Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from Bob Newhart’s first situation comedy, The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978, CBS). I’m thrilled to announce that every single episode of the series has been released on DVD.
Chicago psychologist Bob Hartley juggles life at home, where he resides with his loving wife Emily, an elementary school teacher, and their zany neighbor, Howard Borden, a flight navigator, with his life at the office, where he regularly interacts with a goofy orthodontist, Jerry Robinson, and their quirky receptionist, Carol Kester. The Bob Newhart Show stars BOB NEWHART as Bob Hartley, SUZANNE PLESHETTE as Emily Hartley, BILL DAILY as Howard Borden, PETER BONERZ as Jerry Robinson, and MARCIA WALLACE as Carol Kester. JACK RILEY recurs as Elliot Carlin.
A vehicle for standup comedian Bob Newhart (known for his hilarious one-sided phone calls), this self-titled series was the first produced by MTM following the launch of its flagship show for namesake Mary Tyler Moore two years before. Like Moore’s series, The Bob Newhart Show is structured around a lovable straight man who contends with a brilliantly cast ensemble of zanies in both his personal and professional lives. But there are some key differences. First of all, our protagonist is married. But instead of making use of the typical husband-and-wife plots that dominated sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s, the series allows his wife, Emily, to function as his full-fledged partner. She is a teammate, taking on the straight man duties with Bob, and sometimes, exposing the kookiness that exists even in his character. Furthermore, the Hartleys are childless. (Although the original pilot, which was later retooled as the ninth episode of the series, involved their desire to adopt. Thankfully this idea, which came about because of Pleshette’s then pregnancy was dropped — per Newhart’s request.)
Now, before I get ahead of myself, I must reinforce that this series is a star vehicle, and more often than not, the stories, as they should, center on Bob. As with The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS) and The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-1966, CBS) before it, the series spends a significant amount of time with Bob in the office, where in addition to his co-workers, Bob’s job as a psychologist allows for a rotation of painfully eccentric and brilliantly funny recurring characters who serve as his patients. It’s a goldmine of comedy. But the biggest difference between this series and its big sister show is that the humor is tailored around Newhart’s unique and understated persona, which imbues the show with a dry, sometimes surrealist tone that’s unlike any other sitcom of the era.
All of this is in place from the beginning: Newhart’s performance style, the modern marriage, the kooky patients, the split home and work structure, and the brilliant ensemble of regulars (each of whom are offbeat and collectively eclectic). In fact, the show is surprisingly attuned to itself in Season One, and while later years (with other show runners) will feature better scripts with riper comedic potentials, the characters in Season One are well drawn, and there are a fair amount of truly original stories. It’s a strong first year, one that establishes itself as a similar, but simultaneously different entity from Moore’s. So I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “Fly The Unfriendly Skies” (Aired: 09/16/72)
Emily joins Bob’s “fear of flying” therapy group, but struggles with the final exam.
Written by David Davis & Lorenzo Music | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Although not an outstanding installment, this funny episode was a wise choice to air first. The script is beautifully balanced between Bob’s roles as both husband and psychologist, converging his home and the office with great mastery. The comedic centerpiece of the episode takes place on the plane (and the ensuing scene with Bob and Emily at home), but the most exciting part of the installment is the first ever group scene, which makes great use of Howard as a guest lecturer, and is filled with several soon-to-be recurring patients. Strong opening for the series.
02) Episode 3: “Tennis, Emily?” (Aired: 09/30/72)
Bob is worried when Emily takes tennis lessons from a womanizer.
Written by David Davis & Lorenzo Music | Directed by Alan Rafkin
While the topic of potential infidelity is a sitcom trope that dates back to even before the radio sitcom era, this series tackles the subject with great sophistication. Not only is the threat of Emily’s attraction to her teacher minimized by our understanding of her deep love for Bob, the script sort of refocuses the comedy away from Bob’s worry (as most shows would have it) to the tennis teacher’s exaggerated narcissism, which climaxes in a wonderful scene in the Hartley kitchen. It’s a neat episode for so early in the series’ run — a smart script with some handy laughs.
03) Episode 8: “Don’t Go To Bed Mad” (Aired: 11/11/72)
Bob and Emily stay up all night trying to resolve an argument.
Written by Gene Thompson | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Here we have the first ever fight between Bob and Emily, and while married sitcom couples feud and spar with regularity, it’s a rarity for this series. Thus, it’s always interesting when an episode puts them in direct odds. This one concerns a fight that erupts between the two when Bob ignores Emily in favor of sports. It’s an easy, relatable set-up that takes on a whole life of its own with this pair of unique characters. The list of grievances is probably the strongest bit, while the chemistry that Newhart and Pleshette share is so wonderfully realistic; they’re two great performers giving and taking.
04) Episode 11: “I Want To Be Alone” (Aired: 12/02/72)
Howard fears the Hartleys are splitting up when Bob moves into a hotel.
