Bob Newhart was already on this list (#78) for his other show, The Bob Newhart Show. And, if you read that one, you already know that:
“One of the biggest themes of the [Bob Newhart] 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.”
Newhart was an even more exaggerated level of this theme. Bob Newhart’s character Dick Loudon is a writer of self-help books who moves to a town in Vermont to run an inn. However, the town is populated by some of the most abnormal people ever put on film. A café owner who is a pathological liar. The maid at the Inn is from a ridiculously wealthy family. Three redneck brothers named Larry, Darryl, and other Darryl (William Sanderson, Tony Papenfuss, and John Voldstad). There’s a group of women in the “Daughters of the War for Independence,” who repeatedly protest the fact that the Inn was a brothel during the Revolutionary War. A random professional clown who marries one of the main characters. A handyman who is completely incapable of rational thought. A guy who speaks in alliteration. Every episode of this show introduces more and more incredibly quirky characters who all seem to operate on a logic that are all their own, and plots that are often so surreal that, just like in the Bob Newhart Show, Newhart’s character can’t tell if he’s insane or if he’s the only sane man in a crazy world.
It even works a little bit better in some ways than in the Bob Newhart Show, because Dick Loudon was much more sane and rational than Bob Hartley, but was often in situations that completely defy any normal logic. What do you do when you agree to host a Senator’s press conference, and then it turns out his wife actually called it to announce their divorce? What about when the community blames you because a prisoner read one of your self-help books and it led to his escape? Or when a random visiting dignitary loses his wallet and decides to grant you a lordship to settle his bill? These aren’t things that happen to normal people.
After eight seasons, even more than the original show, Newhart finally came to a close. But, if you’re going to spend 14 years (6 on one show, 8 on another) on a theme, you have to try and end strong. Newhart decided not just to end strong, but to try the ultimate in surreal finales.
First, they wrote a completely fake ending. In order to keep the ending from being revealed to the staff and, more importantly, the press, they wrote that the show would end with Bob’s character dying and going to heaven to talk to God. They even dispensed names of actors they were considering for the role of God. Then, they performed most of the episode in front of a live audience exactly as written.
After 8 years of living in the crazy town, a Japanese tycoon buys the entire town to turn it into a golf course. Only Dick and his wife, Joanna (Mary Frann), refuse to sell on principle. Everyone else reveals that not only did they accept, but that they have sold their property for huge amounts of money. Even more bizarrely, they reveal this in a tribute to Fiddler on the Roof.
The show then skips five years, showing Dick’s Inn in the middle of a golf course, when the now unbelievably rich townspeople all return for a reunion. All of them, still insane but now with enough money to act on their quirks, start to argue and cause chaos within the Inn until finally Dick snaps. He storms out, shouting “You’re all crazy!” only to immediately be hit in the head by a golf ball. Now, the audience had probably heard the leaked plot up to this point, and were anticipating seeing Bob Newhart in heaven with George Burns.
Instead, the set that was revealed was the bedroom from the original Bob Newhart Show. What follows is a scene that’s been dissected, analyzed, copied, parodied, referenced, and critiqued at nauseam. Bob Newhart wakes up in bed, now back to his Bob Hartley persona, and wakes up his wife, revealed to be not his wife from Newhart, but his original wife from the Bob Newhart Show, played by Suzanne Pleshette. He then proceeds to describe his “dream” of the last 8 years of the show, saying how much nothing made sense. His wife dismisses the entire thing, right up until he mentions that, in his “dream,” he was married to a beautiful blonde, which draws her ire. He then proceeds to insist they go back to sleep, ending with a last reference to his “dream” wife.
This could have been corny. Honestly, it should have been corny. In most shows, this kind of lame cop-out would be offensive to the viewer. But, given how both shows had worked, it made more sense than any other ending proposed. Of course Newhart was all a dream, that’s why logic was so often twisted and the people so strange. Of course Bob Hartley dreamed about himself in a different life, but still had to define himself as the only sane man in a crazy world.
This was the punchline to a joke that took more than 20 years to set up, even if nobody knew they were doing it. And maybe that’s how you know you’ve done good work: when the greatest jokes set themselves up organically.
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