Bob Newhart’s silence speaks volumes.
That’s because what the legendary comedian doesn’t say is as important as what he does. In the classic bit “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” for example, Newhart plays a press agent trying to convince the president to do things his way. The conversation takes place shortly before Lincoln is to deliver the Gettysburg Address. The humor flows from the part of the telephone conversation the audience doesn’t hear.
Newhart: “Abe, do the speech the way Charlie wrote it, will you? The inaugural address swung, didn’t it?”
Pause for Lincoln’s response.
Newhart: “All right, anything else?”
Pause for Lincoln’s response.
Newhart: “You talked to some newspaper men? Abe, I wish you wouldn’t talk to newspaper men.”
Pause for Lincoln’s response.
Newhart: “That’s just what I mean, Abe. No, no. No, no, no. You were a rail splitter and then an attorney.”
Pause for Lincoln’s response.
Newhart: “Abe, it doesn’t make any sense that way. I mean, you wouldn’t give up your law practice to become a rail splitter, would you?”
The routine has Newhart trying to convince Lincoln to keep his beard, lose the cardigan sweater and forget boiling down “four score and seven years ago” to the simpler “87.”
The Lincoln routine was among Newhart’s earliest bits. It’s included on his first album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” which upon its 1960 release became the first comedy album to top the charts. That and six subsequent albums didn’t just open doors; they knocked them down. From appearances on Ed Sullivan’s variety show to a string of movie roles, Newhart found himself in constant demand.
Today he’s best known for roles on two successful situation comedies – “The Bob Newhart Show,” in which he played a psychologist in Chicago, and “Newhart,” which moved him to the Northeast, where his character was an innkeeper and writer of how-to books in Vermont. The final episode of that show proved a classic, with Newhart waking up in his old apartment in Chicago, the whole run of “Newhart” just a strange dream.
Newhart was honored in 2002 by the Kennedy Center with the Mark Twain Prize. Among his many other honors: TV Land erected a statue of Newhart in Chicago depicting him in his role as a psychologist.
A telephone conversation with Newhart is a rare pleasure. Talking with Newhart would, to borrow his own setup line, go something like this.
At this stage of your career, what compels you to go out on the road again?
I’ve never really stopped going out on the road. Even when I was doing the television series, when we were in hiatus I’d go to Vegas or Tahoe or Cleveland. I just can’t ever imagine not doing standup. It’s so much a part of my life. I had an opportunity of maybe six months not doing anything and it drove me nuts. I do about 20, 25 dates a year.
And golfing the rest of the time?
Golfing and grandchildren. And seeing friends.
I’m sure you run into younger people who see your name on the marquee and aren’t sure what you do other than your series of television shows.
Exactly. Yeah. They’re unaware of the standup. And I did standup for 12 years before I did the first television show.
Was that the first "Bob Newhart Show" or the second "Bob Newhart Show"?
Actually, the first "Bob Newhart Show" was a kind of a variety show. We got a Peabody Award, an Emmy Award and a pink slip from NBC all in the same year. I really consider my television career probably starting with the Bob Newhart Show in ’72.
You were the first standup comic to get a sitcom on television. I think you opened the door for everyone who came after you.
I suppose. There had been comedians like George Burns and, of course, Jack Benny but they had transitioned from radio into television. I haven’t really researched it. I guess maybe I did. I don’t know if that’s good or not to be known for that.
Was that a difficult transition for you to make, going from nightclubs to starring in your own television series?
Uh, no because the kind of stuff I did and that Mike and Elaine did and Shelley [Berman] was kind of observational comedy. They weren’t jokes. They weren’t “Take my wife, please” kind of routines. They were little vignettes of pieces of life. So I had always been an observer of people. I think comedians, really, are observers of people. I know, in the very first Bob Newhart Show usually there was a monologue, which I felt comfortable in. Then there’d be a musical guest and then we’d do a sketch. I really never felt very comfortable in the sketches. You say to yourself I’m going to have to learn how to do this because this is part of what being a comedian entails, learning how to act and so by the time, in 72 when we did the pilot for the Bob Newhart Show I had been awful in enough things to turn into a fairly good actor. I remember Matt Hiken, who was a great sketch writer on Broadway and of course was responsible for the Phil Silvers “Sgt. Bilko” show, he said one day. We were working on a project and he said you never learn anything from a good show. He said you only learn something from a bad show. I guess you have to be bad before you can be good and there’s no getting around it.