Written by Jerry Mayer | Directed by Alan Rafkin
This smart episode is notable for a variety of reasons. First, it features a guest appearance by Bernie Kopell, best known for a recurring role on That Girl. Second, it’s the last appearance of Patricia Smith as Margaret, a homemaker who lives in the building and was supposed to pop in every week to give Emily a gal pal. When the writers realized Howard could easily do the same thing, Margaret was dropped. And lastly, there’s a refreshing maturity about this script — especially in the scene when the school board is arguing about sexual education. This is TV in the early ’70s, and it’s great.
05) Episode 12: “Bob And Emily And Howard And Carol And Jerry” (Aired: 12/09/72)
Carol asks Emily to fix her up with Howard, but later comes to regret it.
Written by Charlotte Brown | Directed by Peter Baldwin
Probably the most memorable installment of the season, this is the episode in which all five regulars share a scene together for the first time. The premise is focused entirely on the core cast and it’s marvelous. Howard visits Jerry for dental work and gets high. Carol meets Howard and falls in love, begging Emily to fix her up. Unfortunately, when Emily arranges a double date for them with her and Bob, Carol has an awful time. Howard, conversely, is lovestruck. Things erupt when Carol, who’s been blowing off Howard, runs into him at Bob’s apartment. The scene in the bathroom with the five regulars that closes the second act is tops. Fabulous, funny, and well written episode.
06) Episode 14: “His Busiest Season” (Aired: 12/23/72)
Bob decides to throw a Christmas party, inviting all of his patients.
Written by David Davis & Lorenzo Music | Directed by Peter Baldwin
This series’ holiday episodes are usually supreme as the show’s focus on unusual people interacting in usual ways is just like any family get together. Also, because Bob is a psychologist, the series extends its occasionally dark sense of humor into the season, making for richly layered scripts that never get overly saccharine (which, I admit, Moore’s series could sometimes — only sometimes — do). This episode finds Bob throwing a Chirstmas party for all of his lonely and depressed patients. It’s a natural for comedy, and not surprisingly, the party is the highlight.
07) Episode 15: “Let’s Get Away From It Almost” (Aired: 01/06/73)
The Hartleys share a bathroom with an annoying couple at a ski lodge.
Written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses | Directed by Jay Sandrich
Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses, who will eventually assume creative control over the show in the middle seasons, pen their second script, in which Bob and Emily take a vacation that, as you would expect, does not go as planned. Not only is the resort far form luxurious, but the Hartleys are saddled next to an obnoxious couple (the husband in particular) eager for companionship because they’re close to splitting up. (Joyce Van Patten plays the wife.) The comedy comes from all the ways in which Bob and Emily can be annoyed, and while it can be a bit hard to watch, it’s also very funny.
08) Episode 17: “The Man With The Golden Wrist” (Aired: 01/20/73)
Bob thinks the watch Emily gave him for his birthday is too expensive to wear.
Written by Bill Idelson | Directed by Alan Rafkin
Most remarkable about this episode is its inherent originality. I’ve never seen a series do a story like this before. (Can anybody think of a story like this from before January 1973? Comment below.) Bob’s concern that his wife’s birthday gift to him is too expensive allows for a lot of unexpectedly humorous interactions between Bob and the other characters, particularly his wife Emily. Of course, the most memorable scene occurs at Bob’s birthday dinner, in which, after they’ve been quibbling about the watch, a rumor spreads around the table (a la the “telephone game”) about Bob and Emily splitting up. Very funny, and very unique.
09) Episode 21: “Emily, I’m Home… Emily?” (Aired: 02/17/73)
Bob is lonely when Emily gets a full-time job.
Written by Martin Cohan | Directed by Rick Edelstein
This episode speaks to what was mentioned above about the series’ progressive presentation of marriage and women. We’ve seen stories like this before, in which the wife goes to work and the husband doesn’t like it and feels neglected. Bob Newhart does a slight riff on this, giving Bob more maturity than some of his sitcom husband predecessors. Unfortunately, Bob gets drunk with Elliot and can’t hold his feelings in anymore. But, to our great surprise, Bob and Emily agree that she should keep the position. It’s refreshing, funny, and delightfully 1973. (And the maid is a hoot.)
10) Episode 23: “Bum Voyage” (Aired: 03/03/73)
Bob is reluctant to leave his therapy group to go on a cruise with Emily.
Written by Austin & Irma Kalish | Directed by Martin Cohan
As the penultimate episode of the season (which really would have worked better as the season finale), this episode combines a lot of wonderful things about this series — particularly the relationships that Bob shares both with the regular cast and with his assortment of kooky patients. Things converge physically in the cabin on their cruise, when Bob is surprised not only by his friends, but by his therapy group, who have already become a major source for comedy. It’s a wonderfully joyous episode, one that represents the first season well.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Tracy Grammar School, I’ll Lick You Yet,” a truly funny installment (the second aired) in which Bob speaks to Emily’s class, “The Crash Of Twenty-Nine Years Old,” in which Carol is depressed about turning the big 2-9, and “A Home Is Not Necessarily A House,” in which Bob and Emily consider buying a house. All three could have EASILY made the above list, and are absolutely worth checking out!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of The Bob Newhart Show goes to…
“Bob And Emily And Howard And Carol And Jerry”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!