In 1992, Bob Newhart was a comedy god. He’d starred in two mega-popular sitcoms, The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, and then he decided to star in a show about a superhero comics artist. The resulting show, BOB!, was a bizarre, high-concept romp about how superheroes were changing in the post-Frank Miller “grim-and-gritty” era.

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And BOB! remains a strong contender for the oddest comic-book show, ever—even if it’s about comics rather than based on them.

Mad-Dog’s homoerotic impulses

In BOB!, Newhart plays Bob McKay, a cartoonist who created a superhero named Mad-Dog 20 years earlier. They only published a small number of Mad-Dog comics, and for the past 20 years, McKay has been working as an artist with a greeting-card company. But then, a comics publisher called Ace Comics wants to relaunch Mad-Dog as a major superhero, and Bob is back in the comics business.

Mad-Dog is a sort of amalgam of Spider-Man, Batman, and a few other heroes. He was bitten by a Doberman Pinscher, and has dog-like superpowers: superstrength, superspeed, and super-smell.

But then, in the show’s pilot, Bob hits a snag: The hotshot young comics creator who’s in charge of relaunching Mad-Dog, Harlan Stone, wants to make Mad-Dog dark and edgy. Instead of loving his boy sidekick and chaste girlfriend, Mad-Dog tears them apart in his rage. Etc. etc. It’s clearly supposed to be a commentary on the Image Comics of the early 1990s, and all the other “grimdark” comics, featuring super-violent heroes, that flourished in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Harlan Stone is sort of a Rob Liefeld type. (This was around the same time as the novel What They Did to Princess Paragon by Robert Rodi, which has a similar commentary on innocent superheroes getting updated by “edgy” creators.)

Bob, of course, insists that Mad-Dog has to be an innocent, lovable character, and refuses to give permission for Harlan to turn the character into a dark monster. See for yourself:

The above scene is probably the most interesting moment in the whole run of the series, with the opposition between the cartoonish“dark urban vigilante who’s seen the rottenness of the world” thing and the equally cartoonish “hero who stops to help a kid with a tangled yo-yo” thing. And they actually get Newhart to stammer about his superhero’s homoerotic relationship with his sidekick, which was edgy for 1992.

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(This was years before the movie In and Out, where Newhart stammers about homosexuality a lot.)

In the end, Harlan’s mysterious boss (who’s just a voice on a speakerphone) orders Harlan and Bob to work together. So Bob has to find a way to reconcile his wholesome, sweet vision of Mad-Dog with Harlan’s dark, nasty reimagining.

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Comics legend Mark Evanier (DNAgents, Groo the Wanderer) wrote one episode of BOB!, but he’s not sure where the idea for the show came from. He was friends with Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, who created the show with Phoef Sutton. “Cheri started calling me with questions about the comic book business,” Evanier recalled. “I suspect at least a little of the idea came from their knowing me, meeting some of my friends in the field and so on.”

The basic concept, added Evanier, was “related to the idea that the comic book industry was undergoing a generational shift with new people coming in, old people being either venerated or shoved aside, and long-running characters receiving makeovers, usually to be darker and grittier.”

At the same time, the debate between Bob McKay’s innocent version of Mad-Dog and Harlan Stone’s “dark and gritty” version gets more or less abandoned after the first episode of BOB!. From then on, Harlan and Bob work together more or less smoothly, with few creative disagreements—although Harlan turns into more of a stereotypical “sitcom jerk” character.

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In fact, Harlan and Bob don’t have any more creative clashes until the season finale, when they’re trying to save Mad-Dog from cancellation, and Harlan keeps coming up with crazy stunts. Penny, Mad-Dog’s girlfriend, is suddenly pregnant, because she was seduced and impregnated by a monster! But Bob insists that Penny should only be pregnant if Mad-Dog is the father. Harlan finally agrees to this—but then insists her babies should turn out to be hideous fungus mutants! They keep flipping a coin to see whose creative vision will prevail.

