Q&A; WITH BOB NEWHART AND BETTY WHITE : Old ‘Bob,’ New Angle, New Friends

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After a disappointing premiere season, “Bob,” Bob Newhart’s third series in 20 years, returns to CBS Friday at 9 p.m. with a new setting, new characters and a new Bob, who will be more like the familiar stammering, befuddled Newhart character that propelled his previous two TV hits, “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart.”

Last season, Newhart played graphic artist Bob McKay , who gave up his job drawing greeting cards to revive his “Mad Dog” super-hero at a comic-book company. McKay was more aggressive and intense than previous Newhart characters.

“Bob’s” creative team--Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Phoef Sutton--is still steering the series this season, but “Mad Dog” and the comic-book office are gone. Instead, McKay is asked to take over the greeting card company he had left behind. And joining the cast as the wife of the previous owner is Betty White, formerly of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “The Golden Girls” and “Golden Palace .


Question: Have you two ever worked together before?

Newhart: We worked on the same lot--the old MTM lot.

White: And we got to be friends that way. But there’s something else. I was sort of a semi-regular on the old Jack Paar show. One night, he introduced this hot new comic from Chicago. And Bob came out and killed the people. On his very first shot. He was invited to come over and sit on the couch. Comedians had to do it a few times before they got to sit down.

Q: What was your impression of him when you saw him that time?

White: The same as everybody else’s. We were all on the floor. It was the freshest, newest, most--it wasn’t like any other comic we’d ever heard. I mean, how can a fellow stand up there for that many minutes and stutter and stammer? It doesn’t sound very funny, but it was.

Q: Bob, what was your impression of Betty? Do you remember that experience?

Newhart: Well, that was 1960. I was in such abject terror (laughing), I wasn’t even aware of where I was.

Q: Betty, what’s it like working with him now?

White: Well, he’s gone downhill (laughing). I am having the best time in the world. We’ll all go rattling along and saying our lines real fast. Then there will be Bob’s cue, and you have to get into the rhythm of . . . waiting.

Q: The show has been revamped. The public even read at one point that “Bob” was not coming back this season. What do you think went wrong last season?

Newhart: More than half of the show worked. I mean, you’ve got the “Cheers” writing staff. You can’t get much better than that. I thought the stuff at home worked. The problems seemed to be the bullpen, the comic-book office setting, which was a little exotic for people. The older audience, especially, didn’t identify with it.


Q: Your persona was also more aggressive than on your other shows.

Newhart: We said to viewers, “We’re going to give you a Bob Newhart you’ve never seen,” and the American public said, “We don’t want to see a Bob Newhart we’ve never seen. We’d like to see the same one we’ve seen all these years.”

Q: Did you take it personally--being in a show for the first time that wasn’t a hit?

Newhart: Well, “The Bob Newhart Show” wasn’t an instant hit. We were behind “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” We always kind of lived in the shadow of Mary’s show. Our show really became most popular when it went into syndication and took on a life of its own.

White: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was not an instant hit either. It had a rough first year.

Newhart: Friday night is a tough night for us. It’s TGIF night. The kids control the dial from 8 to 9. The comic-book show wasn’t designed for Friday night. We designed it for Monday. We’re pointing our show at an older audience now.

Q: Betty, what about your character?

White: She’s not Sue Ann Nivens and she’s not Rose Nyland, either. She’s much more sophisticated than Rose, which is not tough (laughing). And she’s not the neighborhood nymphomaniac or the witch that Sue Ann was.

Newhart: Well, that wouldn’t be acting, that’s why (laughing).

White: Sylvia’s a likable character. She just doesn’t really pay attention to a lot of the overall picture. She just has her own agenda that she barges through on.


Q: With both of you being so successful over the years in your various series, does it become any easier as time goes on or does it become more of a grind? What keeps it fresh for you?

Newhart: The alternative is like “Sunset Boulevard”--sitting in a darkened room and Erich von Stroheim comes in and says, “What episode of ‘Newhart’ would you like to watch today?” People are meant to be certain places, and I think I’m meant to be on a sound stage doing situation comedy.

White: And it gives such a structure to your life. And as far as it being a grind, well, that’s why Bea (Arthur) left ‘Golden Girls.’ She didn’t want to do it anymore. It had stopped being fun for her.

Newhart: Her and Michael Jordan and George Brett.

Q: Do you two watch reruns of your own series?

White: I watch Bob’s (laughs).

Newhart: I’m very selective in what I watch. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was the best television, the best cast, the best-written television show ever. Then there was the Golden Age. Saturday night was “All in the Family,” “MASH,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” us and “Carol Burnett.” I didn’t feel like it was a Golden Age at the time. I felt we were doing good things, but then you look back now and you say, “Wow.”

White: But you expected good things back then. Then they started not getting better. There were certain outstanding things, but generally, shows didn’t really continue to improve.

Newhart: I left “The Bob Newhart Show,” which was my decision. CBS wanted it to go on. But I could see television changing, I could see the tastes were changing.


White: The audience was changing.

Newhart: It wasn’t a time to do intelligent adult comedy. It was time for pulp. Wonder Woman, Bionic Man.

Q: Bob, do you still perform stand-up?

Newhart: Yes. I do it as an exercise, 10 or 12 appearances a year. It’s a different road now. Everything is attached. Like the television set in the hotel room. If it has a bowl of fruit on top, it’s screwed into the television. And you can’t remove the remote unit on top. You go in the closet and the hangers have little tiny hooks that won’t fit any other place. It’s like the management is saying, “You weren’t thinking of taking a couple of hangers home with you, Bob, were you?”

Q: What about the way audiences respond to you now as opposed to years ago?

Newhart: I get the laughs in exactly the same place.

White: It’s not that it’s funny, but they just know where the laughs are now (laughs).

Q: Betty, do you keep in touch with the other “Golden Girls”?

White: Yes. I talk to the girls on the phone. I saw Rue (McClanahan) about a month ago at an Environmental Media breakfast. I see Bea at the market. We both shop at Vicente Foods. And Estelle (Getty), I’m still in the middle of a sweater that I started last season. I knitted three sweaters for Rue, and I knitted two for Estelle, and I did an afghan for Bea. And so Estelle calls me every once in a while, “Uh, are you still knitting?” I haven’t quite finished it yet.

Q: Well, it seems like you two are having fun together.

White: It is fun. It better work. Bob can’t do another show. This has to be the one that really goes through the roof. Because, what’s he going to call it, with “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Newhart” and “Bob” gone? We could call it “B.” Just “B.”