The Comedy Couch

 BOB NEWHART - July 26, 2000

GUY MACPHERSON: This is the longest lead time I've
ever had to write a story.
BOB NEWHART: (laughs) I have to explain. We're going
away with the Rickles. We're
going on vacation. For all of August.

GM: Where are you going?
BN: We're going to Barcelona, and then, uh, and then
the south of France
and Sardinia, and, um, Rome, uh, Sicily, uh, Greece,
Turkey, and, uh, and
then Venice.

GM: Who does the arranging? You go every year, don't
you?
BN: Uh, we haven't gone for a couple of years. All of
a sudden we have
grandchildren and somehow spending time with them was
more important. But we were able to work out our
schedules so we could, we could do it this time.

GM: Have you been there before?
BN: Uh, yeah. Some places we haven't, but we've been
to Venice and we've
been to Rome. And we were in Madrid, never in
Barcelona. So we're looking forward to it.

GM: Do you guys get recognized when you're over there?
BN: Uh... sometimes, yeah.

GM: By American tourists?
BN: By Americ--, yeah. Yeah, largely. Or Canadian.

GM: You're still doing standup. How many shows do you
do a year?
BN: Probably... 25. Maybe. Yeah.

GM: So you just do it because you still love to.
BN: I do two or three a month. Average two or three a
month.

GM: Do you write new material or are you doing your
classics?
BN: I'll probably do, like, two of the classics and,
uh... But then the rest of it is, is... I mean, you're
always kind of writing, you know? I mean, if you're a
comedian, you're always kind of observing and making
notes and working on new material. You can't help it.
It's like a lighthouse, you know? And it just keeps
kind of circling and circling and circling looking for
odd ideas.

GM: Do you find it more difficult to think funny as
you get older?
BN: When I first started out, the first two albums,
it, it just kind of poured out. You know? Like you'd
open these flood gates and they just kind of poured
out. And then the third and maybe with the fifth, they
kind of
trickled out. And it makes you a little nervous. You
say, 'Wow, I'm dry.' And you haven't really run dry,
it's just natural that it just floods out with
the first couple.

GM: Is that because you have a lifetime of thinking of
things up until
the first--
BN: You have this reservoir of material. And now you
have an outlet for it. And then you get down to the
business of just being a standup comic.

GM: Is it that it becomes more of a certain technique,
or a business...?
BN: One thing that happens is your success is kind of
your undoing
because you're kind of taken away from the wellspring
of your material.
So you have to make a conscious effort to not get cut
off. To not surround yourself with too many luxuries
that cut you off from your, from your source.

GM: What kind of luxuries are you talking about?
BN: I mean, for instance, uh... All right. Living in
Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is not a, a microcosm of
the United States. You know? (laughs) And you can,
somehow get fooled by that, thinking it is. So you
have to make a conscious effort. I mean, like, the
Retirement Party was my experience when I was an
accountant. And so you have to kind of go back there,
you
know, and relive and not get too comfortable.

GM: Certain comics, once they have achieved certain
fame, their whole
standup becomes about them being famous rather than
about everyday
things.
BN: What I object to is, is... I happened to be
playing golf with Billy Crystal. Just by chance I
happened to be at the club and--

GM: And everyone can relate to that!
BN: (laughs) I think he was playing with Tom Poston, I
think it was.
And so Tom asked me to join them, and so Billy and I
were talking and I
said to him, I said, "Do you still do standup?" And he
said, "I'm starting to
get back into it." And I said, you know, it really
bothers me that a lot of the young guys coming up,
coming out of standup, once they attain success in
movies or on television, they stop doing standup. And
I think
it's wrong. Because if you're able to do standup I
think you have a
responsibility to do standup.

GM: That's interesting. Why?
BN: Because everyone doesn't have that talent. So you
shouldn't squander it. If you're able to do that, I
think you have an obligation to do it. And he said he
was getting back into it. Plus, the satisfaction that
you can't... I mean, I, I haven't done all that many
movies, but standup is immediate gratification and you
get conditioned to that. And anything less than that
is kind of... I mean, the all the TV shows I did were
always in front of a live audience because I needed
that immediate gratification of is this funny or
isn't it funny? And in a movie you're so disconnected
from the gratification. You don't find out until six
months or a year later whether what you did was any
good or not.

GM: I guess a lot of comics are using their standup as
a steppingstone.
BN: Yeah, I think they've read... they've seen Robin
Williams' and they've seen Billy Crystal's success in
movies, and Tim Allen's, and Jerry Seinfeld's, and the
kind of money that he got from the series... Yeah,
it's a stepping stone. I just read in Montreal, you
know, Just For Laughs, a lot of the comics are, you
know, they're making TV deals up there. Somebody has a
strong standup, they've, you know, they've got a TV
deal.

GM: One good set and they're set.
BN: Yeah.

GM: I read that one of your favourites is Richard
Pryor.
BN: Yeah, yeah.

