'The Bob Newhart Show,' 40 Years Later: An Oral History of TV's Game-Changing Comedy

Cast, creators and celebrity admirers including Judd Apatow, Rosie O'Donnell, Jimmy Fallon, Sarah Silverman and Conan O'Brien reflect on the iconic show's origins, its impact on television and comedy, 40 years after its series finale.
"The Bob Newhart Show" ended its six-season, 142-episode run on CBS on April 1, 1978.

As much as comedians today owe a debt of gratitude to Bob Newhart's button-downed mind and razor-sharp timing, so too must TV comedy shows pay homage to CBS' The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78) for reinventing the sitcom.

"I think we all were influenced by it," writer and comedian Judd Apatow says. "It was very different than what we had seen before it."

The Bob Newhart Show — which earned two comedy series Emmy nominations during its run — was based on the reactionary humor Newhart had perfected in nightclubs. In so doing, it created the blueprint for such comedies as Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Roseanne.

"The key to building a show around a stand-up is maintaining the integrity of the persona you create," Newhart tells The Hollywood Reporter. Longtime Newhart fan Conan O'Brien agrees. "Bob's not finding himself on TV. He knows exactly who he is."

The show, in which Newhart starred as Dr. Robert Hartley, a put-upon psychiatrist as he dealt with his wife, friends and colleagues/patients, also gave rise to finding humor in the subtleties of everyday life, a motif that comedians today and shows including Modern Family and The Office have used with great success. Series creators Dave Davis and Lorenzo Music never overplayed their hands with hijinks. They grounded themselves in reality. "Bob's an everyday guy dealing with the same obstacles we all face from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep," says comedian Steven Wright.

At its core, the show's just funny. "The secret is Bob. We'd never had a protagonist like him, someone who felt like an everyman," comedian-actor Bob Saget suggests. "He was sitcom's Henry Fonda."

Forty years after ending its successful six-season run on CBS, The Bob Newhart Show remains as entertaining today as it did then. To celebrate this month's 40th anniversary of the series finale, The Hollywood Reporter goes behind the scenes of this intelligent and sharp comedy, as told by the people who were there and the celebrities who were influenced by it.

How did the show come together?

Dave Davis (series co-creator/producer/writer): Lorenzo and I wrote a segment for Bob on Love American Style. Bob wasn't available. So, we got Sid Caesar. A few years later, we did a script for Bob for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, Bob wasn't available. After we became story editors on Mary's show, MTM Enterprises decided to branch out and asked Lorenzo and me to do a pilot. We knew exactly what we wanted to do. We wanted a show with Bob.

Newhart: I'd worked with Lorenzo on the Smothers Brothers. So, I kept in contact and did a TV movie with him. And then he partnered with Dave on Mary's show.

Allan Burns (co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show): Dave asked me if I'd talk to Grant Tinker (co-founder of MTM) and see if he could get Bob to do it. Bob was reluctant to do a TV comedy. He felt comfortable with his stand-up, but not with being an actor and the hours it required. Plus, he'd done a short-lived variety show several years before and wasn't particularly pleased with the results.

How did you convince him?

Burns: Grant and I went to Bob's house and spent a couple of hours with him. I thought he'd never say yes. But Grant had this way of inclusiveness and support that was wonderful. He just gave Bob the confidence to go out and try it again. By the time we left I thought, "We've got a shot."

Newhart: Arthur Price (co-founder of MTM) was my manager. He asked me if I was interested. For 12 years I'd been on the road doing stand-up, mostly one-night shows where the next day you're off somewhere 5,300 miles away. I wanted a normal life where I could be home with my family.

Rosie O'Donnell (actor-comedian): The Bob Newhart Show has a very defining place in my childhood. It was the first show that my siblings and I hid on the stairs to watch. It wasn't because of the theme. It was that my parents didn't want their kids interrupting them. So, we had to be in bed before Bob. But we'd sneak downstairs and peek at the TV. We'd try to figure out what was going on by listening and being quiet.

Where did the show's premise come from?

Newhart: I didn't have a lot of demands. I just didn't want the show to be where dad's a dolt that everyone loves, who gets himself into a pickle and then the wife and kids huddle together to get him out of it.

