Starring Bob Newhart, Carlene Watkins, Cynthia Stevenson, John Cygan, Andrew Bilgore, Timothy Fall
Pop quiz: suppose, as a network executive, you have a TV sitcom with a well-known star, great supporting cast, and clever scripts. It's not doing too bad in the ratings, either. What do you do?
Well, you certainly don't treat it like Bob.
This was Bob Newhart's return to TV after the triumph of the Newhart finale (well, except for a Bob Newhart Show reunion special that continued where Newhart left off -- one of the better reunion specials on the air). The concept was a good one: Bob McKay (Newhart, of course) was a comic book writer/illustrator and the creator of a failed superhero, Mad Dog. Years later, Mad Dog gets a revival, and Bob -- now working as an artist at a greeting card company -- is asked to help.
But there's a problem. Harlan Stone (a combination of Harlan Ellison and Frank Miller), is the new writer of the strip, and wants to darknight Mad Dog into the brooding, moody, haunted superhero who was the new style in the 90s. "We can unleash the beast and reveal the true Mad Dog-a tortured, maniacal vigilante!'' Stone exclaims. Bob wanted Mad Dog to be an older model -- truth, justice, that sort of thing. (Marvel Comics actually did a series of Mad Dog comics to tie in with the show.)
But that was only a part of the show. Newhart knew how to use a good supporting cast, and a lot of the fun involved Albie Lutz (Andrew Bigore) and Chad Pfefferle (Timothy Fall), twos slightly warped, low-level comic book geek employees. Cynthia Stevenson (later Georgia's Mother in Dead Like MeI) was also there as Bob's daughter Tricia (the only time Newhart had an offspring in any of his shows). Stevenson at the time had a nice loopy persona and was great at ditzy comedy.
The show was created by three writers of Cheers (Cheri Steinkellner, Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton) so the writing was always sharp and funny. Even the title of the show was a joke: After The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, Bob Newhart joked on the Johnny Carson Show that his next sitcom would follow the progression and be called Bob.
The episodes soon went far afield from comics: One great episode starred George Wendt as "The Guy Who Played Norm on Cheers," and old friend of Bob's who can't avoid being confused with his TV roles. There was also a very funny show where Albie, Chad, and Tricia played "Mystery Date," and a nasty little parody of Barney the Dinosaur. Dick Martin, who directed some of the episodes, had some funny on-screen appearances as an old comic book writer friend.
The show got great critical buzz, but, for some reason, CBS moved it around the schedule like a chess piece in an earthquake. Ratings were -- middle of the pack, and especially good when it was shown on Monday -- but were definitely hurt by the fact it didn't have a regular home.
Still, CBS decided to renew. But I really wouldn't call it a renewal. The entire premise was changed. Bob left Ace Comics (leaving Harlan, Albie, and Chad behind) and went back to work for the greeting card company he had been at before Mad Dog called. Betty White and Jere Burns were added to the cast, and the scripts were taking from the Beginning Sitcom Writers Guide to Bad Comedy. It was unwatchable, and unfunny and quickly cancelled.
The first season is well worth preserving on DVD, so we can again see a show that deserved much better than it got.
More Great but Forgotten
E-mail me ¨ Visit my Blog
Back to Chuck Rothman's page -- if you dare!