Did the point come when you realized during "The Bob Newhart Show" that you would be successful at acting?
Yeah, I think so. I think people, I’m sure people thought it was me just being me. I didn’t think of it that way. I thought of it as acting. I never thought the show really got the recognition it should have gotten because we all made it look too easy. We should have made it look harder. I think it deserved some recognition. It’s not bitterness. They kind of took us for granted. We kind of lived in the shadow of Mary Tyler Moore, following her show as we did for six years. Then the show went to Nick at Nite and it began to establish itself on its own. Then the show began to get some recognition as having been good, having good writing and good acting.
Do you think if you were starting this today and went to the network and pitched the idea for "The Bob Newhart Show," would it make it on the air?
In all honestly, probably not. It would probably have to be edgier.
Any possibility at all of you coming back to TV?
No. I don’t see that. No. I had my run and it was a great run and now it’s somebody else’s turn. I don’t have a problem with that. The two shows that didn’t work, "Bob" and "George and Leo," were kind of, they were hard to take. You invest so much of yourself into it and then when it doesn’t work there’s a tremendous letdown. I don’t know that I’d ever want to subject myself to that again.
What made you try to capture lightning in a bottle twice with the "Newhart" show? You came back to television to do another sitcom.
With “Newhart,” I knew I was always going to come back to television. When I left after six years of the Bob Newhart Show I was sure I was going to come back to television because I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the creative process and I had been accepted by the audience. So I always knew I was going to come back to TV. I knew I wasn’t leaving TV to start a motion picture career. It was just something to do. There were four years in between. I did some movies and continued to do personal appearances. But always in the back of my mind I knew I was going to come back to television.
What did it take to get you back on television? Was it just the idea of "Newhart"?
No. What actually happened was I was in Seattle in the time. My wife and I, I was doing a week up in Seattle at a theater there. Doing standup. I had already started thinking about coming back on television. We went into the coffee shop. I saw other guests that were having lunch. Then there were employees who were sitting there and having lunch. I thought to myself that would be a good setting for a small pocket Hilton or something like that. Because it would have a lot of the same elements we had that worked in "The Bob Newhart Show." The employees were, the patrons of the hotel would be like my clients, my patients. Because you had to be nice to them, the customer’s always right kind of thing. Behind the scenes, the people working, that would be the home life with Emily and Bill. I had this idea. I called up. To do it in a hotel in Seattle, a small hotel. I called up my manager, who is one of the founders of MTM. I said I’m thinking about maybe coming back on television. He said well don’t tell anybody. He said because I know how to handle this. He went to Bud Grant, who was then president of CBS Entertainment. He said I’m not sure but I think I may able to talk Bob back into coming on television. Are you interested? And Bud said yes, of course we are. I think Artie said what kind of guarantee? It was either a 13 or a 22, I forget which it was, which is like unheard of now. So he put me together with Barry Kemp and I described this idea I had. He said what do you think about an inn in Vermont. I said yeah, that will still work for me. We could take advantage of some of the some stuff that was indigenous to the north, northeast, like town hall meetings and that kind of thing and the Colonial period. So he went off and he wrote the script, sent me a copy of it. I read it and I liked it. Then we began the task of casting it. So that’s kind of how it evolved.
Why do you think those two shows, of the four sitcoms you did, worked and “Bob” and “George and Leo” didn’t quite catch on.
