothers Records executive who signed him in 1959 based on those recordings. Bob then began creating stand-up routines which he performed at nightclubs.

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He released an album in 1960 which changed his life. Titled, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the comedy album made number one on the Billboard charts, and he won a Grammy for best new artist. A follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was released soon thereafter. He would continue releasing comedy albums in 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973.

During a 2005 interview for American Masters on public television, Bob stated that his favorite routine was Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue which was on his first album. A promoter for Abraham Lincoln has to deal with his reluctance to boost his image. A tv director named Bill Daily suggested the routine to him. Daily would be known later as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show (as well as Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie).

The success of that first album led to a variety show titled The Bob Newhart Show. It only lasted a year, but it did receive both an Emmy nomination and a Peabody award. Apparently, he didn’t enjoy his time during the show so much. Halfway through the season he wanted to quit, but his agent explained that being under contract meant that was not possible. At a later date, he referred to his first show, saying “It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a pink slip from NBC. All in the same year.”

He began making the rounds on television shows, appearing on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show 8 times. He guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times. When discussing his appearances on Johnny’s show, he stated “I remember once when I emceed The Tonight Show in New York, I arrived with my manager’s son. After a while, they asked, ‘When are the rest of your people coming?’ I had to say, ‘This is it.’”

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In 1962 Newhart accepted his first movie role, Hell is for Heroes, starring Steve McQueen. He would continue to do movie roles throughout his career including the Christmas classic Elf, but the small screen would make him famous.

In 1963 Buddy Hackett introduced Bob to Virginia Quinn, whose father was character actor Bill Quinn. They wed in January of 1963 and 57 years later are still happily married.

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For the next decade, he continued to accept movie and television roles. In 1972, television history was made when The Bob Newhart Show debuted. Until 1978, Newhart played Bob Hartley, psychologist, and we got to know his unusual patients, quirky co-workers, and eccentric friends, including neighbor Howard Borden. Bob chose a psychologist based partly on his old telephone routines. As he said, “Much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic.”

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In 1982, Bob gave television another go for another eight years. Simply titled Newhart, the show featured Bob as Dick Loudon, an innkeeper and author from Vermont. He still had quirky co-workers and eccentric friends.

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On cue a decade later in 1992, Bob showed up in a new show even more simply titled, Bob as Bob McKay a comic book writer and artist who had retired long ago and was trying to get back into the workplace. Unfortunately, after 33 episodes the show was canceled due to low ratings.

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In 1997, Newhart starred in his last sitcom, George and Leo. As George Stoody, a bookstore owner, Newhart offers a temporary home to a full-time magician and part-time criminal who recently robbed a Mafia-owned casino. The series failed to catch on with viewers, and it was canceled after a season as well.

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Though he never took on another sitcom, Newhart has made appearances with recurring characters in several shows. In 2003, he showed up on ER as Ben Hollander. In 2005, he was Morty on Desperate Housewives. As Judson, he guest starred on The Librarians.

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Perhaps, younger audiences know him best as Arthur Jeffries or Professor Proton on The Big Bang Theory. He had been Sheldon’s boyhood hero who played the professor on television. Sheldon idolized the professor while the professor tolerated Sheldon.

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It’s hard to believe with all of his years being a successful television comedian, but Newhart won his first Emmy in 2013 for his role of Professor Proton. I can’t argue with the nominees for most of the 1970s during the airing of The Bob Newhart Show–names like Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Alan Alda, and Hal Linden. Even with my bias of Norman Lear shows, I get nominating Carroll O’Connor every single one of those years. I understand the tough competition. What I don’t understand is the fact that he was never nominated during that eight-year period. When Jack Albertson wins, and Bob Newhart is not even nominated that is wrong. During the Newhart years, he was at least nominated three times. But I don’t understand it when John Ritter wins for Three’s Company or Richard Mulligan for Soap and no nomination for Bob Newhart. What especially appalls me is the fact that The Bob Newhart Show was only nominated one year; I can accept the fact that it got beat out by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I cannot accept is that during this same time, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, and Welcome Back Kotter received nominations, and The Bob Newhart Show did not. Anyway, this blog is not about the television academy and its procedures, so let’s move on.

