Hi, Bob and Durable IP

In the first few episodes of The Bob Newhart Show, Howard Borden rarely appeared. Emily Hartley, Bob’s wife, had a housewife pal (Margaret) and from the beginning, Bob had a buddy in Jerry, the orthodontist. But Howard, whose odd neighbor antics anticipated Kramer on Seinfeld by almost 20 years, didn’t register until almost the end of the first season. Soon, Margaret disappeared; Howard stayed.

I’ve been watching the show again recently; it’s my all-time favorite television sitcom, and I received DVDs of its first two seasons (1972 and 1973) for a recent birthday.

Here’s the question: Why is this still funny? I have two teenagers in my family, and they thrive on a steady diet of The Family Guy and The Simpsons. My son is a South Park fan. He knows Chad Vader, and when I asked if he had seen “The Internet is for Porn” (a wicked video based on World of Warcraft), he sort of yawned and smiled at the same time. Old news.

Yet they laugh their way through Bob Newhart, 70s hair and clothes and all. It’s comedy for the whole family.

There’s a lot of early and mid 1970s comedy that doesn’t hold up today. All in the Family strikes me as dated, though it was ground-breaking in its day. Monty Python turns out to be timeless (again, my whole family laughs, and more important, so do my law students). Cheech & Chong not so. Animal House: still funny (assuming that you thought it was funny the first time). Steve Martin (the Let’s Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy Steve Martin): not. Tim Conway: funny. Flip Wilson: not. The original Not Ready for Prime Time Players: funny. Peter Sellers as Clouseau: not (I checked).

Does this mean anything for copyright law? Not that I can think of, except that it confirms, only anecdotally, that society can’t and shouldn’t pick winners in battles for cultural supremacy.

Also, if The Bob Newhart Show were broadcast for the first time today, it wouldn’t have lasted past the first five episodes. Great banter between Bob and Emily, but the supporting cast hadn’t quite jelled. Howard Borden made that show memorable.