Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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, and PAT FINLEY recurs as Ellen Hartley.
In addition to housing several of the series’ absolute best installments, the fourth season of The Bob Newhart Show, under the creative direction of Patchett and Tarses, is perhaps the most consistent in terms of episodic quality. While certain episodes do certainly outshine others, there’s an inherent “base level” of comedy that runs through about 95% of this season (a high number — even for a series that was always among the best on television). This was a tough list to make, for this is probably my favorite season, and there are many excellent moments in Season Four that deserve our attention. On the narrative front, Ellen and Howard split while Carol gets married to Larry Bondurant, a travel agent. As you know, those big moments have nothing on the little trivial stories at which this series excels. 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 Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 73: “The Longest Good-Bye” (Aired: 09/13/75)
Bob’s old college friend, the Peeper, comes to visit.
Written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses | Directed by James Burrows
The season premiere introduces Bob’s college friend, the Peeper, played by future Newhart (1982-1990, CBS) co-star, Tom Poston (and future husband to Suzanne Pleshette). This goofy prankster, who drenches all of his food in maple syrup, is admittedly an acquired taste. Although I initially had the same response that Emily does here — annoyance — I have since come to appreciate the childlike quality his character brings out of Bob, who really makes the episode for me with all of his delightful giddiness. Fun, silly episode that introduces a memorable recurring character.
02) Episode 75: “Death Of A Fruitman” (Aired: 09/27/75)
Mr. Gianelli dies after being crushed by a truckload of zucchini.
Written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Let the record show that a month before the critically acclaimed “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977, CBS), The Bob Newhart Show did an episode that ALSO featured the bizarrely comedic death of one of its side characters. In this case, Bob’s patient Mr. Gianelli, played in the first two seasons by Noam Pitlik, has died after being crushed to death by a truckload of zucchini. This unbelievable premise, which is completely original, is matched by a deliciously morose script — perfectly in keeping with this series’ tone. Unique installment.
03) Episode 80: “What’s It All About, Albert?” (Aired: 11/01/75)
Bob’s old mentor has him questioning the value of psychology.
Written by Phil Davis | Directed by Michael Zinberg
This show can usually get away with handling deeper stories because of Bob’s “laid back” or underplayed approach to comedy. In this installment, Bob has probably the biggest crisis of his career when he goes to his old college mentor and asks him for wisdom. The professor, played by Keenan Wynn, tells Bob that psychology is a crock, leaving Bob to question that veracity of his claim. The scene between the two is probably the highlight of the episode, but this is a great episode with several weighty moments for Newhart and his character.
04) Episode 81: “Who Is Mr. X?” (Aired: 11/08/75)
Bob is grilled on local TV by a vicious talk show host.
Written by Bruce Kane | Directed by Peter Bonerz
Considered among the best of the entire series, this episode features an absolutely brilliant scene in which Bob accepts an innocent request to speak about psychology on a morning talk show. Unfortunately, the host turns out to be a viper and grills Bob with questions (even referring to him as a “snake oil salesman”). In the process, Bob accidentally lets slip that one of his patients is an elected official, but he refuses to reveal whom. The rest of the episode follows that thread, but without a doubt, the comedic centerpiece of the show is Bob being ripped apart on TV. It’s one of the funniest moments of the entire series.
05) Episode 83: “Over The River And Through The Woods” (Aired: 11/22/75)
Bob spends a depressing Thanksgiving getting drunk with his friends.
Written by Bruce Kane | Directed by James Burrows
Yes, this is the classic “MOO GOO GAI PAN” episode about which you’ve heard! As mentioned in prior posts, The Bob Newhart Show did holiday shows like no other — mixed with delicious cynicism. In this classic installment, Emily goes to spend Thanksgiving with her family and Bob stays home with Jerry, Howard, and Elliot Carlin. While watching the football game, the foursome proceeds to get plastered and they decide to order Chinese. Although, Bob’s drunk routine was legendary, the other three give equally amusing performances. This episode is as funny as they say it is. I hate to be conventional, but it’s the funniest of the entire series.
06) Episode 84: “Fathers And Sons And Mothers” (Aired: 11/29/75)
Bob’s meddling mother visits, while one of his patients has trouble with his son.
