The Comedy Couch

 BOB NEWHART - April 14, 2006

GUY MACPHERSON: It's been six years since I spoke to
you last.
BOB NEWHART: Is that right?

GM: That's right. I guess you've been wondering how
I've been doing.
BN: (laughs)

GM: No. What's new with you? Have you been on any
trips?
BN: Yeah. Yeah, I've been on a few. This past month
every weekend was on the east coast. And I suddenly
realized I can't do that anymore. That's why I'm
looking forward to Vancouver. Because, you know, it's
a six-hour trip back from the east coast.

GM: Every weekend you say?
BN: The past four weekends, yeah. Doing standup.

GM: How many gigs a year do you do now?
BN: I do about thirty.

GM: Still?
BN: Yeah, thirty one-nighters.

GM: Have you given much thought to the longevity of
your career. You seem to go from success to success
while others who may have been huge once have petered
out. I won't mention any names.
BN: (laughs) That's for somebody else to say. I mean,
I have my own theory. I had a confirmation of my
theory. Sometime back I did a Showtime special. And I
went on a radio show here in L.A. I went on and
announced I was going to be appearing somewhere and
call here for tickets. The audience was largely 35 to
40 years old. I reprised some of the original first
and second album material and it worked in exactly the
same way it worked the first time. I guess the
material is as relevant today... The Abe Lincoln
routine is probably more relevant today than it was
40-some years ago.

GM: Why is that?
BN: Because of the spin-meisters and the focus groups
and the way politics is run now. It's run by polls and
focus groups. So it's even more true today, I think,
than it was some 40 years ago.

GM: You couldn't have foreseen this 40 years ago when
you wrote it. So it's just the quality of material
that's kept you going?
BN: Well, I guess it's the universality of the
material. Every so often I'll pull out one of the
acorns and they still work. So there's something about
the universality of it.

GM: There's also something about you, too. There must
be. Because it's your TV shows, from your series even
to Desperate Housewives -- which owes its success all
to you!
BN: (laughs) All because of me!

GM: It's your sexy quality. But I mean, there's
something about you, too, right? A universal quality
to yourself.
BN: Oh, I suppose I wear well, yeah. I remember when I
was doing Newhart and someone asked me, they said,
"Who do you think will be the next Newhart?" And right
away I said Jerry Seinfeld. Because Jerry just wears
well. You're not threatened by him. You're
comfortable. And I guess people are comfortable with
me. Especially in Canada. When I go there, it works.
They're nice people and they enjoy the material.

GM: Maybe it's a northern thing. You're from Chicago,
close to Canada.
BN: I think the thing about it is when you grow up in
Chicago there's such a thing as putting on airs, you
know? And you just learn not to put on airs. Don't act
like, "Oh boy, I'm somebody." They'll slap you down.

GM: I always intuitively knew what button-down meant
from your albums. But I looked it up last night and it
says 'unimaginatively conventional.' That's not right!
BN: (laughs) You know what that was? I didn't even
have a hand in it. Somebody at Warner Brother Records,
there was the Abe Lincoln routine, merchandising the
Wright Brothers, and no one will ever play baseball.
And they all had to do kind of with Madison Avenue and
advertising and public relations and marketing. And at
that time everybody was wearing the button-down
collar. It was the uniform on Madison Avenue. So
someone at Warner Brother Records said "the
button-down mind" and it stuck.

GM: You say your first love is standup.
BN: Yup.

GM: But that came after the [private] recordings,
right?
BN: Yeah. The [album] recordings were made at my very
first standup date in Houston, Texas. And of course I
had no idea how it was going to be received. I mean, I
was totally unprepared the rush. I had to kind of
pinch myself everyday and say 'wow!'.

GM: But you knew the material was gold from the
reactions you were getting from the private
recordings.
BN: At best, I hoped it might sell 25,000 and it would
be an adjunct to a standup career where maybe a couple
hundred people in the town had heard of the album and
would come in to see you. But I never thought of it as
the break-out hit that it was.