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Even though he was never awarded with an Emmy for his time as Bob Hartley, TV Land placed a life-sized statue of Newhart in front of Navy Pier, complete with an empty couch. He was best friends with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the show, and spoke at her funeral. He remembered their time together, “Her laugh. Her laugh. We just laughed. We just had a great time. We all loved each other and respected each other and we got paid for it.” Bob also remains close friends with Marcia Wallace who played his receptionist Carol on the show.

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While Bob has appeared as different characters throughout his career, he has also remained the same character. With his deadpan delivery and slight stammer, he perfected the straight-man role, surrounding himself with wacky castmates. He has often cited George Gobel and Bob and Ray as influences in his comedy career. When discussing his career choice, he explained “I like the humor to come out of character. When you’re going for a joke, you’re stuck out there if it doesn’t work. There’s nowhere to go. You’ve done the drum role and the cymbal clash and you’re out on the end of the plank.”

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In 2006, he released a book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. It’s a memoir with some of his classic comedy routines. Actor David Hyde Pierce reported that “the only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”

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I am so appreciative of those stars who agree to entertain us for our entire life, such as Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Bob Newhart. They are classic comedians who can make us laugh no matter what. Bob’s view on comedy was that “laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” What an amazing career and what an amazing man. With all its negatives and sometimes destructive tendencies, television can be a harmful place, but a comedian like Bob Newhart demonstrates what a positive and uplifting experience television can be when done right. Thanks for doing it right for sixty years.

I Wish You a “Busy Christmas”

Merry Christmas!  I hope you are all enjoying a peaceful and happy day. We have a lot of holiday traditions in our family. When it comes to pop culture “must see” shows, we always watch Frosty, The Snowman; How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and a Charlie Brown Christmas, and the other specials are extras if we get them in.  Christmas movies are different for each generation.  I like White Christmas, while my oldest son never misses Elf.  But when it comes to television, one episode we all agree on is “Busy Christmas” from the Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.  Our family makes an effort to watch this every year together. There is something charming about watching an episode that is more than 60 years old but still speaks to us in how we celebrate Christmas.  Ozzie, after vowing not to, involuntarily agrees to so many Christmas activities that he has no time to put up lights or buy a tree.

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The show first aired in December 19, 1956 . It was the 12th episode of season 5. It was written by Jay Sommers, Don Nelson, Ozzie Nelson, and Alfred Nelson.  Alfred’s only writing credits were 4 Nelson episodes.  Ozzie, of course, helped write almost every episode.  Don Nelson, another brother, enjoyed a long writing career.  He helped Ozzie write the movie Here Come the Nelsons and he went on to write for a variety of shows including Bachelor Father, the Donna Reed Show, the Mothers-in-Law, the Doris Day Show, Bridget Loves Bernie, Herbie the Love Bug, Julia, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Nanny and the Professor, as well as a few episodes of Ozzie and Harriet’s later show, Ozzie’s Girls and 326 episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Jay Sommers got credit for 146 of the Nelson episodes and went on to write for Dennis the Menace, wrote many Petticoat Junction shows, almost all the Green Acres scripts, and, surprisingly, Hello Larry which we looked at a few weeks ago.

Produced by Ozzie and Leo Pepin, the show’s set decoration was created by Jack Moore.  Moore had six Academy Award nominations and won for Little Women in 1949. The costume designer was George Sedilla, and the show was filmed at the General Service Studios, 1040 N. Las Palmas, Los Angeles.

In addition to the regular cast, Phil Arnold appears as a tailor and Isabelle Randolph is Mrs. Brewster.