Davis: Lorenzo and I had several ideas. One was a school principal, another was Bob in the Army. Nothing seemed to work.

Newhart: I'm a listener and I react to what people say. We needed a profession that suited that.

Davis: Then we came up with a psychologist. I was in therapy at the time and knew the format very well.

Tom Patchett (writer-producer): Dave and Lorenzo's description of the show was, "No one's going to be hiding in the closet." They weren't going to do the farcical stuff, sight gags or old burlesque.

Jay Tarses (writer-producer): There wasn't any slapstick, no slipping on banana peels. It was satirical, verbal humor with Bob talking to people in silly, awkward situations.

Charlotte Brown (writer): The overriding thing at MTM was it was a writer's company that greatly respected the written word.

What made you decide to make the Hartley's childless?

Davis: We wanted to work the marriage. If they had kids, it would have been a show that you'd seen. So, in the pilot, we had Emily trying to get pregnant and then wanting to adopt. The last scene is an interview with a lady from the adoption agency. She tells them they'll be put on a list but will have to wait nine months. Bob says, "You could have a baby in nine months." They never did. We just dropped it.

Michael Zinberg (writer/producer/director): At the end of season five, there was a script in which Emily (co-star Suzanne Pleshette) gets pregnant. Bob calls me and says, "I just read the script." And I say, "Good." He says, "Yeah, it's very funny." I say, "I'm glad you like it." He says, "Who's going to play Bob?" It was his gentle way of telling me we're not doing that show.

O'Brien: You could make the argument that all great shows are about a family. The Simpsons, as frenetic and multilayered as it is, is essentially about a family. Whether you like Gilligan's Island or not, it's about a family. I think The Bob Newhart Show is about a family with Bob at the center of it. He has his wife and a family of people at work and he's this stable core. He's a paternal figure who didn't need to have children because his patients and Howard were his children.

What was the original pilot like?

Davis: We pitched Bob as a psychologist in partnership with Jerry (Peter Bonerz). We couldn't say "psychologist" though. We had to say personal counselor because the networks were nervous about mental health. Bob's practice was about getting in touch with your feelings. Jerry was avant garde, touchy-feely. He had pillows on the floor. They shared a waiting room together and didn't have a secretary.

What did the network think?

Davis: This CBS executive called Lorenzo and me at the office and said the show looked good and that they only had two caveats. First, he asked if Bob had to live in a condo. Lorenzo said the executive thought a condominium was something you put in your wallet. It's preposterous to think about now. Second, he asked if Bob had to be a psychologist. Grant fought to keep that. He said, "This is what it's going to be."

Why did you change Jerry to an orthodontist?

Davis: The network said it wanted to make Jerry more likable. We figured that if he was an orthodontist, he'd be with kids and we could have a medical floor with his office and Bob's. Allan suggested we add the set with elevators that could provide entrances and exits on a dime with Marcia Wallace [who played Carol Kester, the receptionist] in the middle. We also added Bob's office. We made it warm, like my therapist's office. In fact, one of the paintings in the office comes from my therapist's wife.

Judd Apatow: When I was a kid, that show was on all the time. They reran the hell out of it. I remember that as a child of divorce, it made me happy that these two people really loved each other. His wife was super smart, tough and funny in a sometimes-challenging way to him. It wasn't a shallow 1950s TV couple. There was something very modern and sophisticated about it.

How did you find Suzanne Pleshette?

Davis: Lorenzo saw her on The Tonight Show.

Newhart: Arthur called me the next day and said, "I think I found your wife." I said, "I didn't know she was missing." He said, "No, no, no. Suzanne Pleshette. I think she'd be a great foil." I didn't know if Suzie wanted to do television, so I called her. It turned out she was pregnant and TV was exactly what she wanted to do, to get off the road.

Zinberg: They had wonderful chemistry. It was a great on-screen, off-screen relationship.

Patchett: She made Bob seem cute and attractive. She brought out an adorability factor in him.

Newhart: Suzie and I had a great relationship. Those things are hard to find. Later, when I was doing Newhart, I told Mary Frann [who played his wife], "You have a really tough job because they're going to think of my wife as Suzie."