GM: Any idea how many it sold over the years?
BN: I've been told the first one was in excess of a
million and I think it's above that. But no, I've
never gotten an actual... I finally found out the
other day that I lost a record that I never knew I
had, which was the number one and number two album on
the Billboard charts for thirty-some years. The number
of weeks it was on was the record and that lasted for
some thirty-some years. And then it was beaten by
Guns'n'Roses. Their number one and number two albums
stayed on the charts longer than mine.

GM: But where are they now?
BN: And I always said, well, at least it went to a
friend.

GM: (laughs) Did you have to be forced on stage?
BN: No, I didn't have to be forced because what
happened was I had this disc jockey friend in Chicago
and he said, "I have this friend of mine who I think
is very funny." So they said, "Well, let's hear him."
So Dan called me up and said "put some of your stuff
on tape and I'll play it for them." So I put it on
tape and brought it down there and they listened to it
and they liked it. And they said, "Okay, we'll record
you at your next night club." I said, "I've never
played a night club." And they said, "Well, we're
going to have to get you in to play a night club." No
one had to force me, but I was terrified when I walked
out, not knowing how it would be received. But at the
same time, I'd spent so many years of nothing
happening that this was the first glimmer of any kind
of good stuff coming along.

GM: How old were you then?
BN: Uh, I think thirty.

GM: This was in 1960, right?
BN: Yeah.

GM: I think of comics of the day sort of having fast
patter and being really big [in their actions].
BN: There was a change that was going on, of which I
was part of. There was Mike and Elaine [Nichols &
May], Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, myself, Johnny
Winters, and Lenny Bruce. We weren't doing "take my
wife, please" jokes. We weren't doing "jokes"; we were
doing little vignettes. So there was a change in
comedy. I mean, we didn't all get together and have a
cabal and say let's change comedy; it was just our way
of finding what was funny in the world.

GM: You did it all individually.
BN: Yeah, yeah!

GM: Did you model your act or style on anyone in
particular?
BN: Well, I guess if anybody, Jack Benny. I've always
been credited with Jack's timing. I don't think you
can teach timing. I think timing is something that you
hear. But I kind of patterned myself after Jack. I
always said that Jack was fearless. He was
absolutely... As a standup comic, he was fearless.
Because he wasn't afraid of silence. He would take
whatever time it took to tell the story and get the
laugh. So if I learned from anybody, it certainly
would have been Jack Benny. Another would have been
George Gobel. As I said in the past, all of a sudden I
realized, "Oh my God, you don't have to put on women's
clothes and walk on your ankles to get laughs."

GM: Not that there's anything wrong with that.
BN: Not that there's anything wrong with that, no.
(laughs)

GM: I know that you like different styles. I know
Richard Pryor was one of your favourites. But did you
see the movie The Aristocrats?
BN: No, I heard about it. And of course I knew the
joke. The joke's been around for years and years and
years.

GM: Would you have done it?
BN: No (laughs).

GM: Did you think the joke was funny?
BN: When I heard it, yeah, I thought it was funny.
Then when I heard about [the movie], everyone seems to
think that George Carlin and Bob Saget did the best
Aristocrats version.

GM: But you haven't heard them.
BN: No.

GM: So this would be the kind of joke that you heard
and might have told in private but you're just not
interested in performing it?
BN: Yeah. I'm not going to, after all these years,
branch out into that. No. I just get a kick out of
doing a show and having it well received and I haven't
had to resort to anything like that. But at the same
time I can listen to Richard Pryor and become
absolutely hysterical.

GM: And others like him? Or just him?
BN: Well, he's influenced so many. There are a lot of
road company Richard Pryors out there.

GM: What's one thing the public would be surprised to
learn about you?
BN: Uh, probably the bestiality thing.

GM: Oh yeah.
BN: That's coming out (laughs) despite my attempts to
quell it.

GM: Well, you know, with the internet these days
everything gets out there.
BN: (laughs)

GM: I read that when you were young you had this
aversion to public speaking. But obviously you don't
have this aversion anymore.
BN: That's an urban myth. I never had an aversion
because I was active in the drama club. If I had that
aversion I certainly wouldn't put myself in the
position of being on stage. Of course, in the drama
club you're hiding behind a character.

GM: I read that in a book about the rebel comics of
the fifties and sixties.
BN: Time magazine called us - the ones I mentioned -
they called us the sick comics of their day, Lenny
Bruce and myself and Johnny Winters and Mike and
Elaine and Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl.

