Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday and the start of our coverage on Newhart (1982-1990, CBS), which is now available in full on DVD!
An author and his wife run a quaint country inn in Vermont. Newhart stars BOB NEWHART as Dick Loudon, MARY FRANN as Joanna Loudon, TOM POSTON as George Utley, JENNIFER HOLMES as Leslie Vanderkellen, and STEVEN KAMPMANN as Kirk Devane.
Following my decision to move coverage of our two HBO comedies into the summer, so that the forthcoming Wings could be positioned next to Frasier, I decided there needed to be a palate cleanser in between Larry Sanders and Wings. So, circling back and making good on a promise from years ago, I’m dedicating the next eight weeks to Newhart, Bob Newhart’s second situation comedy, which was finally released on DVD in full earlier this year. But, before we dive into the series and its best offerings, we’ll need to address the elephant in the room: there’s no competition in my mind between the overall merits of The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. The former was more character-driven, established both a workable identity and sustainable tone quicker, and simply was better constructed for success – in its premise, its cast, its writers, etc. I prefer The Bob Newhart Show, and these commentaries will tangentially underscore why. My intention, however, is not to use this preference for the prior series as an explicit frame of reference for analyzing Newhart; what works and what doesn’t here has nothing to do with anything but Newhart itself. Yet, it’s impossible to remove that first show from these discussions, for several reasons. First, the memory of Bob Newhart influenced both the development and reception of this series. Second, Newhart drew explicit parallels to its predecessor in its much ballyhooed finale, for which the entire series is now (dishonestly) best remembered. And third, coming from MTM, I’m interested in examining how it represents the company’s legacy of high-quality character-driven comedy – established by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and reinforced by The Bob Newhart Show, MTM’s sophomore sitcom and, in my estimation, the second best embodiment of the brand’s core quality-defining themes.
Okay, so, for the record, I don’t like this vehicle for Bob Newhart as much as I like his ’70s one. And, furthermore, I think there are better sitcom offerings from the ‘80s (Cheers, The Golden Girls, and early The Cosby Show). But… this is still an MTM show with a brilliant star – and its worthy of fair, often celebratory, discussion. In fact, Newhart is the only successful MTM comedy of the 1980s, a decade during which the company was better known for its dramas. Going into all the reasons for this comedy drought at MTM would be a distraction. Suffice it to say, aside from the departure of Grant Tinker in 1981 (he went to NBC), MTM suffered for the loss of heady talents with experience on the flagship series, like the John Charles Walters foursome (James L. Brooks, David Davis, Stan Daniels and Ed. Weinberger). Remember: they created Taxi, which honed the talents of other MTM vets like Glen and Les Charles, who took valuable lessons from that brilliantly written, but imperfectly designed, series and went into the ’80s with Cheers: the decade’s great MTM sitcom. Yet Cheers is not an MTM sitcom; Newhart is… Now, as with the comic’s prior effort, I’m not going to use Cheers as a routine point of comparison to Newhart – that makes little sense. However, MTM has high established standards, and to be a hit attached to this brand, I believe the series deserves a sharp critical eye. In this regard, while using MTM’s own legacy as the figurative lens through which I’ll craft commentary, signs of similarity and differentiation between Cheers and Newhart will become clear – as they will for Newhart and The Bob Newhart Show – independent of any formal comparative frameworks. Again, the reference we’ll most often be using isn’t any tangential work – but MTM itself, as that’s a fairer, more legitimate benchmark.
Let’s start by noting that Newhart is notorious for its evolutionary developmental kinks, which it forever attempts to work through, especially in its first two seasons. (Actually, dividing the show conceptually into four separate two-season eras, corresponding to the different showrunners, is helpful for analysis.) The first two years were helmed by both creator Barry Kemp, whose work on Taxi was his most notable credit, and his right-hand man Sheldon Bull, who had experience on second-rate MTM (The Betty White Show), lesser Witt-Thomas (It’s A Living) and esoteric Miller-Milkis (Angie). Their staff writers included Barton Dean (Taxi, Oh Madeline) and Emily Marshall (Rhoda, WKRP In Cincinnati, Angie), with several contributions each from John Steven Owen (Operation Petticoat, The Associates) and MTM stalwart Earl Pomerantz (Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Rhoda, Taxi, Cheers, etc.). When Kemp was first approached to create a new show for Newhart, he was asked to continue with the characters of the last series. But the author insisted that a fresh format, and a new leading lady, were in order. Drawn to New England and inspired by George Washington Slept Here, Kemp talked Newhart into a Vermont setting (away from the comic’s own Seattle notions), and from there they constructed the series like a classic MTM ensemble comedy; Newhart’s character Dick Loudon would run an inn with his wife, supervise two employees, and deal with a bizarre neighbor. (Sound familiar?) Yet, unlike Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore, there was no distinction between the lead’s home life and work life, for although he had another occupation besides innkeeper – author – it didn’t require a separate location. So, this design was much more like Taxi‘s and Cheers‘, with its success riding totally on the ONE setting and its characters… This is where Newhart first falls short.
