What about Bob?

In case you missed Bob Newhart’s appearance at the Sacramento Speakers Series, we asked the legendary comedian everything you want to know

Talking to Bob Newhart from his office in Los Angeles via the telephone feels appropriate, since he was known for phone gags in his stand-up days. At the same time, his steady, relaxed voice and long, thoughtful pauses immediately evoke his character Dick Louden manning the phones at the Stratford Inn on Newhart. It would seem the character Newhart has played for us all these years is, at least partly, Newhart in fact.

As a comedy pioneer, Newhart has two significant achievements. First, he helped forge a new market for comedy albums. The 1959 success of Shelley Berman’s Inside Shelley Berman, arguably the first live stand-up comedy record, had record executives looking for the next comedic talent to immortalize on vinyl. When Warner Brothers came across the quirky, intelligent and meticulously paced comedy of Bob Newhart, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the hastily produced result. The record was a smash, winning the 1961 Grammy for Album of the Year and proving that the stand-up comedy record was a viable new medium.

Legend has it that Newhart’s first stand-up club performance was the night before the recorded performance that became The Button-Down Mind.

“I’d been appearing locally around Chicago, but never in a nightclub,” Newhart said. A DJ friend had persuaded Warner Brothers to listen to Newhart’s demo tapes. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll record you at your next nightclub.’ And I said, ‘Well, we have a problem there because I’ve never played a nightclub.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’ll have to get you into a nightclub.’ So, they arranged for me to be the opening act in Houston, Texas. I was there about two weeks, and at the end of the two weeks, we recorded the album, and it just went—it just went crazy.

“I was totally taken by surprise as to how well it was received,” Newhart continued. “I thought of it as an adjunct to a nightclub career where maybe, you know, you might sell 25,000 and where maybe a couple of hundred people would come in, in each town you played, that heard the album. But it just went crazy. In that year, it got album of the year. It beat out Belafonte and Sinatra.”

“I found out later Frank was not all that pleased with the fact that—” Newhart said, pausing to laugh. “He was not pleased that a comedy album beat his.” When it was pointed out that it didn’t take much to displease Sinatra, Newhart agreed, with a chuckle. He mentioned friendly visits between Sinatra’s household and his own, during which the Grammys were never mentioned.

Newhart’s second major contribution to stand-up comedy was leading the medium out of the age of the one-line, rim-shot, dandy style perfected by comedians like the delightfully cheesy Milton Berle. Newhart—along with contemporaries like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Berman—brought stand-up into the age of the comedy monologue.

“At that time, it was another way of doing comedy,” Newhart explained. “You know, before that, it was ‘Take my wife, please!’ or the Henny Youngman kind of barroom boom jokes. And these were vignettes. It was a sea change that just happened, you know. And it caught fire, and people wanted to hear it. Thank God.”

Even among the hip new breed of early-’60s monologuists, Newhart was unique. His comedy required a literate audience, or perhaps helped create one. He was not playing to self-described intellectuals in the style of Sahl (who was hip to the jazz idiom and who dared to perform in a sweater rather than a tie), but Newhart was smart. His routines juxtaposed contemporary society and historical figures: Abraham Lincoln’s press agent showcasing the artificiality of modern life or a soldier from George Washington’s army complaining that Washington didn’t help row across the Delaware. (“Like he was posing for a picture or something!”)

Newhart was patient in his delivery, almost excruciatingly so. On Button-Down Mind, there is as much silence recorded as anything else, and it is this confident, keep-them-waiting approach that makes his material sing when performed.

Newhart jumped successfully from stand-up to sitcom in 1972 with The Bob Newhart Show, about a psychiatrist who shares office space with a dentist. In television, Newhart was again a pioneer. Did it even occur to viewers that they were laughing at the trials and tribulations of a childless, professional, older couple? Such characters were unheard of in the sitcoms of the day.

On the show, Newhart employed the same patience and understated delivery he used in stand-up, but now he had a cast of not-so-subtle characters to play off. His facial expressions—which most often betrayed complete bewilderment—made his golden silence doubly effective. The show was an instant hit with critics and the viewing public, winning two Golden Globes and running for six years.

It could have run longer, but Newhart surprised everyone when he decided to call it quits while the show was at its peak. When asked if he is still satisfied with his decision to end it when he did, Newhart answered, “I am, because I’ve seen shows that stayed on a year too long, and they lose all the luster they had generated. It’s just a gut feeling I had that maybe we were running short on ideas, and that was the time to end it. That little man on my shoulder who’s been there all these years kind of whispered in my ear, and I’ve got to trust him. You know, I trust him.” Another trademark thoughtful pause passed. “He’s been right.”

Leaving on top allowed Newhart to re-enter the sitcom game in 1982 with Newhart. He played Dick Louden, an author of do-it-yourself books who decided to renovate and operate an old Vermont inn. On this show, the characters that drove him to tortured, baffled silences were more surreal than ever—particularly a polite redneck named Larry with a brother named Darryl and another brother named Darryl. The show proved an even bigger hit than The Bob Newhart Show, running eight years. It was showing no signs of slowing when the little man on the shoulder spoke up, and Newhart decided it was time to bring it to a close.

This time around, he closed things with one of the most talked-about moments in television history. “That was my wife’s idea,” Bob explained. He was unhappy that CBS had moved the show away from the 9 p.m. Monday slot it had established. “So, I told her, I said, ‘You know, I think this is going to be the last year of the show.’ And she said, ‘Well, if it is, you ought to end it on a dream sequence, because there are just so many inexplicable things.’ The maid was an heiress. And then you had Larry, Darryl and Darryl, you know, these people from West Virginia in the middle of Vermont. I always felt Larry, Darryl and Darryl were right out of Deliverance. A lot of intermarriage must have taken place between cousins to produce Larry, Darryl and Darryl.”

Continuing this surreal trend, the show’s hilariously clever surprise ending is still intentionally not described on the Internet Movie Database or on www.bobnewhart.com. (Or here, to leave it unspoiled for new fans.)

In 1962, Newhart made his major film debut in Hell Is for Heroes, but he did not use this opportunity to chase cinematic stardom. His film appearances have been few and far between, the most recent in Elf with Will Ferrell.

“I’ve turned down some things I just didn’t think were right,” Newhart said. “I enjoyed the filmmaking process, but it’s kind of … so far removed from stand-up or television, where you have the immediate gratification of an audience.”

After so many years of performing in front of an audience, whom does Newhart enjoy watching? He admits to being a fan of Frasier and Everybody Loves Raymond, as well as two shows he’s guest-starred on: The Simpsons, where he performed a perfectly awkward eulogy to Krusty the Clown; and Desperate Housewives, on which he appears now and then as Morty Flickman.

He also praised the stand-up comedians he feels have forwarded the art form: Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Steven Wright and Jake Johannsen. “Of course, my all-time favorite was Pryor, Richard Pryor,” Newhart said. “Even though we obviously worked differently, the concepts that he dealt with, they were just incredible.” Newhart was honored to be the fifth recipient of the Mark Twain Prize, Pryor having been the first. “He really did today what Mark Twain was doing at the turn of the century.”

These days, Newhart enjoys a comparatively light schedule, doing 30 to 35 personal appearances a year. He describes these appearances, most of which are at private functions, as being a combination of his classic stand-up and a memoir, wherein he recollects the stories behind these routines. When he does agree to the occasional television and movie cameo, he usually pops up where you’d least expect him (like dressed as an elf with Will Ferrell on his lap).