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The Bob Newhart Show turned its star’s signature style into an ensemble classic

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For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers The Bob Newhart Show, which ran for six seasons and 142 episodes between 1972 and 1978.

Many of the performers who blew the dust off stand-up comedy in the 1950s and ’60s cultivated images as wild as their most imaginative verbal riffs. Lenny Bruce was the seductive, self-destructive bad boy. Lord Buckley was (in Bob Dylan’s words) “the hipster bebop preacher.” Jonathan Winters was the superficially normal-looking guy who picked up strange alien frequencies on his dental work. This, it turned out, was not the best way to guarantee a long, secure career at the top. Even Mort Sahl, apparently the most stable of the comics close to the edge, went too far into his darkest political obsessions and took to rambling onstage about assassinations and shadowy conspiracies, often neglecting to tell any jokes.


But Bob Newhart was built for the duration. A recovering accountant and ad copywriter, Newhart became a star on the basis of a series of comedy albums whose very titles—The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back, etc.—typecast him as a quintessential square. Newhart’s comic persona was that of a man who emerged from the womb middle-aged, balding, and stammering.

Newhart heightened that effect with a series of monologues delivered as one half of a conversation, a format that enabled him to function as the befuddled straight man to his own insane flights of fancy. It was a strategy borne of necessity: The comedian developed his early material with a workplace partner, who declined to go pro with him. By becoming, in essence, a one-man comedy team and casting himself as the more reserved member, Newhart found a way to launch himself into surreal comic scenarios while remaining “relatable” to the dullest spuds in the national television audience. He was his own straight man, and it was great preparation for anchoring a well-cast, fairly well-populated sitcom.


When he stepped into the role of Chicago psychologist Robert Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show, starring in a sitcom wasn’t the automatic next step for a stand-up comedian that it became in the ’80s and ’90s. At the time of the show’s 1972 debut, Newhart was not a novice actor: He had starred in his own sketch-comedy series, also called The Bob Newhart Show, in 1961, and made his movie debut a year later in Don Siegel’s Hell Is For Heroes. A low-budget war film with an amusingly patchwork cast that included Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, and L.Q. Jones, Hell Is For Heroes provided Newhart with a chance to do a battlefield version of his one-sided conversation shtick, babbling about how Patton and Steve Rogers are due to be coming over the hill at any minute, for the benefit of the Germans listening on in a no-longer-hidden mic.

On TV, Newhart played a would-be wife murderer on an en episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and a Hugh Hefner clone on the superhero spoof Captain Nice—but the prospect of committing to the grind of a weekly series was daunting. That’s why the producers of The Bob Newhart Show were so keen to hire a glamorous Hollywood actress like Suzanne Pleshette to play Dr. Hartley’s wife. Pleshette was as mothering and effusive as Newhart was reticent about showing his feelings, and as a longtime friend of the Newhart family, she made her TV husband feel comfortable. So did Bill Daily, whose performance as the Hartleys’ pal Howard Borden officially retired the category of “wacky neighbor” from the sitcom lexicon. In interviews, Daily modestly declines to take credit for how funny he was on the show, saying that it was a blessing and a privilege to be part of something so well written after five years on I Dream Of Jeannie.

Peter Bonerz, a veteran of the San Francisco-based improv troupe The Committee, was invited to join the cast as Dr. Jerry Robinson, because Newhart liked him when they worked together on the film adaptation of Catch-22. In the original pilot, Bonerz was cast as another psychologist, a proponent for faddish, oddball therapies who could provide a professional contrast to the old-school Bob Hartley, but it was decided that he’d make a funnier orthodontist. Marcia Wallace rounded out the cast as Carol Kester, the secretary on Bob and Jerry’s floor of the fictional Rimbau Medical Arts Center. Wallace was a discovery of CBS President William Paley’s, who reportedly saw her on a talk show and commanded that a sitcom be found that she could be written into.

