Dec 15, 2013

Bob Newhart, Homophobia, and a Gay Childhood

   I was upset to hear that soft-spoken comedian Bob Newhart signed on as the headliner at a conference sponsored by the ultra-homophobic Legatus organization (he later cancelled). He wasn't exactly a gay ally, but he was responsible for some of the iconic gay moments of my childhood.              When I was a kid in the 1960s, teenagers like my boyfriend's big brother Mike would giggle hysterically over comedy records like The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart and The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back.    Bob would have one-sided telephone conversations that got more and more frustrating, until he yelled "Same to you, fella!" and hung up.         When I was in junior high and high school (1974-78), the in-crowd all watched a group of "hip sitcoms," about liberal, young, single or recently divorced adults living in big cities: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, One Day at a Time, Alice... and The Bob Newhart Show (1972-78).   Bob Hartley wasn't single, and he was well over 40, but he had a cool job as a psychologist and an apartment in an upscale Chicago high-rise.  Plus a hunky ladies-man coworker (Peter Bonerz) and a gay-vague next door neighbor (Bill Daily, who played Leif Garrett's lover on an episode of CHIPS).  In "Some of My Best Friends" (October 9, 1976), Bob's therapy group gets a new member -- gay!  The other patients want to lynch him, of course, but Bob preaches tolerance.  It was the first time I ever heard the word "gay" on tv, and instrumental in my high school discovery of gay people.    When I was in grad school in Indiana, and on through Hell-fer-Sartain State College and finally West Hollywood, I watched Newhart (1982-1990), with another Bob as a city boy relocated to a rural Vermont inn, beset-upon by wacky townsfolk.  No particular gay content, but some beefcake, such as Kirk (Steve Kampmann, left), owner of the cafe next door; and then yuppie tv producer Michael (a buffed Peter Scolari, top photo).  And you had to love hayseed Larry and his brothers, both named Darryl.   I haven't seen a lot of Bob Newhart since 1990.  He has starred in two more series that didn't last long, plus a lot of guest spots on tv.  In In and Out (1997), he plays a homophobic principal who fires outed teacher Kevin Kline.  In 2013, he appeared on The Big Bang Theory twice, as a former tv science-program host who was one of Sheldon's childhood heroes (Sheldon was played by Jim Parsons, who is gay in real life).