Arts & Culture

Calling Bob Newhart: The comedy legend talks about sitcoms, censorship and sex

Comedian Bob Newhart sits with a bronze likeness of Dr. Bob Hartley, the character he played in the sitcom “The Bob Newhart Show,” at the unveiling of the statue in 2004 in Chicago.
Comedian Bob Newhart sits with a bronze likeness of Dr. Bob Hartley, the character he played in the sitcom “The Bob Newhart Show,” at the unveiling of the statue in 2004 in Chicago. Associated Press

Bob Newhart, it seems, has an anecdote for every occasion.

Talk about pacing in television shows, and the sitcom legend offers a precise play-by-play of a joke from “The Bob Newhart Show.” Bring up Newhart’s beloved Chicago Cubs baseball team, and the Oak Park, Ill., native proudly recounts the National League championship game that propelled them to the World Series.

Mention California’s Central Coast, and Newhart talks about the time he spent in basic training at Camp Roberts, on the border between San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties.

“The weather was really very mild, and I thought, ‘How long has this been going on? Why didn’t someone tell me that you don’t have to freeze to death in the wintertime?’ ” Newhart, who served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, recalled with a gentle chuckle. “I thought, ‘As soon as I get $200 together, I’m coming out to California.’ ”

But it was show business that brought Newhart to Los Angeles, where he now lives.

Newhart, 87, worked as an accountant and advertising copywriter before giving stand-up a try. His comedy career took off with the release of “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” in 1960. That album sailed to the top of the Billboard chart on the strength of Newhart’s wryly funny telephone routine.

In signature sketches such as “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” in which a modern advertising executive argues with the American president, and “The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish,” which finds an incompetent submarine captain addressing his unruly crew, Newhart presents one-sided telephone conversations in which the other speaker is never seen nor heard. Listeners’ imaginations fill in the rest.

“I didn’t expect much to happen, but (‘Button-Down Mind’) went crazy,” Newhart recalled, winning a Grammy Award for album of the year. “I figured I had maybe five years, five good years, before (my show business career) ended as suddenly as it had begun. And 57 years later I’m still allowed to do it. It’s been very good to me.”

To say “Boy, I’m really tired of making people laugh. I don’t think I want to do that anymore” – I can’t imagine that.

Bob Newhart

Newhart parlayed his stand-up success into a single-season gig hosting a variety show.

Then he landed the lead role of mild-mannered psychologist Bob Hartley in “The Bob Newhart Show,” co-starring Suzanne Pleshette as his supportive yet sarcastic wife and Bill Daily as his ditzy neighbor. The sitcom premiered in 1972 and ran for six seasons.

In 1982, Newhart returned to the small screen as the star of “Newhart,” playing Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon. That successful sitcom enjoyed an eight-season run. (Two short-lived ’90s sitcoms — “Bob” and “George and Leo” — failed to capture the same following.)

In recent years, Newhart has appeared in a handful of movies (“Elf,” “Horrible Bosses”) and made guest appearances on TV shows including “The Big Bang Theory” and “Hot in Cleveland.”

He’s also kept touring. These days, Newhart said his act consists of a few familiar routines, plus observational humor “about the world and how weird it is and how you’ve got to have a sense of humor to survive today.” “It’s just strange and getting stranger,” he said with a chuckle.

Newhart recently chatted with The Tribune about his comedy and his career.

Q: Who were some of your influences?

A: I’d watch “Ed Sullivan” if I heard a comedian was going to be on. I would study them. I wouldn’t just sit there and laugh. … It was kind of like going to school when I watched “The Ed Sullivan Show”

I think I’ve been influenced by any good comedian. … Jonathan Winters and Lenny Bruce, Jack Benny certainly. People have always said my timing was very similar to Jack’s, but I don’t think you can learn timing. I think it’s something you just innately have. It’s something that you hear in your head that says, “Now.” If you start examining it too much it goes away, so I just accept that it’s there.

Jack to me was one of the biggest comedians because he had that style. He would take the time it took to tell a story.

A lot of comedians panic. If they haven’t gotten a laugh in 10 seconds, they panic. For people like that, (it’s) joke, joke, joke, joke. That’s what I admired the most about Jack, was he was so brave.

Q: You’re a straight man who’s unfailingly funny. How did you develop that stage persona?

A: I didn’t really develop (one). That’s just the way I was. … I have a stammer. It’s not something that I adopt just when I get on stage. ...

So my routine is just my attitude toward life. I’ve always liked to get the most out of saying the least. And I guess the telephone routine is maybe getting the most from the least.

