Thursday, May 18, 2006

Crawling Toward the Funny

I've been making my way through Season 3 of "The Bob Newhart Show," and it once again confirms my belief that this was one show that took a long time to get really good.

I've said this in earlier posts, but "The Bob Newhart Show" seemed to improve in quality with the decreased involvement of its creators, Dave Davis and Lorenzo Music, and the increased involvement of two young writers, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. Music and Davis, fine writers both (the late Lorenzo Music was also of course a fine performer whose voice is familiar to us as Carlton on "Rhoda" and Garfield the cat), turned out a show that was generally in the style of the early (and less-funny) "Mary Tyler Moore Show:" friendly, warm, pleasant, and really not all that interesting a lot of the time. The exceptions were usually the episodes written by Patchett and Tarses, and in season 3, with Music and Davis off running the new "Rhoda" spinoff, Patchett and Tarses more or less took over running the show.

That doesn't mean, however, that the show got funnier instantly. It certainly kicks it up a notch in season 3, with more episodes focusing on Bob Hartley's crazy patients, but there's still a sense of creeping blandness about a lot of the comedy, with uneventful plot resolutions, a certain sameness to a lot of the staging ("How often can you get Bob over from the table to the couch?" Tarses once fumed) and a continued failure to make the Peter Bonerz character, Jerry, in any way interesting. (Patchett and Tarses had come close to finding a hook for Jerry in a season 2 episode where he confessed to being in love with Bob's wife Emily, but unfortunately this didn't last beyond that particular episode.) The show improves throughout the season, but it finally hits its stride in the Patchett-Tarses season finale, "The Ceiling Hits Bob," where the ceiling of Bob's office caves in and Bob is forced to conduct his sessions in different places (his apartment, Jerry's office, the elevator) while also getting increasingly annoyed with the other people in his life. This episode brings in all the things we hadn't really seen in the Music/Davis version of the show: a faster pace, darker humour, and a sense that Bob Hartley is really, really cheesed off at having to deal with these people every day. And that's the tone that Patchett and Tarses would carry into the best seasons of the show, seasons 4 and 5.

The sense I get from Patchett and Tarses's conception of "Bob Newhart" -- and this probably comes mostly from Tarses -- is that Bob Hartley isn't really a particularly nice or likable guy. He's repressed, cold, unforgiving of people's faults, and not always pleasant to be around. (From a season 5 episode where Bob and Emily accidentally get locked in a meat locker -- Emily: "Let's pass the time by telling riddles." Bob: "Okay, here's one -- why did the moron lock herself and her husband in the meat locker?") The most famous episode from season 4, "Over the River and Through the Woods" -- aka the Moo Goo Gai Pan episode -- features Bob and his friends spending the Thanksgiving holiday sitting around and getting drunk; it's quite pathetic if you think about it, but pathetic situations make for good comedy, and besides, Newhart does one of the best drunk acts in the business:

And a year or so before "Mary Tyler Moore" did their famous "bizarre death" episode ("Chuckles Bites the Dust"), Patchett and Tarses wrote a similar episode for "Bob Newhart," in which a member of Bob's group dies after a truckload of zucchini falls on him. Like a lot of good TV episodes, this came partly out of necessity -- the guy who played Mr. Gianelli, Noam Pitlik, had quit acting to become a director for "Barney Miller" -- but the Patchett/Tarses script is just about the darkest humour in a sitcom up to that time:

Patchett and Tarses left "Bob Newhart" after season 5 -- in fact, it was supposed to end after season 5, but Newhart decided at the last minute to come back for one more year -- and the final season (with Glen and Les Charles supervising the writing) is good but not great, so for a "classic" show, "Bob Newhart" doesn't necessarily have a lot of really first-rate seasons. The two it had, though, were quite good and gave some teeth to the MTM school of comedy.

No "Bob Newhart" post of mine is complete without some more stories about Jay Tarses, the sitcom writer who seemed to want to destroy the sitcom form from within; the man who wrote for women characters with unusual sympathy and understanding while greetiing new women writers with the salutation "Great tits," and the guy who hated laugh tracks so much that a friend described him as having a vendetta against laugh tracks. Here are two more Tarses anecdotes:

After Tarses and Patchett left "Bob Newhart," they created a new show for MTM called "We've Got Each Other," about a working mom and a house-husband; when the show was cancelled, here's what Tarses had to say about the show he had created:

It was about two plain, homely people, and you just didn't care about them. If I were a network executive, I wouldn't have bought the show in the first place. I'm not even sure I would have watched it myself if I wasn't involved with it. I have better things to do with my time.

And when Patchett and Tarses were doing "Buffalo Bill," and their partnership was falling apart (they would split up after the show ended, with Tarses going on to more experimental shows like "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" and Patchett creating the more commercial "Alf"), Tarses changed the answering machine message in his office to: "Hi, this is Jay Tarses. If you're looking for Tom Patchett, he's not here, and he'll never be here."


Michael Rebain said...

I may have been the one person who loved "We've Got Each Other". I always loved anything that Oliver Clark did and Beverly Archer in her pre-Momma/Iola days was also good in this show. And Tom Poston, Joan Van Ark and Martin Kove in the cast: a veritable treasure trove of 80s TV favorites! I recall laughing at the fabulous Gutman catalog of improbable items like the Book on a Wire (You wore it around your neck to allow you to read while walking. Unfortunately, folks reading War and Peace might get their head cut off) Part of the fall 1977 Saturday line up on CBS with Bob Newhart, the Jeffersons, Tony Randall's Philadelphia judge sitcom and Carol Burnett, it's too bad this show about two unattractive people didn't last long.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

No, I don't think you were the only person who loved "We've Got Each Other" -- even Tarses said it was a good show before he started trashing it.

"The Tony Randall Show" was also a Patchett-Tarses creation, though they left the show after the first of its two seasons. (The second season was run by two young writers Patchett and Tarses had brought to MTM, Hugh Wilson and Gary David Goldberg.)

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gianelli's death actually preceded that of Chuckles by only a month, not a year. Death of a Fruitman was broadcast in late September 1975, followed by Chuckles Bites the Dust in late October 1975.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

You're quite right, of course. Sorry.

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

My mother's favorite character was Mr. Carlin (played by Jack Riley), and I still remember that one of Mr. Carlin's Problems-of-the-Week was indecision, to the point that when two elevators arrived at the same time on Bob's floor, he missed both of them---couldn't decide which of them to get on. A very funny moment.

Jack Riley also shows up in "Night Court" as Beepo the Clown.

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Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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