And Bill Daily (who played their neighbor, Howard Borden)?

Davis: Bill had done a pilot for MTM, a spinoff from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where he played a councilman. It didn't go, but he tested well. We thought we could use him as a neighbor. We named him 'Borden' after Borden Milk. We made him a navigator because we needed an excuse as to why Howard's always coming and going. We found out navigators were on charter flights. It was funny that he always seemed to get lost.

Zinberg: You never knew which show Bill was going to give you lines from. Sometimes it'd be the show on stage, sometimes one we'd already shot or one that came out of the clear blue sky. That was Billy.

Tarses: He'd move his fingers when he didn't know his lines. It was funny when it happened. Sometimes we'd be able to leave what he said in the show and sometimes someone laughed and we had to stop.

Patchett: Bill was totally unaware of how he came off. I asked him once, "Where'd you come up with that silly walk?" He said, "What are you talking about?" I said, "The way you lope into the room like a giraffe." He said, "That's my walk."

And Peter Bonerz?

Davis: Peter had made an underground movie, Funnyman. We thought he was brilliant. We didn't have a second choice.

Bonerz: I thought if I signed up for this, I'd be committing myself to the life of a TV actor because in those days, there was a bifurcation between TV and film. I was a family guy with two young sons and we wanted to establish ourselves in L.A., so the TV episodic world appealed.

What about Marcia Wallace?

Newhart: CBS chairman Bill Paley and his wife saw the pilot. They'd just seen Marcia on The Merv Griffin Show and thought she'd be a good addition as a receptionist.

Brown: I loved that Marcia brought some of her insecurities into Carol, like really wanting to be in a committed relationship. At one time, we toyed with getting Marcia and Jerry together, but they were more like brother and sister the way they were sarcastic with each other.

Bob Odenkirk (actor-comedian): The silliness of the show is a big part of my humor. It really affected me. Bob's simple, direct and low-key delivery helps you see and enjoy the craziness of the characters around him. It's a masterful formula that they built around him and he's the perfect voice at the center of it. As a stand-up or solo performer, I don't have anything like his ability to pull off conceptual humor in a very congenial way and sell it to a mainstream audience, but I certainly have tried.

The idea of group therapy on a TV show, let alone a sitcom, was revolutionary.

Burns: I'd never even heard of it.

Davis: I was in group therapy so I knew what it was. It was a natural.

Tarses: It was a chance to write funny stuff for good satirical sketch actors. We brought in a second group because the first one was so fun to work with.

Bonerz: If you take four, five or six people who can be funny together, you lose sight of the fact that they're sick. It was a great idea. It took some of the joke-telling weight off Bob.

Zinberg: We were the first show that portrayed a psychologist dealing with patients with real problems. That it happened to be funny and the characters' realism made it special.

Where did Bob's regular patient Mr. Carlin (Jack Riley) come from?

Davis: He was based on a person in my therapy group who was a professional member of the group. He'd sit in a chair and rock back and forth. He was almost like a therapist himself in that he knew so much about it.

Zinberg: What was great about Mr. Carlin's character was he'd say the most ridiculous things and because Jack was such a good actor, you believed him. There's this great line when he looks at Bob and says, "I don't know Dr. Hartley, last night I was possessed by the devil." Newhart's reaction was wonderful.

Tarses: Jack underplayed everything. Mr. Carlin was very low-key, a troubled individual with a dry delivery who never smiled. That was what was funny about him.

Sarah Silverman (actress-writer-producer): The Bob Newhart Show was that perfect frame for Bob's unique, subdued yet hilarious, singular talent. But it was also an unparalleled outlet for so many brilliant character actors, like Jack Riley and countless others.

Your show has one of the most iconic openings. Where'd it come from?

Davis: Lorenzo and his wife, Henrietta, wrote the theme. We wanted it to sound like the band, Chicago, but never quite got there.

Apatow: It's one of the most kick-ass instrumental songs in television history. It kicks in so hard and happy and then chills out. I always loved it.

