Newhart’s weird and forgotten first season comes to DVD.
“You should really wear more sweaters,” said Bob Newhart. This, everybody remembers. And that’s understandable, given that the line is taken from the last episode of Newhart, which is arguably the best-remembered series finale in TV history and is certainly the most surprising finale ever. (Seriously, who didn’t think the Korean War would end in the finale of M*A*S*H?)
What’s less well recalled is the first season of Newhart — and with good reason. The show made an awkward debut in 1982. Partly, this was because the show’s star, Bob Newhart, was a victim of his own success. The cultishly popular The Bob Newhart Show had gone off the air just five years before Newhart came on, and legions of fans of Dr. Robert Hartley weren’t exactly ready to see him as a self-help author running an inn in Vermont. Who is this Joanna Loudon with the fuzzy sweaters? they asked. Where is Emily?
It didn’t help that the show also suffered on technical grounds. The first season of Newhart was shot on videotape, a cheesy, brightly lit format more suited to capturing Mama’s Family and kids’ birthday parties than it is to showcasing the talents of a comic who is already a TV icon. After all, Newhart and Newhart both based their humor on over-the-top subtleness — pitting a world of wackos versus an excessively normal, buttoned-down straight man. The funny thing is, Newhart himself knew the medium of videotape was wrong for him. A few years after Newhart’s memorable finale, he told Charlie Rose that videotape is the right choice only if the show is about “big, sketchy Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason jokes,” which Newhart was not. So the move to film had made sense. “Film is a softer look, and it’s a different kind of humor,” Newhart told Rose. “[On film,] you do character jokes that evolve.”
Which is not to say Newhart wasn’t funny in its first 22 episodes; it certainly was. Everything that would sustain the show for its eight-year run was already in place, even if it all looked a little awkward. There was the TV producer who constantly spoke in alliteration, the stuck-up heiress, the stuck-in-his-ways handyman, a bunch of crazy townspeople, and Dick Loudon, the stammering owner of the Stratford Inn, who couldn’t get a moment’s rest in peaceful Vermont.
The show also had a couple of things that would not sustain it — namely, Leslie Vanderkellen , the original, hardworking maid. She was shown the door in season two to make room for that stuck-up heiress, her cousin Stephanie. Also, Kirk Devane , the compulsive liar who owned the Minuteman Café, next door to the Stratford Inn, was phased out as a regular after the first season. In the best trade since the Minnesota Vikings gave their entire team to the Dallas Cowboys for running back Herschel Walker, Kirk was swapped for the new café owners — a trio of woodsmen named Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
But as important as those changes were in making Newhart one of the most beloved sitcoms in history, the real key to the show, Newhart himself, never wavered. No one has played frustrated and befuddled better. And few sitcom stars have ever so willingly shared the jokes. That quiet brand of comedy — now 26 years after Newhart’s debut — is the thing most worth remembering.
— Joseph Guinto
How big a FOB (Fan of Bob) are you?
Take this quiz and find out. By John Ross
Match the name of the actor to the name of the character he or she played. To make it extra hard (and since the series eventually overlapped), we’ve also included characters and actors from The Bob Newhart Show. So, for extra credit, name the show to which each actor/ character pair belongs. Warning: Some actors and characters may have more than one match.
1. Tony Papenfuss A. Arthur Vanderkellen
2. Steven Kampmann B. Harley Estin
3. Florida Friebus C. Lillian Bakerman
4. Tom Poston D. Cliff Murdock
5. John Voldstad E. Darryl
6. Peter Bonerz F. Kirk Devane
7. José Ferrer G. George Utley
8. Bobby Ramsen H. Jerry Robinson
9. Jeff Doucette I. Johnny Carson Jr.
ANSWERS: 1. E (Newhart), 2. F (Newhart), 3. C (The Bob Newhart Show), 4. G and D (Newhart and The Bob Newhart Show), 5. E (the “other brother Darryl,” Newhart), 6. H (The Bob Newhart Show), 7. A (Newhart), 8. I (The Bob Newhart Show), 9. B (Newhart)
Three new releaseswill have you thinking, if not speaking, in French. By John Ross
MOVIE: The Duchess of Langeais
This movie is based ona work by French literary icon Honoré de Balzac and is all about the troubledgoings-on of the upper crust — specifically, in this case, the goings-on of1820s Paris, which was abuzz with the restoration of the Bourbon dynasty to thethrone. And what’s a restoration without galas and a duchess with love-lifeproblems?
PEOPLE YOU’LL RECOGNIZE: Unless you’re a big fan of French cinema, you’re not likely torecognize Jeanne Balibar — who plays Antoinette de Langeais — as having beenone of the stars of Ça ira mieux demain, nor will you have heard her song “Johnny Guitar.” But you might wonder why the guy who’s playing Armand de Montriveau looks kind of like a younger Gérard Depardieu. Answer: Because he’s Guillaume Depardieu, Gérard’s son.
WHEN TO SEE IT: Out in limited releaseFebruary 22.
BOOK: Wartime Writings: 1943–1949, Marguerite Duras (The New Press, $27)
This book was compiledfrom personal notebooks that Duras kept at her home in the French countryside. Thisis the first time those notebooks have been translated into English, and theyreveal the stories behind Duras’s best-known works, including her partly autobiographical novel, The Lover, which tells of her troubled upbringing in Southeast Asia during the French colonial period.
WHEN TO GET IT: March 1.
MUSIC: Bippp: French Synth-Wave 1979/85
French synth-wave was the sound of post-disco
WHEN TO GET IT: In stores now.