Test Pilot: File #50, The Bob Newhart Show

Test Pilot #50: The Bob Newhart Show

Debut date: September 17, 1972 (series premiere); November 18, 1972 (this episode)

Series legacy: A very popular and generally well-respected member of the MTM stable

Number 50! Wow. Thanks to everyone who has co-wrote, read, RT’ed or commented on these pieces thus far. We have no intentions of stopping.

First impressions mean a lot in television, and that’s why writers, producers, studios, networks, etc. put more time, effort and money into pilots than they do just about any other episode that could possibly be made. Obviously though, not all pilots are good – most are just mediocre and many are terrible – but the ingredients for a successful series remain, bubbling beneath the surface. Some of television’s most curious cases see great series come from pretty tepid pilot episodes. In the next five Test Pilot entries, we will explore a few of these cases of Bad Pilot, Good Series and think about what important changes each series made from one step to the other.

We kick things off today with a discussion of The Bob Newhart Show. From the very beginning, he MTM-produced sitcom fit comfortably alongside Mary Tyler Moore on CBS’ powerful Saturday night line-up, as it ended its first season as the 16th-highest rated series on television. However, Newhart and his writing staff, led by David Davis and Lorenzo Music, thought so little of the pilot they shot to get CBS to take them to series that they buried it all the way down to ninth in the airing order. The fact that it even aired is kind of surprising.

Joining me today is David J. Loehr. He is the editor and artistic director of 2amt. He is also the artist-in-residence and co-founder of the Riverrun Theatre Company in Madison, Ind.  He writes a bi-weekly column on playwriting at TheatreFace.com, and is a regular contributor to Teevee.net.  His Idiot Boxing blog on TV is still out there, waiting for him to get tired of writing for and about theatre.  His work has been performed at the Capital Fringe Festival, Chicago Fringe Festival, Louisville Playwrights Festival, South Carolina Repertory Company, and Actors Theatre of Louisville.  You can follow him on Twitter as @dloehr. David, take it away:

Some of my earliest memories of television are watching that fabled CBS Saturday lineup of All in the Family, MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett. I was ridiculously young, and now as I let my own kids stay up way too late, I wonder what my family was thinking. But I’m glad they let me watch. From nature and nurture, I grew up with a fondness for Bob Newhart, Nichols & May, and Bob & Ray – an acknowledged influence of Newhart’s. (I’d go on, but that’s another post for another site.)

The original pilot for The Bob Newhart Show aired as the ninth episode of the series. In a list of episodes, it stands out with the title “P-I-L-O-T.” On watching the show in the order of airing, it stands out in many other ways. The first thing you notice is that the apartment is all wrong. It’s just weird and dark, but loud. I have a theory that certain television settings grow to feel like home to viewers – I feel that way about the WJM Newsroom, the 12th Precinct squad room, WKRP, the starship Enterprise. And I feel that way about Bob’s home and office. But the set is the least of it.

The story hinges on Bob’s desire to have a baby. It’s odd in retrospect because that’s not something that ever really came up again in the series. Newhart himself said he didn’t want to do a show that involved children. So it’s an odd choice to use this story to sell the network on the series, knowing that he wouldn’t go forward with such a storyline. Emily, his wife, is also a little more fragile than the eventual series version. If anything, she reminded me more of Laura Petrie than Emily Hartley, complete with a sobbing, “Oh, Bob!”

As the episode begins, Bob and Emily debate how much time they have before they absolutely have to get ready for work. Time for what? Time for the making of baby, as it were. Coy as it is, this was no doubt daring for 1972 network television.

Their morning routine is interrupted by a neighbor, but it’s not Howard Borden (Bill Daily). It’s Arthur Hoover (William Redfield), who would never appear again, even though his wife Margaret (Pat Smith) would appear through the first eleven episodes of the first season. (Redfield later returned as Howard’s brother, game warden Gordon Borden.) Unlike their eventual next door neighbor, Arthur is sharp although oblivious to the fact that Bob wants to get rid of him. Arthur wants to ask him questions, since Bob’s also the chairman of the condo association. He forces Bob to accept an invitation to a dinner party that night–“I’ll stand here until you say yes.” “YES!”

The condo association storyline is something else that would be revised out of the show between pilot and series. That’s a good thing, it would have been one too many situations to balance.