Of the initial five-person ensemble, three fight against MTM’s style of honest character-driven comedy. First is Leslie (Jennifer Holmes), the beautiful, perky, perfect, BORING maid. She’s got no flaws, no personality, and no derivable humor. Blah. Then there’s Kirk (Steven Kampmann), who’s anything but boring. In fact, he’s figuratively loud, with a high energy that makes him conspicuous amongst this quieter cast. He can get laughs because he offers an extreme off of which Dick can react (see: Elliot Carlin). The problem? Kirk’s defined only as a chronic liar, which means no matter how a script tries, he’s automatically resistant to the audience’s full investment, for his authenticity is, from the jump, invalidated. We’ll talk more about him next week; for now let’s note that Newhart wants to use Kirk in story because his boldness better poises him for laughs, but he has no real characterization. Neither, sadly, does Mary Frann as Dick’s wife Joanna. Okay, Suzanne Pleshette would be a tough act for anyone to follow — she anchored her material with a sense of contemporary truth, validated the realistic MTM brand, and also had an eye for comedy that allowed her to exploit subtle character cues in early scripts, helping to guide a firm characterization. Yet, there’s no comparison here, because Frann simply lacks those skills. Sure, she’s warm, charming, and likable… but she never registers as particularly truthful and, more obviously, she hasn’t a comedienne’s instinct. The scripts try often this first year (and every year following) to throw the character definition for the actress to help make stick. Nothing materializes. I don’t want to dog Frann, who’s wrongly mired in memories of Pleshette, but she’s weak. And while Newhart has larger and more ostentatious problems than Joanna right now, her permanency makes her the most ultimately crippling.
Countering the series’ weaknesses are its strengths — one being handyman George Utley, played by Newhart’s good friend Tom Poston, a recurring presence in the latter half of The Bob Newhart Show. The George role was originally written for Jerry Van Dyke, who would star in Kemp’s Coach, and was designed to play opposite Dick as more of a bumbler – a goofball (not unlike Bill Daily’s Howard). But Poston isn’t a bumbler; he’s an everyman, with an energy comparable to Newhart’s. So instead of offering hijinks, he brings humanity – the kind of “palpable humanity” I regularly use to describe the characterizations that typified MTM’s ’70s style. When Dick and George have a scene, just like Mary and Rhoda, one gets the feeling that two human beings are merely interacting – no pretenses. Comedically, the character is amusing (not necessarily uproarious), for George’s charms reside mostly in this connection – this truth. He’s a reason to watch… as is, of course, Bob Newhart, whose response to the foolishness of the world melds humor and honesty – without even requiring a spoken word. The trick in designing a show for him is supplying the foolishness… and doing so believably, for part of MTM’s brand remains realism. This is where the townsfolk come into play; one of the most consistent sources of comedy – which I think could have been used even more frequently here (to offset the era’s character problems) – is the setting’s authentic and unmistakably New England charms, along with the quintessentially Vermont people who live there. Frankly, the best stuff right now comes from entries that alleviate these main cast issues by emphasizing the fish-out-of-water premise, making use of the town and its folk to create Dick’s universe of quiet strangeness. (Note: Quiet strangeness. Much is made of Newhart‘s perceived bent towards the “absurd” and its loud surrealistic extremes. This is an aesthetic description that I don’t fully support; more later…)
As a result, the first season’s victories come mostly in the cultivation of memorable tertiary players – like Chester and Jim, along with Larry, Darryl, and Darryl (discussed more below and later) – and the suggestion of a possible fix (Stephanie) for one of the aforementioned ill-rendered regulars. And as the season alternatively tries to turn its negatives into positives and distract from its negatives, I’m reminded of Taxi’s construction (partly because of Kemp), for not all players there – especially in Season One – were of equal value. Similarly, Newhart is in a metaphorical hole and will stay there, until it, like Taxi, can rectify most of these character concerns… Nevertheless, design aside, we know that character-driven comedy needs time to develop, for established relationships are its foundation. Ask fans about Bob Newhart, and many’ll tell you it took the whole first season to reach the fertile period. Mary Tyler Moore? While finding riches throughout its run, it wasn’t until Season Three that the characters started yielding big laughs. (In fact, many of the best entries in those first years came from the opening 13 weeks, when the scripts relied more on narrative-based and premise-establishing material; the same is true for Newhart.) Thus, the series would have been due growing pains no matter what. However, because of the inherent problems – making it hard to craft story, garner investment, and mine humor – these years that are supposed to be spent building the audience’s understanding of its characters are instead spent building the show’s understanding of itself – further prolonging the moment where it all clicks. For a comedy with the MTM logo, what’s offered here does not impress as being viably character-driven. Instead we look to the star and his periphery… But, as usual, I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 1: “In The Beginning” (Aired: 10/25/82)
Dick learns a shocking secret about his new inn.
