I Dream of Newhart

My dreams tend to be weird but impossible for me to remember. Last night’s demanded that I scribble down some notes. Before I tell you about it, let me lay down some ground for you.

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with comedy, but I have always gravitated towards those who blend comedy and storytelling. People seem to forget that a huge chunk of Delirious is just Eddie Murphy telling stories about his family. Another comedian who always amazed me was the late great Dave Broadfoot. One of his recurring acts was dressing up in a full Mountie uniform, marching out on stage and simply standing there and relating his latest crime-fighting caper. My affinity for both comedy and story-telling explains my life-long love affair with sitcoms. And if there is a single figure who looms large in both sitcoms and on-stage storytelling, it’s Bob Newhart.

I suppose I had seen Newhart on TV when I was a kid, but he didn’t make much of an impression on me at first. In the 70s he was starring in The Bob Newhart Show, the one in which he was a Chicago psychologist. I think a lot of the jokes from that show went over my developing head. After all, I was only six-years old when it went off the air. I was a much bigger fan of Newhart, the show in which he was an innkeeper and how-to book author in Vermont. It ran from 1982 until 1990.

The first Newhart episode I can remember seeing originally aired on January 30, 1984, and was called “Book Beat.” Newhart’s character, Dick Louden, accepts an invitation to discuss his latest how-to opus on Book Talk, a rinky-dink talk show on a fledgling local public broadcaster. Book Talk’s director convinces Dick that the host is leaving, and that he would be perfect to replace him. Flattered, Dick accepts, and then approaches the host saying that he’s sorry to see him go. The host starts sobbing – clearly his departure is news to him. The rest of the episode is the director somehow convincing Dick to continue to host an increasingly unmanageable show.

This type of plot plays perfectly to Bob Newhart’s strengths. To me, there are few things funnier than Newhart playing flustered. It’s very subtle. It may be a small droop in the eye, or a curl of his lip, but it works so well because he gives it time. He will stand there and allow the audience to laugh before stammering out his next line.

Obviously my parents saw how much I enjoyed that “Book Beat” episode. My mother played me her copy of Newhart’s 1960 recording, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. That early in his career, Newhart specialized in playing a single side of a two-way conversation, which allowed the audience to fill in the other side for themselves. It was deceptively clever. My mother’s favourite bit of his was “The Driving Instructor,” in which Newhart leads an incompetent student through a disastrous first lesson. “That was a lovely turn,” he says in his sheepish way. “Just one problem – this is someone’s lawn.” I loved it. Newhart’s low key manner and his ease of communicating a story quickly placed him among my favourite comedians.

I find Newhart one of the most over-looked shows from the 80s, even though it had so many hilarious episodes. One of the final episodes, entitled “Seein’ Double,” poked merciless fun at low-budget and uninspired family sitcoms of the day. (Think Small Wonder and Full House.) But Newhart’s series finale has become legendary. In it, Dick is struck in the head by a golf ball, and the next thing the viewer sees is the bedroom from Newhart’s 70s sitcom. The entire innkeeper series was a dream of his psychologist character. That is mind-blowing!

I eventually saw one of Newhart’s stand-up sets at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall around the turn of the millennium. It was surprisingly short, but that’s to be expected from someone in their seventies. Even at his advanced age, I still see him popping up from time to time, whether it’s as Professor Proton in The Big Bang Theory, or posting pictures of himself on Facebook cheering the Chicago Cubs to their 2016 World Series victory. More recently I’ve managed to find every episode of Newhart uploaded to YouTube by someone named pumpkingoo. It’s a fresh reminder of the madcap hilarity that show embodied. It still stands up.

Perhaps that’s why the show figured so prominently in last night’s dream. I was a trucker named Dimetre Alexiou, and I lived in the same nameless town in Vermont as the rest of the characters in Newhart, yet I also clearly realized that the show was fictional and that it was a television production. The show was in its final season, and I had acted as a trucker in at least one episode, even though I was really a trucker.

The dream was vivid enough that I remember thinking to myself, “Oh, I remember that period in the late 80s working on the Newhart show.” This dream was doing a number on me.

It was shaping up to be an excellent dream, but then I found myself in Bob’s office with some of the other actors who played the townies. Bob looked at me with his jowly scowl, and said they found out that I lied about one of my qualifications on my résumé. Were the actors who played Officer Shifflett and the mayor involved in finding me out? Did I lie about being able to drive an 18-wheeler, or the quality of my acting?  It’s all very murky. What was unmistakeable was Bob’s disappointment. He had big plans for my eponymous character.

“It was going to be the Greeks!” he enthusiastically yelled. “It would have been Greeks!” I had mixed feelings about that, because I had assumed I was hired for reasons other than my Greek name.

But it didn’t matter. My time on Newhart was at an end. I guess it’s my fault that the last Newhart episode has a Japanese tycoon buying the Vermont town rather than a Greek one.

I suppose there are a number of ways to analyze this dream. Maybe I have anxiety over unrealized career potential. Maybe I identify with a cousin who drove a truck. Maybe I will soon submit my résumé to Bob Newhart, and I should be extra diligent about being completely honest. Maybe I should spend less time watching YouTube. Maybe I should write my own version of Inception in which I dream I’m in a show which is itself a fictional character’s dream.

Maybe dreams don’t mean anything. At least it gave me an excuse to put down my thoughts about one of my comedic heroes.