Written by Arnold Kane | Directed by James Burrows
Most genius about this episode is the parallel between the story in Bob’s home life, his mother coming to visit for an extended stay, and Bob’s work life, in which he deals with the rocky relationship between his recurring patient Mr. Vickers and Vickers’ nasty son, played by a young William Daniels. While I always appreciate seeing Martha Scott, an actress who starred in the original production of my favorite Broadway play (see last week), the story with the Vickers is hilarious, and that’s why this episode made today’s list.
07) Episode 85: “The Article” (Aired: 12/06/75)
Ellen writes an article about the doctors on Bob’s floor.
Written by Erik Tarloff | Directed by Michael Zinberg
One of a few episodes that allows us to see the ensemble of doctors with whom Bob and Jerry share the floor, this is an excellent representation of the beautiful blending of Bob’s life, again, at home and at the office. Ellen decides to write an article about all of the doctors on the floor, only to anger them when she presents exactly what she sees — warts and all. It’s actually a very funny episode, mining lots of comedy from the aforementioned ensemble. Also, note that this is perhaps the only time that Ellen has a story NOT involving her relationship with Howard.
08) Episode 87: “Bob Has To Have His Tonsils Out, So He Spends Christmas Eve In The Hospital” (Aired: 12/20/75)
Bob has to… well, the title pretty much says it all.
Written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses | Directed by James Burrows
This hysterical episode gets my vote as the best Christmas episode of the entire series. Not only is it completely lacking in sentimentality, but it’s wickedly depressing. The title gives away the entire plot, but there are so many great moments worth checking out here. In addition to the appropriately childlike squabbling between Howard and Jerry, Bob’s volunteer nurse is none other than Mrs. Loomis, his patient for two episodes last season played by the wonderful Merie [or Merrie] Earle. She gets the episode’s biggest laughs, and deservedly so; she’s a riot.
09) Episode 88: “No Sale” (Aired: 01/03/76)
Bob and Jerry invest in Carlin’s real estate deal.
Written by Michael Zinberg | Directed by Eddie Ryder
Of all the episodes that made today’s list, this was the one that I struggled with the most. That is, I chose this one to include instead of any of the five honorable mentions below (which I also wanted to include). My initial problem with the episode is that the audience has to make a big leap to accept the believability of the premise. The reason it makes the list is that the script is loaded with one-liners and big laughs and, because I’m a sucker for comedy, I elevated it up for the list. (And again, this one divinely blends Bob’s personal and professional lives.)
10) Episode 93: “Guaranteed Not To Shrink” (Aired: 02/07/76)
Carol enrolls in a night school psychology class.
Written by Sy Rosen | Directed by James Burrows
Another one of the funniest installments of the entire series, the story for this episode almost takes a backseat to the comedy, which includes several superbly executed running gags. The most notable of these occurs when Bob is discussing his old flame Amy, an aspiring artist who decided to take the easy way out and become “a school…” Realizing to whom he is speaking, Bob stops before he finishes the word. So Bob and Emily then riff about Amy becoming a school (although Bob says she was actually a bank). It’s zany, truly original and FUNNY writing. A classic.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Change Is Gonna Do Me Good,” in which Bob and Emily swap household chores, “The Heavyweights,” in which Carol dates a member from Bob’s overweight therapy group, “Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time,” an homage to The Sting, “Carol At 6:01,” in which Larry gives Carol too much attention (and there’s a fun poker game scene), and “Warden Gordon Borden,” in which Ellen makes her last appearance and there are some good rhyming gags between Bob and Emily. All five of these episode had valid reasons to make the above list, and if you’re a real fan, they’re certainly worth your time!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of The Bob Newhart Show goes to…..
“Over The River And Through The Woods”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Five! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!
Bruce Kane is credited as the script writer for both “Over The River …” and “Who is Mr. X?”, which might well be the two best episodes in the entire run of the series. They aired two weeks apart. And besides these two classic episodes, Bruce Kane wrote just one other Bob Newhart Show episode in its six seasons.
Hi, Guy. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Good observation. Stay tuned next week to see if Mr. Kane’s third episode makes my list!