Part of what was most remarkable about The Bob Newhart Show was the way it managed to straddle the worlds of the workplace comedy and domestic sitcom. The scenes at Bob’s office were augmented by Jack Riley, Florida Friebus, Renee Lippin, and squeaky-voiced John Fiedler (who voiced Disney’s Piglet) as Dr. Hartley’s most frequent patients. As Mr. Carlin, a smoldering cauldron of hostility topped off with a hairpiece that was practically daring strangers to yank it off his head, Riley was the one who came closest to being an honorary regular. He invited himself to Thanksgiving dinner at Bob’s; bullied Carol into dating him; bought the Hartleys’ building; and finally found love, with a woman who was willing to overlook the fact that, in a state of panic, he’d told her he was a married fugitive on the lam. Riley made such an impression that he reprised the role of Mr. Carlin on other shows after The Bob Newhart Show ended—not just on Newhart’s follow-up vehicle, Newhart, but also on St. Elsewhere (also an MTM Enterprises production) and ALF (in an episode that found crossing paths with Bill Daily).


Writing about The Bob Newhart Show’s complete-series DVD release in 2014, former A.V. Club TV editor Emily VanDerWerff commented on how “modern” the show seems now, which touches both on what set it apart from other classic sitcoms of its era and the place it holds in pop-culture history. The Bob Newhart Show was produced by MTM Enterprises, the company set up to produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show; for much of its six-year run, the series lived in the shadow of its big sister. It was The Mary Tyler Moore Show that regularly cleaned up at the Emmys, and whose final episode was treated as a cultural event. The Bob Newhart Show’s only nomination for Emmy’s top comedy prize came in 1977, the same year Pleshette’s portrayal of Emily Hartley earned her a nod for Outstanding Lead Actress In A Comedy Series. Neither went home a winner.

Mary Tyler Moore, like a great many other sitcoms of its day, had a lethal streak of sincerity mixed in with its genuine charm and humor. It often stopped the comedy cold so the characters could drape their hearts across their sleeves, hug it out, and declare their deep love for each other. The Bob Newhart Show didn’t invent “no hugging, no learning,” but it never let its characters’ affection for each other get in the way of the jokes, and it always treated their travails and learning experiences as springboards for laughs. The show also looks far fresher now than All In The Family and the other shows from the Norman Lear factory, which were much-admired at the time for dragging in topical social issues and giving everyone in the cast an opportunity to yell about them until they were blue in the face. (The sets for those shows were so poorly lit, that everyone started out looking a little turquoise anyway.)

The Bob Newhart Show feels closer to a comedy like NewsRadio or Happy Endings: A series in which a cast of professional zanies—working within a framework that defines them as members of a workplace family or a gang of friends—just concentrate on making viewers laugh. The danger with that kind of show is that the results will feel scattershot, but Newhart’s persona holds it together. The Bob Newhart Show is the best kind of star vehicle: an ensemble piece whose tone and style are set by the man at its center.


But Newhart didn’t create the show, and he never took a writing credit on it. The creators were Mary Tyler Moore vets David Davis and Lorenzo Music; credit for the show’s consistency should also go to Jay Tarses and Tom Patchett, who wrote 20 episodes, with Tarses serving as producer during the 1974-1975 season. (He also served as executive producer on what is arguably the series’ single funniest episode, and maybe its darkest: season five’s “Death Be My Destiny,” written by Gimme A Break co-creator Sy Rosen.) They all had the same kind of humor as Newhart, and they all had to work around whatever stipulations he set down.

Those stipulations weren’t the demands of an ego-tripping star but the careful guidelines established by a man who had a very clear understanding of what made him funny, what circumstances would allow him to blossom, and which ones would only get in his way. Newhart gave Davis and Music their first note as soon as they told him that they wanted to build a network show around him, a sitcom in which he would play a psychiatrist. Sounds great, said Newhart, except he’d be playing a psychologist. That way, he explained, Davis and Music could write funny parts for people grappling with extreme shyness and fear of flying, and Newhart wouldn’t have to try to be amusing while making fun of schizophrenics and the chronically depressed.