Davis: I wanted it to be Bob on his way home. We scouted Chicago and picked the most photogenic sections and interesting camera angles. There's a shot of him in the train in which he takes off his hat and takes out his paper as the train pulls out. There's something very real about a business person going home, reading a paper.

O'Brien: TV openings in the '70s were there to blow you away. The Bob Newhart Show's opening is a guy coming home from work. Nothing happens. It's like a T.S. Eliot character from The Wasteland. He's got his raincoat on, he's survived another day and he's headed home. I thought that was a brilliant way to tell you as little up top as possible. It gave the show the freedom to be whatever it was going to be on that given night.

Tinker said that you don't really get Bob until you get a live audience.

Brown: You could say he didn't like rehearsal a lot. But that isn't it. It's that he got it. What's the point of overworking if he gets it the first time? And he would go so much further on show night. It was fascinating to watch what he could do.

Newhart: The background of stand-up is when I sit down on Monday for a reading and there's a great line, I want to do it that night. I don't want to wait until Friday. I was afraid we'd over-rehearse it and it would lose that immediacy.

Zinberg: The hardest thing to do on a show like ours is remember lines. The script's changing right up to the last day. Bob and Suzanne would tape lines to the back of cereal boxes, on magazines, on his desk. Hiding lines was an art form.

Newhart: We'd read the script and I'd say to myself, "I know where I can put that and that," so all I really have to learn are these three pages. Actors are famous for that. Brando did it. We tried an ear piece, but it was read by an assistant director and he was totally emotionless. There was no spark to his voice so it didn't work.

Saget: The way they wrote the show was, how would this make every person feel? How would they react to it? That's the key to great comedy. You have a guy that so many people could relate to, the situation and his reactions. He was our eyes and ears. We saw his world through him.

One of everyone's favorite episodes is "Death Be My Destiny," in which Bob almost dies in an elevator shaft.

Zinberg: We had to design an elevator that looked real, which took some creative juice to figure out. That scene of him going to the elevator while talking to Carol and jumping onto the elevator cable was terrific.

Newhart:The illusion was I was going to fall 20 floors, but the audience knew. There was a great reaction to it because they were in on it. That was a great piece of cinematography.

Patchett: Later, Bob's trying to deny his fear of elevators and tells Jerry, "If death were to look me in the face, I'd laugh." The elevator doors open and I'm standing there, in the elevator, dressed in black like the grim reaper. The audience laughed for 30 seconds. I say, "There's room for one more." Bob turns around and flees into his office.

Another favorite is about an IQ test.

Newhart: A great piece of writing. It allowed me to play what I'm good at, this kind of miffed, contained anger.

Brown: Emily's administering IQ tests at her school and wants to practice on Bob. As it turns out, she scores much higher than him and gets invited to join a high IQ club. Bob attends a meeting with her as her "plus one." His nose gets out of joint about it.

Patchett: I approach Bob and Emily at the meeting as a guy who can talk backwards. She tells me her name is Emily Hartley and I say "Ylime Yeltrah." Then I turn to Bob and say, "And you're…" Bob stutters and says, "Bob." There's this awkward silence and I say, "Well that's about all we can do with that one, isn't it?"

Brown: At Lorenzo's memorial, Bob repeated an argument with Emily from the episode in which he says: "A perfect marriage is when a husband and wife have the same IQ. Next to perfect's when the husband's is higher than the wife's. Third is when the wife's is one point higher than the husband. And the fourth, which is us, which is the worst, is when the wife's is 151 and the husband's is 129, which is a difference of uh … uhm …" He can't figure it out and she says, "22."

Jimmy Fallon (The Tonight Show host): You want to hug Bob when you see him because he was in your house growing up. He's such a part of my life. You feel like you know him. It's like he's a favorite family member. We had so many good memories together when I was a kid but he didn't know who I was.

What are some of your favorite moments?

O'Brien: I love the scene where Bob is talking to a ventriloquist with this dummy who tells Bob the dummy wants to speak to him alone.

Zinberg: The dummy looks at the ventriloquist and says, "I've outgrown the man creatively."

Newhart: Because the dummy's voice comes from the ventriloquist, I had to train myself to look at the dummy when it's talking.