I think probably “Bob,” the job setting was just kind of esoteric. The older people in the audience pictured a comic book as being Dick Tracy and that kind of thing, Smiling Jack. The younger people picture it as kind of the maddog comic books of today. I think it was the setting. I don’t think people identified with that as a viable line of work. And then “George and Leo,” it was weird working with Judd [Hirsch], We had some casting problems we never really solved. And I think we got caught a little where the networks wanted to have full ownership of the show and preferred renewing one of their own shows as opposed to a show they didn’t have a piece of. Which was the case of “George and Leo.” But that begs the question, would we have been able to solve that casting question. We really hadn’t been able to.
What in particular was the casting problem?
It was my son’s wife-to-be and life outside Judd and myself. We kept trying and trying and trying. It just never worked. I don’t know that we ever could have solved it. Also with “George and Leo,” I don’t think the writing ever came up to the pilot. The writing in the pilot was just wonderful. It was one of the best table readings I’ve ever been to. I thought the pilot was just wonderful. We never quite reached that level again.
You mentioned before about comedy moving away from that my wife is so fat kind of jokes and to more vignettes, more thoughtful comedy. I was wondering why you thought comedy had suddenly moved in that direction.
Well, it turns out it was a sea change in comedy. The people I mentioned -- Mike and Elaine, Shelley, myself, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce -- we were all kind of lumped together. It was just our way of looking at life. We weren’t married. We weren’t doing mother-in-law jokes. We weren’t doing wife jokes. And all of us working apart from each other were working at the same thing.
It certainly was a new twist to comedy and the launch of recorded comedy acts, things you could listen to over and over again instead of the same old joke.
Exactly. And you could hear, I think in the recorded material, each time you listened to it you found something you hadn’t heard the first time. I wish I could take credit for that. But that wasn’t by design. It was just a more subtler way of doing humor, and more probably cerebral, I guess, so that you could listen to it over and over and over. It wasn’t like the did you hear the one about and you say oh I know that joke.
I read that when Warner Bros. wanted to record your album, you had not performed in front of an audience at that point.
Well, I had never performed in front of a nightclub audience. I had performed to a very limited extent. There might be a club date in Chicago or some kind of benefit affair that somebody who knew about me would ask me to appear at. I remember one time I was in Chicago and they had this big benefit. They were celebrating probably Harry Truman’s 75th birthday or something like that. Backstage they had 100 Harry Truman look-alikes. That was kind of surreal, walking into a room of people who looked like -- allegedly looked like -- Harry Truman. In a lot of cases I couldn’t notice the likeness at all. No, I had never done a nightclub.
Was that nerve-wracking, having to get up in a nightclub and do this recording?
Terror. Terror would better describe what it was like. You just, you have to learn how to do it. There’s no choice. There’s no book you read and you find out how to do it. You can only do it by doing it.
What made you overcome that terror?
Well, I recorded the album in February of 1960. It came out in about May of 1960. It just took off. It went through the roof, literally. Now I was getting calls: do you want to do six Ed Sullivan shows? A year ago my appearing on Ed Sullivan was the furthest thing from my mind. So the momentum of that just kind of carried me along. And then people wanted to see me perform the album, so I began to learn as I was doing it, learn how to be a standup.
Were you so driven that the idea of taking the stage was secondary to getting this done?
Was I so driven? I don’t know if it was driven. It was more I don’t know what the hell I’m doing but they don’t seem to realize it. And I just hope this keeps going. I hope they don’t get on to me too soon that I don’t know what I’m doing.
Any idea back that then this would have opened the doors for so many things for you?
No. I got married in ‘63. And we had a son in ‘63, 11 months later, being good Catholics. All of a sudden we had this responsibility. I was like that was all right when you were single but now these two people are kind of depending on you to provide. I don’t really know if I’m all that good at this. There was that apprehension. Before I had nothing to lose. I was single. I suddenly realized "You’d better get kind of good at this."
What made you realize that you were funny?
I don’t know where it came from. I just saw things differently, and at the same time saw things the same. Because people hear the routine and they would say, “Yeah, I’ve seen that like a hundred times. Yeah, he’s right. That’s the way it is.” I don’t know if you’re born with it or it’s a skill you develop. I don’t try to question it. It’s just there, thank God.
But you didn’t jump into comedy.
You did accounting.
