Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Hi Bob!"

Though most of my DVD library consists of movies (and mostly older ones at that), I am acquiring quite a shelfload of TV shows too. I think that's been the real benefit of DVD over VHS tapes, as one can now collect entire seasons of favourite TV shows that take up only a small fraction of space that would have been taken up by great numbers of 2-hour capacity videotapes. Besides, TV shows on VHS never did catch on for that very reason plus the significant cost factor.

DVD has certainly been a major boon to fans of older TV shows, who can now revisit their fond memories of what it was like to sit down in front of the tube back in the era of their choice. For me, my favourite era was the early 70's, when I could watch classy stuff like "All in the Family", "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", "M*A*S*H" and "The Carol Burnett Show". Incidentally, all of these particular shows were on CBS, back in the days it had every right to lay claim to the nickname, "The Tiffany Network". I wouldn't bestow that honour upon any of the TV networks today, I'm afraid.

But there was another CBS sitcom back then that I'd have to rank up there at the top of my list...

"The Bob Newhart Show" was the first of several sitcoms that starred the stand-up comedian with the "button-down mind", though only this show and his second venture, "Newhart" I'd consider to be TV gold. In his first, and perhaps best, TV sitcom, Bob plays psychologist Bob Hartley, who, along with his wife Emily, lives in an upscale highrise apartment in Chicago. Their neighbour Howard is a flight navigator who's pretty clued out - just the sort of fellow you'd probably not want in that job position if you were on his flight and, as wonderfully played by Bill Daily, is responsible for most of the laughs on the homefront. At the workplace, Bob's office is adjacent to that of Jerry Robinson the dentist, who is also Bob's best friend. They also share the services of perpetually man-hunting, single gal receptionist Carol Kester.

I've always felt that the best sitcoms tend to feature an ensemble of characters where the lead is like the island of tranquility in a sea of craziness. That's certainly the case here, where the audience is seeing everything through the generally calm persona of Bob, as he reacts to the eccentricities of his friends, workmates, and patients in mostly furrowed-browed, deadpan fashion, broken only by a lot of bemused blinking and stammered verbal responses. I think this is why I really love Bob Newhart - he's one of the few entertainers that can break me up just by looking at him before he's even uttered a word. (John Cleese and Tommy Smothers also share this distinction for me.) Jack Benny was, of course, the master of the pregnant pause in his comedy stylings, and I think Bob Newhart was the guy who best carried on that comedy tradition.

I recently read Bob Newhart's autobiography entitled, "I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!", the gag behind the title of which is best explained by reading the book yourself. The book gives some good background on how Bob came to leave the life of a public accountant behind to seek a career writing and performing comedy on stage. In addition to many wonderful anecdotes about his life and career, the book features several of his timeless "Telephone" routines. When you watch "The Bob Newhart Show", you'll see how he incorporated that idea of the one-sided telephone conversation into a great many of the scenes.

In tribute to this very funny and genuinely nice guy, here is my caricature of Bob Newhart and his TV wife, the very attractive Suzanne Pleshette.