Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is going to make some veal parmigiana tonight. He just needs to borrow a few things—the veal, the cheese, the tomato sauce, the pan, the stove, the kitchen...
Our reviews of The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete First Season (published May 11th, 2005), The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Second Season (published March 15th, 2006), and The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Third Season (published May 15th, 2006) are also available.
"You don't actually shrink people?"
I didn't read the episode list until the DVDs arrived in my mail, but I was thrilled when I remembered four words: "Moo Goo Goo Goo." Doesn't take much to please a DVD reviewer, does it? Still, those are a great four words, in the hands of Bob Newhart.
If you watched the recent PBS special honoring Newhart, there's a hilarious clip with Bob and the guys getting drunk and trying to order Chinese food after botching a Thanksgiving turkey dinner. In a neat reversal of Newhart's usual telephone routine, it's the Chinese restaurateur on the other end of the line who's the sane man in an insane world as Bob drunkenly stumbles through an order, with a little help from his buddies. "Over The River and Through the Woods" came in ninth on TV Guide's "100 Greatest Episodes of All Time" list.
That episode also appears to be responsible for the "Hi, Bob" drinking game: Bob and his pals get drunk playing Jerry's drinking game, in which they drink every time the opponents of Jerry's alma mater William & Mary score in a record blowout football game. No, Jerry doesn't have brothers Darryl and Darryl; he's the orthodonist who shares the office building floor with Newhart's psychologist Bob Hartley. This one's the original Bob Newhart sitcom.
The Bob Newhart Show, a Saturday night fixture from 1972 to 1978, was a sitcom extension of Bob Newhart's stage persona as that sane man in an insane world. When he was on stage, Newhart used a telephone as a prop, generating laughs through his carefully measured responses to an unseen, unheard partner in comedy. For his first sitcom, Newhart is joined by a cast that's heard and seen, but usually not all there. Newhart plays Bob Hartley, a Chicago psychologist who's barely better adjusted than the self-absorbed patients and friends he meets every day. No, he's not quite Frasier, since Newhart's oddball shrink is just as much an everyman as the hapless janitor who tries to scare off King Kong in a famous Newhart stand-up bit.
The show may be best remembered today for the "Hi, Bob" drinking game, but The Bob Newhart Show gets its laughs from the way characters communicate—or, more accurately, fail to communicate with a sublime silliness not seen since The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. The exchanges usually go something like this one between Bob's wife and their airline pilot neighbor:
Emily: "Howard, there may be life on Jupiter."
A typical conversation on The Bob Newhart Show (from "Duke of Dunk") finds Emily asking about her missing stapler and complaining about having to use paper clips instead, while Bob excitedly replays the basketball game he just saw and Howard shows everybody his new goldfish.
I know what you're thinking: "The Bob Newhart Show a study in human communication patterns? Who'd have realized this? Brilliant! This reviewer's a genius."
Scratch that. That's what I'm thinking. Your thinking probably goes more like this: "All right, already. Would a drink for every non-sequitur get me stewed faster than a drink for every time someone says, 'Hi, Bob'?" Probably, but I didn't keep track. I was drinking ginger ale.
Facts of the Case
The Bob Newhart Show: The Complete Fourth Season contains 24 episodes, starting with a visit from "The Peeper," Bob's old college buddy, played by Tom Poston (Newhart's handyman and Suzanne Pleshette's real-life husband):
• "The Longest Good-Bye"
In addition to a hefty helping of Moo Goo Goo Goo and the first appearance of The Peeper, The Complete Fourth Season finds Howard, the neighbor who's always borrowing something, asking Bob's sister for her hand in marriage in "Here's Looking at You, Kid"; receptionist Carol finally tying the knot in "Carol's Wedding," and schoolteacher Emily becoming vice principal at last. This season also delivers a prescient parody of TV talk shows in "Who is Mr. X?" In "Carol at 6:01," Howard introduces his version of poker; too bad it didn't become a college craze.
Bob Newhart still does his telephone bits—he's heard talking with Carol about a bad date, trying to straighten out a bank account with a rep who thinks he's a distant relative, and reaching an unruly student sent to the principal's office when he calls "Old Lady Hartley" at her school, to name but a few—but he's expanded the stand-up persona into a full-fledged character, keeping his trademark stutter-and-pause delivery.
While he's nominally the sane center of the show, you probably wouldn't want Bob Hartley for a psychologist. Bob chews everything he eats exactly 32 times, a habit from his childhood days; can't deal with his martyr mother; obsesses about dust when company's coming; has a set of rituals for paying bills that includes a special bill-paying hat; alphabetizes kitchen staples; and cringes from hugs. Bob's also good at having analogies fall flat; when he compares the way Carol's husband smothers her with the way his wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette, The Shaggy D.A.) smothers her steak with ketchup, his point is lost because everyone else in the room loves ketchup on steak.
He's also quick with a zinger, though often no one notices. When a suddenly death-obsessed Howard asks, "Do you think I should be buried or cremated?," Bob answers, "Howard, I've always thought you should be bronzed." When Jerry's surprised that Carol hasn't broken off her latest engagement (to a guy she met on one date), Bob quips that "those were different. She knew those guys." Of course, Emily notices Bob's sarcasm. She's the one who delivers Bob's kind of zingers right back at him:
"Have a good game and get some really high scores," she tells Bob as he and Jerry set out to go golfing.
"In golf, the object is to get low scores," Bob explains.
"I know," Emily responds with a wicked smile.
While Bob and Emily zing each other—Bob even tries to convince his buddy Jerry, as a joke, that he's having his wife committed—Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette come across as a loving couple who share the same cynical view of the world with wicked twinkles in their eyes, while keeping a cautious eye on each other lest their partner turn out to be crazy, too. While her Emily seems a little bit too perfect a TV wife (Pleshette jokingly compares her own cooking skills to Emily's at one point in commentary), Pleshette manages to deliver lines with a comic timing that matches Newhart's.
With married Bob and Emily as the center of the show, their bachelor buddies bear the brunt of jokes. Howard Borden (Bill Daily, I Dream of Jeannie) looks at first glance like he's got a swinging life with his bachelor pad overlooking the city and his literally jet-set job as a pilot, but he's single for a reason: he can't function. While Bob and Emily are celebrating their sixth anniversary—iron—Howard laments that he "only made it to cardboard." When Howard makes veal parmigiana, he doesn't just need to borrow a little pepper; he asks Emily if she's got the veal and the cheese. As Suzanne Pleshette puts it in the commentary, "He's our idiot child." If you have any doubts that Howard's a big overgrown kid, note his response when Bob asks if he wants to go along on a shopping trip: "I'll go with you. I'll push the cart." Daily's daffy delivery, looking just like a kid, makes this side-splitting. The best Howard scene here, in "Here's Looking at You, Kid," finds him about to propose to Bob's sportswriter sister Ellen when she starts talking about her day—spent interviewing a sports star in a locker room full of naked men; nervous Howard's so busy practicing what he's going to say that he doesn't even notice anything she's saying.
Jerry (Peter Bonerz), the orthodontist who shares Bob's office, also is childlike as he bickers with Carol over making the coffee or turns Carol's request for a raise over to Bob because he can't face her. Jerry's a little more aware than Howard, though, which makes him come across as more self-centered as he still engages in drinking games, gloats when he beats Bob at handball, tries his dubious charms on the ladies, or mocks Bob's offbeat clientele. Bonerz's delivery and lines about Jerry's rough childhood in an orphanage help to smooth over his rough edges, and "My Boy Guillermo," about Jerry's plans to settle down, reveals his basic insecurity. Bonerz went on to direct episodes of sitcoms like Murphy Brown and Friends; several of his first efforts came in this season.
I guess you'd also count patient Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley) as one of the bachelor buds, since he's always hanging out with Bob. This season finds the perpetually depressed Elliot Carlin dating—at last. "You found a girl who likes you because you know mileages?" an astonished Bob asks.
In Season Four, receptionist Carol marries, putting an end to a hard-luck dating life that made easy joke fodder, but not before one last bad date in "The Heavyweights." Marcia Wallace gets to show a tender side to the normally sarcastic Carol here as she reluctantly tells a cloddish beau what she really thinks of him. Normally, though, she's a typical TV receptionist whose main function is to crack jokes and bicker with Jerry, but her marriage gives Marcia Wallace a chance to develop the character more this season.
This season also includes some classic therapy moments, such as the therapy group's reaction to the death of a patient they had just asked Bob to eject from their sessions and a turnabout in which Mr. Carlin counsels a depressed Bob ("We went through three upholsterings together," Mr. Carlin says of his time spent on the psychologist's couch).
The transfer has the typical, sometimes washed-out look of a 1970s-era sitcom shot on video. Watching this show as a reviewer, I noticed something I hadn't noticed before: the score is excellent. The theme song has a nice jazzy feel to it and strains of songs like "In the Mood" and "As Time Goes By" frequently turn up between scenes as variations to fit the plot. The sound's mono, though. One episode, "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time," has a previous season's intro; since the episode's an elaborate parody of The Sting, it looks like they did something special for the opening credits here but couldn't get the rights cleared to use it on the DVD.
It's worth listening to the commentaries here, even if the actors laugh—a lot—at their own lines. You'll enjoy hearing the episode's lines again, since they're funny enough that you'll forgive these folks for breaking out laughing so much. Second, the commentaries aren't bad. You'll hear Suzanne Pleshette and real-life husband Tom Poston discuss working together, Marcia Wallace explain the fine art of putting together a great sitcom, and Bob Newhart recall the time a director told him he ought to get rid of the stammer.
The two other features include a gag reel and "A Second Family," in which Bob Newhart discusses a few of his favorites from this season; some of the latter feature's observations echo the commentaries, but there's a good bit in which Newhart explains how to play a drunk.
While watching an Insider interview with Bob Newhart about his new book, I heard him mention Suzanne Pleshette's fight against lung cancer. Best wishes to her on her battle.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This was the 1970s. Get a load of some of those sports jackets Hartley wears. Ugly, huh? You'll also get jokes about the draft, falling asleep until the TV station's overnight test pattern comes on, and E.F. Hutton brokerage ads.
This is also the era when sitcoms were first learning about sex. One episode, "Shrinks Across the Sea," builds up to the shocked reactions of Bob and Emily when they learn that one of Bob's colleagues is committing adultery. Bob Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette make it passable, but this one seems as dusty as that table Bob was getting petulant about earlier in the episode.
If you've never seen The Bob Newhart Show and you're still reading this far, give Bob Newhart's deadpan dysfunction a try. If you're already a fan and are deciding which set to buy first, I'd recommend this one for the Thanksgiving episode and the first two appearances of Tom Poston as The Peeper.
I don't recommend you try watching under these intense conditions at home unless you're a trained DVD reviewer, but The Bob Newhart Show passes one critical critic's test: When I watched six episodes in a row, I was laughing just as much on the sixth one as I was on the first one—and I was laughing a lot to start with.
Not guilty. Will somebody please pass the Moo Goo Goo Goo?
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Bob Newhart, Director James Burrows, Suzanne Pleshette, and Tom Poston on "The Longest Good-Bye"
Review content copyright © 2006 James A. Stewart; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.