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Bob Newhart is cool. No punch line

Special to The Times

Bob Newhart is having a moment. His first book, “I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This,” hits bookstores today, and it’s gotten an enthusiastic early reception. There was an unlikely shout-out from the New York Post’s Page 6, which quoted from it approvingly. His appearance on this year’s Emmys broadcast -- he was encased in a soundproof glass chamber to await suffocation, according to host Conan O’Brien, if the show ran so much as one second over -- is still being fondly discussed as evidence that Newhart continues to be the king of low-key laughs.

True to form, the 76-year-old icon of American comedy is completely surprised. “I didn’t know I was cool, but I was very flattered that some of the younger comedy writers came up to talk to me at the Emmys,” he said. “I found that gratifying.” He was sitting in the stately den of his Bel-Air home, with a pair of half-rimmed eyeglasses perched on his nose. “My themes are still relevant. The things that people were laughing at 30 or 40 years ago are the same things they are today.”

Newhart’s signature comedic style -- that of the understated straight man, the island of sanity in a world gone wacky -- is particularly welcome at a moment when the comedian’s preferred pop-cultural format, the sitcom, is on life support. Newhart, of course, had not one but two successful sitcoms during the Golden Age of television, before cable scattered the audience to the four winds. His quiet, Jack Benny-inspired delivery stands as a soothing counterpoint to the shouting and sloppiness of the average comedian working it on TV today -- your Carlos Mencias, your Dane Cooks.

No wonder the cool kids demanded an encore. Newhart still comes off like a man who’s in no real hurry to tell the joke. It will end soon enough, but while it lasts, it’s a reminder that funny doesn’t have to hurt.

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He cultivates an easygoing maturity, in every aspect of his life. “Have a look at this,” he said, rising from an overstuffed armchair and ambling over to a bookcase. He picked up an aged statuette. “For a long time, my daughter Courtney thought these were bookends. She just found out recently that they aren’t.”

Courtney is 29. The statuette was a Grammy.

“The difference between Bob Newhart onstage and Bob Newhart offstage is that when Bob is offstage, there is no stage,” said David Hyde Pierce on an episode of the PBS series “American Masters” dedicated to Newhart.

Since his debut in 1960, with the multimillion-selling comedy LP “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” he has been the indispensable everyman. The onetime $55-a-week accountant from Chicago describes his comedy as “minimalist.” Other comedians admire his signature ability to react -- to employ his distinctive stammer, diffident pauses and expertly timed silences to hilarious effect.There are a few more wrinkles, a little less hair and some slight intimations of mortality around the basset hound eyes, and certainly no groovy sport coats nor rustic cardigans, but otherwise Newhart does a convincing imitation of his two best-known characters, Chicago psychologist Dr. Bob Hartley from “The Bob Newhart Show” and Vermont innkeeper Dick Loudon from “Newhart.”

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Or was it that they did a convincing imitation of Newhart?

That’s the eternal question where Newhart is concerned. Newhart has profitably extended his unimposing persona from stage to records to the small screen, and now to a book. “I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This” is a charming recollection of his stealthily influential legacy, but as Newhart tells his life story, the book also reveals a quality that the comedy elite has long suspected: Newhart has an edge.

It comes through when he bluntly discusses the problems plaguing his trade. “There’s more cynicism in comedy now,” he said. “I don’t want to sound like the old guy, but cynicism is a potential danger. It colors our way of looking at the world. It hasn’t crossed the line yet, but if it does, that could be destructive.”

It’s a given in comedy -- and particularly in the unforgiving crucible of stand-up -- that you either have it or you don’t. From his famous early routines -- “The Submarine Commander,” “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” -- Newhart made it clear that he played for keeps. When performing as he does now about 35 times a year, that’s still the case. “I’ve been doing this for 46 years, and around 5 p.m., I start pacing, and I don’t stop until the show starts. I’d feel funny if I didn’t. It’s part of the adrenaline rush.”

Yes, Mr. Button-Down -- married to the same woman since 1963, with four children and seven grandchildren, the elegant house, the Mercedes in the garage alongside faded posters of the movies he has appeared in -- still craves that fix from an audience he can make laugh.

Newhart’s book (the title is the punch line to a joke, in which a man making love with his boss’ wife, when asked to kiss her, says, “I shouldn’t even be doing this!”), provides a possible explanation, based on Newhart’s upbringing. He persistently reminds readers that he was not lucky enough to be “middle class,” and growing up in Chicago in the 1940s and ‘50s, he wasn’t. Newhart’s genius has been to hold back his anguish but still let audiences know, however subtly, that it’s there.

He acknowledges this. “It was part of the times I grew up in, the ‘50s. A lot of things happened,” he said. “For example, I think my first record, ‘The Button-Down Mind,’ was anti-establishment. It had a subversive undercurrent. There is an edginess in my work that people don’t always recognize.”

Critic Robert Hughes has pointed out that most of the great revolutionaries in art were really reactionaries, and Newhart fits that description. He aspired to nothing more than to be middle class, to escape the fate of living in his parents’ house at age 29, but he wound up a wealthy national treasure. Even he is impressed. “I thought I had maybe a five-year shot,” he said.

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In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when stand-up was taking on a much more confrontational, political quality, Newhart’s career faltered. He had kept himself going by touring and playing casinos in Las Vegas, co-headlining with the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. As a staunch family man, however, he wanted to get off the road. Luckily, by then the ideal medium for his brand of reactive humor, the sitcom, had come into its own.

“Stand-up is different from television,” he said. “In stand-up, you’ve got to be in control.” “The Bob Newhart Show” ran for six seasons, from 1972 to 1978. “Newhart,” which followed in 1982, ran for eight. (Two subsequent series, “Bob” and “George and Leo,” were not as successful.) Both “Newhart” shows perfectly captured aspects of the American zeitgeist: the rise of therapy culture in the ‘70s; and the escape-to-the-the-country rage that gripped yuppies in the ‘80s. (The final episode of “Newhart” is considered a classic: Bob wakes up next to Suzanne Pleshette, his “Bob Newhart Show” wife, on the set of the older program and tells her about a horrible dream he had of running an inn in Vermont while surrounded by bucolic loonies.)

The steady, predictable home life of the weekly series schedule enabled Newhart and his wife, Ginnie, to raise an untroubled family in the belly of the notoriously corrupting entertainment beast. As one might expect, Newhart refused to claim responsibility. “I have to credit my wife,” he said. “She insisted on living as normal a life as possible. We have Chicago values. You don’t try to pretend you’re something you’re not.”

Newhart never has. It’s not surprising that he’s getting a bonus round. He doesn’t permit himself much in the way of self-regard, but he doesn’t shrink from a hint of pride in how it’s all turned out. “I don’t know if I led a funny life or if I just had the ability to recognize what’s funny. But it’s been a hell of a life.”


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