GM: You were included as a sick comic?
BN: Yeah. Well, because I was making fun of one of our
revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln. That hadn't been
done before. I was making Abe out to be a dim bulb.

GM: Jonathan Winters was kind of like your Art Tatum,
wasn't he? Some piano players would hear Art Tatum and
go, "I can't play anymore."
BN: I said that once. I went to see Johnny and I was
just starting in standup. I really had never worked in
a club when I saw him in a club in Chicago. And I
said, "What's the point? He's the best there is." But
then I said to myself, "Number four isn't bad, you
know?" (laughs)

GM: That's a very Canadian attitude! That's why we
like you.
BN: My grandmother was from St. Catherine's. Maybe
that's where I get it from.

GM: Was there any resentment from other comics at the
time at how fast your broke?
BN: If there was, I wasn't aware of it. I suppose
there was. It's only natural. Especially among whoever
you usurped at that point in time, whoever that was. I
remember when I was the number one comic, I'd hear
people say on Sullivan they have this new comic who's
supposed to be very funny, and I'd watch him and I'd
laugh and say, "Yeah, he's good. He's good." And that
went on and on and on. And then I saw Bill Cosby. And
I said, "Okay, Bill, go run with it. It's yours now."
It was kind of a relief, you know? (laughs)

GM: Yeah, whatever happened to Bill Cosby?
BN: Exactly.

GM: I'm really excited to learn that you have a book
coming out.
BN: Yeah.

GM: When is that coming out?
BN: I think they're shooting for September (2006).

GM: What kind of book is it?
BN: Well, it covers a lot of things. It covers the
conceptualization of some of the routines, where they
came from, some movies I've been in and some weird
things that have happened in movies, the first
television show, The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart,
observations. It covers really a wide range of things.
And the buzz I'm getting back is being very well... I
mean, the galleys are out there and they're being well
received.

GM: Was it difficult to remember these things?
BN: Yeah. The hardest part was remembering some of the
things pre-celebrity. Because there was no reason to
remember them. I didn't think that anybody would ever
want to know anything about them, you know? I didn't
say, "Oh, you better remember that. That'll be
important when you become a celebrity."

GM: Did you get help from people who knew you back
then?
BN: Yeah, I called some people, but unfortunately
they're my age their reaction is kind of, "No, I don't
remember." (laughs)

GM: (laughs) Well, then, just make it up.
BN: Yeah, yeah.

GM: We know of your friendship with Don Rickles. Did
you hang out with lots of other comics at the time?
BN: I hang out with comics now. I didn't at the time
because you're on the road. Like Dick Martin. I've
known Dick Martin since 1960. That's one thing I write
about, also, in the book: what it's like being a
standup and the camaraderie among the standups. It's a
little like astronauts. If an astronaut says to
another astronaut, "You know when the second stage
comes in, I wouldn't call it a boost but it's kind of
a...". And the other astronaut says, "Yeah, I know
what you mean." That's kind of what standup comics
have. We've all been there. We all know what it's like
to have great nights and to have terrible nights. I
was in Minneapolis at one of the first clubs I played
after Houston [his very first club]. In fact, the
record [album] was just then breaking around the
country. And Rowan & Martin were appearing at the
Radisson Hotel and I was appearing at a club called
Freddy's. And the phone rang one day and it was Dick
Martin. And he said, "Hi, I'm Dick Martin. I'm with
Rowan & Martin." And I said, "Yeah, Dick, of course I
know." And he said, "Do you want to play golf?" And I
said, "Yeah, that'd be great." There's just a
camaraderie that Dick felt he could call me up even
though we had never met and say, "I'm a fellow
standup."

GM: Did you ever have any dealings with Lenny Bruce?
BN: I'd run into Lenny every so often when we were in
the same city. Then, of course, Lenny got all hung up
on the legality of his being arrested in Chicago. And
he kind of stopped being funny for a while. He was
kind of ponderous. He had all this stuff about freedom
of speech and people came to laugh; they didn't come
for a civics lesson. But Lenny was a pioneer. He
eliminated a lot of sacred cows.

GM: Your stuff still holds up 40 years later. But you
listen to his and it's not as funny.
BN: Oh really?

