Hi Bob! We’re Always Happy to See The Bob Newhart Show

From 1972-1978 we were able to benefit from the sage advice of Dr. Robert Hartley from the comfort of our own living rooms. Created by David Davis and Lorenzo Music, and produced by MTM Enterprises, The Bob Newhart Show gifted us with 142 episodes for us treat ourselves to after the show left the air.

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In an online article by Marc Freeman in April of 2018, Dave Davis discussed the evolution of the sitcom. “Lorenzo and I wrote a segment for Bob on Love American Style. Bob wasn’t available. So, we got Sid Caesar. A few years later, we did a script for Bob for the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, Bob wasn’t available. After we became story editors on Mary’s show, MTM Enterprises decided to branch out and asked Lorenzo and me to do a pilot. We knew exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted a show with Bob.”

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When Bob Newhart was approached about starring in the show, he required two changes from the original concept. First, he wanted his character to be a psychiatrist instead of a psychologist. This seems like a minor request, but he was very wise because he did not want anyone to think the show was making fun of mental illness. He also insisted that his character not have children. The “father doesn’t know best but thinks he does” underlying concept was not one he wanted the show to focus on. Bob was careful when creating the character of Bob Hartley. Newhart once said “the key to building a show around a stand-up is maintaining the integrity of the persona you create.” This was definitely true for the Bob Newhart Show.

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The show has a very simple premise in that we see Bob dealing with the same everyday problems the rest of us did. It was grounded in reality. Bob was the straight man. He was surrounded by all these quirky characters, but they were believable and likeable.

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The show moves back and forth between Bob’s practice and his home; we get to know his co-workers and his friends and family. At work, he shares his floor and receptionist Carol Kester (Marcia Wallace) with orthodontist Jerry Robinson (Peter Bonerz) and urologist Bernie Tupperman (Larry Gelman). Carol and Jerry become two of his best friends. We also get to know some of his regular patients including Elliot Carlin (Jack Riley), Emile Peterson (John Fiedler), and Mrs. Bakerman (Florida Friebus).

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Bob is married to Emily (Suzanne Pleshette) who is a school teacher. Across the hall is the apartment of their friend and neighbor Howard Borden (Bill Daily), an airline navigator. Although Bob insisted on no children, in many ways, Howard was Bob and Emily’s child.

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In season four of the show, Howard meets and begins dating Bob’s sister Ellen (Pat Finley) and they eventually marry, making Howard a legal family member.

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Bob and Emily were the only characters to appear in all 142 episodes. Suzanne Pleshette was asked to play Emily after she appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson one night. She was seated next to Bob, and the producers thought the two of them had great chemistry. In real life Bob and Suzy, as he called her, were best friends. He spoke at her funeral. When he recalled their time together, he said “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.

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They worked so well as a couple because Emily is very bright and funny. She and Bob argued because they were both a bit stubborn, but they always found a way to compromise at the end of the day. Bob often shared his wisdom through stories. He would do a bit of a monologue that related to what was happening on the show. It was referred to as the “Emily, sit down” moment.

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The phone is also important on the show. If you are familiar with Newhart’s career, you realize some of the first skits that escalated his stand-up career were phone conversations. On this show, we often hear a one-sided conversation when he chats with friends or patients. One example of this is:

Bob:  “Yes, this is Dr. Hartley. What can I do for you?

Well, Mr. Johnson, smiling and whistling while you work doesn’t seem to be a problem you should – you should see a psychologist about.

You drive a hearse?”

Although all the major characters on the show were like family to the Hartleys, the mailman on the show was truly family. Bill Quinn who played the postman was Bob Newhart’s father-in-law.

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Bonerz who played Jerry became interested in directing. He ended up directing 29 episodes of this show and then went on to a successful career as a director. He directed episodes on a variety of shows including E/R, Alf, Wings, Murphy Brown, Friends, and Home Improvement. His view of the importance of the show was that “the most interesting thing about the show and why its successful is that it brings up things that come up in your life. That’s what art’s supposed to do. That’s what TV should be doing. When it does, people remember it and reflect how much they like it.”

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The show was on Saturday nights. For the first five seasons, it followed The Mary Tyler Moore Show airing at 9:30 EDT and its competition on NBC was Saturday Night at the Movies. For season five, the show was changed to earlier in the evening against Starsky and Hutch on ABC. For its final year, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was off the air and Bob’s show aired at 8 pm Saturday opposite Fish and The Bionic Woman. The sitcom placed in the top 20 for the first three seasons and the top 30 for season four.

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Bob had requested the network move the show to a different night. That didn’t happen, and the television executives wanted Emily to have a baby, even though Bob had specified that not be part of the plot. So, he ended the show after six years. When asked about ending the show, he said, “I could see what was coming in situation comedy, and I didn’t want to be a part of it. If we’d gone another year, they’d have had the guy and two girls living in the apartment above us, a Martian living on the same floor next door to three girl detectives. The floor below us would have been occupied by a fraternity and a sorority.”

If you read my blog on Bob Newhart recently, you know how incensed I was that this show never won an Emmy, and was only nominated once, and Newhart never received an Emmy for any of his sitcoms in the seventies and eighties. It would take his recurring role on The Big Bang Theory as Professor Proton for him to win the Emmy.

However, the show was ranked ninth and fiftieth on “TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Times in 1997.”

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In 2004, TV Land picked this show as one of the series it commemorated with a sculpture. A statue of Newhart seated in a chair facing an empty couch is located in the Navy Pier entertainment complex.

I have to admit I was not a big fan of the finale of The Bob Newhart Show. Bob closes his practice in Chicago and accepts a teaching position at a small college in Oregon. I just don’t picture Bob and Emily being happy in a small Oregon town. However, the finale for Bob Newhart’s sitcom, Newhart, more than makes up for this ending.

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Bob Newhart credits his wife Ginnie with coming up with the idea for the finale of Newhart. Newhart is set in Vermont where Bob and his wife Joanna run a historic inn. They have to deal with some wacky locals and their maid and handy man. This show ran eight years. In the finale, Bob wakes up in bed. We hear him restless and wanting to talk about his dream. Suddenly we realize he and Emily Hartley are in bed together. Part of their conversation is:

Emily:  All right, Bob? What is it?

Bob: I was an innkeeper in this crazy little town in Vermont.

Emily: No more Japanese food before you go to bed.

Another great television moment occurred on Murphy Brown in 1994. Bonerz was the director of the sitcom. Of course, we remember how fast Murphy went through secretaries. She found fault with all of them. In this episode, Marcia Wallace appears as Carol Kester. She is Murphy’s 66th secretary. Murphy thinks Carol is a wonderful secretary, and she is finally satisfied. However, Bob Newhart shows up as Bob Hartley, begging Carol to come back to work for him.

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One of the iconic lines from the show was “Hi Bob.” Howard Borden said it 118 times, Jerry said it 43, Carol came in at 36, and Emily at 17. Even minor characters would utter the line from time to time, and Bob said it once himself. College students turned this into a drinking game watching the reruns, taking a shot whenever the line occurred.

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The best evidence that this was one of the best sitcoms ever produced is that people still love it today, more than four decades after it went off the air. The comedy is timeless. Let’s give Bob Newhart the final word about what the show meant to him. As he reflected the show’s legacy, he said, “I’m very proud of the show, the cast and the writing. Look at how long it’s lasted and how long people have enjoyed it. I run into people more and more who come up to me and say, ‘We used to sit as a family and watch your show.’ They look upon it as a wonderful time in their life. It’s very real to them and an important part of their life. It’s nice to be remembered that you made people laugh.”

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The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

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Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

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The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

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Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

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Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

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The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.