Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re concluding 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.
In addition to the Hartleys change in apartments, the sixth season marks a new change in executive producers, as the Charles Brothers, Glen and Les, straight off of a stint on the ill-fated Phyllis (1975-1977, CBS), assume creative control of the series. Unfortunately, while the Charles boys will go on to produce some of the best written television of the ’80s, the final season of The Bob Newhart Show is this series’ weakest. The most obvious shortcoming is Bob’s absence in five of the 22 episodes. Sure, he pre-shot scenes for those five shows, ensuring that he still would be a part of each and every one, but that’s five whole stories in which Bob is practically a non-entity! (He wanted to leave after Season Five, but was persuaded to stay on for one more year.) Furthermore, the show becomes much less concerned with realistic plots and natural dialogue, instead favoring a more jokey, predictable, and in effect, modern sensibility. What once would have been too gauche for The Bob Newhart Show in Season Two is now perfectly acceptable in Season Six. But the show’s decline in quality, though evident, does not keep the series from ever becoming a true disappointment, and the year does yield a handful of memorable outings. 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 Six. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 122: “Ex-Con Job” (Aired: 10/01/77)
Bob hopes a group of convicts will continue treatment upon release.
Written by Ziggy Steinberg | Directed by Michael Zinberg
This episode was apparently a favorite among the cast, particularly because of a hysterical scene in which Bob and Emily are robbed in their apartment at gunpoint (and the robber forces them to turn around and put their hands against the wall) and Howard walks in, sees what’s going on, and decides to go help the pair hold up the wall from falling down. It’s wonderful lunacy, but totally appropriate for his character. Meanwhile, I like this episode for an excellent drunk scene by the very funny Marcia Wallace — and it’s maybe her best scene of the series.
02) Episode 123: “A Jackie Story” (Aired: 10/08/77)
Jerry feels unworthy of his new girlfriend, while Bob treats a ventriloquist (and his dummy).
Written by Lloyd Garver | Directed by Michael Zinberg
Truthfully, the A-story about Jerry and his feelings of inadequacy and fear of abandonment when it comes to his new girlfriend is dull and unfunny. This episode makes today’s list because of the hilariously absurd B-story, in which Bob treats a ventriloquist whose dummy tags along on every session and refuses to leave him alone with Bob. It’s delightfully wacky, and probably too much for the series during the early years of its run, but the undeniable comedy makes the premise here absolutely justifiable.
03) Episode 124: “Who Was That Masked Man?” (Aired: 10/15/77)
Mr. Peterson splits up with his overbearing wife and bonds with Mr. Carlin.
Written by Glen & Les Charles | Directed by Dick Martin
Centered around two of this show’s funniest characters, Jack Riley’s Elliot Carlin and John Fiedler’s Emil Peterson, this episode builds to a climax in which Bob, dressed as Zorro on his way to a costume party, goes out on a ledge to talk Mr. Peterson down. It’s often called one of the funniest scenes, and while the premise certainly is comedic because of its uniqueness, I find it too gaudy. That is, it seems like this scene came first, and all of the character stuff that leads up to it was an afterthought. However, because of the interactions between Riley and Fiedler, it’s still a winner.
04) Episode 125: “Carlin’s New Suit” (Aired: 10/22/77)
Mr. Carlin is the victim of a false paternity suit.
Written by Andrew Smith | Directed by Dick Martin
Although I find this story a little hard to believe (and am inherently against shows about children, which are often unfunny), this episode is actually very funny and surprisingly well written. Not only is there a guest appearance by a pre-WKRP Loni Anderson, but this episode deepens our understanding of Elliot Carlin, as he bonds with the boy and decides that he wants to be his father, even if he isn’t his actual father. Meanwhile, there’s a great running gag about unpopular Bob and his beeper, which is interwoven into the script beautifully.
05) Episode 126: “A Day In The Life” (Aired: 10/29/77)
Bob tries to straighten things out at the office in order to go on a spontaneous vacation.
