At the recent Television Critics Association winter press tour, the storied Bob Newhart appeared on a panel for PBS’ Pioneers Of Television to talk about his experiences in television comedy, which stretch back to the ’60s. Because I had been watching the second season of his ’80s series Newhart, available this week on DVD for the first time from Shout! Factory, I asked him about his memories of that season, famous in sitcom-geek circles for being one of the best examples of a mediocre series retooling itself into a good one on the fly. Newhart offered all the usual caveats: The series had had two characters who didn’t really work (about which more in a bit), and it needed a few tweaks to the premise, but then he said something interesting. In 1983 and 1984, Newhart said, the audience was willing to give a struggling sitcom with some promising elements time to find itself, even into a second season.
“We were given two years by the audience for, really, something that was not really that good a show. I think what kept us on was, maybe, a loyalty to me and Larry, Darryl, and Darryl,” Newhart said on the panel. He cited the way the live studio audience sparked to the three woodsman brothers who became Newhart mainstays, but whose popularity seemed to take the writing staff by surprise. Underlying all of this was an idea that has become hard to cotton to in a TV world where comedies are pronounced dead in the water because of poor numbers for their pilots: Almost all sitcoms—yes, even Dads—get at least a little bit better after their pilots. To watch a sitcom that doesn’t quite work but has promising elements is to test your faith in poor-to-awful television.
This seldom happens anymore. Parks And Recreation has hung on to reach 100 episodes and syndication—where I expect the show will become a staple for years to come—but the most-viewed episode of the series remains its troubled pilot, with 6.77 million viewers. (The only other episode to crest the 6 million mark was the third season premiere, when the show was slotted after The Office. Its numbers quickly dropped like a stone, and by the end of that season, it had actually performed slightly worse in that timeslot than the legendarily bad Outsourced.) How many potential Parks viewers were chased away by that pilot, or pushed to a place where they only watched it in streaming, instead of first-run, where the show has always needed the ratings help? The lesson is simple: In TV pilots, as it is in acting, drama is easy; comedy is hard.
The second season of Newhart, which ended up being Newhart’s longest-running series, is a must-watch for anyone interested in the art of the American sitcom and how it frequently needs time to evolve. The first season of the ’80s sitcom was highly rated but not very good. Before season two, the producers made two major changes in switching from shooting on tape to shooting on film and replacing Jennifer Holmes’ Leslie Vanderkellen with her cousin, Stephanie, played by Julia Duffy. But the show still didn’t have the oomph it needed. That arrived starting with its third season, when it became one of the best sitcoms of its era.
Thus, season two is a surprisingly thrilling high-wire act in which the show continuously retools itself, trying a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work and stumbling upon other things that do work. It’s almost more interesting to watch it as the story of a bunch of TV writers trying to turn an expected success into the best show it could be than it is to watch it as a TV comedy. It’s particularly fascinating for anyone who’s seen Newhart before and might not be aware it used to be a much quieter, more low-key show than it was in its later seasons, when its weird small-town humor made for a live-action Simpsons precursor. To watch season two is to see the elements of the show that would be snap into place, sometimes as if by accident.
The first stroke of good fortune is Duffy. Newhart always had two surefire laugh-getters in Newhart himself, here playing Vermont innkeeper and how-to book author Dick Loudon, and Tom Poston, as dim-witted handyman George. But its female cast wasn’t as strong in the first season, with Holmes proving too anodyne to garner big laughs and Mary Frann (as Dick’s wife, Joanna) suffering in comparison to Newhart’s prior TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette. Duffy immediately brings new energy to the show as Stephanie, and it’s fun to watch the writers spark to her portrayal of the sheltered, ditzy blonde forced to work as a maid. By season’s end, she has most of the good lines, and Duffy, who could do this in her sleep, keeps pushing the character to new heights of lunacy.
