‘‘The Bob Newhart Show’’ concluded 40 years ago last month with neither a whimper nor a bang. In fact, there weren’t many whimpers or bangs during its six-year run. The show was reliable but never flashy, more Honda Accord than Pontiac Firebird. In its own way, it influenced decades of television comedy.
It ran from 1972 to 1978 Saturday nights on CBS, nestled among loudly progressive — and, in many ways, boldly political — shows: ‘‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show,’’ which had a single, working woman; ‘‘M.A.S.H.,’’ which aimed its biting satire at the horrors of war while Vietnam was still ongoing; and ‘‘All in the Family,’’ which took on divisive topics such as abortion, rape, and race.
‘‘The Bob Newhart Show’’ was different. Much like its lead actor, the show may have appeared, at first glance, to be unassuming and square. But a closer look revealed an almost silent subversion simmering beneath the surface, making it what Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, called ‘‘quietly revolutionary.’’
To wit: It was a workplace comedy that featured a childless married couple who, gasp, slept in the same bed. The show implied they had an active sex life, and they didn’t fall into the regular tropes of nagging wife or dumb husband. Newhart’s character, Dr. Bob Hartley, was a psychologist, and the show didn’t shy away from mental disorders such as manic depression. And it starred not an established actor but a stand-up comedian.
Still, ‘‘we kind of lived in the shadow of Mary [Tyler Moore], understandably,’’ Newhart told the Washington Post in a phone interview.
He asked CBS to move the show to a different night in hopes of gaining a larger viewership, but the network refused. Syndication became the show’s windfall, and one reason it’s endured for so long. (Newhart predicted as much — it’s why he was always so adamant about not including topical humor. ‘‘If we’re doing Gerald Ford jokes about him being clumsy, we’re going to look pretty silly when the show’s in syndication,’’ he said.)
The show is often cited by comics as an inspiration, and traces of its influence can be seen in contemporary sitcoms, particularly ones that aim for geniality, like ‘‘Modern Family,’’ ‘‘How I Met Your Mother,’’ and ‘‘The Big Bang Theory.’’
‘‘It was a show written for adults, but it wasn’t brash or cruel,’’ Steve O'Donnell, who served as head writer for both ‘‘Late Night With David Letterman’’ and ‘‘Jimmy Kimmel Live!,’’ told the Post.
At the heart of the sitcom was Newhart, who stepped away from a burgeoning career in stand-up in search of better hours.
‘‘I'd been doing stand-up for 12 years, and being on the road while having three kids,’’ he said. ‘‘I wanted a home life, and Arthur Price asked if I'd be interested in a situation comedy, and I said yeah. It would give me a normal life.’’
In today’s cultural landscape, earning a sitcom is one measure of success for a stand-up comic (see: ‘‘Seinfeld,’’ ‘‘Roseanne,’’ ‘‘and ‘‘Mulaney’’ — the list goes on). But at the time, it was nearly unheard of. Translating a stand-up’s ethos into a situation comedy hadn’t been attempted.
Newhart’s comedy — unlike that of his good friend, caustic comedian Don Rickles — was quiet, sly, and absurdist. It was never callous, and the adults at which it was aimed could comfortably watch his routine, and his show, with their children in earshot.
‘‘It was just good, kind, no-nonsense, mid-America comedy, turning things on its ear. It didn’t have that New York edge or that San Francisco hipness,’’ actor Fred Willard told the Post. ‘‘His comedy isn’t hard-edge, bang-bang comedy.’’
That uncommon tenderness wasn’t only in the show’s comedy, but baked into the relationships between its characters. Consider, for example, the marriage between Newhart’s character and Emily Hartley, played by Suzanne Pleshette.
‘‘It showed two people, a husband and wife, who loved and respected and challenged each other,’’ comedian Bonnie Hunt told the Post. ‘‘Even when they disagreed, they supported each other. That’s harder to write, because you had to have well-defined, three-dimensional characters for both the man and the wife.’’
‘‘That marriage, and those two smart people, I think that’s the first time I remember seeing it on television,’’ Hunt added.
In typical Newhart fashion, the show’s namesake doesn’t take much credit. ‘‘It was all about the writing,’’ he said. ‘‘The writers were brilliant. I just tried to get out of the way.’’ But others say his demeanor was the key ingredient.
‘‘He would give away the biggest and funniest lines to others. He would let other people have jokes,’’ O'Donnell said. ‘‘Somehow that generosity ended up creating a show that’s so much better and funnier than all other shows.’’
Newhart said he learned this from Jack Benny. Benny once told him a story in which he gave the best line of the night to another actor. When asked about it, Benny simply said, ‘‘Well, I'll be back next week.’’
‘‘That stuck with me,’’ Newhart said. ‘‘Let everybody be good. Because if you want this thing to last, it’s going to take everybody.’’
The result was a show that warmly seeped into people’s houses. That was Hunt’s experience, at least. She said Newhart remains a gold standard for her, and is one of the reasons she became an actress.
‘‘I feel so lucky to have grown up during a time when Bob Newhart and his show was on television,’’ Hunt said in a phone interview. She has ‘‘such profound memories of my parents loving that show so much,’’ and of watching their faces as they watched the screen on Saturday nights. The week’s problems, any tension or unhappiness, melted away as the TV flickered.
‘‘It was kind and full of love,’’ Hunt said. ‘‘And it’s very challenging to be funny with all those things in order and not to be gross or shocking.’’
That kindness was radical in its own, quiet way.
‘‘We took a chance, and it worked,’’ Newhart said.
But what Newhart takes the most pride in isn’t the barriers the show broke or the fact that it influenced so many comics. It’s the simple fact that it brought joy to people.
‘‘It’s very gratifying, when people come up to you, say, on a plane. Someone will say, ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but I just loved your show. And my dad and my mother and I would sit and watch the show, like a ritual,’ ’’ Newhart said.
‘‘They looked upon the show as a great time, and they would thank me,’’ he added. ‘‘I would just say, ‘Well, thank you, but I enjoyed making it just as much as you enjoyed watching it.’ ’’