Bob Newhart is one of the funniest men who ever lived. If Stalin had watched Bob Newhart do stand-up… well, he’d still have been an irredeemable despot who deserved death, but he might have been distracted for a few hours and not killed some people. The show was pretty much an excuse to watch Bob do stand-up, with great supporting characters like his wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), and his receptionist, Carol (Marcia “I was Edna Krabappel, and you will remember me” Wallace). Newhart’s job as a psychologist gave him no end of material to work with, and he could turn it into half-hour laugh fests that would leave you concerned that you can’t breathe.
One of the biggest themes of the show is that Bob Hartley (Newhart’s character) is constantly questioning if the reality presented to him is genuine, or if the craziness surrounding him is just a vivid hallucination. This will become important 40 episodes further down the list or so, so make your notations now.
In this episode, Bob deals with a neighbor who has a fear of flying, and the accompanying fear of death, after a rough flight. Normally, a fear of flying is only a mild inconvenience to people, but his neighbor is an airplane navigator. Bob manages to point out that the fear is irrational. Airplanes are statistically safe, and it’s ridiculous to allow such a remote risk to control your behavior. Bob laughs off the thought of dying in such an unlikely way… and then almost walks into an open elevator shaft at his office. Bob quickly begins to fear death (and heights and elevators) more than any of his patients. He begins having vivid nightmares (again, dreams are a big theme in the show) of a man in black on a boat on an empty lake who holds a tombstone in one hand, an hourglass with the time running out in the other, a sickle in the other, and the other is flipping a coin. Yes, he had 4 hands, and as his face loomed out of the fog, he said the words that most terrify all men… “Hi, Bob.” By the end of the episode, of course, Bob has regained his courage and decides to take the elevator back up to his office… only to immediately change his mind and take the stairs.
The last sentence is one of the things I like about both the episode and the show. Permanent cures rarely happened on The Bob Newhart Show, and they definitely didn’t happen fast. Even though it was a very traditional sitcom, the situations rarely magically resolved themselves in the episode (although, usually they were resolved by the next week, because television).
By addressing the issue in a humorous way, and doing it through one of the funniest men in television history, the audience doesn’t even realize that they’ve really seen a short segment of the same thing that affects all people at some point – an irrational fear of mortality that we all must overcome. This episode also has a larger point, but that’ll have to be addressed later.
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