I did accounting and I left that. Then I did some copyrighting. Then another guy and I had a kind of half-assed radio show.
This is Ed Gallagher?
Ed Gallagher. Kind of a poor man Bob and Ray kind of show. That showed some promise. It didn’t pan out. Then Ed went to New York. He took a job in New York. He had a growing family. I said well to hell with it. I’m going to give this a shot and see what happens. I decided I would give it a year and then one year stretched into two years and two years stretched into three years. I think it was more other people’s faith in me. A local disc jockey in Chicago who kept encouraging me who eventually was the one who played the tapes for the Warner Bros. people. They said we’ll record your next nightclub. I explained that I’d never played a nightclub. They said well, we’ll have to get you in a nightclub. I was just kind of swept along by events, I guess.
What’s the process of creating one of your classic bits like Abraham Lincoln’s press agent? What’s involved in going from the idea to the finished phone conversation?
I think you put down all the things you know about it. Once you have the concept, it tends to write itself, it tends to just come full born. You write about Abe Lincoln: Gettysburg address, writing on backs of envelopes, he was a rail splitter. What else do I know about Abe? And just kind of putting all those things down and figuring out which ones are right for the premise?
Did the premise start with Abe Lincoln or with his PR guy?
It started off with a PR guy for Abe Lincoln. It started off with a book called "The Hidden Persuaders" by Vance Packard, which was a book about sublimation and how the advertising industry had been able to really create an image that they wanted to create. And the premise was if there hadn’t been an Abe Lincoln, would Madison Avenue have been able to have created one, as good as the one that actually existed. That was the premise. I knew I had a good premise and I just kind of ran with it.
People who come to your concerts, do they expect you to do certain of these routines?
Yeah. I think so. I’ll probably do one or two of the record routines, for that reason, because that’s what some people remember. And the rest of it is just kind of observational on this goofy planet we all inhabit.
I’ve heard how you twist the driving instructor bit.
Yeah. The driving instructor became politically incorrect and that’s kind of crept in. It’s become a kind of campaign. I think it’s silly. People are funny. I don’t care if they’re Chinese. I don’t care if they’re women. I don’t care if they’re men. People are funny. We’re beginning to lose our national sense of humor about ourselves. There are all these groups that are immediately offended. I would hear a murmur when I said "and seated next to me is a woman driver." So then one night I said, "OK, if you’re offended it doesn’t have to be a woman driver. I’ll make it a Chinese driver" and then proceeded to do the routine in my Chinese and then explained they could have eight more minutes of this or I could do it as a woman driver.
Do you tweak any of your other routines like that?
That’s the only one I can think of. There’s kind of a theme that we do have to laugh at ourselves and not take ourselves so seriously.
On both your successful shows, the “Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart,” you went to the phone a lot. Was that playing to your strengths?
Yeah. That came out of the record albums. I became kind of identified with the telephone, and so whenever they could they would have the phone ring and have me pick it up.
Other comedians have tried to do similar bits. Richard Belzer tried to do a tribute at the Mark Twain ceremony and it didn’t quite come off. At the end he said only Bob Newhart can do Bob Newhart.
So it’s not as easy as it looks.
I guess it isn’t. I know George Scott, I was playing with George Scott one day and we were on the fourth hole or something and he said in that gruff voice of his, he said How do you do those telephone routines I do. I said well George I ask a question and then I leave enough time for the person to answer and then I ask another question. George says That’s amazing. That’s amazing. I thought to myself, no George, Patton is amazing. (laughs)
When you make a phone call, do people listen in?
(laughs) I’m not used to having somebody on the other end. That’s what kind of throws me. That was one of the problems, as I mentioned before, with the sketch. My routines with people as I saw them, and then when I was in the sketch I hadn’t pictured the person quite like the person that was in the sketch with me. That kind of threw me for a while. I realized I’d better learn how to do this.
On the Dean Martin show, when you were playing the man trying to return the toupee, he was the one who was thrown off. He couldn’t stop laughing.