Q: Why do you think the minimalist style of comedy found a foothold in the 1950s and ’60s?

A: The comedians then were dealing with “Take my wife please” and “I’ll get the half that eats” and all these jokes that had to do with marriage. It didn’t relate to the college kids. They couldn’t afford to go to a nightclub. They’d all get together in somebody’s room in the frat house and they’d get some beers and they’d put on a comedy record. … That was their nightclub. …

It really was a sea change in comedy at that time. … We weren’t talking about in-law jokes. We were talking about really important things. Lenny especially was getting into areas nobody had ever gotten into before.

Q: Who were you taking your cues from?

A: I was looking at my peers. They were attacking (subjects that were) sacred cows up until then, things you couldn’t talk about.

When I first started out, I played some nightclubs and they told you the language you couldn’t use. They said the management has a right to change your act if they’re offended by it. That sure has changed over 50 years. It’s hard to think of anything that’s a sacred cow anymore.

Q: In your experience, how has that attitude shift affected television?

A: I think it’s just the areas (modern TV shows) can deal with that we never could deal with (then). The censors – or, as they were called, standards and practices – would say, “No, you can’t do that.” It seems like ancient history now but when I did “The Bob Newhart Show” with Suzanne, up until then everybody (on TV) slept in separate beds. We were the first (TV) couple that slept in the same bed, and everybody was like “Wow.” What we were doing is catching up with real life. … They (the censors) finally admitted that married people had sex.

Q: Despite the critical acclaim you received for “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart,” you didn’t receive a Primetime Emmy Award until 2013, when you won for your guest turn on “The Big Bang Theory.” Were you surprised it took so long?

A: People were surprised but I wasn’t. … It never really bothered me. I was never really bitter about it. And I was against some pretty stiff competition – Alan Alda and Carroll O’Connor and Jack Klugman.

Then for a while there I just didn’t want to go through it so I didn’t submit my name. I just didn’t want to go through the process. … The “Big Bang Theory” (people), they put my name up and I finally won an Emmy after all of these years.

Q: In addition to the Emmy, you’ve received a Golden Globe Award, a Peabody Award and three Grammy Awards, plus the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. What’s an honor that has special meaning for you, and why?

A: When I was (inducted into) the Television Academy Hall of Fame (in 1992), that was just a really special moment — because you’re being inducted with (Lucille Ball) and Carroll O’Connor and Johnny Carson and Jackie Gleason. …

I was inducted that year with John Chancellor, Phil Donahue, Dick Clark and Agnes Nixon, who created “All My Children.” … And there were two posthumous awards; one was to (“Dragnet” star) Jack Webb and one for Mark Godson of Godson-Todman (Productions). …

I’m sitting there and thinking to myself, “Wow, when I was an accountant many years ago, we used to go out and have a smoke and stand by the water cooler and we’d talk about ‘Dragnet.’ And I’m sitting here and I’m being inducted into the Television Hall of Fame with Jack Webb!” It’s like, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby.” (chuckles)

Q: You’re a big fan of Richard Pryor, the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize.

A: I’m a huge fan of his. … I presented when Richard got a comedy award at one of the comedy award shows. He at that point was in a wheelchair. He was a complete mess. I presented (the award) to him on camera and then we went into a room (backstage). Richard turned to me and said, “I stole your album!” I said, “What did you say, Richard?” He said, “I stole your album! I was in Peoria and went into a record store and I saw your album and I put it under my jacket and I walked out.” I said, “Richard, I get a quarter for every album.” And he said, “Somebody give me a quarter.” And he gave me a quarter. (laughs)

Q: You’re still performing and touring at a point in your career when many entertainers have retired. What keeps you going?

A: To say “Boy, I’m really tired of making people laugh. I don’t think I want to do that anymore” (chuckles) – I can’t imagine that.

You’ve seen these articles about “the serious business of being funny.” It’s not a serious business! It’s a fun business! If you’re doing a new piece of material or you’re doing an old piece of material and it works, it’s great. (laughs) There’s nothing serious about it. You get to have fun. Why would you ever want to give that up?

I mean, I’m slowing down. I’m not doing nearly as many shows as (I used to). The travel gets to you, and the lost luggage and the canceled flights. I’m tired of that part of it. But once you’re there and you’re on stage, it’s worth it. I enjoy it. As long as I’m physically able to do it, why not?

Bob Newhart

8 p.m. Jan. 26

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$45 to $65

805-686-3805 or www.chumashcasino.com/entertainment

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