Q&A: Bob Newhart

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On Tuesday, June 1, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences hosts a membership event celebrating Bob Newhart's silver anniversary in the entertainment industry. The comedian recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Frank Swertlow about his career.

The Hollywood Reporter: You quit a job as an accountant in Chicago to try stand-up. Why?

Bob Newhart: I wasn't a good accountant. But there was a practical side of me: I grew up in a middle-class family in Oak Park, Ill.; what you do in my family is go to college and become a doctor, a lawyer or an accountant. I minored in accounting and majored in management. I made people laugh as a kid, but that's not how you make a living. One day, I said to myself, "I'm going to give this a try." A year turned into two years and then three. I was single and had no responsibilities.

THR: What's been the key to sustaining that career?

Newhart: Not dying! I thought, after the first five years, people would be onto to me. Fifty years ago, Warner Bros. sent out my first album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," and I started getting calls: "How many Ed Sullivan shows did I want to do?" "Jack Paar is on the phone." I was totally unprepared for that success. I thought it would end just as quickly.

THR:"Button-Down Mind" is the 20th-best-selling album of all time. You knocked off Elvis, the cast album for "The Sound of Music," the Beatles and Frank Sinatra.

Newhart: I wasn't so much worried knocking off Elvis or the others. It was Frank I worried about. Frank had a reputation for not liking to be knocked off.

THR: The comedy routines in "Button-Down Mind" seemed to be a metaphor for our changing society in the early 1960s.

Newhart: There was a sea change in comedy that started in the late '50s with Mort Saul and Tom Lehrer, Lenny Bruce of course, Johnny Winters, Mike Nichols and Elaine May. It was a new way of being funny. They called us "sick comics." We touched upon subjects that were out there, like Mike and Elaine doing a routine about a nephew arranging a funeral for his favorite uncle: If he wanted music, there were different prices, ranging from $15,000 for the Boston Pops to a high school girl playing "Tico Tico" on the organ.

THR: Wasn't there also a philosophical fork in the road -- Borscht Belt humor versus cerebral material?

Newhart: We appealed to college kids and their humor. If you went to the Chez Paree in Chicago or the Copa in New York, you would find the humor was like Henny Youngman's "take-my-wife" and mother-in-law jokes. Also, the nightclubs had priced themselves out of the market for young people. The older stand-ups had no relevance to college kids, who would grab a six-pack and a pizza and go to their dorm and play our albums. That was their nightclub.

THR: Many of your best routines center on the telephone. How did that originate?

Newhart: A friend of mine and I were part of a play group in Oak Park. Ed Gallagher and I were the poor man's Bob and Ray, who were a very popular comedy team on radio. At the end of the day, I would call Ed. It was part of my keeping my sanity. Someone said we should syndicate our conversations. It worked, but then Ed had a job offer in New York; I went on my own. I was the straight man on the phone, but (with Ed gone) nobody else was on the other end of the line.

THR: Your TV career began with "The Bob Newhart Variety Show" in 1961.

Newhart: It lasted one season and won an Emmy, a Peabody Award -- and a pink slip from NBC. My manager was Arthur Price, who, along with Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore, founded MTM. He asked me if I wanted to do a sitcom. I had been traveling the country and away from my family a lot, and this would make my life simpler. I sat down with the writers and said I didn't want to do a show with kids, the kind of show where I would be a stupid husband or father with precocious children. Price saw Suzanne Pleshette on "The Tonight Show" and called and said he found my wife. I said, "I didn't know she was missing."
 

THR: What was the philosophy behind that show and "Newhart"?

Newhart: The idea was, this world is really crazy, we're all thrown into it and have to hang together. Nathanael West, who wrote "The Day of the Locust," said the universe is stacked against us; the only rational response is laughter. I think he was right. Larry Gelbart, the producer of "M*A*S*H," said comedy is looking at the world through different lenses: You can't change the lens, you're born with this.

THR: But you've also tackled dramatic roles in film and television.

Newhart: Comedians are very good actors, and we watch people and make mental notes, like watching a guy trip on the street. Peter Sellers in "Pink Panther" got his character, Clouseau, down during a (visit) to Paris. He watched a waiter in a restaurant and listened to how he talked. John Wells, the executive producer of "ER," came to me for a role. I knew that character. I understood that a doctor losing his eyes meant he was losing his life. It became too much for him. I could understand why he would take his own life.

THR: How has your stable, midwestern upbringing influenced your own life?

Newhart: When I started out, the world was in agreement with that life, but life has changed. I've turned down some movies because of this. They wanted me to play a guy who went on Viagra and had a permanent erection. I said, "You have the wrong guy. I haven't spent 50 years of my life creating a career to blow it in one movie."
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