So Bob’s home life is vaguely similar to what it would become in the series – a younger-than-we’d-be-used-to Emily, oblivious neighbor, similar floor plan, similar view, though the apartment number is different. Coming between the eighth and ninth episodes – where the series is already pretty well established–this must have been like something from an alternate universe. His office life, on the other hand, is remarkably well-formed, the interactions and relationships so well-crafted they could fit almost anywhere in the series’ run.

As ever, Jerry Robinson, his dentist friend from down the hall, is distracted but wants to help. Bob points out that he’s a psychologist, she’s a teacher, they’d make perfect parents. “If you only had a kid,” replies Jerry. He suggests adoption, having been adopted himself. (This is a storyline that would come back years later.) Bob isn’t interested, no offense, but he’d like to try and have a baby with Emily before considering that. It’s a funny scene and good for character building, but it’s maybe a little too on the nose, too straightforward. For a pilot episode, that’s all right, it’s only jarring really if you’re watching in bulk to study the show.

The story shifts to the Hoovers’ dinner party, where Bob and Emily are surrounded by parents. Margaret is pregnant, no less. Bob and Emily admit they’ve been married for three years, still haven’t had children. One couple says three years, our first child was born eight months after we got married! (Again, racy for 1972, judging from the live audience.)  Arthur insists on Bob feeling her stomach. Here, we have another hallmark of the show: making Bob uncomfortable to play off of his reactions. He doesn’t want to, is tentative, then thrilled, then forgets he’s still touching as the conversation continues.

Before the dinner party conversation turns, Emily blurts out that she thinks they’re going to have a baby. Bob is shocked. When? “Tomorrow. As soon as the adoption agency opens.” The scene dissolves to their apartment as they enter, a clear case of post-party depression. He asks why she said that. “I felt left out.” He points out that it’s not a good reason to adopt to “having something to say at a party.” He’s not ready to go that far yet, he’d rather try to have a child themselves. To prove his point, he tells a story about building model airplanes, and how the finished models always looked great. Emily points out that those models were finished. Bob says she might be right, and anyway, when it came to building models, his brother always had to help. Again, risqué for network television, but witty and well played.

The next morning at work, Bob ushers Mr. Carlin out after their session. Again, like the rest of the work environment, he’s recognizably the same Elliot Carlin. Maybe a little milder – he’s working on how to be critical but polite – as Carol writes out an appointment card for him. “Have you ever seen such writing?” he asks, showing Bob. As it turns out, Bob can’t read it either. Nor can Carol. So the joke resolves with Carlin proven right. It’s a glimpse of what we’d see later. (Odd bit of trivia. I always think of Mr. Carlin and Mr. Peterson as Bob’s primary patients. Over six years, Carlin appeared in 62 episodes, Peterson in only 17. That surprised me.)

Bob decides to ask Jerry about adoptions, asks if he has a minute. He has 2 minutes and 43 seconds, he’s waiting for x-rays to develop. Bob tells him what’s going on, Jerry’s thrilled for him. He’s nervous about the adoption interview, concerned about whether or not they’re ready for a child, whether he’s ready to be a father. Jerry reassures him. “I want to tell you something as a friend. You know a lot about yourself, but I know a lot about you, too. Bob.“ His watch alarm goes off. X-rays. “Gotta run.”

The last sequence is back at home with the adoption interviewer (Louise Lasser). Bob is nervous about overdoing it and presenting a false impression – he’s trying to use his psychological training on her, but Emily notes that the interviewer had psychological training as well. The interview goes well, all things considered, though the most genuine moments between Bob and Emily are the ones the interviewer thinks are overdoing it. Even so, they pass. But there aren’t any babies available yet, it would take nine to twelve months at least. Cue the tears and the eventual “Oh, Bob!” Bob calms her down and all is well. Again, not really the Emily we’re used to.

The epilogue brings us back to Bob’s office. Jerry enters, apologizes for running out on his problem the day before, how’d the interview go? “First, how much time do you have?” Jerry’s alarm goes off. But he wants to hear Bob’s story. “Walk with me to the darkroom.” They exit the office as Bob starts telling about the night before, and with an uncertain laugh from the audience, the show just ends. No punchline, no button, just that.

