Bob Newhart was born about a month and a half before the stock market crash of 1929. If you do the math, that means he is 87 and most people at 87 are not doing ... well, they’re not doing what Newhart is doing.
"This year, my wife and I — we’ve been married 53 years — moved from our house to a gated community,” Newhart says, on the phone earlier this week from Los Angeles. "We’ve been there now about six months. After about three months, I said to her, ‘I have to get back on the road. I’m going nuts. I can’t sit any more waiting for the upholsterer to show up at 3 o’clock.’ It’s something I have to do. First of all, how can you say to people: ‘Look, I’m gonna retire. I’m just tired of making people laugh. I just can’t stand the sound of laughter. If I never hear another person laugh the rest of my life, I’ll be a very happy man.' "
The travel is the worst part of it, as any performer will tell you. Newhart says earlier this year he vowed to keep the gigs west of the Mississippi River, "but I made an exception in the case of Boston and Foxwoods. I’ve played the Wilbur a couple of times — it’s beautiful, it’s almost a throwback to Vegas, the physical setup of the room. It’s fun. I’ve added a couple of things [to the show] so the people [who saw me] two years ago, they’ll hear something new.”
Newhart is a comforting, old-school comedian — a bemused, perceptive, regular guy who's trying to make some sense out of an absurd world. He played this part on "The Bob Newhart Show" (as psychologist Bob Hartley) from 1972 to 1978; he did it on "Newhart" (as Vermont inn-keeper Dick Loudon) from 1982 to 1990.
Prior to sitcom success, Newhart achieved fame in the ‘60s as a stand-up comic, and was seen numerous times on “The Dean Martin Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He guest-hosted for Johnny Carson 87 times.
As a stand-up comic, Newhart is both the double-taking reactor and the curious instigator. Set-up is crucial. He specializes in the stammering, deadpan reaction bit, politely trying to get through a dilemma. He’s master at being the only guy in a straight man routine.
"I just can’t imagine, as long as I’m physically able to, I don’t see any reason to stop doing stand-up."Bob Newhart
“I just can’t imagine, as long as I’m physically able to, I don’t see any reason to stop doing stand-up,” he says. “I enjoy the hell out of it. ... I think the people who do stand-up, I think they have an obligation to continue to do stand-up. There aren’t a lot of them — us — and you hear more and more some [comic] who gets very successful and it’s like, ‘I don’t have to do stand-up anymore.’ And I really think there’s an obligation if you’re physically able to do it, you have to do it.”
Jim Sullivan: When we see comics — stand-up being a very personal, verbal thing — we civilians often think we’re seeing the real person who acts the same way offstage as he does on-stage. Maybe a little funnier and slightly exaggerated. Do you think that’s the case?
Bob Newhart: Well, 80 percent of what I am is what they see. I stammer — as you realize; it’s not something I affect. It’s the way I talk. It’s not a stutter, it’s a stammer, the highest form of being a stutterer. At least I think so, though there’s no medical evidence. The remaining 20 percent is a very sick mind. My wife has said to me, “If the public ever found out the way you really think, your career would be over.” I know, and that’s going to be our little secret.
The best comedy provides us with that release valve, that coping mechanism.
Coping, exactly. It helps you get past the difficult times and offers you a temporary solution. It helps you get past that moment. It’s the only way to deal with things. Nathanael West, who wrote "The Day of the Locust," I read something he said. He is a novelist, not a comedian, but he said, “The world is against us and the only intelligent response is to laugh.” And I think that’s true. I really think comedy is an essential part of life. I really do.
"I really think comedy is an essential part of life. I really do."Bob Newhart
There’s that whole feeling of hearing a joke and it stirs up something you’ve felt but haven’t articulated — or gets to some uncomfortable truth you wouldn’t yourself want to share.
