“Father of the Bob” is a great little Christmas story. Linda forces Bob to make peace with his dad, Big Bob, and the kids scrounge up a last-minute gift for their dad in Big Bob’s basement. They’re all there for Big Bob’s Christmas party, which is really just a festive evening at Big Bob’s Diner, same as any other day. Big Bob likes things the way they are. Eventually the kids come up with something to bring them closer to their dad, and through their gift, Bob discovers the motivation to get closer to his own dad. It’s simple, sweet, and very funny. The thing is, it could be an episode of any other show.
That’s an unusual complaint for Bob’s Burgers. It may be a working-class family sitcom in the vein of The Middle, but it tends to go its own way. After all, this is the show that celebrated Thanksgiving with a swarm of deranged turkeys flooding the streets. Even the more conventional stories, like the rival school musicals, have a particular Bob’s Burgers spin. The Goldbergs’ school musical episode didn’t end with a combination Die Hard/Working Girl musical, for instance, and it certainly didn’t sell such a catchy tune. But it doesn’t take much to imagine “Father of the Bob” as an episode of The Middle or Modern Family or even Parenthood, for that matter. Daddy issues are responsible for a good two-thirds of scripted TV.
“Father of the Bob” does put a lot of the show’s usual decorations on the tree, but there are two main touches that take it from any old sitcom story to a Bob’s Burgers episode. The first is the opening flashback. The episode begins 30 years ago when Bob was 14. Big Bob is off getting a prostate exam, so Little Bob takes the kitchen for a spin. Instead of the usual for loyal customer Henry, Bob comes up with the Baby, You Can Chive My Car Burger, which is a burger topped with sour cream and chives and the bun toothpicked with pickle slices for wheels. That’s when Big Bob gets back. (“So that’s what a prostate exam is. Did you guys know what it is?” One regular responds, “I think it’s more fun if it’s a surprise.”) He can’t abide going off-menu, so he throws Bob’s burger in the trash and serves Henry his usual tuna melt instead. It’s the age-old story of parental suppression. Our Bob has had that moment festering away inside of him ever since.
Another comedy could do something similar—Louie is full of childhood reminiscence lately—but there’s more Bob’s Burgers in this flashback than there would be in, say, cramming the episode with recurring characters. First there’s the washed out look, the desaturated colors and hazy borders that mark memories on this show. That’s a cliché for a live-action comedy, but in animation, it’s still effective because it’s inherently stylized. Then there’s the burger subplot, a silly little thing (“Greed is Gouda Burger”) that is nevertheless exactly the kind of event that sears itself in our memories. But the main thing is Bob himself. It’s not a different actor. It’s H. Jon Benjamin playing lighter and less sure. He’s served by the supporting cast—Nick Offerman as the owner of the gay bar next door, Carl Reiner in a thick accent as Henry, an eager Jordan Peele as the glue of the group—especially Bill Hader’s grouchy Big Bob. Hader takes over the scene with his voice alone, putting Benjamin’s awkward young Bob in his place.
Back in the present, the Belchers are off to Big Bob’s Christmas “party.” Bob doesn’t want to go. “We just went two years ago.”
“That was seven years ago,” says Linda.
Suddenly Gene joins in. “I remember. I was still breast-feeding.”
“No, you weren’t,” she corrects him.
“Not with you!” he says.
That’s the basic dynamic of the episode. The kids wander around Big Bob’s basement trying to scrounge up a gift for Bob while Linda pushes Bob and Big Bob to reconcile. Eventually this leads to a moment where Henry orders the usual, and Bob has a flashback, this time silent and impressionistic. The memory hasn’t been conscious in Bob’s mind. It’s been buried deep at the roots of his distance from his father, and now the wound is raw again. So Bob decides to take his Baby, You Can Chive My Car Burger for a spin once and for all, which Big Bob combats with a tuna melt. At the moment of truth, Henry can’t resist Bob’s burger. Bob’s so happy to have his creative impulses justified that he rubs it in his dad’s face, and Big Bob leaves his own restaurant with his tail between his legs. That’s when the kids bring Bob their present, a wrapped snowglobe. The wrapping they used, though, is the first review of Bob’s Burgers (“service leaves something to be desired but worth the trip”), which Big Bob apparently saved despite Bob leaving to start his own restaurant in a fit of youthful righteousness.
Which leads us to the second touch that sets “Father of the Bob” apart: The reconciliation scene takes place at a gay bar called the Junk Yard. It seems like an easy injection of silliness, setting Bob and Big Bob’s heartfelt talk in a gay bar despite neither of them being gay. And it is. The conversation takes place within a line dance where Big Bob knows every move and Bob is completely lost, making this not only the dramatic but the comic climax as well. What makes it such a Bob’s Burgers touch is the generosity. Big Bob isn’t gay, but he likes to dance there with the friends who frequent his diner. On another sitcom the scene would be glib. Just imagine Jay Pritchett line-dancing at a gay bar. But Bob’s Burgers consistently finds fellowship in outsider communities like this. It’s a show about tolerance and acceptance and embracing weirdness after all. Setting the scene where Bob and his dad finally bury the hatchet within a synchronized dance at a gay bar isn’t just an inspired sequence. It’s the very heart of Bob’s Burgers.
– “Dear Lord Santa, this year please bless me with a calendar of Australian firefighters holding puppies in casual settings.” You and me both, Tina.
– The episode is also full of smaller Bob’s Burgers touches, like the rapid-fire reaction montage after Teddy says, “I’ve even got cousin issues. Beautiful, blonde cousin issues.” Tina: “Aw.” Bob: “Ew.” Teddy: “What?”
– Big Bob pulls out his wallet to give the kids their Christmas presents. “Who’s your favorite president?” he asks. Gene: “Bill Pullman! Today we fight for our independence!”
– The kids head off to the basement to scavenge for craft supplies. “One man’s trash is another man’s present for their father,” says Tina.
– At first Gene wants to give Bob a drum kit made out of bean cans, but then he decides to fill up a cardboard box with the beans and take a relaxing soak. Inspiration strikes! “Looks like Dad just won a bean bath with a little pee in it.”
– Just then there’s a great sight gag of the box breaking open and pouring beans and Gene all over the floor. Later, covered in bean sauce, Gene tries to distract the customers from the awkwardness of the Bob-Big Bob fight. “How ’bout I run around, and you all try to catch me like a pig at the state fair?”
– Wisdom from Tina: “When a mysterious cowboy slash Santa says, ‘Come with me,’ you climb on that horse and ride.”