Newhart- the crazy world inside of a gentle mind
"All comedians are, in a way, anarchists. Our job is to make fun of the existing world." Bob Newhart
Bob Newhart is one of the sneakiest comedians ever. Inside of his mild demeanor and deadpan delivery lurks the heart of a rascal, and many people could miss his genius by just looking at him. He began life as an accountant and based on his looks and presentation you'd think that was just where he belonged. But around 1960 he made several recording deals that changed his life. Instead of traditional standup where he told jokes, Bob played the straight man to imaginary crazy people that he spoke with on a telephone. While comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and Robin Williams cracked jokes at the craziness of their times, Newhart did it subtly, creating imaginary absurdity in his mind and sharing it with his audience.
In the 1960's and 1970's Bob Newhart was everywhere- on variety and talk shows, even on his own short-lived 1961 emmy-nominated sitcom. Since then he's appeared as the voice of Disney characters, as Papa Elf in Elf, on dramas like ER and Desperate Housewives, and as Professor Proton on the Big Bang Theory. I first got to know him on The Bob Newhart Show, his most accessible sitcom, where he played a therapist in Chicago (they have a statue of him and the couch in downtown Chicago today). In that show, the crazy people on the phone were now real people who came into his office, and he played the perfect straight man to their funny quirks.
My fall tv binge this year has been his other famous sitcom- Newhart, which played for 8 seasons from 1982 to 1990. Newhart is not available anywhere for streaming or broadcast that I could find, but all 8 seasons are on DVD. In the show, Bob Newhart plays a befuddled Vermont innkeeper, Dick Loudon, and again he uses the same formula of straight man to a warped community to great effect. The show reminds me a lot of one of my other favorites, Green Acres, where a New York lawyer is moved to a colorful rural community of oddballs to great effect.
Newhart's great cast includes:
Tom Poston as George Utley, the inn's handyman and all around goofball who makes fun of Dick's career as an author of How-To-Repair-Things books.
Julia Duffy as Stephanie Vanderkellen, the spoiled little rich girl who somehow ends up as the maid in old Vermont inn. Duffy replaced another actress, Jennifer Holmes, who only played the maid in the first season and deemed too normal to be funny. Duffy's struggles with romance and her rich parents made for some memorable episodes.
Mary Frann as Joanna, Newhart's wife on the show. Frann is given little comedic to do, other than to go along with her husband, and that is one thing I wish had been better on the show. Eva Gabor on Green Acres was a gem.
Peter Scolari as Michael Harris, Stephanie's love interest and Dick's clueless tv producer for a local show, Vermont Today. Scolari is used to great comic effect and tossed around in several professions before finally allowed to marry Stephanie at the end of season 7.
But the true stars of the show may have been Larry, Daryl, and Daryl, the three odd woodsmen who show up at weird times to great audience applause. Larry, played by William Sanderson, is the only one of the three brothers that speaks, and their oddness is what makes this show truly funny. The brothers first show up in the second episode of season 1 as a company called "Anything for a buck" to dig up a dead body in the inn's basement, and their willingness to do anything for the show made it so odd and funny.
There are many other guest stars and colorful local characters that show up in the 8 seasons, all of whom are played for laughs in the arena of Bob Newhart's creative imagination. Several cast members from his first sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show make appearances. Oddly, Newhart never won an Emmy award, though it was nominated dozens of times. Bob Newhart's only Emmy for all his TV appearances came for a guest spot on the Big Bang Theory.
Newhart is a show that probably couldn't be made again today. There are zero people of color on the show (which is probably pretty accurate for Vermont back then), and the show stayed away from any controversial topics. The Henry Mancini theme song was about as white bread as a theme could possibly be. It was a gentle, silly, and thoughtful situation comedy that could only have worked with someone like Bob Newhart as the sensible center of it.
My picks for the five best Newhart episodes of all time are:
- Mrs. Newton's Body Lies A'Mouldring in the Grave- Season 1, episode 2.
The discovery that a dead body from long ago is buried in the basement of this historic inn sets the scene for the oddness that this inn hides within. The first appearance of Larry, Daryl, and Daryl was so electric that these bit characters were kept as regulars afterwards.
- Lady and the Tramps- Season 2, episode 7
A freak snowstorm gets Stephanie lost, and she takes shelter in the small cabin home of Larry, Daryl, and Daryl. Though their odd behavior is repugnant, their kindness shines through.
- Take Me to your Loudon Season 6, episode 7.
In a War of the Worlds takeoff, the frightened townspeople are convinced that martians are invading, and Dick tries to talk sense into them.
- Murder at the Stratley- Season 7, episode 21
Bob tries his hand at writing a murder mystery novel, and the townspeople are convinced that the story is real. With Joanna away visiting relatives, they start accusing Bob of killing her like in the book.
- The Last Newhart- Season 8, episode 24.
This is the most famous sitcom episode, possibly in history. The entire town is bought by a Japanese billionaire, except for the Stratford Inn, which Bob refuses to sell. They flash forward 5 years and Joanna is wearing a Japanese outfit and the Inn is surrounded by a golf course. The cast members, all now millionaires because of the town buyout, return and cause havoc, and as Bob tries to leave, he is hit by a golf ball and knocked unconscious. He awakens in bed with Suzanne Pleshette, his tv wife from The Bob Newhart Show, and it turns out the entire 8 seasons were all a dream. This was the biggest surprise ending of a tv show, possibly ever, and the secret was protected very carefully until the episode aired.
It was fitting that the entire 8 seasons happened inside of Newhart's head. That's where most of his best comedy started. I enjoy cerebral, situational comedic stories like this, and wish there were more like it to choose from. Comedy requires tension between oddity and reality in just the right doses, and Newhart provided both.
Here it is- the most talked about series finale ever: