“One of the things you learn when you go on the nightclub floor is never show fear, because then you’re dead meat,” said Bob Newhart, recalling his almost overnight transformation from Chicago accountant to successful stand-up comedian. “So I’ve just pretended for the last 45 years I knew what I was doing.”
Speaking at a PBS press conference in Beverly Hills last week for Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned, which premieres on the network’s “American Masters series July 20, Newhart recalled his almost overnight transformation from shy Chicago accountant to stand-up sensation when he first tried out his 18 minutes of material in a nightclub.
As the applause continued after Newhart left the stage, the maitre d’ told him to go back–the audience wanted more. But those 18 minutes were all the young comic had. Still, he gamely went back out on stage. “I just said, ‘Which one would you like to hear again?’”
It’s the perfect Bob Newhart moment: modest to the point of absurdity, with just the right note of self-parody. Newhart has been on something of a roll lately, especially with his recurring role on the ABC ratings juggernaut Desperate Housewives. (Also, season one of the old Bob Newhart Show was released on DVD this spring.) But can the button-down mind of Bob Newhart really be that button-down?
Apparently so, possibly to the point of being slightly weird. Contrary to Hollywood tradition, the 76-year-old comedian has been famously and happily married for 42 years to the same wife he started out with. When she gets the last laugh on him, he likes to tell the story. “I said, ‘Do you think Joanne Woodward makes Paul Newman take out the recyclables?’” he said, recalling a complaint he made on garbage day. “She said, ‘If you were Paul Newman, I wouldn’t make you take out the recyclables.’”
All this is an especially good thing because Newhart lived with his parents until he was in his late ’20s and almost never dated. “We didn’t need to dig for dirt to make this interesting,” an A&E producer noted a few years ago, when the cable network’s Biography series premiered Bob Newhart: The Last Sane Man. After a perfectly timed pause, Newhart added then: “Luckily, the bestiality thing never came up.”
Newhart and his wife Ginny are devout Catholics who took their four children to Mass every Sunday even (maybe especially) while the comedian was working in Las Vegas. Although he’s always been a devoted family man, Newhart insisted that Bob and Emily Hartley in the old Bob Newhart Show remain childless. He never wanted to do another family show where, as he put it at the PBS press conference, “the final shot is we’re all kissing Daddy and we love him but (rolling his eyes) oh, boy…”
Although Newhart is known for being remarkably unprone to celebrity tantrums, his flashes of displeasure get the point across in a lethally button-down way. “That’s very funny,” Newhart famously responded, when, in the fifth season of The Bob Newhart Show, the writers showed him a script in which Emily announced she was pregnant. “There’s only one problem. Who are you going to get to play Bob?”
As deadpan comic actor David Hyde Pierce notes in the PBS film, Newhart is carrying on “a deadpan tradition in comedy that goes all the way back to Buster Keaton. And Stalin.” This style may not always get as much attention as shock comedy, but it can be as successful: Newhart’s debut 1960 album, The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was the first comedy record to hit number one on the charts, outselling even Elvis Presley.
What’s his favorite monologue? “The press agent for Abe Lincoln,” Newhart said. “Lincoln keeps getting things wrong, and the press agent says, ‘Please read the bio! You were a rail-splitter, then an attorney. You wouldn’t give up your law practice to become a rail-splitter!’”
In the old Biography special, Newhart is seen at once updating his act while at the same time refusing to update it. “Oh…I hear a little murmur,” he interrupts himself at the beginning of his vintage monologue “The Driving Instructor.” “Why does it have to be a woman driver? That’s sexist!”
“OK,” Newhart continues amiably, “let’s make it a Chinese driver.” Then he begins the monologue in pretend Chinese before informing the audience: “Now I can do the next eight minutes of this in Chinese, or we can go back to the woman driver.”
In the famous series finale of Newhart, the ’80s hit about a Vermont innkeeper, Newhart woke up next to Suzanne Pleshette of the old Bob Newhart Show and realized the entire second sitcom had been a dream. That was named one of the best TV moments ever by TV Guide.
“It was my wife’s idea,” Newhart recalled. “CBS was being unkind to us, and I said, ‘Honey, I think I’m going to pull the plug on the show.’ She said, ‘If you do, make it a dream sequence.’ There’d been some trepidation about it, because of the bad reaction to the end of St. Elsewhere. But when people started applauding on the set we knew we had a winner.”
Newhart’s act is famously wholesome, but he declines to criticize the tone of contemporary comedy. “Working clean, you always felt good after the show,” he said. “At the same time, one of the funniest men ever is Richard Pryor. It’s just the way I choose to work, but I don’t find fault with people who feel they have to use stronger language.”
“I love television, I love being on it, and I’m hard-pressed to put down the shows today,” he added. “It’s what people want to watch. It’s democratic, and who am I to say, ‘No, this isn’t what you watch, this is what you watch.’”
–Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.