Written by Barry Kemp | Directed by John Rich
Newhart‘s pilot is actually a terrific representation of the series’ original construction — all its possibilities (the best it has to offer) and all its inherent shortcomings (the worst is has to offer). While it’s clear that we’ll have assets in the characters played by Newhart and Poston, trouble with both the dull Leslie and the habitually untrustworthy Kirk seems likely. (Joanna, meanwhile, is a wild card; future development seems possible.) Really, however, the series premiere gives us a great taste of New England culture and the unique (if, perhaps, limited) opportunities for story based on the premise, which is used here in this week’s centerpiece of Dick having to tell the very New English “Daughters of the War for Independence” that his new inn actually served as a brothel for their forebears. A classic line: “[Y]ou may not be so much Daughters of the War for Independence, as you are daughters of a three-day pass.” Hysterical; a high point.
02) Episode 2: “Mrs. Newton’s Body Lies A-Mould’ring In The Grave” (Aired: 11/01/82)
The Loudons try to remove a dead body from their basement.
Written by Katherine Green | Directed by Will Mackenzie
My pick for the strongest episode of the first season (written by Katherine Green, a freelancing Taxi vet whose best known credit would be Married… With Children), this entry is often noted in Newhart lore for introducing Larry, Darryl, and Darryl, the trio of backwoods brothers who come to remove a body from the Loudons’ basement because, as their business says, they’ll do “anything for a buck.” They’re already broadly depicted (i.e. cartoonish and requiring we stretch our believability), but since their function here is only to be episodic guests, we don’t have to take our investment to an elevated level; this means we can appreciate their humor and how the story uses them. Actually, though, I truly like this offering again for its use of the inn setting and the New England sensibilities, as the Loudons learn the body in the basement was accused in the late 17th century of being a witch (in a very funny scene with Bill Quinn as a minister). See, the premise and this environment distract from the ensemble, allowing the funny idea and well-written teleplay to showcase Newhart and his strengths. An all-time favorite.
03) Episode 3: “Hail To The Councilman” (Aired: 11/08/82)
Dick is asked to run for town council.
Written by Sheldon Bull | Directed by Will Mackenzie
As mentioned above in the seasonal commentary, some of the best episodes from Newhart‘s entire first era (its initial two seasons), come within the first few months of its freshman year. (We saw the same thing with, not The Bob Newhart Show, but The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) While this installment’s two predecessors made good use of the broader Vermont atmosphere for both story and comedic ambience, this one — the first script written following the pilot — decides to introduce us to the town and its main players, which include Jim Dixon (Thomas Hill) and Chester Wanamaker (William Lanteau), two recurring characters who’ll be utilized to solid effect throughout the series’ eight-year run. Another winning premise-based entry.
04) Episode 4: “Shall We Gather At The River?” (Aired: 11/15/82)
Joanna is embarrassed during the annual River Day Festival.
Written by Paul Robinson Hunter | Directed by Will Mackenzie
In upcoming weeks, you’ll see just how much of an unsolved problem I consider Joanna (because it’s going to factor in most of the seasonal commentaries), but even if I don’t like every episode centered around her, I appreciate when the show tries to correct the issue — that is, when it tries to give her a characterization. This is the first offering that attempts to supply something that so far hasn’t been present on the page or the stage, and although we’re obviously left wanting, the suggested idea of Joanna thinking she’s superior to the other townsfolk is an interesting thread; too bad it’s dropped and barely hit upon again. It’s not hilarious by any means, but here is the time in which Joanna’s character should be crafted, so we’re open to it all…
05) Episode 14: “What Is This Thing Called Lust?” (Aired: 01/31/83)
Leslie’s cousin Stephanie visits the inn and romances Kirk.
Written by Emily Marshall | Directed by Will Mackenzie
With evident problems writing for Leslie, a character who has no flaws and therefore no personality, the show must focus on Kirk’s half-hearted non-reciprocated feelings for her (while, in contrast, his personality is defined by one insurmountable flaw). This episode is best known for introducing Julia Duffy (perhaps still smarting from losing the role of Diane Chambers) as Leslie’s cousin Stephanie, who sets a lustful gaze on Kirk before she herself is supposed to be wed to a much older man. Obviously, we know that Stephanie will become the series’ permanent fix for its Leslie dilemma, but that’s temporarily what she does here, as her joie de vivre (especially in a scene with Newhart’s Dick) distracts from the story’s Kirk/Leslie core.