What happened was they came to Dean and they wanted him to do a television show. So he said OK, but I only want to come in one day a week. Thinking that would kill it, that no one in their right mind would agree to no rehearsal and just coming in one day a week, which was Sunday. NBC said OK. So Dean on Sunday he would be there. We’d all rehearse during the week. I’d rehearse with [producer/director] Greg Garrison or just kind of walk through what I was going to do. And Dean would come in. I rehearsed with Greg. I never rehearsed with Dean. Dean would be in his dressing room. Sometimes he’d look up at the monitor and other times he’d be involved in conversation and he wouldn’t look up at the monitor. He just had the cue cards over my shoulder. So he didn’t really know the bit. He didn’t even know what the premise was going to be.
He hadn’t read that far ahead.
No. No. It just started to strike him funny. He started to laugh. That’s like blood in the water to a comedian when you’ve got somebody doing that. I said to him are you sure you worked with Jerry Lewis. He said what would you like in exchange. I said what I really like is a straight man who didn’t laugh. That was the end of it. He was gone after that. (laughs) There was a trust. We were both coming from nightclubs, which is pretty unpredictable. I wasn’t afraid to go where he was going. He wasn’t afraid to go where I was going. We had that kind of trust between us.
It certainly made for a memorable bit.
Yeah. It was a lot of fun.
Who influenced your comedy?
I think every good comedian I ever saw work, probably. I mean, I studied comedians. I watched them work. I would say I wonder why that’s funny. Oh, OK, I see why that’s funny. I’ve got to remember that. Without mimicking them, just watching their technique and saying I’m going to have to learn how to do that. Jack Benny certainly influenced me. Not from a timing standpoint. I’m not sure you can teach timing. I think that’s an innate thing that you have or you hear. I’m not even sure it’s knowing good timing. I think it’s more knowing bad timing and hearing it done wrong and saying no, no, no, that it’s right, no, that isn’t right. Oh, that’s right, OK.
It’s interesting you mention the timing because in your routines what you don’t say is as important as what you do say and how long you don’t say it is equally important.
Exactly. Exactly. Especially in the telephone routines. What I’m saying is not funny at all. What I’m saying to Abe is not funny. It’s what he is saying. When I say to him No, Abe, you were a rail splitter and then an attorney. You wouldn’t give up your law practice to become a rail splitter. It’s his end of the conversation.
That line at the end -- Abe, why don’t you take in a play -- that got you labeled as a sick comic for a while.
Yeah, we were all kind of lumped together. It was that and it was making fun of a revered president. Lenny Bruce obviously was. Mike and Elaine did a routine on making funeral arrangements for his uncle. And Shelly did a thing on a ledge. So we were kind of lumped together as what was termed then as sick comics.
I don’t think that’s a deserved label, at least in your case.
Well, to the extent that we were exploring areas that maybe hadn’t been explored before. I never felt that way. Certainly by today’s standards.
Did you move in those circles, Lenny Bruce and Mike and Elaine and Shelley Berman?
No. I can’t say we would run into each other. I ran into Lenny a couple of times. I went to see Lenny at a club. But I kind of knew Mike and Elaine from the Sullivan show and Shelley from the Sullivan show. The four of us were all in Chicago at the same time. Mike and Elaine and Shelley knew each other. They were in a thing called the Compass Players, which was a predecessor to Second City. But I had no contact with them.
I wonder what was the competition was like, either for bookings or for when the records came out. Suddenly there was a flood of comedy albums and everybody was trying to get theirs bought and heard. Was there any kind of competition between you and the other comedians out there?
