The Bob Newhart Show gets smashed for Thanksgiving

The Bob Newhart Show gets smashed for Thanksgiving

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. This month: Thanksgiving.

The Bob Newhart Show, “Over The River And Through The Woods” (season four, episode 11; originally aired November 22, 1975)

In which Moo Goo Gai Pan…

Todd VanDerWerff: It’s hard to make drinking funny, particularly when the actors are committed to going over the top. On TV right now, I think both Amy Poehler and Zooey Deschanel are among our finest drunk actors, because they understand that the people we become when filled with too much booze are merely extensions of our sober selves, not wild and crazy people who run around breaking shit (unless that’s already who you are when sober). The temptation when playing drunk is to become unlike any person who has ever imbibed, and that has a tendency to shoot a good drinking scene in the foot. Cheers had it right: Many who drink are functional.

“Over The River And Through The Woods,” however, has a giant scene where most of the cast gets absolutely smashed, and it completely kills. When Bob Hartley and what passes for his male friends gather together to celebrate both Thanksgiving and the William & Mary game, they proceed to get drunk as hell, and almost all of the comedy arises from the normally staid Bob and his friends behaving as obnoxiously as possible. What makes the whole thing work is that Bob’s patient Mr. Carlin (played by the great Jack Riley) is the one person who plays things almost totally sober. When he completes the gag of “I’d love coffee/ I’d love tea” with “I love the java jive, and it loves me,” he says it as if he’s solved the underlying mysteries of the universe, making it even funnier.

The Bob Newhart Show is something of a forgotten, great comedy of its era, easily overshadowed by the more “important” comedies of the time. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H, and All In The Family were more groundbreaking and did more for the medium of television as a whole than this show did. Taxi and Barney Miller were better vehicles for idiosyncratic TV writers’ personal thoughts and feelings on things. But The Bob Newhart Show was the series that proved all of these quality sitcoms didn’t have to be a phase and could, indeed, be replicated on another show, with a comedian TV had never quite figured out how to use properly up until that point.

Truth be told, the first couple of seasons of The Bob Newhart Show are fine, but they’re also a little boring. It’s in the third and fourth seasons that the show really starts to find its quirky, invigorating rhythms. Bob Newhart doesn’t tip as far into surrealism as something like Green Acres or Newhart’s eponymous follow-up sitcom, but it certainly has the austere weirdness of a New Yorker cartoon. The central conflict of the show was that Bob and Emily Hartley were the sane ones in a nation of weirdos, yet they themselves weren’t as sane as they let on. Emily’s paper bag mask—made for Halloween—at the episode’s beginning is almost the perfect example of the show’s sense of humor. Things are proceeding as one might expect, except Emily is wearing a paper bag over her head, simply because it’s just a little off-kilter.

Without the burden of having to be important, The Bob Newhart Show decided it was better to be a little weird. “Over The River And Through The Woods” might be the most famous episode of the show—it’s certainly the one that comes up most often the few times I’ve discussed the show with other TV fans—and I suspect that’s because that final scene lets things rip. Bob so often keeps it buttoned down (as one might expect from Newhart) that to see him slurring his words and slapping that tiny turkey down on the counter makes for a comedic turn funny in and of itself. It doesn’t matter that Newhart overplays how drunk he is, because the dissonance between the two versions of Bob Hartley is the whole reason we’re laughing.

But there’s something else at work here. This is part of a small subgenre of holiday episodes and specials that dares to grapple with the idea that any holiday can be a desperately lonely time if you think about things too much. And I suspect this feeling is universal. I tend to spend my Christmases with my wife’s raucous family, and I still find myself occasionally overwhelmed by melancholy. Holidays become signposts in our lives, markers of all the time that’s passed and the increasingly small amount of it we have left. “Over The River And Through The Woods” isn’t really about that, but I appreciate that it nods toward it every so often, in the way that Bob stays behind as his wife goes off to visit her family so that he can help his patients or even in the way that he seems a little helpless without Emily around.

