If Bob Newhart seems more like a kindly grandfather than a legendary comedian, there’s a reason.
The grandfather of 10 long has cultivated his everyman persona – from his dad blazers to his humble stammer. But don’t mistake his low-key demeanor with a low-key legacy. Newhart has remained relevant and revered during a half-century career through smart comedy and hard work. The comedian and TV star celebrated his 85th birthday earlier this month and shows no signs of slowing down.
“I was the last person that I ever thought would still be working at 85 years old. But I found out as retirement got closer, I hated it. I’ve got to do something,” Newhart said in a phone interview with The Bee from his home office in Los Angeles. “I always say I’ve still got my fastball. But it’s more like a slow curve. Heck, even a change-up would qualify.”
Like his good friend Don Rickles, who played Turlock Community Theatre in May, Newhart stays busy touring as a stand-up despite being an octogenarian. Newhart performs at the Gallo Center for the Arts on Sept. 26.
It’s shows like the one in Modesto he said he looks forward to the most. No, seriously. This isn’t one of his trademark deadpans.
“Modesto, you die for those (kind of shows); it’s so close,” he said. “It’s those trips across the country – five to six hours across the country – that hurt. I’m doing one in Jamestown, N.Y., which was Lucy’s hometown, in October. It’s a big celebration of Lucille Ball. But that’s a five- to six-hour flight. You’ve got to deal with losing the luggage and canceling the plane. But once you get on stage, it’s worth all the hassle. I can’t imagine not doing it.”
That’s good, because practically nobody alive today can imagine a time when Newhart wasn’t making people laugh. It was in 1960, after famously working as an accountant, that Newhart released his first comedy album, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.” The live album spent 14 weeks atop the Billboard charts, besting the likes of Elvis Presley and “The Sound of Music.” It also won Grammy Awards for best comedy performance-spoken word, best new artist and album of the year – an unprecedented feat to this day.
Newhart parlayed his successful stand-up career into an even more successful TV career. From 1972 to 1978, he starred in “The Bob Newhart Show” as a mild-mannered Chicago psychologist. He followed that up from 1982 to 1990 by starring in “Newhart” as an equally mild-mannered Vermont inn owner.
He has gone on to appear in many other shows and films, from “The Simpsons” to “Elf.” Last year, he won his first-ever Emmy for a guest-starring role on the CBS hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory.” The honor, he said, was overwhelming.
“That to me was a highlight. I had a number of highlights in my life,” he said, “but I will never forget that moment. That your peers stand up and applaud you. That was really a singular moment.”
The role came about from a longtime admiration “Big Bang Theory” creator Chuck Lorre had for Newhart. He would ask the comedian to appear on his shows over the years, but Newhart said he always declined.
“He said, ‘OK, I am here for my annual turn-down.’ He would approach me about doing this show. I always had an excuse,” Newhart said. “I didn’t want to do (Lorre’s other hit show) ‘Two and a Half Men’ because it was not my kind of show. It’s very successful and congratulations, but no. But then I said, ‘Chuck, I love “Big Bang Theory.” I think it’s very well written.’ ”
Still, before he agreed, Newart had a few very specific requests. On the series, he played a former science show TV host, Professor Proton. He wanted to appear in three episodes instead of just one. And he wanted to film his part in front of a live audience.
“That’s the only way I know how to perform,” he said. “I am doing it because I like to do this and to let people know I still make sense. Though my wife would debate that.”
He said having a live audience has helped his work through the years, and brought audiences more of their favorite characters. He uses the iconic comedic trip of Larry, Daryl and Daryl on his show “Newhart” as an example.
“They went over great, people loved them. Whenever they came back, I was always behind the counter because I knew there was 20 seconds of applause. I always made sure I had something to do when they came on for those 20 seconds, like shuffle papers,” he said. “But if we didn’t do that in front of a live audience, we might never have found out how much people loved Larry, Daryl and Daryl.”
The return to TV, and a live audience, is indeed Newhart’s sweet spot. Whether he is in front of a studio audience or chatting with talk-show hosts like David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel, he always welcomes the interaction.
“I have an advantage because I filled in for Johnny (Carson). Someone told me it was 87 times, I hadn’t kept track,” Newhart said. “So I know how the show works. I know how to make the conversation flow so it looks like conversation and not, ‘OK now I’ll do this bit and then do that bit.’ I know how to make it effortless, which is what the people want to see. People don’t want to see people straining at the end of their long, stressful day.”
Still, Newhart himself said he isn’t much of a TV watcher. Part of that is because he dislikes shows with a laugh track. He will tune in to the late-night shows to catch new, rising comedians. Since he went with his wife of more than 50 years, Ginny, on location to Cape Town for the “Librarian” TV movie series a few years ago, he now also always clicks onto nature shows.
“I watch education shows. When were in South Africa, we thought, ‘Why don’t we do a safari?’ It was just mind-blowing,” he said. “I was struck by the fact that this is the way this part of the world has been for millions of years. Nothing has changed. Lions are still chasing wildebeest. Monkeys are still jabbering in trees.”
While the African savanna may not have changed over time, television has evolved greatly since the days when Newhart and his on-screen wife were the first TV couple on a major show to be shown sleeping together in a single bed. Before then, couples always were depicted going to sleep apart in twin beds.
“That was quite a breakthrough in those years – that married people actually slept together,” he said. “But it’s always changing. I loved ‘Everybody Loves Raymond,’ I thought it was wonderfully cast, and the quality of the writing was incredible. But if I had submitted one of those scripts, CBS would throw it back and said, ‘You’re kidding, you can’t do this on television.’ It’s changing and I find the rhythms are totally different. When I went to Chuck on ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ I told him my rhythms are just different. Today’s are ‘setup, joke; setup, joke; setup, joke; setup, joke.’ Because that’s what the young audience requires. So I said, ‘Am I holding up the show?’ He said, ‘Look, just do what you do, it’s great.’ But I was aware of the differences.”
Still, Newhart said throughout his career, he has known his delivery has been different. And instead of trying to change it, he just embraced it as its own.
“When I first started doing the show – and you can also see in our short conversation – I had this stammer. It’s not an affectation. I’ve always stammered. I consider it a sign of high intelligence, but I have never found a proof that that’s true – it’s just my private theory,” he joked. “So when we were doing the pilot for ‘The Bob Newhart Show,’ we were getting close to mounting it and doing it for a live audience. One of producers and writers asked if I could run some of the speeches together. Because the show was going long. I said, ‘This stammer got me a home in Beverly Hills, I’m not about to drop it. So you’d better take some words out.’ ”
He said these days, he takes great satisfaction in people coming up to him and telling him how much they enjoyed his shows. Unlike movie characters, TV characters have a way of becoming part of the family over the years.
“When you’ve done a TV show, especially a comedy show, you become part of people’s lives much more than a movie star does,” he said. “People will come up to me now, and say, ‘Gee, my mom and I used to watch your show.’ or ‘Dad is gone now, but watching your show with him was one of the great things I remember to this day.’ That’s great to hear from people, that you were a part of their lives. That they would think of you as that.”
In the end, that very sense of family and community is what Newhart said he hopes people get from his comedy. So if he is seen as the kindly grandfather gathering everyone together for a laugh, that’s fine by him.
“This is really a strange world that we are all in, and the only alternative is to laugh,” Newhart said. “I remembered Nathanael West, who wasn’t known as a great comedy writer, said, ‘Look, the world is stacked against us, we’re not going to win. So the only intelligent alternative is to laugh.’ And that has kind of been my philosophy from the beginning. Isn’t this a weird world we’re in? Let’s all huddle together and maybe we can make it out.”