There was a book called “The Shock of Recognition" [edited by Edmund Wilson] and I think that’s what a lot of it is. Here’s an example: I was in New York to do Letterman and I got in the town car and was taking it from the airport. Coming up Sixth Avenue, I look up at a window and there’s this sign that says, “Psychic,” and there’s a made-up sign that says, “Lost our lease.” Now, if you’re a true psychic you know you’re going to lose your lease. I questioned how good a psychic she was. People will say, “Yeah, I saw that sign and I walked by it 30 times, but you’re right.” Larry Gelbart, a great comedy writer — he did "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "M*A*S*H." He said, “Comedians or comedy writers see the world through a different lens. You just have this lens and things jump out at you that don’t jump out at other people until you do them and they say, ‘Oh yeah!’ "
I last saw you in 1990 at the South Shore Music Circus and as you neared the end you got to one of my favorite jokes, “The Cat’s on the Roof” also known as “Your Mother’s On the Roof.” (It's a long joke, but, essentially, this guy's cat dies while he's away, and he wishes his cat caretaker would have broken the news to him gently and gradually by saying, "The cat's on the roof, it got hurt, etc., ... then finally, it died." The kicker: The guy asks how his mother is and the answer, “She's on the roof.") When you got there, it was almost like Queen hitting “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The cat’s on the roof — (laughs) — it’s become politically incorrect. It’s funny, though. We can’t get away from things even if they’re politically incorrect. I just object to the whole politically correct thing. If kids play a baseball game you get a participant trophy, you don’t get a winner. We don’t want to offend anyone’s sensitivities. [Once] I was unemployed like everybody else in the world and that’s what they called it, "You’re unemployed." I worked for the Illinois state unemployment office. It’s not called unemployment anymore. You’re not unemployed. It’s the Department of Human Resources and you are an underutilized human resource.
Earlier, you mentioned some new topics in your act. Without giving away too much, what can you tell me?
(Long sigh.) Well, there’s one that I’ve had for quite some time but I was never happy with the "blow off" — the last line in the routine. It’s a laugh, plus the finality to it. I didn’t wind up doing it very much because to me it wasn’t that funny. If I can send out any information to young comedy writers or stand-ups it’s: “Write the blow off first. Do that and you got half the battle." ... I finally came up with the blow off for this joke, without disclosing what it is. I’m going to repeat some of the stuff I did last time, but I’ll replace a couple things with this newer stuff.
What about when you’re hearing a joke the second or third time? Knowing how it goes rubs against the grain of comedy — the surprise, but sometimes, still, you crave it. How do you repeat a joke and have it be successful with an audience you know has seen it before?
"The Driving Instructor,” for instance. [It’s Newhart’s most famous joke, a one-sided phone conversation, which has him as a patient, but increasingly exasperated, driving instructor trying to talk a woman through a lesson.] I have done that 10,000 times over the course of 55 years. That, to me, is the art of performing. The art is to do that as well as you did it the first time you ever did it. Do I say to myself, “Oh boy, I get to do 'The Driving Instructor?' " No, I have an obligation to that audience on that particular night to do it as well as I can. Because they want it. I told a comedian one time who said he finds it difficult to do the same thing, he gets tired of it, and I said to him, “We’re not up there to please ourselves; we’re up there to please them.”
A lot of guys in your position, and some who came after you like Jerry Seinfeld, had success in sitcom TV, as did you, but after that was over still wanted to do stand-up.
Yeah, it’s so immediate. We did three and four camera situation comedies with a live audience, but there’s nothing like stand-up in front of a live audience. That’s the most gratifying because it’s immediate, the response is immediate.
The final scene in “Newhart” is a classic, maybe the best ever comedic twist on TV, and it was shot before an audience. Your Vermont inn-keeper self wakes up next to — not your wife in the show, Mary Frann, but — Suzanne Pleshette, who played your wife in your previous sitcom, “The Bob Newhart Show.” And the “Newhart” show was, thus, all along a convoluted dream. What do you recall about how that went down?
Well, actually it was my wife’s idea. At the sixth year of “Newhart,” the Vermont show, I was having a problem with CBS because they were putting these shows in front of us, which is what they do — they take an established show and put a show in front of you or behind you and try to get your audience. I thought they were being unfair with “Newhart.” We had taken a time slot that hadn’t been a hit, we made it a hit and I thought it deserved a certain respect and I didn’t feel we were getting respect.
We were at a Christmas party and I said to my wife “Honey, I think this is gonna be the last year of the show.” She knew I was unhappy and she said, “You should end the show on a dream sequence.” Because it was so inexplicable, the show in itself — the maid was an heiress, her boyfriend talked in alliteration, the handyman didn’t understand what was going on and there were these three weird ones who were obviously straight out of “Deliverance” and what the hell were they doing in Vermont? All these inexplicable things. I said, “What a great idea, that’s absolutely perfect.” Suzy — Suzanne Pleshette — happened to be at the same Christmas party and we told her and she said “If I’m in Timbuktu I’ll fly in [to do it]!”
I’ve noticed during this interview that you laugh. Some comics don’t do that off-stage. They’ll hear something humorous and respond “That’s funny.”
Yeah, mostly comedy writers do that. They’ll say, “Funny line.” My favorite thing to do is to watch a young comic who has the lens and watch him. I love to laugh more than anything.