GM: That seems a little incongruous.
BN: I know, I suppose it does. But once you get away
from the language,
which I don't choose to use, but he does -- and I'd
feel cheated if he didn't. The underlying concept of
the humour is just so funny. At times it's beyond
standup. It's up there with Mark Twain and Will
Rogers. It really is. It's a folklore of a sort. It's
a description of a folklore.

GM: You don't have a problem with the language, per
se.
BN: No, no. You know, I know what all the words are,
and how you say 'em, and what they mean (laughs), I
just choose not to use them.

GM: So are there other such comics who work "blue"
that you admire?...
Or, it just depends on their material, I guess.
BN: Yeah, it depends on their material. I mean, if
it's just shock, um... If it's Andrew Dice Clay, no.
No, I don't find him funny. But at the same time,
humour is so individual. You know, I mean, if people
want to go to see Andrew Dice Clay, then go! I have no
problem with that. If they want to see me, come see
me. If you want to see someone else, see someone else.
I'm not prudish about it. It's just that I don't
choose to work that way. I don't have a problem with
people who do. If the underlying material is funny and
not just gross for grossness sake.

GM: Right, and not racist or hurtful.
BN: Yeah.

GM: Are there some young comics that you do like?
BN: Uh, Steven Wright... Seinfeld, of course. Um, a
kid named Jake
Johannsen. I haven't seen much of him lately. I
thought he was very
promising.

GM: Yeah. He kind of has the stutter that you have!
BN: I guess, yeah, I guess so... (laughs) He doesn't
quite finish sentences. Yeah, I have to differentiate:
Mine is a stammer.

GM: Yes. Well, then his would be, too. But with his,
it seems more of a
character. Yours seems natural.
BN: Uh... Yeah. I know what you're saying. It's the
half-finished sentence or where the ideas are coming
at such a rapid pace that he's on to something else.
But again, how much of that is invented and how much
is Jake, you know? He knows. I just found his concepts
were very funny. He's not a clone of other people.

GM: I saw Ellen DeGeneres a couple weeks ago, doing
her standup. And I
noticed her one-sided conversations, not on the phone,
but they were
very similar to yours. Has anyone ever said that?
BN: Someone had told me that. Yeah, that, I guess, she
has mentioned that I have been influential in her...
To what extent I've been influential, I don't know!
(laughs) I don't know, comedy or otherwise (laughs).

GM: Well, you both like girls.
BN: (laughs)

GM: So maybe you have.
BN: (laughs) Yeah, but I took that as a compliment.
It's very nice.

GM: Who's your favourite rapper? (pause) Nah, I'm just
kidding.
BN: That's the wrong subject.

GM: That's the next interview. Mixed up my notes...
BN: (laughs) Dr. Dre! Because that's the only name I
know. (laughing) So
he would have to be my favourite. Puff... Puff Daddy.

GM: Yeah!
BN: I know the names, you know?

GM: Big Fat Bastard.
BN: I don't want people confusing... that's not
poetry, you know? Don't
confuse it with poetry.

GM: You mentioned you were an accountant. That doesn't
seem like it
would be a good jumping-off point for show business.
But it worked for you. How did that happen?
BN: Well, it was the practical side of growing up in
the midwest. And when I got into comedy, I didn't know
if it was going to be in radio or television or
standup or as a writer. I had no idea. It was like a
toboggan: wherever it went, I went with it. And I
happened to wind up in standup, but I don't
think I ever started out saying I want to be a standup
comedian. I just
wanted to be in comedy is what I wanted.

GM: You just had these bits that you wrote and it
snowballed.
BN: I had these ideas and I couldn't... I was working
at a local TV station in Chicago and it happened to be
at the time that Krushchev was landing in New York and
was being met at the airport by Eisenhower. Oh my
God, that would have to be '56 or '58. '56, I guess.
And I was watching the feed, the network feed, and I
got the idea for Kruschev's Landing. Now I knew I
would never use it anywhere. I mean, I had no need. I
wasn't looking for
material, but I just had to write it. I just heard it
and I had to write it. Whether there was an outlet for
it or not, which probably defines being a comedian as
well as anything. It's something you just have to do.
You're not in control of it. So, I was like a cut
short, one or two cuts short on the second album and,
uh -- I think we recorded it at the hungry i in San
Francisco -- so I threw in Kruschev one night thinking
this is much too inside for anybody. And then realized
that the reaction it got, that people were aware of
television and what goes on on television and that you
spray someone's head because you get shine off it.
You know? And that amazed me. But, I mean, the point
is, I didn't have a choice. The idea came and I had to
get it down on paper. To that extent, I was a prisoner
of the idea, you know?

GM: Whatever happened to Ed Gallagher?
BN: Ed died recently.

GM: But from the time he retired from your act?
BN: Well, Ed went to New York. He was offered a job in
New York and he was married and he had a couple kids
at that point. So for his family's sake, he had to
take the job in New York, you know, for security. So
then I was confronted with, do you try to find another
Ed or do you do it on your own? And I opted to do it
on my own.

GM: Did he ever regret it?
BN: Did Ed?

