Bob Newhart picks up the phone to talk about his first classic sit-com
Forty-two years after its premiere, The Bob Newhart Show continues to matter. Based on Newhart’s buttoned-up comic sensibility — yes, before making Johnny Carson roar with laughter, Newhart had been an accountant — The Bob Newhart Show was the story of a Chicago psychologist, Bob Hartley; his lovely wife Emily (Suzanne Pleshette); and the oddball characters that lived in their building and visited his office. With its simple, straightforward premise — low-concept, even — the show became the template for subsequent comic-driven sitcoms, good and bad.
For six seasons, The Bob Newhart Show ran as part of CBS’s juggernaut Saturday-night lineup, which also featured All in the Family and Mary Tyler Moore. The series never quite reached the ratings its time-slot neighbors did, and it was never recognized for even one Emmy Award. Still, Newhart’s brand of humor, epitomized by his deadpan, one-sided phone conversations, which always veered into zany territory, made its mark. Its spirit was resurrected in Newhart, the actor’s second successful sitcom, which in turn honored its predecessor with the most famous series finale in sitcom history.
On May 27, all six seasons of The Bob Newhart Show will finally be available on DVD for the first time in a special 18-disc box set. The release includes new interviews, the 19th anniversary show from 1991, audio commentaries, a gag reel, and a 40-page commemorative book.
The 84-year-old Newhart spoke to EW about why his show still gets laughs in syndication, the creative toll of television, and that legendary last Newhart episode.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This is a real pleasure for me, though I should say that I’ve never felt as existentially unnecessary as being the voice on the other end of the phone with Bob Newhart.
[Bob Newhart laughs]
Congrats on the new DVD edition. It’s really great because the last two seasons of the show had never been made available on home video before.
BOB NEWHART: People had been let down for years, with the expectation they were going to wind up with all six seasons, and then it was cut off at four. I was getting mail and email from people saying, “When are the fifth and sixth seasons coming out?” and I felt an obligation to them. I think when they sign up for it, they have the right to expect that they’re going to see the whole thing. But there was nothing I could do about it, because I didn’t own the rights to the property. And then Shout Factory came along, and they were going to put out all six years. And they’re doing the same thing with Newhart, so I’m very happy that they came in and took it over.
The show still lives on cable, with a whole new generation discovering it every day.
Yeah, it’s amazing. When we were doing the show, I said to the writers, “Guys, we can’t do, like, a Jerry Ford joke, ’cause this is going to be in syndication 20-plus years from now and we’re going to look pretty silly doing jokes about President Ford tripping.” You know, things like that.
What gave you that confidence, that your show was going to last?
I don’t know. A lot of shows were going for the look that year, you know. And we didn’t, and that was intentional. Aside from extra-wide ties and long sideburns. We didn’t kind of go for that, and it gave it a kind of — I hate to use the word — timeless quality, but it holds up. And other shows have kind of showed their age. I can’t say that I knew that it was going to run for, oh my god, 40 years now, but I just had the feeling that it’s going to be in syndication and let’s not look foolish.
There had been an earlier Bob Newhart Show, in ’61 on NBC, a variety show that lasted for just one year. What did you learn from that experience, and did it have an impact when it was time to try TV again?
We did 33 episodes of the variety show, and it was really tough coming up with, in my estimation, a good, solid, funny monologue every week. What happened was, the show was really on the bubble. NBC was considering renewing it under certain conditions, getting rid of some people, and between the getting rid of some people I didn’t want to get rid of and just coming up with a good monologue every week, I passed and I just said, “I’ll just do the one year.” I don’t even know what effect that had, but I know there was a certain aversion to television, knowing how it just chews up material. Not that they were knocking down the doors.
So there was some trepidation. But [the 1972 show] was a situation comedy, where I didn’t have to come up with a monologue every week. At that point, 11 years after the [Buttoned-Down Mind of Bob Newhart] record album, I had a family, I had two boys and my daughter was just born, so I just wanted to get off the road and lead a normal kind of life. And this situation came up from MTM. They approached me about doing a weekly show, and if MTM was anything, they were class. So you knew it was going to be class.
Bob Hartley was a psychologist, which was the perfect character for you because so much of your comic sensibility was your ability to listen and reflect. In the early stages, were there other, perhaps horrible, suggestions of what Bob might do for work?
