Newhart in the ’90s: A Look at BOB

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Timed with the conclusion of our coverage on the best from The Bob Newhart Show (1972-1978, CBS), today’s entry looks at Bob (1992-1993, CBS), the sitcom in which Newhart starred merely two years after the conclusion of Newhart (1982-1990, CBS). Newhart played Bob McKay, a comic book artist who went into the greeting card business almost 40 years before, but returns to the industry when the superhero he’d created, Mad Dog, is revived. Bob was the illustrator while his new partner Harlan Stone (John Cygan) wrote the dialogue. Others in the office included Andrew Bilgore as Albie, a nerd, Timothy Fall as Chad, a stoner, and Ruth Kobart as Iris, a curmudgeon. Several episodes in, Bob’s eccentric daughter Trisha (Cynthia Stevenson) took a job working with her father. At home, Carlene Watkins played Bob’s wife Kaye. Recurring characters included Tom Poston and Dorothy Lyman as the McKay’s best friends, Lisa Kudrow as their daughter (Trisha’s eventual roommate, and Albie’s love interest), Christine Dunford as Harlan’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, and Dick Martin, Steve Lawrence, and Bill Daily as Bob’s poker buddies.

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Although critically acclaimed and well promoted, the series failed to score high enough ratings in its Friday night time slot. It was moved to Mondays in April 1993, and the upsurge in ratings convinced CBS to pick the series up for an additional eight episode second season. But the producers decided to retool the series, bringing Bob back into the greeting card business, where he worked alongside his old boss’ ex-wife, Sylvia, played by Betty White. Others in the cast included her vain son, Pete (Jere Burns), the sarcastic bookkeeper Chris (Megan Cavanagh), and Whitey (Eric Allan Kramer), the “dumb but lovable” member of the production team. The only cast members from the original format that remained were Newhart, Stevenson, and Watkins. But the revamp was of no use. Only five of the eight episodes aired on CBS, the last three weren’t seen until syndication on TVLand in March of 1997.

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Fortunately, the entire series was released on DVD on 2012. Having seen every episode (all 33), I can say that both incarnations of Bob are flawed. The first format suffers from the cliched renderings of the office characters, all of whom, with the exception of Albie, never get the opportunity to do more than their stale predictable jokes. The weakest link is Cygan as Harlan, who fails to possess the stage presence that his larger role requires. Stevenson is clearly the strongest supporting player of the bunch, while Watkins (who we’ve seen in 1985’s Mary) is the very definition of bland. As the season progresses, however, she goes into her Suzanne Pleshette imitation, which guarantees more laughs, but never becomes believable. (The show seems to concur with my sentiments, as the strongest characters get more to do, while the weaker ones get less and less.) The second format suffers from a medicare premise, hinged on another unlikable costar, Jere Burns as Pete. (Incidentally, however, the best episodes from Season Two are those that never aired on CBS.) But there are occasional moments of situation comedy greatness, and I’m here to share my picks for the best episodes of Bob.

 

Season One

01) Episode 4: “Penny For Your Thoughts” (Aired: 10/16/92)

A focus group takes a dislike to Mad Dog’s love interest, whose character is inspired by Kaye.

Written by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner & Phoef Sutton | Directed by Michael Zinberg

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Like the preceding episode (which made the honorable mentions), this installment is strong for its ability to marry Bob’s office life with Bob’s home life, as Kaye is devastated to learn that a focus group hates the character of Penny, Mad Dog’s love interest, whom Bob has obviously based on Kaye. This is also the series’ first unique story.

02) Episode 5: “Terminate Her” (Aired: 10/23/92)

Harlan hires his oblivious chain-smoking girlfriend as the comic’s new colorist.

Written by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner & Phoef Sutton | Directed by Dick Martin

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Probably the funniest episode from the first half of the season, all of the humor comes from the exaggerated existence of Shayla, who seems like a one-off character but recurs several times throughout the season. This episode features some of the broadest comedy of the year, and though occasionally cheap, their are plenty of laughs.

03) Episode 7: “A Streetcar Named Congress-Douglas” (Aired: 11/06/92)

During a poker game, one of Bob’s longtime buddies makes a pass at Kaye.

Written by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner & Phoef Sutton | Directed by Michael Zinberg

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This episode is notable because of the roster of guests, all of whom come to Bob’s poker game: Tom Poston, from Newhart, Bill Daily, from The Bob Newhart Show, Steve Lawrence, one of Bob’s club friends, and Dick Martin, frequent director of both prior sitcoms. You can tell they’re having a lot of fun.

04) Episode 14: “Bob And Kaye And Jerry And Patty” (Aired: 01/22/93)

The McKays have the reconciled Fleisher’s over, while Trisha hangs out with her daughter.