GM: Yeah. With all the success that you had.
BN: N-no. I think he enjoyed my success. That was one
thing about Ed. He didn't have a choice. I mean, he
had a family. He had to support the family. We weren't
going anywhere. I mean, literally. We were losing
money. We, we were out of pocket - money - with our
radio program. Seeing what happened, maybe he did. But
at the time, there were no
decisions. It was something he had to do.

GM: Were you guys called, like, Newhart and Gallagher?
Or something?
What was your-
BN: (pause) Boy, I forget. We were a poor man's Bob
and Ray. Not as good. But enjoying it as much.
(laughs)

GM: Your routines are still classics, still relevant.
Your Sir Walter Raleigh
Explains Tobacco was probably one of the reasons I
never smoked.
BN: Well then, I did accomplish something in life, I
guess. Somebody else told me that. They played it for
their son and said, "See?" and he said, "Don't worry,
Dad, I'm never going to smoke."

GM: Although you smoked at the time.
BN: Oh yeah. Oh, I smoked up until 15 years ago.

GM: I think everybody should hear that to realize how
stupid it is.
BN: I heard that apparently they give it out to people
who are trying to give up smoking. They have a
cassette of just Sir Walter Raleigh. I had occasion
recently, talking about the material holding up, I did
a date in Cincinatti and the person they were
honouring specifically requested The PR Man for Abe
Lincoln. So I had to go back and I had to listen to it
again because I hadn't done it for a long time. And I
was amazed to find that it held up. Moreso today than
in 1960.

GM: And your Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door
Co.) is probably
one of the reasons why I'm afraid of flying.
BN: (laughs)

GM: And another favourite is the Bus Drivers' School.
Now it's probably--
BN: You know them all!

GM: It's probably been years since you've ridden
public transportation,
but let me tell you, they still drive like that.
BN: (laughs) There's a good example.

GM: Yeah, exactly.
BN: You're cut off from your source. So you really
have to work at... You
either overhear people's conversation because you're
trying to - you're not trying to eavesdrop, but you're
trying to see what people are talking about and what's
going on in their lives, you know? But you have to
work at it. The more successful you are, the harder
you have to work at it.

GM: Any more series for you?
BN: You never say never, but I don't want to go
through the disappointment again. I mean, you invest
so much of yourself into it and
then...

GM: You're talking about the last two?
BN: The last two, yeah. Emotionally, it just takes an
awful lot out of
you.

GM: What were the problems with them?
BN: Well, with George and Leo, we had a cast problem
that we never really solved. We never resolved the
relationship with my son and his
girlfriend-slash-wife. We were searching. We were
searching on air (laughs), you know? And it never
really quite... It's a very tough thing to find. And
it happens rarely. I mean, Friends and Seinfeld and
Frasier and Mary Tyler Moore, those shows were all
great. Our show, the Bob Newhart Show and Newhart,
they were great casts and there was a chemistry there
and it
worked.

GM: It's something that strikes a chord. It's the
cast, it's the writing, it's...
BN: It's actually the writing and then it's the cast.
And we never quite resolved that with George and Leo.

GM: What about movies? Was your last one In and Out or
have you done
others since?
BN: The last one was In and Out. I did a thing with
Kelsey Grammer, which is going to be out in November,
I understand, on ShowTime. It's a short half-hour,
um... They're doing like a sports anthology series, I
think, called Sports Pages or Sports Page or something
like that. And ours is on golf and I think the
hour-long one is on the day when NBC, or whoever it
was, cut away from the end of the Super Bowl for
Heidi. We shot that up
in Vancouver, as a matter of fact.

GM: Oh really.
BN: Yeah. With Kelsey and, uh...

GM: So you've been here before.
BN: Oh, yeah. I played the Cave years ago.

GM: My dad was the band leader at the Cave.
BN: Was he? Oh, my God.

GM: Yeah. Fraser MacPherson.
BN: Yeah. Oh my God.

GM: So what year were you there?
BN: Oh, I'm guessing late sixties, early seventies.

GM: Have you ever worked with Rickles?
BN: Yeah, he did my show. He did Newhart. We did, we
did a talk show
and I was kind of his Ed McMahon. And he was terrible
to me.

GM: There are a couple movies coming out this summer
with older actors.
Buddy movies with Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Donald
Sutherland, the
other one has Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds... You
know, you and Rickles should do one.
BN: Yeah. We haven't been approached. Yeah, if the
right material, decent material came along, I'd love
to do it.

GM: What can we expect at your standup show?
BN: Probably a couple of the classics. And then
observations. It's a month away, so anything. You
know, I could pick up, uh, the paper tomorrow and
there's an item in there and I say, "Oh, that's a
funny idea," and expand on it.

GM: Or something that happened in Europe.
BN: It could be our trip, yeah, with the Rickles.

GM: Do you ever just sit back and marvel at the career
that you've
had?
BN: (laughs)

GM: It's amazing.
BN: (laughs) Uh, there are times when I'm reminded...
I mean, I go back to Chicago. I'm on the board of trustees of my
university and I go back to Chicago and that kind of
brings me up short every so often. "Oh, wow," you
know? After I went to Loyola, I'd go in and have a
beer, you go, "Wow, has that much time passed?" You know.

 

 
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