Davis: Emily comes home from a tennis lesson and tells Bob her instructor has personal problems and so she gave him Bob's card. The instructor shows up at Bob's office in his tennis outfit, which he apologizes for. He's gorgeous. He then looks at Bob and explains how he's a womanizer. "You have no idea what it's like to be incredibly good looking." It was staged perfectly, with the look on Bob's face, when he pauses and says, "I suppose not."

Newhart: I worked with a group of parolees. One of the guys couldn't cut it on the outside, so he stages a holdup at our apartment. We put our hands up against the wall. Howard walks in and rushes over to help because he thinks we're trying to keep the wall from falling.

O'Brien: Howard throws a bicentennial party and he and Jerry end up wearing the same Uncle Sam outfit. Jerry comments that the store said they only rented one. And Howard says, "I didn't rent this, I own it." He just owns this stupid thing. I talked to Bob about that line. It still makes both of us laugh.

Newhart: That was so Howard. What possible reason would there be to buy one? You may have four or five occasions in your life to wear it. And he's upset that Jerry thought that it was rented.

Wright: John Cleese talks about imagining a man in a room dressing up as a woman with the door open. When someone sees him, it's hilarious because they're seeing the guy. The Bob Newhart Show had a lot of that. Some weird thing would happen and the humor was Bob's reaction to it, which is a whole different way of being funny than commenting on the insanity.

How did the writers come up with ideas?

Zinberg: The goal was always to put Bob in a situation that he could observe and then respond to.

Davis: We'd always try to get Bob a monologue where he could tell a story to relate to whatever was happening on that episode. That became the, "Emily, sit down" moment.

Patchett: We played with titles. Our longest one was "Bob Has to Have His Tonsils Out, So He Spends Christmas Eve in the Hospital." We wanted to do a Christmas show but not a traditional one, so we said, "Let's put him in the hospital." Sometimes the tail wags the dog.

Tarses: A lot of ideas were inadvertent. Like the way we came up with Bob's phone calls. We'd play a lot of foosball and say things that were semi-funny and someone would write down stuff we were blithering about and then read it back to us and we'd hear something in there.

Patchett: We wrote the opening episode of the fourth season about Bob's two therapy groups going on hiatus together. Noam Pitlik, who played Mr. Gianelli, was an important person in the episode, but he bolted the series to take a director's job. To exact revenge we decided to kill Mr. Gianelli the next season. He gets crushed by a truckload of zucchini.

Tarses: We thought it was the most outrageous and funniest way. It's not like getting killed by cabbage.

Brown: Don't cross comedy writers. It'll always come back to you somehow.

Rita Rudner (comedian): The goofier the characters were around Bob, the funnier it made him. And he has that remarkable way of describing things and letting you come to the place where he was, instead of him going to get you and drag you to his place. I've always admired that.

Was it hard capturing Bob's voice?

Fallon: He didn't even have to speak. People would say their lines and you'd cut to Bob and he'd reset the rhythm again. It's brilliant. You just cut to his face and you laughed.

Tarses: You write the way you write but the way Bob sounds, with his stammer and idiosyncrasies.

Davis: Bob called it inverted sentences. In the first show, Emily's at home kneading chicken in a bowl for dinner. Bob comes home and asks her, "Would you take your hands out of the chicken. I want to tell you something." And Emily responds, "I can listen with my hands in chicken." Bob says, "This is the kind of news you don't want to have your hands in chicken to hear." That's inverting the sentence.

Patchett: If Bob said he didn't think a joke was going to work, we'd say of course it will. When he was right and the audience didn't laugh, his eyes would go to us and the only laughter you could hear was Jay and me responding to Bob's smirk, which was his way of saying, I told you.

Almost every show had a bedroom scene. Where did that come from?

Bonerz: That goes back to a radio comedy show, The Bickersons, with Don Ameche and Alice Faye. They spent almost the entire show in bed together, talking the way married couples do when the lights are off. Bob and Suzanne really responded to it.

Newhart: It filled out our relationship and the audience loved it. When we did the famous final Newhart episode and the audience saw the old bedroom, the set got applause. They didn't even know that Suzie and I were in bed. Inanimate objects don't usually get applause.