Written by Kathy Donnell & Madelyn Dimaggio Wagner | Directed by Dick Martin
The success of this episode is built on the simple motivation that drives Bob and the entire story — his desire to settle things at the office so he can take the Peeper up on an offer (and win a bet with Emily) to take a spontaneous vacation to New Orleans. The comedic highlight of the episode is a scene in which Carlin completely wrecks all the progress Bob had made with a warring family, who had since become too unbelievably nice and affectionate. But in addition to the comedy, the script’s fluidity (coupled with a surprise ending), makes it a real unexpected delight. Near perfect excursion.
06) Episode 129: “Shallow Throat” (Aired: 11/26/77)
Bob struggles with professional ethics when a patient confesses to a robbery.
Written by Earl Pomerantz | Directed by Dick Martin
Here we have another fan favorite, and unfortunately, I must admit to only liking this installment a reasonable amount. That said, this episode boasts a fine performance by Richard Libertini, and the narrative, about Bob wrestling with his duty as a citizen vs. his duty as a psychologist makes for an interesting story (and raises issues still worth discussing today). Meanwhile, there are some very funny bits, particularly Libertini’s first session with Bob, in which Bob yells at him, “What the hell do you want?” It’s the comedic high point.
07) Episode 132: “‘Twas The Pie Before Christmas” (Aired: 12/24/77)
Feuds and bitterness abound just before the Hartleys’ Christmas party.
Written by Phil Davis | Directed by Dick Martin
Although this episode uses stories we’ve already seen before on this series (like Bob raising the rates on his patients, and the Hartleys holding a Christmas party), the season’s inherent looseness carries over into the annual Christmas episode, in which Elliot Carlin hires a hit man to pie Bob in the face, but keeps missing. I’m a sucker for a good pie fight, especially when a series uses it sparingly. Additionally, all of the feuds and resentments that threaten to plague Bob’s party come about organically and believably. Well-written, and very fun installment. A favorite.
08) Episode 136: “Group On A Hot Tin Roof” (Aired: 01/28/78)
Mr. Plager writes a play and draws his characters from Bob and the group.
Written by Andrew Smith | Directed by Michael Zinberg
A healthy dose of self-reflexivity in a sitcom is a good thing. Not only is it a source for additional comedy, but the ability to joke about oneself shows a higher level of thinking and helps to further connect the audience with the characters. In this episode, Plager writes a WWI play and uses Bob and the members of the group as thinly veiled inspirations for the characters. Their reactions to his work, and the stuff we see of the work itself, is very funny, and makes for the last great group episode.
09) Episode 137: “Emily Carlin, Emily Carlin” (Aired: 02/04/78)
Emily reluctantly poses as Mr. Carlin’s wife at his high school reunion.
Written by Laura Levine | Directed by Peter Bonerz
One of the five episodes in which Bob Newhart only appears in one pre-shot scene, this installment works because it pairs two of the show’s best characters together for really the only time, Emily and Mr. Carlin. Thus, while it is a MAJOR leap to justify why Emily would ever agree to accompany Elliot to his reunion and pose as his wife, the comedy that results and the ability to see these two characters together, excuses the flaws. Besides, it’s the best of the Bob-lite installments, so if you’re going to pick one of those to watch, this is it.
10) Episode 138: “Easy For You To Say” (Aired: 02/11/78)
Bob helps the host of a kids radio program to get over his stuttering.
Written by Andrew Smith | Directed by Dick Martin
Of all the episodes on today’s list, this is probably the weakest. It’s certainly the most gaggy and least logical of the entire bunch, with the centerpiece of the episode being a silly audition for a kid’s television program, in which Jerry and Bob agree to help Bob’s patient, the host — a chronic stutterer. But the scenes between Bob and the patient, played by Kaye’s son on The Mothers-In-Law (1967-1969) are amusing, as is his cure for the stuttering: rubbing his tummy and patting his head. Original, clever, kooky comedy still abounds!
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Grizzly Emily,” a Bob-less episode that works because of the performances of Pleshette and Barnard Hughes, “Freudian Ship,” in which Bob gets drunk while trying to patch up a marriage aboard ship (where Newhart’s great and the script is okay), and “Happy Trails To You,” in which the cast does an offbeat homage to The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s finale in another too sentimental series finale. All three are recommendable.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of The Bob Newhart Show goes to…..
“A Day In The Life”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the first season of Maude (1972-1978, CBS)! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!