Bob Newhart can claim four shows bearing his name, a feat possibly shared with just one other comedian, Lucille Ball. The first, The Bob Newhart Show (1961), was a short-lived and forgotten but acclaimed variety show on NBC. But the second The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78) was a smashing success, and it remains one of the best sitcoms ever. Newhart followed it with the equally successful, increasingly surreal Newhart (1982-90).
Alas, Newhart's final sitcom effort (to date), Bob (naturally) had a short-lived run more in keeping with the first Bob Newhart Show. Airing on the same network, CBS, as the second Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, it ran for just a season-and-almost-a-half, from September 1992 through December 1993. Unfortunately the network buried it on Friday nights at 9:30pm for most of its run, hardly the best pole position for a show like this. The original premise was scrapped and the format completely revamped for season two, but that didn't help much.
But even if it had been given a perfect time slot it's doubtful Bob could've achieved the greatness of The Bob Newhart Show or occasional inspired lunacy of Newhart. Bob is still Bob, funny as ever, but on Bob he's surrounded by a less appealing assortment of eccentrics and situations to react to, and Newhart's entire act was reacting.
Bob - The Complete Series, however, is just the thing a series like this deserves, and the sort of thing that the DVD format does best. All 33 episodes are included on this four-disc set, some 13 hours worth of comedy. It appears that some of the underscoring has been changed for this home video version, and there may be other edits "from their original network versions" I'm not aware of. I caught only an episode or two when Bob was new, so it's pretty much all brand-new to me. Extras include something interesting and which I hope is a trend: segments about the show excerpted from Entertainment Tonight featuring interviews with the cast. Also included (onscreen) is Issue #1 of Mad-Dog comics. What's that you say? Read on...
Bob - Take 1
Bob McKay (Newhart) is a workaday greeting card artist delighted to learn that the American-Canadian Trans-Continental Communications Co. (AmCanTranConComCo) has decided to revive Bob's first love, "Mad-Dog," the comic book superhero he created decades before but which had been canceled following the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency's attacks on the comic book trade during the 1950s.
Bob, however, is dismayed when he discovers obnoxious, untalented editor Harlan Stone (John Cygan) intends on darkening his once upbeat, cheery character, but he finally agrees to take the job with support from his wife, Kaye (Carlene Watkins), and their adult daughter, Trisha (Cynthia Stevenson).
Initially the plan seems to have been to, as in The Bob Newhart Show, alternate between Bob's office and home life, but none of the characters at the comic book studio, including gofer Albie (Andrew Bilgore), inker Chad (Timothy Fall), or curmudgeonly veteran Iris (Ruth Kobart) proved the least bit interesting. Instead, over time the series became more concerned with the parents (Tom Poston [from Newhart] and Dorothy Lyman) of Trisha's best friend, Kathy (a pre-Friends Lisa Kudrow), and Bob's friend Buzz (Laugh-In's Dick Martin, who also frequently directed episodes of Bob and Newhart). Offscreen, Newhart, Poston, and Martin were all close friends and this camaraderie is apparent on the shows in which they appear. (It's too bad another of Newhart's real-world friends, Don Rickles, didn't become a regular.)
For the second season, cancelled less than halfway through the 1993-94 season (only eight episodes were produced), the format was revamped with the comic book company part of the cast jettisoned entirely while the at-home cast remained. On the new show, AmCanTranConComCo is sold to a comic books-hating millionaire who fires everybody, and Bob goes to work for Sylvia Schmitt (Betty White, in a recurring "guest star" role), who now runs Bob's old greeting card company. More workplace characters are introduced, including Sylvia's obnoxious son Pete (Jere Burns, Dear John), sarcastic bookkeeper Chris (Megan Cavanagh), and beefy factory worker Whitney (Eric Allan Kramer; both he and Cavanagh appeared in Robin Hood - Men in Tights around this same time).
As a series, Bob starts out on pretty shaky ground, with Newhart's immaculate comic timing the whole show. Gradually though, Bob slowly gets better with the home life material improving a good half-season before the at-work material does.
The show has several problems. Dropping Newhart's familiar persona into the world of comic books is a pretty bright idea; just imagine Bob reacting to guests at a fan convention, for instance. But just like Hollywood shows about Hollywood, the comic book business as depicted in Bob has zero air of authenticity, especially in terms of Bob's unappealing co-workers, generic sitcom types who might just as well be plumbers.
On The Bob Newhart Show, Bob's receptionist and business associates were recognizable human characters, as was his wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), while psychologist Bob's patients were wild eccentrics, though their problems were likewise recognizably human. On Newhart, most of the show's characters were bizarre and even surreal. The unreality of Newhart, epitomized by that show's justly famous final episode (especially its startlingly funny final gag), was the whole point.
With Bob, however, the writers replace eccentricity with cynicism and it doesn't work. Where on Newhart's older shows characters blithely lived in their own little worlds (prompting Newhart's funny reactions), on Bob they impose themselves on him, and he reacts to being put upon. Instead of responding to socially awkward situations, in Bob Bob spends a lot of time trying to minimize the damage.
And yet Bob does improve with each show, albeit not enough or fast enough to save it when it was new. And Newhart is as funny as always. His pregnant pauses and deadpan delivery are laugh-out-loud funny at least once or twice in every show, even when the other 20 or so minutes disappoint.
Bob - Take 2
Video & Audio
Bob was one of the typical '90s shows shot on film but then edited on tape, resulting in a smeary, soft, video-looking image that's not an asset. The 33 shows are presented across four discs, with up to nine 4:3 shows per single-sided disc. Shows are in Dolby Stereo with optional SDH English subtitles, and the discs are region 1 encoded.
As noted above, supplements include Entertainment Tonight segments about the show featuring Newhart, Betty White, Dick Martin, and Tom Poston. Also included is a step-frame version of Mad-Dog comics, issue #1, though it doesn't much resemble the character as presented on the series.
Not up to the level of The Bob Newhart Show or Newhart but still interesting and undeserving of its premature cancellation, Bob is worth the second look the DVD format affords. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.