Evanier said that BOB! never tried to be an accurate depiction of the comics industry, but rather to use comics as a setting to tell entertaining stories. It’s just like the way The Mary Tyler Moore Show “did not depict, nor did it try to depict, a real-life TV newsroom, and that was just fine.”

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BOB! was renewed for a second season, but only on condition that the “comic book creator” storyline be dropped completely. Suddenly, Bob is back working at the greeting card company again, and the entire supporting cast from the comic-book company is gone—replaced by, among others, Betty White as the owner of the greeting-card publisher. Even with Betty White, the show only lasted a handful of episodes in season two.

It’s kind of depressing to watch

Rewatching BOB! over 20 years later, it doesn’t actually hold up that well. Most of the jokes fall pretty flat, and it’s sad to watch if you’re a fan of Bob Newhart. I got the DVDs cheap and marathoned them, and I found it kind of depressing watching Newhart try to carry this dull show. The jokes about comics and superheroes mostly don’t land, and the show increasingly leans on observational humor about Bob’s domestic life. (The show’s MVP is actually Bob’s long-suffering cat, Otto, who works harder than the rest of the supporting cast put together.)

“It was a high concept that meant absolutely nothing to prime-time audiences back in the day—a lot like the bomb sitcom The Duck Factory, which was about animators,” said veteran comics creator Evan Dorkin, who worked on the Mad-Dog tie-in comic that Marvel Comics published in conjunction with this show. (More on that in a bit.)

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Dorkin added:

Exciting lives of animators and cartoonists! People who sit in a room and die slowly by degrees. Everyone I knew in comics scratched their heads over the Bob concept. Comics weren’t a subject anyone cared enough about to get them to watch an old man stammer. It wasn’t enough of a hook like psychiatry or a country inn, to succeed it would have needed to be about everything but the cartooning, or have eye candy, like that miserable sitcom Too Close For Comfort which had Ted Knight drawing with a spunk rag cow puppet on his hand. Bob’s character had no agency, the supporting cast was colorless, the jokes were lousy. Everything about the show was tired, including poor Bob Newhart. It was painful to watch.

Ty Templeton, who also worked on the tie-in comic book, agrees: “After two huge hit shows, Bob had learned to surround himself with great characters and bring down the curtain on every scene with a stuttering one-liner that brought the story back to him,” said Templeton.“I heard him say once, his best set up was ‘Who would be dumb enough to do that?,’ and he’d put up his finger and say ‘That... that... that would be me.’”

But just like Seinfeld, Tyler-Moore and other great comics, Newhart works best when he’s surrounded by great comedians, Templeton argued. And this show failed to supply him with a solid enough supporting cast.

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“It’s no fun to watch Newhart top a room full of lightweights,” said Templeton.

Why is Mazza the She-Devil constantly taking showers?

But with all that, I have a huge soft spot for BOB!. For one thing, Newhart is always likable, even when he’s struggling to carry a whole show by himself. And the basic concept of a show that tries to grapple with the question of whether heroes need to be dark and violent to be interesting seems especially relevant, in the era of Batman v Superman.

In general, this show’s occasional attempts to comment on comics, and the creative struggles of comics creators, remain somewhat fascinating. The show sometimes manages to touch on real, important issues in a way that’s actually pretty fun. In a handful of episodes, anyway.

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Like, in one early episode, “PC or Not PC,” Bob’s daughter Trisha gets hired as a colorist on the Mad-Dog comic, and she immediately starts asking why, exactly, the women are naked or half-naked most of the time. Why is the comic’s villain, Mazza the She-Devil, constantly showering?

Bob finally explains: “The reason Mazza showers with greater frequency than other people is because she comes from a planet with a higher indigenous moisture content. And, uh, she has to maintain that level of hydration in our comparatively arid climate.”

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The whole thing finally leads to Trisha taking a stand and saying that she doesn’t want kids growing up and thinking that’s what women actually look like. It’s one of the moments in BOB! that’s just as relevant today as it was in 1992.