Written by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner & Phoef Sutton | Directed by Michael Zinberg

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Although I’m not officially choosing an MVE in today’s post, the honor would probably go to this episode, which continues where episode 7 left off in regards to Poston’s character’s pass at Kaye. Meanwhile, the best stuff occurs with Trisha, Chad, Albie, and Lisa Kudrow as Kathy, as they play the board game “Mystery Date.” Some big laughs here.

05) Episode 16: “Da Game” (Aired: 02/04/93)

Bob invites his friend George Wendt over to watch the Superbowl on his new TV.

Written by Cheri Steinkellner & Bill Steinkellner & Phoef Sutton | Directed by Michael Zinberg

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George Wendt plays himself in this odd episode that features a great running gag with all of the characters referring to him simply as “the guy who plays Norm on Cheers.” He’s a great guest, and once again, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. (Note that Cynthia Stevenson played Norm’s secretary on two Cheers episodes.)

06) Episode 21: “Tell Them Willy Mammoth Is Here” (Aired: 04/19/93)

Trisha moves in with Kathy, while Bob considers turning a kids show into a comic book.

Written by Don Seigel & Jerry Perzigian | Directed by Michael Zinberg

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Another show with both an A and B story, the latter, in which Trisha moves in with Kathy, is the funniest and the source of much of both the comedy and drama. Meanwhile, Bob gets a comedically rich story in which he considers adapting the host of a Barney inspired TV series, Willy Mammoth, into the comic book form.

 

Honorable mentions include: “My Daughter, My Fodder,” the first episode that blends Bob’s work and personal life with ease, “Mad Dog On 34th Street,” a Thanksgiving episode with an original premise, “Stone In Love,” which mines comedy from the return of Shayla, “You Can’t Win,” in which Bob and company go to the annual comic book awards, and “I’m Getting Remarried In The Morning,” in which Trisha tries to throw her parents a surprise wedding renewal. All are from Season One.

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Season Two

07) “Michiana Moon” (Aired: SYNDICATION ONLY)

Pete fixes Sylvia up with Bob’s friend, notorious womanizer, Buzz.

Written by Don Seigel & Jerry Perzigian | Directed by Peter Baldwin

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The first of three episodes that never aired, the second act of this installment plays like a classic french farce, with  slamming doors and corridor chases. Dick Martin is back as Buzz, and in addition to the script’s generous helping of laughs, Betty White sings a wonderful rendition of “That Old Black Magic” at the piano.

08) “Better To Have Loved And Flossed” (Aired: SYNDICATION ONLY)

The dental hygienist who ran off with Sylvia’s husband comes back to town.

Written by David Lloyd | Directed by Dick Martin

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The final episode produced, this installment is reminiscent of White’s first appearance as Sue Ann Nivens. Only this time, it’s reversed: White is the one approaching her husband’s mistress. The final scene, set at the dentist’s (played by John McMartin) is probably the series’ funniest. And at the very end, watch for a cameo by Peter Bonerz. Wonderful episode.

 

 

Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!

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4 thoughts on “Newhart in the ’90s: A Look at BOB

  1. I haven’t watched much of Bob, maybe 1 episode. It’s funny, though, seeing both Carlene Watkins & Jere Burns on this sitcom, since they’d both been in Dear John, which starred Bob’s future George & Leo costar Judd Hirsch. I know I saw the episode of G&L which brought back a lot of Bob & Judd’s previous sitcom costars. Did you think much of George & Leo? I agree with what Tom Poston said about Bob’s George & Leo character’s name, George Stoody. It made Bob seem stodgy, even if he wasn’t there.

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      GEORGE & LEO will absolutely be featured on an upcoming Wildcard Wednesday — but not anytime in the near future!

      As for Hirsch, coverage on TAXI will be coming to Sitcom Tuesdays later this year!

  2. So glad you covered Bob! Does this mean we’ll be getting a look at Newhart once Shout finishes releasing the series? IMO Newhart was Bob’s best work for a number of reasons. I love the fact that it’s very picturesque and pleasant on the surface, but has bat sh*t crazy characters bouncing off the walls around Bob and Mary Frann. I think that while the episode “Terminate Her” is very funny, it is in fact VERY reminiscent of a two-episode character on Newhart played by the irreplaceable Eileen Brennan. The episodes were called “Draw Partner” and “The Little Match Girl”, the latter of which she received an Emmy nomination for. They’re both on YouTube, and I would recommend them not only for their influence on the Bob episodes, but also just because they’re hilarious. The character is exactly the type of thing Elaine Stritch could do to perfection.

    • Hi, thehindsightcritic. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Yes, I intend to cover NEWHART on Sitcom Tuesdays, however not until the complete series is released. Good connection between this series and BOB; I too am fond of Brennan’s two guest appearances. Although I must admit that my preference is THE BOB NEWHART SHOW for its unmatched urbanity and brilliantly developed ensemble (where personal peculiarities were often — in the initial seasons — grounded in truth), the more farcical NEWHART is great for laughs, and I’m really looking forward to covering the series. Hopefully, the DVD releases will continue soon!

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