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The Most Unexpected Moment In Television History
by Billy Ingram
It was and still is the most inventive - and funny - TV sitcom ending of all time. A real watercolor event, as they used to say back in the eighties.
I'm talking about the final episode of Newhart in 1990 where Bob and Emily Hartley from The Bob Newhart Show wake up in bed, then Bob explains that the entire 8 season run of Newhart had been a dream. It was a novel idea, but how exactly did it come about? And how to keep this explosive final scene kept from the press in order to take viewers by surprise?
As it progressed, Newhart's finale episode (titled 'The Last Newhart') kept getting more and more bizarre, descending into absolute farce, leading up to the unexpected capper. It was Newhart’s real-life wife, Ginnie, who first came up with the idea.
"Ginnie said, at dinner, at Ma Maison," Suzanne Pleshette recounted in an interview with The Television Academy, "Where of course they were late because Ginnie makes him stop and change a tire for somebody in the street, pick up a dog or go to the looney bin, there's always something that Ginnie finds for Bob to do. They're late because they've saved the world, right? So at dinner Ginnie said, because they were doing that show [Newhart] , it was maybe in second year. 'You know what would be great? At the end of... whenever the end comes it was all a dream.' 'They would never let us do that, it would be like negating all the years of that show."
When the last year arrived Newhart producers contacted Pleshette, "I said, 'I know what you're calling about.' They said, 'You do?' I said, 'It's all a dream?' So I said, 'They're really going to let you do this? They said, 'Yeah.' So we had a code name when I would call them back so it wouldn't be me. They wrote a fake ending where Bob is up in heaven and he's with God and the cast was trying to guess who's going to play God. 'Oh, is it going to be Rickles or...' you know?"
It's worth noting that the show's executive producers, Mark Egan, Mark Solomon, and Bob Bendetson claimed they came up with the dream sequence idea. Director Dick Martin (Laugh-In) was the only other person that knew about the real ending. Pleshette and Newhart performed the scene in one take.
Both TV Guide and TV Land called it the most unexpected moment in television history, ranking number 1 in Entertainment Weekly's 20 Best TV Series Finales Ever. EW said, "Today the Newhart finale is considered a classic, joining shows like M*A*S*H, St. Elsewhere, Seinfeld, and The Sopranos on the list of the most-discussed series enders ever."
“People still come up to me and talk about it,” Bob Newhart was quoted as saying. “It’s held up to other shows as the standard.”
Rolling Stone declared 'The Last Newhart' to be the Number One Sitcom Ending of All Time noting, "Viewers did not feel cheated; this was the best it-was-all-just-a-dream scenario ever, one that didn’t dishonor the eight seasons of sublime silliness that preceded it. The M*A*S*H finale may have garnered the biggest ratings, but when TV fans think back to the sitcom finale that pleased them the most (and offered the biggest, most satisfying laughs), they think of Newhart."
Newhart finished six out of eight seasons in the Nielsen top 25. CBS was willing to renew for a ninth season in 1990, even though the show ranked #48 for the year, but Bob Newhart felt the series had run its course and was unhappy about the show's lousy time slot for the last two years.
Interesting to note that Newhart enjoyed an 8-year run while The Bob Newhart Show (a much better series in my opinion) ran for only 6 seasons, which is still considered a long run for such a top notch sitcom that remained highly entertaining to the very end.
Bob Newhart was under contract to star in another CBS series after Newhart which resulted in the 1992 sitcom Bob, airing for two half seasons, consistently suffering from low ratings.
WIKI: On the February 11, 1995, episode of Saturday Night Live which was hosted by Bob Newhart, the episode's closing sketch ended with a redux of Newhart's final scene, in which Bob Hartley again wakes with his wife Emily (special guest Suzanne Pleshette) and tells her that he had just had a dream of hosting Saturday Night Live. Emily responds, "Saturday Night Live, is that show still on?"—this during a period when SNL was heavily criticized for its declining quality.