And in another episode—the one which Evanier wrote—the show touches on the real-life history of comics being accused of corrupting the youth. In real life, Fredric Wertham wrote a 1954 book called Seduction of the Innocent, claiming that comics were perverting the youth. This led to a Congressional inquiry into the comics industry. In the TV version, Bob himself was hauled before Congress back in the day, but decades later, the fictionalized version of Wertham feels remorse for having been so wrong about comics, and for having hurt so many people.

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This is by far the best episode of the series, with the most interesting things to say about comics. And you can watch the whole episode on YouTube:

Another episode takes place at a comics award show, and features cameos from real-life comics creators Jack Kirby, Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri.

But BOB! struggled with the fact that the show’s dwindling audience wasn’t all that interested in the ins and outs of the comics industry. The episode where the Mad-Dog comic is canceled is actually kind of heart-breaking, as Bob frantically tries to prove that his weird superhero is worth something after all.

They actually published a Mad-Dog comic book

The oddest footnote to the whole BOB! saga is that Marvel put out a handful of issues of a tie-in comic, about the show’s superhero, Mad-Dog. And to capture the contrasting visions of the character—Bob McKay’s good-humored Silver Age version and Harlan Stone’s dark, angry ‘90s vigilante—they made it a flip-book, with two comics in one. Pick up one side of the comic, and you get a silly Silver Age pastiche, written and drawn by Ty Templeton (Stig’s Inferno, Batman and Robin Adventures). Pick up the other side, and you get a dark, dramatic, violent version written by Evan Dorkin (Dork, Milk and Cheese) and drawn by Gordon Purcell.

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“The six issues of Mad Dog that I did remain one of my favorite professional experiences,” said Templeton. For his part, Evan Dorkin said he “hated the entire experience... I think it’s one of the top three worst things I ever wrote.”

Part of the problem? Dorkin wanted to do the funny Silver Age side of the comic, but “I ended up with the grim-and-gritty half.” He struggled to do something interesting with the dark vigilante storyline, but his writing didn’t mesh with Purcell’s art. “I tried to do a decent job, it just didn’t work for a lot of reasons.” Dorkin still has people come up to him and ask him to sign copies of Mad Dog, and “I flinch.”

Templeton was actually expecting both halves of the flip-book to be silly satires, and was startled when Dorkin’s half turned out to be a deadly serious story about “a Wolverine-style anti-hero escaping from the evil scientists who made him a feral super-hero.”

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“Evan had already written the Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book series, and I think Milk and Cheese was already a thing by this time,” said Templeton, who described Dorkin as “a bit of a comic genius.”

“With Evan writing the other side, I knew I had to step up the funny, and tried my best to out silly and out-satire what Evan would be doing,” added Templeton. The result included some pretty hilarious moments, including a storyline where an army of invincible alien cat soldiers desperately needs the cure for hairballs.

In the end, the dark, serious Dorkin half of the flip-book clashed horribly with Templeton’s goofy satire, said Templeton. “The book ended up being TOO different, from front to back, to please any audience out there. To the ‘we love it violent and dark’ crowd, my half was bizarre and dumb. And to the crowd that liked the fun and satire—and the sly but naughty jokes—the other half was too mainstream-Marvel.”

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If Dorkin had unleashed his own amazing capacity for silliness on the “dark ‘90s” half of the comic, said Templeton, “we could have been a cult hit. Ah, well.”

In fact, this weird clash of styles wound up being an interesting meta-commentary on the conflict between Bob McKay and Harlan Stone over the future of Mad-Dog—a conflict that the TV show itself never managed to exploit.

So BOB! is mostly interesting as a failed experiment in talking about comics, which spawned an even odder comic book. But if you can snag the DVDs cheaply enough, it’s got some pretty entertaining moments here and there—see the clips above, where they talk about buttocks and superhero violence, for example. This was a show that really wanted to say something about pop culture and how society was changing in the Bill Clinton era, and even though it largely failed to live up to its potential, it remains a fascinating historical document.

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Plus it has some truly astounding early 90s fashions—Bob’s daughter is constantly wearing suspenders with purple tights!


Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All The Birds in the Sky, which is available now. Here’s what people have been saying about it. Follow her on Twitter, and email her.