Zack, I don’t know how familiar you are with this show, but I’ve often felt that it was hard to have a good episode without a liberal dash of Emily, the crucial feminine presence in a very masculine series. If you haven’t seen a lot of this show, did you miss Suzanne Pleshette when she jetted off to Seattle? Did you welcome her coming back?

Zack: I’ve never seen this show before—my familiarity with Newhart is limited to his (excellent) comedy albums—but yeah, I noticed the change when Pleshette left. Partly because I’d read some of your response beforehand, so I was looking out for it, but mostly because Pleshette has such a strikingly different kind of energy than anyone else in the episode. She’s just more there. That’s not a knock against the other actors (who are all quite good), but Emily and Bob’s conversations together have a distinct rhythm of give and take that sets them apart from other scenes in the episode. On the page, it’s easy to see how the character fills the role of the smart-but-wifely spouse: She wants to get her husband to visit her family, she cooks for him, and, when she comes back home to find Bob and friends drunk out of their minds, there’s a bit of a “Oh, now you’re really in trouble” driving the studio audience’s laughter. 

Yet Pleshette plays the role sharply enough that the character doesn’t come across as a servant or a scold, and her scenes with Newhart have a balance between tartness and warmth that makes their relationship immediately, and undeniably, important. When Bob calls Seattle to tell his wife he misses her, there’s an unforced sincerity to the moment (which is mostly an excuse for Bob to do some phone conversation gags with an unheard relative of Emily’s) that helps ground that latter scene of drunken shenanigans. He really does miss her—hell, we miss her—and that drives the rest of the action. Getting drunk is probably the only way to make the day not quite so lousy.

Before I get to that bit, though, I was struck by how odd the show was; I’m not sure how much of that oddness was inherent to the series, and how much of it was the style of sitcoms at the time, but while the script wasn’t vaudevillian, there was little effort made at the more naturalistic comedy that drives most shows today. (Even a multi-cam like The Big Bang Theory with the relentless beat-beat-joke approach feels more conversational.) It threw me off at first, especially when Bob went in to work, as the dialogue largely worked as a series of setups and punchlines, with most of the cast not putting much effort into hiding the structure. 

There’s a bit between Bob, Elliot, and Bob’s secretary Carol (the deceased Marcia Wallace) that almost threw me out of it completely. It’s been established that Elliot gave out butter dishes for Halloween, and he gave one to Bob because he had dozens of dishes left over; on his way out the door, he offers one to Carol. When she says she’ll take it, he tells her to ask Bob (whom he’s annoyed at for not being around on Thanksgiving—is it typical for therapists to make themselves available on holidays?). That’s pretty funny. But then, as she’s going to leave for the day, she asks for the butter dish again. It’s delivered as a punchline, and a button for the scene, but it seems like such a strange line. I can’t decide if it’s too forced or too odd or what, and there were pockets of that throughout the half-hour. Hearing that this was intentional makes a bit more sense, and I also suspect that I would’ve appreciated it more if I was more familiar with the show. Sitcoms need to teach you how to watch them, I think, and I had to pick this one up on the fly.

Still, the Bob and Emily scenes were strong enough to hook me, and I find it almost impossible to dislike Bob Newhart; by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was hooked. And the episode really does a nice, even-handed job of showing how it feels when a holiday doesn’t work out the way you were expecting. There’s pathos here, but it’s always buried under a laugh line, which makes the whole thing that much funnier and convincingly melancholy. Bob’s casual comment early on about how lousy the day is turning out just underlines the obvious: These are four men without families, or any idea how to cook a decent meal, who are hanging around an apartment all day with nothing better to do. If you think about that for even an instant, it’s impossible to miss how miserable it is, but by refusing to ever wallow in the misery, the scene is all the more convincing. I was laughing hard by the end, and just as importantly, I finally felt like I’d tuned into the wavelength the show was putting out. For the rest of the group, being drunk was just a slightly heightened version of their normal loony behavior. For Bob, it was a chance to let out the inner lunatic. 

Genevieve, were you as much a newcomer to the show as I was? And if so, did you find yourself having to adjust? Also, was it weird that Bob had a hangover about 20 minutes after he had his first cup of coffee or is that just me?