Airing on top of episode eight – where Bob and Emily have a fight and refuse to go to sleep angry – this version of Emily is all wrong. She looks like Suzanne Pleshette, sounds like her, but it’s not the same person at all. Because the storyline is anchored by that relationship and the desire for a baby that would never happen, it just doesn’t fit. As a pure pilot episode, it’s odd in that – except for Bob – it doesn’t really play to any of the actors or the characters’ strengths.

Even there, it’s one of the few episodes of the series where Bob doesn’t use the telephone. If there’s one thing Bob Newhart was known for at the time, it was his telephone conversation routines. He’s described them as Bob & Ray routines where you only had half the team, and to his mind, the other side of the conversation was the funny half. The series would eventually use that – the actual first episode that aired started with a cold opening of Bob on the phone with a patient. In theory, this would have been a recurring thing much like Jim Rockford’s answering machine or the Simpsons’ weekly variations. As I recall, they dropped the idea as being too difficult to maintain. Still, in that episode, he has another one-sided phone conversation, as does Emily.

The first episode is almost like a new pilot. The home life is better developed, and we finally have Howard Borden on board. This story – Emily joins Bob’s fear-of-flying class on a trip to New York – introduces everyone efficiently, but develops their characters a little more thoroughly. Better yet, it utilizes Bob’s profession as psychologist more effectively through the fear-of-flying class, Emily’s admission of her fear, Bob bringing Howard in as a guest. The group session with Howard is a beautiful set piece of writing, with Bob announcing his guest is a navigator, Howard bursting in and apologizing for being late because he got lost. Turns out Howard’s fear is speaking in front of large groups. There’s a question and pause worthy of Jack Benny. And the scene builds from there through to the last shot of Bob and Howard on the elevator. Seriously, go to Hulu and watch it.

Howard as a man-child was all the child the Hartleys needed, and the show was better for it. In fact, at the end of the fifth season, when it looked like Bob was going to walk away from the series, the season finale was designed as a series finale. In it, Carol and Emily both got pregnant. At the last minute, when Bob decided to return for one more season, the story was revised to become a figment of Bob’s imagination. Even then, the series didn’t need children. (In retrospect, Dr. Bob Hartley must have an interesting imagination…)

It’s easy to see why the show was picked up from the pilot. It’s a smart show about (mostly) smart people, solidly in what would become the MTM Productions house style, with a slightly different tone to most of what was on at the time. And it was clearly a good companion to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But it’s a good thing they took the time to revise and develop before it went on the air. The Emily of the first episode is still a little more frail and fragile than the Emily we’d get to know, but she’s a far cry from the Emily of the pilot.

As it is, I’m carrying on the nature & nurturing, because my sons are hooked on the show now. Between reruns on Me-TV and owning the first four seasons on DVD, we’re good. (By the way, where are the last two season sets, Fox? Get on that.) Having watched more closely this week, it’s going to be interesting re-watching the series.

–DL

Thanks, David. And now my thoughts:

The circumstances of The Bob Newhart Show’s two pilots are different than what we will see throughout the rest of this theme. When we think of series with poor pilots that improve, the expectation is that those troublesome opening salvos actually opened up the series. We can then track the various improvements and see what worked and what did not. Later files like Parks and Recreation and Seinfeld embody this idea well.

The Bob Newhart Show, however, approaches this phenomenon a little backwards. The first episode that audiences saw back in the fall of 1972 is a rock-solid start. The characters are easily established, the jokes are in place and there is a quiet confidence to the entire affair. Like its MTM partner Mary Tyler Moore, The Bob Newhart Show begins well enough. The following few episodes improve on that initial episode’s promise and the series quickly found the correct rhythms and character calibrations.

And then, nine weeks in, The Bob Newhart Show airs an episode that feels like a massive regression, one that takes into a world where Bob suddenly cares a whole lot about having babies, Emily has less edge to her personality and even the sets seem off in weird ways. Turns out, this is actually the original pilot episode, the one that CBS saw when it decided to take The Bob Newhart Show to series. I cannot imagine how 1972 audiences, without the benefit of the internet and today’s intense focus on behind-the-scenes “news,” reacted to the November (sweeps?!) airing of this problematic pilot.

The airing of this episode slightly challenges our perceptions of how pilots and first seasons are supposed to work in today’s television world and frankly, it’s odd to me that the episode even aired at all considering the timing and how it clashes against so much of what came in the previous eight weeks.* However, watching a handful of the first eight episodes and this “real” pilot together allowed me to easily trace out the improvements the series made from the pilot stage onward.