This episode opens with Ozzie and Harriet looking at some of their Christmas cards.  Ozzie mentions he wished people took time to write in their cards.  He sees one that is a perfect example of what a card should say.  It has a very warm and sentimental message.  When Harriet agrees it is nice and asks who sent it, Ozzie replies, “Acme Cleaners.”

 

Modern Christmas cards were started by the Hall brothers whose company would become Hallmark.  They were post cards, but people did not have enough room to write what they wanted to tell people they didn’t see often. In the 1930s, Hallmark switched to a “book format” which is our card today.  The cards increased in popularity from the mid-1930s to the 1960s. Hallmark began commissioning famous artists to design cards including Salvador Dali, Grandma Moses, and Norman Rockwell. The Nelsons would have had to use regular postage stamps, because Christmas stamps did not debut until 1962. It’s funny that the switch to these cards was made so people could write more, but Ozzie’s complaint (and one you hear often today) is that people didn’t write anything personal.

 

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Scene 2 cuts to Ozzie trying to maneuver through a mad rush of people shopping in a department store.  His arms are full of wrapped packages. He tries to ask a clerk for a Donkey Party game.  Giving up, he takes cover in a seating area and ends up sitting next to Mrs. Brewster.  We learn it is a week before Christmas. They are watching a busy crowd and listening over the speaker as Irving Muller is lost and they attempt to find his mother.  Eventually they find her, but now Irving is gone.  Ozzie reminisces about a Christmas when he and Harriet were first married.  They were looking at the tree when all the sudden they heard “Silent Night” and were caught up in the beauty of the song and the carolers on Christmas Eve.  Mrs. Brewster says that is perfect because they would like the Nelsons to join them for caroling this Christmas Eve.  Ozzie says he’ll talk to Harriet, and if she agrees, they will.  Mrs. Brewster smiles and says Harriet has already agreed to it if Ozzie was willing. Over the loudspeaker they hear little Ozzie Nelson is missing and then the message is corrected that Mrs. Nelson is looking for Mr. Nelson.

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Donkey Party was a version of pin-the-tail-on-the donkey. It came with a poster and 24-30 tails. Some of the other classic toys from this year are Candy Land, Mr. Potato Head, a Slinky Dog, and a Lone Ranger guitar.

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Following World War II, the nation displayed an era of peace, productivity, and prosperity and this could be seen in the nation’s department stores.  At Christmas the windows were magical places where beautiful scenes were created, often with moving parts.  Ozzie’s presents were wrapped because that was a service department stores provided, saving the customer time later. Here are some vintage options Ozzie might have been able to choose from.

 

By Scene 3, a few days have passed. Ozzie is helping Harriet hang a wreath on the wall. When Harriet asks him about the tree and putting up lights, he says it’s too early to get the tree, and he decided not to put up lights this year.  He tells her he is not going to get overly busy again this year.  The doorbell rings and Doc Williams enters in.  Doc tells Ozzie that he has been appointed entertainment chairman of the Men’s Club for Christmas, and instead of the regular pageant, they have decided to do a shortened version of the Christmas Carol. Doc will be playing Bob Cratchet. Ozzie tells Harriet this is exactly what he was talking about.  They make one of the busiest men in town chairman and how unfair that is.  Doc looks confused and then starts to laugh.  He assumes Ozzie is auditioning for the role of Scrooge and he gives him the role. Doc asks when the lights are going up, and when Harriet says Ozzie isn’t putting them up this year, Ozzie says yes he is, he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet.

 

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I have a beautifully illustrated book of  The Christmas Carol, and I try to find time to read it each year.  I also have a Scrooge in his striped night shirt, who is about 4 feet and I love him, although most of my family find him creepy.  My grandfather had a set of Dickens books and liked The Christmas Carol, and I find it inspiring that many generations have enjoyed and learned from this book.

Scene 4 finds Ozzie in his garage a day or so later trying to untangle lights. His friend Joe Randolph stops by and says the guy who always helped as Santa at the orphanage Christmas Eve party moved away.  Now they realized he used his own suit.  Ozzie offers his suit; however, Joe thinks his is also offering to be Santa.  Joe has to hurry off before Ozzie can explain.