06) Episode 16: “Ricky Nelson, Up Your Nose” (Aired: 02/14/83)
When Kirk goes to the hospital, the cafe is put in the charge of Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Will Mackenzie
There are several episodes this season thrown to the knowingly problematic Kirk (and there’ll be even more next week as the show desperately tries to remedy his issues); this is one of the year’s two Kirk stories that I could actually justify including here. (The other is honorably mentioned below.) However, the reason I’m highlighting this installment, whose story has Kirk going to the hospital to have a trinket with Ricky Nelson’s face on it removed from his nose — it’s quirky and odd, so I guess we’re supposed to laugh — is because the bulk of the entry downplays Kirk and treats us to some good laughs supplied by Larry, Darryl and Darryl, whose sporadic presence is now welcome, granting Newhart his necessary foolishness.
07) Episode 19: “Heaven Knows Mr. Utley” (Aired: 03/20/83)
The town ridicules George after he believes he saw a UFO.
Written by Bill Taub & Jeff Lewis | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Another freelance script, this is one of two potential George entries this season that supply his aforementioned “palpable humanity,” which serves as a counterpoint to the characterization issues plaguing three of the other regulars. (The other George show, which guest stars the ever-charming Rue McClanahan, might have been easy to highlight, but it’s included as an Honorable Mention.) Neither of these two outings are hilarious, because George isn’t always hilarious, yet this one is probably funnier and better for Newhart as a whole, for it makes fine use of the core ensemble, as the story of George spotting a UFO isn’t about whether or not he saw it; it’s about his friends choosing to stick by him even though they have doubts. It becomes a human entry then — not a gimmick — developing, especially, the George/Dick friendship.
08) Episode 20: “You’re Homebody Till Somebody Loves You” (Aired: 03/27/83)
Joanna gets a job after Dick calls her a “homebody.”
Written by Emily Marshall | Directed by Will Mackenzie
The second episode on this list in which Joanna is a prime participant, this entry reveals how much she differs from Emily Hartley by trying to make her more like Emily — for 24-minutes anyway (to see how it works). That is, Emily had a job independent from the home; Joanna doesn’t, but this entry presents the idea that she would like one. Marshall’s teleplay starts amusingly by showing us some needed character-centered conflict between Dick and Joanna, when he calls her a “homebody,” but then loses its way later when it goes to Joanna’s new office, a travel agency (with a boss played by Utley-almost, Jerry Van Dyke, who derails the Joanna focus — perhaps to her permanent detriment). Yet, the initial suggestion remains strong. If only!
09) Episode 21: “Grandma, What Big Ears You Have” (Aired: 04/03/83)
Kirk’s grandmother tags along on his date with Leslie.
Written by Barton Dean | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Ruth Gordon guest stars in this episode as Kirk’s grandmother — or rather, as a named Emmy-winning star who can bolster the merit of this Kirk outing with her strong comedic presence, the audience’s good-will, and her ability to scene-steal and divert attention away from the major issues with her character’s grandson. Yes, in the same way that Stephanie was used to overtake another Kirk/Leslie offering, Ruth Gordon is applied in the same manner — tagging along on a date between the two, adding laughs and conflict that otherwise wouldn’t have been provided. It’s an obvious ploy and doesn’t offer any practical solutions, but Gordon does what she’s supposed to — she makes the episode worthwhile, distracting from Kirk’s poor design.
10) Episode 22: “I Enjoy Being A Guy” (Aired: 04/10/83)
Dick tries to lose the money he won while gambling with the townsfolk.
Written by Bob Perlow & Gene Braunstein | Directed by Will Mackenzie
One of the things that will become clear within the next several weeks of coverage is that the only tried-and-true recipe for success on Newhart is delivering on behalf of its star, the lovable Bob Newhart, a material elevator in whom we are already emotionally invested — and who must only be made able to react off solid characters and motivated scenarios. This entry, the year’s finale (written by a pair of freelancers best known for Who’s The Boss?), puts all its figurative chips on the star, giving him a lot to do, while utilizing more of the male townsfolk, including the previously introduced Chester and Jim. It doesn’t make the same use of the Vermont setting or its sensibilities, but Dick remains an outsider, which the premise needs.
Other episodes that merit mention here include: “No Room At The Inn,” a well-liked outing that has a welcome unity of time and place, “The Way We Thought We Were,” the aforementioned George entry that features Rue McClanahan and a lot of achingly nice (if not funny) palpable humanity (the closest contender for the above list), “A View From The Bench,” a fairly popular excursion that has at least one good sight gag for Newhart and a gimmicky, unnecessary guest appearance by MTM’s own Daniel J. Travanti, and “The Boy Who Cried Goat,” the other previously referenced Kirk offering, which hopes to deepen his character but suffers from the unfixable problems he suggests. (Kirk fans will enjoy this one.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Newhart goes to…..
“Mrs. Newton’s Body Lies A-Mould’ring In The Grave”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And stay tuned tomorrow for Wildcard Wednesday!