Henry Winkler (actor-director): One of the great lessons to learn is be who you are. People always ask me to define cool because I played a cool guy in Fonzie on Happy Days. The definition of cool is the definition of being successful is the definition of wonderful comedy. Be authentic. And Bob's definitely that.

You had a lot of famous stars like Raul Julia, Winkler and John Ritter at the beginning of their careers.

Brown: John Ritter was MTM's utility player. Not only was he cast in certain parts, but whenever somebody else failed at a part, like on a Wednesday, and we were shooting on Friday, you could call John and he'd come in and nail it. He was great that way and in many other ways.

Winkler: I'd just arrived in California. Suzanne took me out to dinner at Chasen's with her husband. She was just lovely and inclusive. Bob, however, was a little intimidating for me. Every time I looked over I kept thinking, "Oh my God, that's him."

Bonerz: Henry was new to Hollywood and his performance was a little big for Bob's office. I was directing that episode and I invited him to look in the camera while I sat on the couch and showed him the framing. I said that's the size of the performance that's going to be projected to the audience.

Winkler:Peter showed me that when you talk to another actor on camera, if you position yourself 50-50 to the camera and actor, you cut off half your body and face. If you're at a three-quarters angle, you can be on camera and relating to the scene at the same time. That's something I still use today.

O'Brien: My comedic religion is I want to make something that's still funny, on an elemental level, 30 years from now. That's the goal. I can fail a lot, but that's what I'm trying to do. That's why The Bob Newhart Show still resonates with me so much. It wasn't responding to Watergate or Vietnam. It was just being funny and observant about how odd people are. In that way, it's a show you could put in a time capsule and 200 years from now, people would still see the humor of it.

Why didn't Bob ever win an Emmy for this show or Newhart? (His first Emmy was for guest starring on CBS' The Big Bang Theory.)

Zinberg: We lived in the shadows of that Saturday night powerhouse CBS lineup — All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Carol Burnett Show. Bob and the show were nominated for a lot of awards but never won one and should have.
Odenkirk: He was the perfect voice at the center of a comedy. It doesn't get better. His simple, direct and low-key delivery helped you see and enjoy the craziness of the characters around him.  

Brown: It's an old cliché about something looking easy when someone has worked on it hard. Maybe that's why he got overlooked and has been so underappreciated as an actor.

What's the show's lasting imprint on television?

Zinberg: After the final episode, we had a big party in the scoring stage at the CBS Studio Center. About an hour into it, I decided to go to Stage 17 and give the set one more look. I walk in and see there's a crew already tearing it apart. Another show was coming in and they had to do a strike right away. I'm watching all these sets we used being taken down and thought, "That's OK. We all have to move on, but what a great run we had."

Brown: The legacy is if you want to see great character comedy, that's the show to watch. It's not controversial. It's the little engine that could there every week doing wonderful work that didn't always get noticed but should have.

Patchett: It holds up because it isn't just of its time. It's sharp and funny. That came from Lorenzo and Dave's concept and having the courage to take the show where they wanted it to go.

Apatow: It's one of the funniest, sweetest, human comedies of all time that allowed people to share their deepest problems in a way that was comedic and comforting.

O'Donnell: It was an ensemble of comedic actors who had gotten themselves artistically to a level where they were able to do what amounted to a successful brain surgery operation on television.

Bonerz: The most interesting thing about the show and why it's successful is that it brings up things that come up in your life. That's what art's supposed to do. That's what TV should be doing. When it does, people remember it and reflect how much they like it.

Newhart: I'm very proud of the show, the cast and the writing. Look at how long its lasted and how long people have enjoyed it. I run into people more and more who come up to me and say, "We used to sit as a family and watch your show." They look upon it as a wonderful time in their life. It's very real to them and an important part of their life. It's nice to be remembered that you made people laugh.

The Bob Newhart Show is currently streaming on Hulu. Newhart will be joined by former Newhart cast members Julia Duffy and William Sanderson for a behind-the-scenes look at his follow-up show on Thursday, April 26 at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. Details/tickets at PaleyCenter.orgTHR will have full coverage.