Ah, I suppose so. I never felt it with Mike and Elaine. I was at a club called Freddy’s in Minneapolis and got a call from Bob Finkel to do, I guess it would have been the 1960 Emmy Awards in California. So I went to the club owner, a guy named Pete, and I said, “Can you let me off over the weekend? They want me to do the Emmy Awards. Just tack the days on when I come back.” He said, “Yeah, yeah, sure. That’s great publicity.” So I flew out to California on, I guess Saturday night, and arrived late Saturday night and then Sunday was the Emmy Awards telecast. Mike and Elaine were doing a routine on shampoo and one of the sponsors of the show was Clairol. I was supposed to do I think Abe Lincoln was the routine they originally wanted me to do. They came to Mike and Elaine and said, “Well, the sponsor has a problem with you doing that routine.” They said, “We’re sorry, but that’s the routine we’ve chosen to do”. And they said, “Well, the sponsor really is objecting to it.” Mike and Elaine said, “Fine, then we’ll leave ‘cause we feel that our integrity is at stake.” Then they came to me. They said, “Do you have another routine you can do?” The theme was television, I think, and advertising and that kind of thing. I said, “There’s one I can do but it really doesn’t have much to do with television.” They said it doesn’t matter. We’ve got to fill the spot. What is it? I was in the makeup room at NBC. There was the writer, Ed Simmons, and Bob Finkel was the producer. I did the submarine commander. They said, “Oh, OK, do that. We’ll have to find a reason.” They came up with a premise as to why I would be doing the submarine commander, which really had nothing to do with television.
Was there any concern about going on TV and doing the routines off the records, that that might spoil it for a live audience?
Yes, there was, but how else do you get known? You do a Sullivan show and your business went up. You could measure how much it meant to do a successful Sullivan show.
What happened that made you realize you were going to have a successful career?
I don’t know that there was ever that feeling (laughs). Maybe after the success of the first show, the “Bob Newhart Show,” the one with Suzanne, probably bolstered my confidence somewhat.
You have a routine where you talk about seeing people in the audience moving their lips along with yours throws you off. Do you actually get that?
No. No. It gets a good reaction, but no.
You’ve mentioned in other interviews your admiration for Richard Pryor. What was it? Because it seems like you two come at things from opposite sides of the street.
Yeah, we’re 180 degrees away. I guess it’s like one jazz musician listening to another jazz musician. You realize what he’s doing and you kind of respect him for that and the language has nothing to do with it. I think I said on the Mark Twain thing, I thought he was the perfect choice to be the first one [given the Mark Twain Prize] because what he did was closest to what Mark Twain did. It introduced me and millions of other people to what it was like growing up in an urban environment. He was given an award by the American Comedy Awards, I think it was called. I had mentioned to George Schlatter what a huge fan I was of Richard Pryor. He said we’re going to honor him. Would you present him with it? I said I’d love to. I had gone to concerts he had given and gone backstage afterwards and talked to him. He was in the wheelchair by that point. We showed a retrospective of his life. We went to commercial. At that point, I went and stood next to him and presented him with the award. Then we went to a press group in one of those side rooms. He said to me, (in Richard Pryor’s voice) “I stole your album.” I said, “What’d you say, Rich?” He said, “I stole your album in Peoria. I went into a record store and I put it in my jacket.” (laughs) Knowing his reaction, I said, “Well, Richard I used to get 25 cents an album in royalty.” He turned to people with him and said, “Give me a quarter, somebody get me a quarter.” He handed me a quarter. (laughs)
Do you still have that quarter?
Still have it.
The Mark Twain Prize, that must have been an incredible honor for you.
Yeah. It really came out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting it. We brought the whole family, all the grandchildren and everybody, back to D.C. so it was a very special evening. It was at the Kennedy Center. I campaigned for Jack and had gotten to know Ethel pretty well and invited her. She was there.
In terms of honors, that’s up there. Is there some other recognition you would like to have one day?
Like you say, that’s really up there. Maybe my induction into the Television Hall of Fame would rank with that. That was a very special evening. When you realize the company you’re joining it’s kind of numbing to realize that you’re joining Lucy and Johnny Carson and Jackie Gleason and Berle and Sid Caeser and on and on and on.
You certainly belong up there.
Well, thank you.
Who do you think you influenced as a comedian?
I hope I inspired some people to do it. Because it is great. When it’s working, it’s just great. It’s totally enjoyable and you don’t want it to end. Without it being specific, I hope I’ve inspired some people. We don’t have enough of them. There’s never enough people who make you laugh.
I have to thank you for all the laughs over the years.
Well, it was my pleasure.