Genevieve: Yes, it was weird. But given that the episode jumps from the day after Halloween to Thanksgiving Day in the span of a couple scenes, it appears The Bob Newhart Show exists in a world where time passes really, really fast, or at least as fast as it needs to, to facilitate the next joke.

I like your comment about sitcoms teaching you how to watch them, Zack, and it applies here. I’m also a newcomer to this show, for all intents and purposes, having only the barest recollection of seeing some episodes on Nick At Nite as a youngster. I’m familiar with the rhythms of The Bob Newhart Show more in theory than in practice, having edited a fair number of pieces about the show, so I knew I was in for some low-key laughs, but I admit it was a little hard to attune my personal comedic sensibility with that of the show in a brief 23-minute window. I’m afraid I have trouble signing onto Todd’s assessment that the drunk sequence “completely kills,” if only because that description implies a certain gut-busting quality I have trouble assigning to a show I never laughed aloud at once. That’s not to say it’s not funny—burst-out laughter is its own beast, usually predicated on a sense of surprise that’s not built into most of these jokes—just that it’s funny in a very familiar way. Granted, some of that familiarity stems from the fact that this is a classic episode of an older show that’s been referenced and paid homage to in various forms over the years. But it also stems from the near-vaudevillian nature of most of the gags, which build and build on the same premises and formats. It’s not that you can see the punchlines coming, exactly, but you can see them coming into focus as they’re happening. 

This is most apparent in the scene where the men get drunk, which returns over and over again to the same types of joke. You have your spelling-based humor (“Gimme a W! Gimme a M! Whaddaya got?” “Wmmm!” and “Drrr Bob Hartley”); you have your pronunciation humor (“pizza” and of course “moo goo goo goo”); you have a surprising number of knock-knock jokes; and, this being Bob Newhart, you better believe you have your one-sided phone-conversation humor. These are old, old gags that still have a lot of life in them when executed well, which “Over The River And Through The Woods” achieves more often than not. (In some ways, it reminded me of a much calmer version of the much-missed Happy Endings, which took similar delight in would-be hoary gags and silly wordplay.) But there is that sense of rueful enjoyment, that head-shaking “Ugh, you got me” feeling you get when you find yourself laughing at a joke whose punchline you saw coming a mile away, or at least think you should have. (Case in point: The Chinese delivery answering Emily’s “Who is it?” with “It’s Hoo!”) It’s a type of humor I associate with family gatherings and fun uncles, where the laughs are based in affection as much as anything else. It doesn’t kill; it charms. 

Lest I sound like too much of a curmudgeon, I’d like to highlight some of the smaller, unexpected moments that did take me by genuine surprise, most of which boil down to the actors’ excellent line readings, such as Peter Bonerz’s “Orphans, Bob!” and Newhart’s drunkenly sad-sack “Don’t cry.” And the gags that really go for the absurd—“tall bus” and “somebody’s cooking a hat!”—are delightful. But really, I like the idea of this episode more than anything, that of removing Thanksgiving from the fraught-family-gathering and what-we’re-thankful-for paradigm. As someone who’s been a “Thanksgiving orphan” for many years—the kind where you don’t go home for Thanksgiving, not the kind Jerry’s selling raffle tickets for—I love the idea of looking at the also very common tradition of friends getting together and drinking away the holiday in lieu of turkey and the traditional family square-dance. And I love that it doesn’t try to slap any last-minute sentiment on the holiday, some forced “I’m thankful for you, Emily” hoo-ha. Nope, just guys getting drunk and telling knock-knock jokes. That’s my kind of Thanksgiving. 

What about you, Carrie? Did you find yourself laughing as uproariously as the studio audience here? Also: Knock, knock. 

Carrie: Don’t cry, Genevieve. I actually laughed quite a bit! This is the first episode of The Bob Newhart Show I’ve ever seen, but I grew up watching Newhart with my parents, which is where my affection for Bob Newhart stems from (and why the phrase “Hi, I’m Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl” is forever burned in my brain). It took me until the scenes in Bob’s office to really get the comedic rhythms here, but once Jack Riley turned up I was laughing on a consistent basis all the way to the end—and only part of it was at the hilarious ’70s men’s fashions.