*I hate to demonize or simplify the past, but you have to imagine that A.) CBS didn’t care and B.) Didn’t figure that audiences would notice – or mind if they did. I’d say that networks would be more aware of what kind of internet-enabled fury this could cause in 2012, and that this wouldn’t happen now, but you never know. People certainly would have complained on Twitter for a few hours, that is for sure.  

As I said, even the episode that actually aired first, “Fly the Unfriendly Skies,” is a better-executed version of what kind of series The Bob Newhart Show so clearly wanted to be. That’s not to say that “P-I-L-O-T” is out and out awful or anything. It is amiable throughout and amusing at times, but it also feels particularly…pilot-y. Clearly, that makes sense given the fact that it is the actual pilot. However, my perception of the episode was colored by seeing the opening three episodes first (as to emulate the 1972 viewer experience, because I care about truth and all that) and in that context, “P-I-L-O-T” plays with a lot more strain, especially on the plot level.

Although I have nothing against stories built around a couple having or wanting a baby, the version of that story on display in “P-I-L-O-T” is not a quality representation of it. I guess we don’t really need too much background on why someone would want a baby (especially on a CBS sitcom in 1972), but Bob’s desire mostly feels like a plot device more than anything else. He wants the baby because he wants it, and he wants it now(ish).

Sure, there’s universality in a story about having a baby and the tensions that come from that between a husband and a wife. Yet, the manner at which Bob and Emily’s discussions about the baby develop in “P-I-L-O-T” are scattered and lead to nowhere. Emily’s adoption announcement at the dinner party is awkwardly placed and doesn’t result in the laughs or tension I think the script was trying to create and much of the meeting with the adoption representative falls flat as well. And nothing comes from it anyway!

Watching “P-I-L-O-T,” it felt weird to me that Bob and Emily were suddenly discussing babies and Bob’s actions in particular were not totally in-line with what I had seen from the character in the first three episodes. This Bob isn’t a totally different person – he’s clearly still portrayed in Newhart-ian fashion – but this version is more of a stock sitcom character than his post-pilot iteration. And Emily simply isn’t the same, and ultimately, neither is the marriage (again, it feels quite typical).

As David so nicely discussed, it is flat-out odd that this episode is so baby crazy considering Newhart’s desire to avoid those kinds of stories altogether. The other episodes of the series that I watched were certainly more interested in adult (but mostly fun) minutia that allowed Newhart and his supporting cast to do their low-key humor thing. Those episodes – and the rest of the series, I’m assuming – were much more character-focused instead of so obviously plot-centric. That switch makes all the difference.  

Unlike some of the other series we will discuss later on that struggled to find what worked and what did not, it seems like Bob Newhart sort of already knew what kind of series he wanted to do, he just had to convince CBS that it was something slightly different to get them to pick it up. Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s not,* but it does seem that way once you watch a handful of Newhart Show episodes alongside this middling original pilot.

*I can’t imagine that CBS would have passed on picking up the series had “Fly the Unfriendly Skies” been the original pilot. They clearly allowed Newhart and his writing staff make the changes they wanted to make and gave the series a plum time-slot. So perhaps Newhart or the writers just changed their minds?

Ultimately, “P-I-L-O-T” and The Bob Newhart Show are great examples of how a television production can turn things around so quickly – particularly those with strong creative forces.

–CB

Conclusions on legacy: This episode (and the circumstances surrounding it) are super-odd; the series? Better. 

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2 thoughts on “Test Pilot: File #50, The Bob Newhart Show

  1. Newhart’s most notable exposure on television came from two long-running programs that centered on him. In 1972, soon after Newhart guest-starred on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour , he was approached by his agent and his managers, producer Grant Tinker and actress Mary Tyler Moore (the husband/wife team who founded MTM Enterprises ), to work on a pilot series called The Bob Newhart Show , to be written by Davis and Music. He was very interested in the starring role of dry psychologist Bob Hartley, with Suzanne Pleshette playing his wryly loving wife, Emily, and Bill Daily as neighbor and friend Howard Borden.

  2. From what I have read about this episode, the scenes with Jerry and Carol in the office, were insert shots book-ending the scenes from the original pilot film. In the original pilot, Jerry shares Bob’s office, and there is no Carol. Now that is the pilot I want to see!

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