It’s very easy to take Thanksgiving for granted. The holiday comes between Halloween and Christmas, two extravagant spectacles of spooks and cheer with entire pop culture industries built around them (horror and Hallmark, respectively—although now I want to see what a Hallmark Halloween movie would look like). Thanksgiving, without any major movies or songs or even TV specials beyond Charlie Brown, can be overlooked.
That’s why I think it’s worth noting that whatever Thanksgiving is lacking in the pop culture department, it makes up for it when it comes to sitcom episodes. More so than the other holidays, more shows have committed hard to celebrating Thanksgiving than either of the other two major holidays. Friends, New Girl, Bob’s Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Everybody Loves Raymond, How I Met Your Mother, Will & Grace—while celebrating Halloween and Christmas is optional for most sitcoms, Thanksgiving is the one that a lot of sitcoms celebrate almost every season. And the Thanksgiving sitcom episode as we know it—and love it—was first served 45 years ago today when The Bob Newhart Show aired its second Thanksgiving episode, “Over the River and Through the Woods.”
The Thanksgiving episode didn’t start 45 years ago, not at all. There are turkey-filled episodes dating back to the start of sitcoms as we know them in the 1950s, on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Make Room for Daddy, Father Knows Best, etc. There are also great ones from the 1960s that still resonate today, like That Girl’s “Thanksgiving Comes But Once A Year, Hopefully.” And yes, the spate of supernatural comedies from the 1960s means that there is indeed an episode of Bewitched wherein the Stephenses travel back to pilgrim times. These are all fine episodes and, if you’re like me, a must-watch every November. But none of them are “Over the River and Through the Woods,” a riff on the Thanksgiving episode that only The Bob Newhart Show could do—and one that’s set the formula.
The solution: drinking!
This scene, with this unlikely Thanksgiving quartet blitzed out of their mind and stumbling through setups and punchlines, is the quintessential Thanksgiving sitcom scene.
Also fun fact: adjusted for inflation, Bob ordered $450 worth of Chinese food.
This whole scene is exactly the kind of vibe that every other all-time great Thanksgiving sitcom episode of the past 45 years emulates, knowingly or not. Like in Cheers, Bob, Jerry, Carlin, and Howard are Thanksgiving orphans. It’s unconventional to say the least, like every Bob’s Burgers masterpiece. It uses the day’s communal nature as an excuse to write hilarious group comedy, which is how Friends would later handle the holiday. This is the episode that proved that you don’t need to literally travel back in time and attend the mythical first Thanksgiving in order to make an episode feel Thanksgiving-y. Sometimes you just need four drunk guys and one surely perplexed delivery person.
And in the 45 years since it first aired, it’s hard to deny that “Over the River and Through the Woods” is every bit as inextricable from Thanksgiving as the ditty it’s named after. If, as Mr. Carlin says, a butter dish is forever, then so is this episode’s impact.
Stream The Bob Newhart Show “Over the River and Through the Woods” on Hulu