(Pictured: Suzanne Pleshette and Bob Newhart banter at the Emmys in 2002. She died in 2008; he celebrated his 93rd birthday earlier this month.)
Fifty years ago tonight, on Saturday, September 16, 1972, The Bob Newhart Show premiered on CBS. It was in a comfortable slot, following The Mary Tyler Moore Show and preceding Mission: Impossible. (The Carol Burnett Show would not move to the 9PM Central timeslot until December of ’72.) I have been rewatching it lately, and it’s better than I remember. The show changed a lot between the pilot and the debut. The pilot aired as the ninth episode in November 1972 and it’s vastly different: Bob and Emily are trying to have a baby (something Newhart himself would veto later in the series’ run) and Emily is a ditzy sitcom wife, and not Bob’s intellectual equal, as she would become. The show that emerged afterward is a much better one. The first episode that aired is one of the series’ best-remembered: Emily joins Bob’s fear-of-flying group.
(Premiering on the same night as The Bob Newhart Show was Bridget Loves Bernie, a sitcom about newlyweds played by Meredith Baxter and David Birney, who later married in real life. She’s Catholic, he’s Jewish, and comedy flows from the clash of cultures. Slotted between All in the Family, the #1 show on television, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it became a smash hit. But Bridget Loves Bernie faced criticism from Jewish groups almost immediately, and one of them organized an advertiser boycott. Although it ended up #5 in the ratings for the entire 1972-1973 TV season, CBS canceled it. I have seen a couple of episodes of Bridget Loves Bernie in recent years but have not deliberately sought them out. My suspicion is that after all this time, what offended religious leaders in 1972 would look pretty tame now.)
The next night, on Sunday, September 17, 1972, another new show premiered on CBS: M*A*S*H. It aired at 7PM Central, between Anna and the King, with Yul Brynner in a sitcom adaptation of The King and I, and The Sandy Duncan Show, a retooled version of Duncan’s 1971 series Funny Face. I wonder if the CBS scheduling people understood what the network had bought. The first episode, in which the surgeons raffle off a trip to Tokyo with a nurse, is remarkably raunchy for its time; it would have presented a jarring contrast with Anna and the King‘s comedy of manners and Sandy Duncan’s wacky cuteness. The first three seasons of M*A*S*H are filled with the same dark, cutting comedy. Certain episodes from those seasons do a better job of conveying the meaning and meaninglessness of war than later, more acclaimed episodes that more consciously strove to do that. I have seen some of the earliest episodes 20 or 30 times, and the best of them still hold up.
(Earlier in the same week, CBS also premiered Maude and The Waltons. The network’s development department had a very good year in 1972.)
M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and The Carol Burnett Show are still running, on broadcast TV outlets, cable channels, and streamers, 40 years and more after leaving the air. (Maude and The Waltons too, although they’re a bit harder to find.) They are not merely old, but “classic.” Fans of each were part of a mass audience sharing a communal viewing experience that lasted several years, even after the shows left network air, and the shows and their characters still resonate today.
That doesn’t really happen anymore, and to the extent it does, it’s on a much smaller scale. There’s just too much TV now, and audiences are splintered. Nothing can achieve the mass audience that old-fashioned “classic” status requires. In the 70s, hit shows routinely attracted 20 million viewers or more. Last month, Better Call Saul had the most talked-about series finale of the last several years, but the talk translated to 2.7 million viewers. (Ask a random person at your office if they saw it. Odds are they didn’t.)
In the future, there will still be “old” shows, and they are likely to find a home on some streaming service years after they go out of production. But they will not be classic in the sense that we apply to many beloved shows of the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
10 thoughts on “Hi Bob”
The previous year’s rural purge freed up a lot of space on CBS’s schedule for more interesting programming.
Wonderful remembrance of a time for TV excellence that I remember well. When I did my book The Carol Burnett Show Companion, I got ahold of Fred Silverman to ask him why he moved the show from early Wednesday evening to Saturday after The Bob Newhart Show. Turns out the real reason was that The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was dying Friday nights opposite Sanford and Son at the same time the aging Mission: Impossible (in its 7th season) wasn’t really carrying over much of the audience for The Bob Newhart Show. Silverman could’ve switched the two properties alone, but he thought Sonny and Cher had a better shot if it inherited the Wednesday slot where The Carol Burnett Show blunted Adam-12 and The NBC Mystery Movie during the 1971-72 season. And previously The Carol Burnett Show had been a big ratings winner Monday nights before the late news, so Silverman felt confident her show would do just fine replacing Mission: Impossible Saturday nights. The result was that while Mission: Impossible died opposite Sanford and Son, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and The Carol Burnett Show flourished in their new periods. In fact, The Carol Burnett Show would spend the next four years following The Bob Newhart Show as both were top attractions on CBS.
And though you don’t mention it, after its disastrous first season in the ratings while getting critical hosannas, Silverman moved M*A*S*H to Saturday nights in the 1973-74 season after All in the Family to replace the mediocre Bridget Loves Bernie. M*A*S*H naturally flourished there, hitting #4 that season, and Newhart himself considered that year’s lineup of All in the Family-M*A*S*H-Mary Tyler Moore-Bob Newhart-Carol Burnett as the video equivalent of Murderers Row. Indeed, ABC’s lineup of The Partridge Family, The ABC Suspense Movie and Griff (replaced midseason by Owen Marshall: Counselor at Law) all bit the dust opposite this incredible comedy lineup, one of the all-time best.
Decades later, I think many people think that the classic CBS Saturday lineup with “M*A*S*H” lasted for several seasons, but it was just for that one, 1973-74. After “M*A*S*H” became a hit, CBS moved it to other nights. And the network kept trying new shows in that 8:30 Saturday slot; none made it beyond a season or even a half season, as I recall. Two that I can think of were “Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers” and “Doc.”
The Bob Newhart Show remains my favorite of the classic sitcoms.
My dad will be 92 in a few days, a year younger it turns out than Bob, who was in Korea the same time as my dad. Dad has a picture of their company (or whatever it’s called) and sure enough there’s Bob.
And speaking of Korea, M*A*S*H is a great show but like many overstayed its welcome. In fact, some friends and I used a shorthand to determine if we should watch it: in the opening credits if Mike Farrell has a mustache, skip it.
“And speaking of Korea, M*A*S*H is a great show but like many overstayed its welcome. In fact, some friends and I used a shorthand to determine if we should watch it: in the opening credits if Mike Farrell has a mustache, skip it.”
There’s so much debate about this. Personally I agree. The last few seasons are a bit preachy and hard to watch, but I’ve met plenty of people who love those seasons the best.
I’m currently reading an excellent book about the Mary Tyler Moore show. All of these shows existing at one time must have been a true embarrassment of riches. I was way too young to know of their existence, but I don’t ever recall another tv treasure trove like that in my lifetime.
The closest—and it’s subjective—would be NBC on Thursday nights:
1984-86: The Cosby Show/Family Ties/Cheers/Night Court/Hill St. Blues
This was a classic:
Emily: “What do mean, you were almost killed?”
Bob: “I was killed, but not quite.”
So many classics appearing at the same time. Pretty amazing.
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