Has there ever been a star easier to build a TV series around than Bob Newhart? Take the affable comedian and stick him in the middle of a bunch of oddballs, then let him stammer a bit as he tries to figure out how he ended up in this weird world. It’s instant comic gold, a recipe that worked in one sketch series, the ’60s’ The Bob Newhart Show, and two all-time classic sitcoms, the ’70s’ The Bob Newhart Show and the ’80s’ Newhart. Ideally, he’ll have a surprisingly sexy wife who has a way with a sly one-liner, and a bunch of co-workers who seem too strange to be believed. Give the man ample opportunity to confront the oddities of the modern world, and it’s all but certain to be a success.
Despite all of this, though, Newhart’s two most successful sitcoms took time to find their voices. Indeed, Newhart didn’t really work until its third and fourth seasons, a remarkable amount of time for any TV show. To that end, the comedian’s ’90s sitcom, Bob, which aired for two seasons on CBS, might have the most consistent first season of any Newhart vehicle. Creators Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner, and Phoef Sutton took everything they learned in the more farcical late seasons of Cheers and combined that with everything learned from watching Newhart’s previous sitcoms. There are a few tired moments when the technological advances of the ’90s make Newhart seem like the protagonist of a Readers Digest anecdote—a bit about call-waiting in the pilot is particularly dire—but for the most part, the series has a remarkably solid foundation.
Newhart plays Bob McKay, a greeting card artist who’s contacted by a comic book company that loves a book he put together in the ’50s called Mad-Dog. The company wants to resurrect Mad-Dog—a veterinarian with the superpowers of a Doberman pinscher—and it wants McKay on board to work with young genius Harlan Stone (a terrific John Cygan), clearly modeled after Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and the other writers and artists who reinvented comics in the ’80s. Through contrived circumstances, Newhart and Cygan end up doing the comic together, and Mad-Dog looks poised to conquer the comics market, so long as the two can overcome their bizarre coworkers and Bob’s genially daffy home life.
Bob’s producers maximize the star’s encounters with weirdoes and goofballs, but they also came up with a surprisingly strong setup for a sitcom. In most shows like this, the workplace setting is far more interesting than the home setting, but Bob’s domestic life is just as funny as the strange stuff at the office. Carlene Watkins, in particular, feels like a perfect combination of Newhart’s two previous sitcom wives, while Cynthia Stevenson (who would go on to have a long string of failed ’90s sitcoms) makes so much of a cliché role—single daughter looking for love—that the producers quickly gave her much more to do and trusted her with the series’ strongest emotional material. This threesome, combined with Cygan’s gleeful misanthropy, makes for a strong comedic team.
The series also possesses the surreal streak that Newhart’s other sitcoms and those later seasons of Cheers had exploited well. The president of the company that owns Newhart’s comic book (AmCanTranConComCo) has the whole building wired so he can check in on his employees at any time, his voice like something out of 1984. One of the company’s inkers is fond of drawing caricatures featuring his subjects with leeches all over their faces. Newhart goes on an exceptionally awkward television appearance with the former senator who killed Mad-Dog in the ’50s.
It’s also fun to watch the creators retool the series to play to its strengths on the fly. They emphasize Stevenson (and one of her best friends, played by a young Lisa Kudrow) and move her into the office. They play up the show’s weirder aspects, but also give plenty of chances for Newhart to play genuinely moving scenes with his family. And the finale—in which Mad-Dog is canceled and the company sold—is often quite emotional, while remaining funny.
Unfortunately, the show’s low ratings meant that, despite considerable critical acclaim for the first season, CBS asked the producers to retool. In season two, Newhart moves on to a new job, for the greeting card company he worked for in the pilot. Betty White (fresh off the Golden Girls spinoff Golden Palace) comes in as his new boss, while Jere Burns arrives to fill the “younger man Bob clashes with” role Cygan had filled previously. The new setup isn’t awful, but it’s nowhere near the fun show that season one had turned into. Only eight episodes of this season were made before CBS pulled the plug.
All in all, Bob is a surprisingly fresh and funny example of sitcoms of the early ’90s, a time when the form was becoming more experimental but also reluctant to leave its considerable history behind. It’s not a great sitcom, but there was a great sitcom lurking inside of it, and it’s a shame that the series never got the time—or network confidence—needed to emerge.
Key features: Vintage Entertainment Tonight reports and the first issue of a Mad-Dog comic put out by Marvel to promote the show.