Zack pointed out the pure oddness of some of the punchlines, and that’s what I ended up liking most about the episode while watching. The joke structure here relies heavily on callbacks, but they’re not straightforward at all. It’s all a little bit tweaked, and like the bit where Carol asks for her butter dish (it is rightfully hers, after all), they make viewers work in order to get the laugh by reaching back in their brains and connecting at least three little throwaway moments from the previous scene to piece together the humor. None of the laughs are that easy, and the easier ones don’t actually work that well—seeing a visit to the psychologist played to a studio audience for laughs takes more than a minute to warm up to. That is, right up until you get to the bachelors’ Thanksgiving.

What’s great about the drunken Thanksgiving is how it slowly escalates from mildly amusing to gut-busting funny (particularly when Bob is ordering Chinese food and responds to teasing about his pronunciation of Moo Goo Gai Pan by retorting, “Maybe I’m ordering Chinese baby food,” much to the amusement of his fellow cast members), and the entire escalation and denouement is framed by using the aforementioned knock-knock jokes, right up until the kicker when Emily comes home and you get the ultimate payoff by the knock knocking becoming reality. There’s some careful structural work happening in the midst of all the weirdness, which is much appreciated. 

My favorite kinds of comedies are usually centered on groups of friends who seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company. But there’s something to be said about the weird underlying tension in this group of guys, who seem like they can barely stand each other, but don’t have anywhere else to go on what is traditionally a day of togetherness. This could be depressing—okay, it is depressing—but the show finds a way to tweak it into just another odd aspect of this very odd landscape by having the characters directly comment on it, like when Mr. Carlin declares the party is “the pits” before beginning his cavalcade of horribly structured knock-knock jokes. These are guys that have nowhere else to go so they’re making the situation bearable the best way they can, by getting rip-roaring drunk and acting like fools, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The one thing I want to single out above all other things (a thing I’ve already mentioned a few times because it’s just that good) is Jack Riley’s incredible performance. There’s an angry vacancy to his deadpan humor that is absolutely the funniest, most unsettling thing I’ve seen in quite a while, so much so that I wish I could use a time machine to pluck his character from this show and drop it into a modern sitcom just to see how he could elevate the proceedings. (Those kids on New Girl need a new landlord, don’t you think?) Genevieve mentioned the energy here feeling like Happy Endings; I can’t even imagine the very joy a Mr. Carlin could have brought to that show. You wouldn’t even need to tweak his wardrobe.

Todd, did Mr. Carlin stand out as strongly for you? Or did a different performance catch your eye? 

Todd: Carrie, I’m glad you, too, were so taken by Jack Riley as Mr. Carlin. One of the things I love about this show is that it dares to take Bob’s patients’ problems mostly seriously. Sure, they’re occasionally played for laughs, but someone like Mr. Carlin is suffering from all manner of psychological problems, and the show finds a way to at once respect that and not mock him, while also finding the humor in it. (It helps that Mr. Carlin is able to find the humor in it himself, his deadpan asides clearly meant to be at least a little funny.) When the show started out, it seemed slightly skittish about finding humor in mental illness, but by this point in its run, it was more than able to poke holes in the pomposity of psychological theorizing and talk therapy, while still accepting that Bob was basically a good therapist who could help his patients through a tough time like a lonely Thanksgiving. What I always appreciated about the show is that it didn’t really go in for the “this doctor is crazier than his patients!” nonsense. Bob Hartley is a good psychiatrist, and his patients benefit from having him around. His neuroses are ultimately his own, and they don’t keep him from being an effective professional or husband.