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Ozzie would be filling in for Santa because the real Big Guy was too busy Christmas Eve delivering gifts. NORAD began tracking his movements in 1955, so the Nelsons would have been able to follow his progress around the globe.

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Scene 5 is December 23. Mrs. Brewster has dropped off a song, and Doc has dropped off his part. Ozzie climbs the ladder to hang lights and has Rick practice the part of Scrooge with him.  Rick, wearing a sheet like a ghost, leans out the window and plays Marley, ad-libbing the part till Ozzie tells him he must learn the part the way it’s written. David comes in the room and tells Rick to take off the sheet because it’s from David’s bed.  The boys get into a conversation and walk off, leaving Ozzie wondering what is going on.  Ozzie remembers he has to get the Santa suit out of the attic and goes to retrieve it. Mrs. Brewster stops by before he can get back on the ladder to bring more music and asks him to please learn the bass part, because she is short on basses. As he goes back up the ladder to put up the lights, he is called to dinner.

 

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Scene 6 begins on Christmas Eve day.  Ozzie is walking around practicing his play part and singing his bass parts. He is just leaving the house to get a tree when the phone rings.  It’s Joe Randolph saying that there are so many children at the orphanage, they will have to do two parties instead of one.  Then Doc stops by and says he was called to the hospital for an emergency and Ozzie will have to go pick up the costumes. David offers to drive him.  They rush to pick up costumes from the tailor, then to the orphanage, and then to the play.  During the play, Ozzie knocks a picture off the wall, then drops a prop and, when he picks it up, his pants rip.

Everyone is back at home for Scene 7.  Ozzie is complaining that once again he was too busy.  He talks about how embarrassing the play was and how he hurt his knee hopping in and out of the car.  David says the audience thought what Ozzie did was part of the play and it was funny. Then David says he got a parking ticket.  That is the last straw for Ozzie, but when Harriet inspects it, she realizes it is an invitation to the Policeman’s Ball. At that moment, the carolers arrive to pick up the Nelson family. They are singing “Silent Night” and the family gets quiet and listens to the song, realizing how beautiful it is and what Christmas is all about.  Ozzie goes to get his coat which Harriet has put in the den.  Ricky comes into the hall with a Charlie Brown tree saying that was all they had left when he got to the lot.  As Ozzie opens the den door, a huge tree is revealed decorated with bulbs and tinsel with tons of presents under it. Harriet and Ricky said they did it while Dave and Ozzie were gone.

Tree decorations is one area that has changed drastically today.  Rarely do you see tinsel, garland, or snow flocking.  Back in the 1950s you might have seen bubble lights, or popcorn strands, and the rainbow colors of Shiny Brite ornaments.

 

They go outside for Scene 8 to join the carolers.  It begins to snow lightly. Doc mentions it’s too bad lights didn’t get put up, but then Ricky hits the light switch and he explains he and Harriet took care of those too. The group moves off singing “Deck the Halls.”

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That’s the end of the 1956 episode, but in 1964, Ozzie replayed this show and added a Scene 10.  It is now 1964.  David is married to June Blair and they have a son Danny. Rick is married to Kris Harmon and they have a daughter Tracy. The entire Nelson family gathers around the tree.  Ricky plays his guitar, sitting in front of the fireplace and decorated tree and sings “The Christmas Song.”  While he sings, the camera pans around watching the rest of the family. It ends with everyone wishing the viewers a merry Christmas.

 

So much of our culture has changed today from 1956; however, thankfully many Christmas traditions remain.  We still send and get cards, although some of them are on the computer.  We still put up lights and a tree; we just tend to do it earlier, so we can enjoy it longer. We still do things for others like orphanage parties; we just don’t have actual orphanages much anymore. We also can get quiet, listening to “Silent Night” and be deeply touched by the season and what it means to us. This episode is a reminder of that for me every year, and I look forward to it.