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Why Bob Newhart Wanted to ‘Intentionally’ Break Boundaries in Television

On Sept. 16, 1972, CBS premiered the beloved sitcom “The Bob Newhart Show,” starring the popular comic as Chicago psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley.

The funny and whip smart sitcom only received four Emmy nominations during its six seasons. But Tuesday evening at the Wolf Theatre in North Hollywood, the TV Academy paid homage to the show —which is celebrating its 45th anniversary — with a sparkling and hilarious conversation between 88-year-old Bob Newhart and Conan O’Brien.

“I’m so glad about tonight,” proclaimed Newhart on the academy’s recognition of the series’ milestone anniversary.

O’Brien, who had worked with Newhart on a comedy bit at the 2006 Emmy Awards, said he grew up watching “The Bob Newhart Show” on Saturday nights after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and before “The Carol Burnett Show” with his brothers and father.

Peter Bonerz joined Newhart and O’Brien about an hour into the 90-minute tribute. “You guys really liked each other,” O’Brien said of their chemistry onscreen.

“That’s true of a strong ensemble,” said Bonerz. “’Saturday Night Live,’ ‘Second City’ — ensembles are extremely important in show business.”

Before the event, in a separate interview with Variety, Newhart chatted about the show.

The series, he said, is timeless because they shied away from political or topical jokes that would date the series in syndication. “I told the writers this show is going to be syndicated and we are going to look pretty silly in 20 years if we are doing a Gerald Ford joke. And I was right. It’s easy to write topical jokes, but you are going to look stupid. They all agreed.”

O’Brien later told Newhart that he saw ripples of his show in “Seinfeld,” “Cheers” and “Parks & Recreation.” “I see a huge influence your show has had,” the late-night host said. “Are you willing to take credit for all of those programs here tonight?”

Newhart paused before he replied, “Yes. Notice the pause.”

Though he is a father and grandfather in real life, Newhart didn’t want his character to have any children.

“I love kids. I have four of my own but I didn’t want to be the dumb father that seemed to be in every sitcom,” said Newhart. “I said that wasn’t the kind of show I wanted to do. And that was one of the more unusual things about the show.”

And so was the fact that Bob and Emily shared the same bed. In fact, Newhart noted, it was the first series to show a couple sharing the bed. Other classic sitcoms such as “I Love Lucy” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” the couples slept in twin beds.

“Were you aware you were breaking some kind of boundary?” asked O’Brien.

“Yes, it was intentional,” Newhart said laughing, adding “We thought it was important that America learn to deal [with couples sharing the same bed].”

Though “The Bob Newhart Show” wasn’t topical, two of the clips illustrated the comedy didn’t avoid social issues like homosexuality and racial tensions. Newhart said they weren’t worried how people would react to the episode featuring Howard Hesseman as a gay man. “It was a great piece of writing. I couldn’t wait to play it.”

O’Brien moved the conversation to Newhart’s great friend, comic Don Rickles, who died at the age of 90 in April.

“I made him laugh, he made me laugh,” said Newhart, who met Rickles because their wives were friends. “We made several vacations. He was a wonderful man. I think I’m still in denial. We all lost a friend.”

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