That’s very perceptive, because that’s exactly what happened. They said “Bob is a great reactor, he’s a great listener to other people. How do we capitalize on that? What kind of profession?” I don’t remember now if we kicked around a lot of ideas for different professions. I remember they said, “Well, a psychiatrist listens.” And I said, “No, psychiatrists really deal with seriously disturbed people, and I’m not sure we want to be getting comedy out of that.” I personally would love getting comedy out of that. [Laughs] But I don’t think the American public is ready for my sick sense of humor. So we settled on the psychologist.
So much of what people adored about the show was the back-and-forth between Bob and Emily and the chemistry you had with Suzanne. You were one of those TV couples that left people wanting to believe you two were together in real life.
Oh, yeah. That chemistry, you just don’t manufacture it. It’s there. I would go on stand-up tours with my wife and everybody would say, “Where’s Emily?” I had to explain to them that that just happens on television. As a matter of fact, when I started Newhart, I told Mary Frann, “You’re going to have a tough job because Suzy and I, we had this wonderful rapport, and they’re going to compare you to it, and it’s going to be tough on you.”
Now, Bob and Emily Hartley never had any kids…
I didn’t want to have kids. That isn’t the kind of show I want[ed] to do. I wanted to do an adult show. I don’t want to do Daddy is a Dolt, you know.
But after the fifth season, the network tried to push you in that direction — squeeze out a kid, prolong the show, that kind of thing. And you pushed back pretty hard.
I remember they sent me a script. It was in the sixth season, as a matter of fact. They thought they could talk me in to a seventh or eighth season. But I had already decided that six was going to be the end of it. So I read the script and talked to Mike Zinberg, the producer, and he said, “What did you think of the script?” I said, “It’s very funny.” He said, “Oh good, we didn’t know if you’d like it or not.” I said, “Yes, it’s very funny.” I said, “Who are you going to get to play Bob?” But that was their plan: have some kids and get another couple years out of this thing. But that just wasn’t the show I wanted to do.
Did you regret pulling the plug when you did? You started Newhart not too long after, and then brought the two shows full circle with the Newhart finale.
That’s always a tough decision to make. It affects a lot of people, the cast and the writers and the crew and the PR people. But I just didn’t want the show to limp off. I was very proud of the show. I thought we had done some really good things. I thought there was really good writing and performing. And I had seen shows that had stayed on a year, two years too long, and I didn’t want that to happen to the show. So I pulled the plug on it. Yeah, I guess we could’ve made it another year, maybe two years, but there’s always been a little bird on my shoulder that’s always said, “Okay, I think that’s it.”
Your Newhart finale is always held up as one of the all-time classic series-enders. Did you recall if it was heralded as genius at the time, or only in hindsight?
Genius at the time, of your two choices. [Laughs] The full story is at the end of six years, I was kind of unhappy with CBS because I thought they weren’t treating us fairly. My wife and I were at a Christmas party, and we’re standing in line to take pictures, and I just turned to her and said, “Yeah, I think this is going to be the last year of Newhart.” She knew how I felt, and she said — it wasn’t even a beat — she said, “If you leave the show, you ought to end the show on a dream sequence,” because there are so many inexplicable things about the show, least of which was Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. The maid was an heiress, and the handyman didn’t understand anything I said to him. I said, “Honey, that’s brilliant. That’s a great idea.” And she says, “You wake up in bed with Suzy and explain this dream you had about owning an inn.” And Suzy happened to be at the same party, and we told her the idea and she said, “I’ll be there in a New York minute.” I settled my problems with CBS and we went on for two more years — eight years with Newhart — and that was the year when I heard the little bird on my shoulder, “Bob, I think it’s time to get off.” And gave that idea to the writers.
It’s really amazing. Any time a beloved show is about to call it quits, everyone points to Newhart as the bar to aim for.
They said it recently with How I Met Your Mother. I thought Breaking Bad, of all of them, did it best, because they shot one [version] where Bryan wakes up in bed that refers to another series that he had been it.
The new DVD has a nice bonus called “Group Therapy,” with you and several of the show’s creatives reflecting on the show.
We did a 45-minute thing with myself and Bill Daily and Jack Riley and Peter Bonerz and Mike Zinberg, the five of us sitting around talking about the show. But at one point, I mentioned, “I guess those of you watching notice that there aren’t any ladies in our panel,” because we had just lost Marcia [Wallace] and we had lost Suzy, and we mention how important they were to the show. It was right after Marcia died, which really was unexpected. That’s the tough part of the show; a lot of the people, they just aren’t around any more. It makes [the show] kind of tough to watch, you know. But the show was a lot of fun to do and our sitting around reminiscing kind of brought that back, how much fun it was and what a great time we had doing it.