Newhart had another ironclad rule that he laid down from the start, so there’d be no misunderstandings later: no goddamn kids. “I didn’t want to do a Father Knows Best kind of show where Daddy’s the idiot and keeps getting in scrapes, but the kids huddle with mom and bail him out,” he later said in an interview with the Archive Of American Television. “I’d rather be back in nightclubs and on the road.” The writers agreed, but as years went by and new comic situations became increasingly precious, somebody decided to try a Hail Mary pass. A script was written in which Bob and Emily had a baby. It was sent, without warning, to the unsuspecting Newhart, in the hope that he’d be so delighted with it that he’d shelf his previous objections and hop on board the parenthood train. After an ominously long silence, Newhart finally checked in to share his reactions. He thought the script was quite good; there were a lot of funny lines, and it augured a promising new direction for the show. There was just one thing, he said, that was troubling him: “Who are you going to get to play Bob?”

“Bob’s not emotional,” Pleshette once said. “He doesn’t want to be obliged to be connected.” That gave Newhart a power that was rare in a business notorious for attracting insecure people in need of approval: He was able to walk away. Newhart wanted to quit the show after the first 13 episodes, and he originally decided to end things for good with the end of the fifth season, at the same time The Mary Tyler Moore Show was coming to a close. After everyone realized he was serious, CBS executives had to implore him to somehow find it in his heart to stick around for another year and take more of their money.

Now that Bob Newhart has had a substantial career in TV and movies—Newhart ran for most of the 1980s, and he finally won an Emmy for a guest spot on The Big Bang Theory in 2013—it can be stated decisively that no one on Earth was as good at playing his partner in life as Pleshette. She had an unusual on-screen presence—part regal, part down-to-earth—and she and Newhart should have come across as a classic mismatch. But maybe because she knew Newhart and understood his style, she was able to connect with him in a way that made Emily and Bob’s relationship seem both believable and healthy.


She knew how to mock him affectionately, as in those moments when Emily affects good-natured boredom at one of her husband’s typically tedious stories about lost childhood toys and emulating one of the Harmonicats. The two of them could strike some very strange sparks together, as in a moment when Bob is trying to account for his recent behavior by saying that it’s connected to something that happened when he was very young, and Emily, running her fingers through his sparse hair, coos, “You fell on your head?” That’s why the famous final scene of Newhart’s second sitcom was so satisfying: Reunited on-screen after 12 years apart, Newhart (as Bob) wakes up and turns to Pleshette (as Emily), telling her that he’s just had the strangest dream about being an innkeeper in Vermont and being married to a beautiful blonde. In other words, all eight seasons of Newhart actually took place inside the head of a Chicago psychologist, a character played by a man whose only on-screen match is the brunette to his right.

At the same time, it’s kind of disrespectful to Mary Frann, who played Newhart’s wife on the later show, and everyone else who worked on Newhart. On a deep, unspoken level, it’s an assertion that there can be only one true TV wife for Bob Newhart; it’s like a writer coming in to take over a long-running comic-book series and concocting a device that retroactively wipes out all the continuity built up by his predecessor. Pleshette has said that once, when Newhart was going through one of those periods where he was vacillating over whether to agree to do any more of these shows, she told him that he literally didn’t know how good he had it. He was still new to this side of the business; he hadn’t gone through the kind of frustrations that the veteran working actors in the cast had, and so he had no way of knowing what a miracle had been dropped in his lap, with all the right collaborators working together on just the right project at just the right time. But some day he would. Years later, during the run of his ’80s show, Newhart invited Pleshette and the other Bob Newhart Show cast members to his house for dinner, and told them that, sure enough, he hadn’t fully appreciated what they were doing together at the time—but now, he did. The series finale of Newhart was his way of sharing that realization with the rest of the world.


Next time: What would you do if Libby Hill sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on her 100 Episodes column about The Wonder Years?