As I see your divergent reactions to the show, I have to wonder how much of my love of it is driven by watching it probably a half-dozen times since I was an adolescent and the show made its turn in the Nick At Nite rotation. I’ve loved ’70s sitcoms since that point, of course, but this episode routinely popped up on the network’s year-end countdowns of its most popular episodes, so it got burned in my brain a little bit. There’s something to that idea of TV episodes becoming traditions, and I think it’s telling that the group next week will be looking at the famous Cheers Thanksgiving episode, one of the few to match up to this one in stature and popularity (maybe the readers will pick the WKRP In Cincinnati episode that trumps both of them). One of the things I love about this episode isn’t just that it’s a well-made episode of TV, it’s that its rhythms are so comforting and familiar to me. Genevieve, what do you think of that idea of TV as tradition?

Genevieve: There’s certainly something to be said for TV as tradition—the endurance of the Peanuts holiday specials are a testament to that—but also just repeat viewings in general, which allow you to appreciate the smaller, subtler moments a show has to offer. I watched this episode twice, and found it much more enjoyable on the second go-round, because I was focused less on whether it was funny and more on how it was funny. I realize that sounds analytical, but as previously discussed, there wasn’t a lot I found laugh-out-loud funny in this episode. (That’s on me and my sense of humor though, which tends to favor unexpected and overt silliness.) On a first viewing, that can make it seem like a failure, and if I weren’t writing about this episode, I admit I probably wouldn’t have gone watched it, or probably the show again in the near future. But I’m glad I did, because I do enjoy witnessing and puzzling over the actual mechanics of comedy, and “Over The River And Through The Woods” is rather engaging in that regard; witness the joke autopsy I performed earlier in this piece. Good comedic craft is always enjoyable—and valuable—to witness, even if it doesn’t make you slap your knee and cry tears of laughter. That said, I’m about to get on a plane tomorrow, and there’s a damn good chance I’ll bust out that “tall bus” line at least once. 

Zack, it seems your experience with this show was similarly insinuating; you talk about finding it odd at first before warming up to it. Did you watch it more than once? And did it compel you to dive further into the show?

Zack: I only watched the episode once, but you’re making me wish I’d had time for a second viewing; at the very least, I think knowing what to expect would’ve made some of the bumpier sections more enjoyable. But really, I liked this one a lot, and as someone who’s spent a Thanksgiving or two trying to make his own fun, I liked how comfortable the show was in not worrying about nailing an unhappy or happy ending. Emily’s return at the end is a sweet moment, but it only feels like a resolution in retrospect; in the context of the episode, it’s really just a way to get a few more jokes out of the drunkenness before wrapping up the scene. Most modern sitcoms feel the need to make sure there’s some kind of lesson in holiday episodes, even if that lesson borders on cynical. There’s no real lesson here, but there’s also no sense of anarchic nihilism that you’d find in something like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. (The drunken shenanigans are hilarious, but they’re never mean or violent—just goofy.) It’s just an observation about how people get around the holidays, without any great need to pass judgment either way. I like that a lot, and that combination of oddness and low-key sadness (which is never truly despairing, just honest) is enough to make me want to see more. Plenty of holiday episodes have to treat themselves as an event; this one just treats Thanksgiving as another day you have to get through, good and bad. I like that a lot.

What do you think, Carrie? Was this something you’d want to see more of? 

Carrie: Funny you should ask, because the first thing I did after finishing the episode was find out if the show’s whole run was available for streaming. (It is on Hulu Plus, but unfortunately only seasons one through three are available.) There’s nothing I need less than yet another show to watch, but something about this episode’s rhythms made me think this is a catch-up project that would be far more about enjoyment than obligation. I think the thing that drew me in most, and what I miss from most modern multi-camera sitcoms is that the humor comes at its own languorous pace; there’s none of the screeching hyperactivity that tends to put me off many sitcoms. The jokes are going to come, some of them corny, some of them clever, some of them surreal, and they’re going to come at whatever rate they end up coming. There’s something oddly comforting about that, so much so that those first three available seasons might just end up getting watched over the long Thanksgiving weekend—as soon as football is over, of course.

Next week: Erik Adams and company tackle Cheers’ immortal “Thanksgiving Orphans,” which is available on Netflix and Amazon

After that: Sonia Saraiya’s group looks at WKRP In Cincinnati’s “Turkeys Away,” available on Hulu

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