GM: But you say he was hilarious.
BN: Oh yeah, yeah. No, I'll say this: he was in and
out. You'd see him one time and he would be just
absolutely hilarious and then the next time not quite
so. But of course he was into drugs and that can
affect performances.

GM: He should have been into bestiality and maybe he'd
still be around.
BN: (laughs)

GM: In this book about rebel comedy I was reading
[Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and
1960s, by Geral Nachman, Pantheon Books, 2003], he was
saying he predicted big things for you because the
executives want a goy, somebody who's not Jewish.
BN: I remembered there was a New York Times article
and it was by Gilbert Millstein. He came to see me in
St. Louis and he wrote an article and the banner was
"The Man Who Bites the Hand That Feeds Him". Because I
was doing some corporate stuff, like The Retirement
Party. And he felt that was my audience and they would
come in and here I was skewing the corporate pipe. So
maybe that's where he got the goy.

GM: You also have a DVD coming out? Or is it out?
BN: The DVD is of that Showtime thing I did. It's
standup. A lot of material from the first and second
albums.

GM: And you did this well after the fact.
BN: Oh, yeah. I did this in the '90s and the material
broke through in 1960, so it was a good 30, 35 years.

GM: Do you have to go back and listen or take notes
from the original material to get the wording exactly
right?
BN: Somebody took them down word for word because they
had to. Being a television show, they had to have a
script to work from. Then I just went back and kind of
refreshed my memory. A couple didn't work: Khrushchev's
Landing didn't work. Baseball worked great. I did a
thing on a television show that I had in 1961. It was
a thing called Phil's Fires, a private fire
department. And that didn't work. That just kind of
laid there (laughs). That's how you find out, you
know?

GM: That's what Seinfeld said in his documentary: the
audience will give a celebrity comic ten minutes, then
after that you've got to be funny.
BN: (laughs)

GM: Are there still copies of your 1961 series around?
BN: No, I don't think so. There was a copyright
problem with ownership so nothing ever really
happened. It was only 33 shows.

GM: But so many old shows are being released on DVD,
you'd think it would be perfect for that since a lot
of people didn't get to see it.
BN: Well, a LOT of people didn't get to see it, you're
right! (laughs)

GM: It won Peabodys and Emmys.
BN: Yeah. When I watch it from time to time if I'm
looking for a particular routine, I'll look at it and
it's a pretty raw talent, as far as I'm concerned. I
mean, I cringe a little bit when I see it.

GM: You're constantly toying with it and rejigging
your act?
BN: Oh yeah, you're always on the prowl for new
material. That's the real kick, to get a piece of
material and do it and have it work. That's what it's
all about.

GM: Do you sit down and do it or just while you're out
doing other things?
BN: I kind of do it in my head, then I'll try pieces
of it on stage and if it looks promising, I'll put it
together.

GM: Are you doing something on the Last Supper now?
BN: Yeah. Without giving it away, the way I set it up
is with The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson and
what a huge success it was. But there are other things
in the Bible that aren't really to my mind fully
explained. And one is the last supper because you
don't just have a last supper. First of all, you have
to get a room. And this [routine] is one of the
disciples getting the room for the last supper.

GM: This sounds like a classic Bob Newhart routine
already.
BN: (laughs)

GM: Are you surprised you hadn't thought of this
before?
BN: Maybe it took Mel's.... I had toyed with it before
but I didn't have the hook until Mel's Passion of the
Christ. Again, there's another routine, King Kong,
that I do where the people laugh at the premise, which
is whenever you start a new job they give you a week's
orientation and then your first day on the job nothing
that was ever covered in the orientation is the first
problem you face. And then I say I wonder what it was
like for a new guard at the Empire State Building on
the night that King Kong climbed the outside. And now
he has to call his boss at home and explain what's
going on.

GM: And now with the movie King Kong, you've got a
hook.
BN: Yeah, exactly.

GM: Did you like Passion of the Christ?
BN: Yeah. I thought Mel did a wonderful.... I admired
him very much for doing it, for having that kind of
commitment. Because everybody's looking for the next
commercial hit and he just kind of said, "No, I've got
to do this." You don't see too much of that these days.

 

 
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