With Duffy ensconced as a third reliable source of laughs, the show spends most of the rest of the season trying other things out. Could Dick’s writing career prove a bigger source of laughter? The two-part season premiere—which features not a laughing studio audience nor a sweetened laugh track, but the creepy, hollow laughter of one or two guys—sends him off to interview with a famous movie star about writing her memoir. It also proves there’s little humor for the show to glean from the publishing world. Maybe George could have a dog? That apparently doesn’t work, either, as the dog is quickly scuttled. Perhaps the weird townsfolk Dick and Joanna have to put up with could take more of the focus? This proves more successful, as tradition-bound mayor Chester (William Lanteau) and his friend Jim (Thomas Hill) become solid recurring players, and the season’s back half is dominated by Larry (William Sanderson) and his silent brothers Darryl and Darryl (Tony Papenfuss and John Voldstad). Feeding off those audience cheers, the show tries to figure out how to save its own life.
The answer arrives almost by accident. Around midseason, Dick goes on a local TV talk show to discuss his books, where he meets a producer named Michael, played by Peter Scolari (then best known for Bosom Buddies). Viewers who are familiar with Scolari’s later role on the show will be forgiven confirmation bias, but it’s remarkable how quickly he simply fits in the ensemble. That goes double for a late-season episode—which serves as a second pilot for the show that would begin in season three—where he successfully persuades Dick to host a television show and becomes Stephanie’s boyfriend in short order. These are the sorts of things that killed lesser shows, but everyone here is so game and the tone is increasingly so bizarre that it all works. The inn had never been as rich a source of stories as it must have seemed to creator Barry Kemp at first; a TV show filled with local oddballs, presided over by a chuckling blowhard, made for a much stronger setting.
Stephanie and Michael eventually became one of TV’s best satires on ’80s excess, and while that aspect of the show isn’t yet developed, the last third of the second season presents a show that looks pretty similar to the series that went down in history (and looks remarkably different from the second season’s first third), with one major exception: Kirk Devane (Steven Kampmann), the owner of the neighboring Minuteman Café, whose pathological lying and incessant need to be liked dragged down much of the first season. At the time, his flirtation with Leslie was the only thing keeping him relatable, but with Holmes’ departure from the show, Kirk had less to do. A remarkable number of episodes in season two—particularly in the middle third—try to find something for Kirk, but the character rarely rises above an annoyance. The producers even go to the trouble of marrying him off to a clown, but his new wife doesn’t succeed at making him a vital character either.
Season three began with Scolari replacing Kampmann in the ensemble, and it was the right call for the show long-term. (Larry, Darryl, and Darryl join as regulars as well.) Because it turned out well for the show, watching the second season on DVD has a sense of the inevitable coming to be, but try to keep in mind the show’s staff frantically casting about for ways to make it work, a ticking clock over their heads all the while. Newhart is that rare beast in the TV world: a show where all of the retooling paid off because the producers were keenly attuned to what was and wasn’t working on their show.
The ratings didn’t always bear this out. Season two dropped substantially from season one. Although its numbers were good enough to earn a third season, a fourth would have been unlikely if the numbers didn’t improve. Instead, the show rebounded in the Nielsens in seasons three and four, and season five actually came close to reaching the ratings heights of season one. Yet there’s a sobering lesson there as well: Even in the ’80s, when most Americans still only had access to three networks and PBS, a certain portion of viewers watched only the weakest season of Newhart and ultimately tuned out, no matter how much critics rallied behind the show in later years. The kind of slow-building success that, say, The Big Bang Theory has had is exceptionally rare for sitcoms. (That’s proof of a series that became better and brought in a larger audience through steady retooling.) Far more likely is that viewers will sample a show and decide they simply don’t like it before finding something else.
The problem may be unsolvable. It’s notoriously hard to make a good sitcom pilot—naming a top 10 throughout TV history is easy enough, but expand that number to 20, and it becomes considerably more difficult—while audiences are much less likely to give a show the room Newhart had to play and experiment. Examples are all over the dial. New Girl is a much better show now than it was early in season one, but its ratings have tanked since the series became more of an ensemble sitcom and less of one about Jessica Day’s struggles. Community evolved into one of the most daring shows on TV, but even its miniscule ratings took a hit once it abandoned the relatively formulaic “everybody takes a class” structure. And How I Met Your Mother didn’t build an audience as much as it managed to hang on to the one it had from day one. HIMYM’s numbers now seem sizable, but they almost led to the show’s cancellation several times in the early going. There’s nothing like a new comedy finding its voice and realizing how funny it can be, but by that point, the audience may have changed the channel, and it’s incredibly difficult to get them back. After all, not every show has a Larry, Darryl, and Darryl waiting in the wings.