Q&A: Bob Newhart

After 50 years in comedy, Bob Newhart enters the NAB Hall of Fame

In his late 20s, Bob Newhart was still living with his parents. Then, in 1959, Warner Bros. signed the Chicago native to a record contract, and his debut album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," shot to No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart, won two Grammys and made Newhart a household name. With two long-running TV series behind him, Newhart will be inducted into the NAB Broadcasting Hall of Fame on April 20.

The Hollywood Reporter: You finished college, served in the military and tried law school before going into comedy. Why?

Bob Newhart: Coming from good Midwestern stock, you go into a profession. Comedy was never a viable alternative until one day I decided to see if I could make it a career. They had a thing called the DEW Line, which was an early warning system in northern Canada, where they paid you a lot of money to live for two years because it's so desolate. I considered doing that to get a bankroll, then coming back and trying comedy.

THR: What was your aim when you were starting out?

Newhart: It didn't matter to me whether it was radio, television or standup. In my case, I made a comedy album, and it went through the roof. Then I had to learn standup because that's what I was being offered. Normally, comedians toil in nightclubs for 20 years and then get their big break, but my path was backward.

THR: What would you do if you were trying to break in today?

Newhart: When I started, I played clubs with a lot of protest songs -- "If I Had a Hammer" and that kind of thing. We didn't have Comedy Stores yet, but from what I understand that was a rough existence. Today, you just go on the Internet and do Facebook or YouTube and, if you get enough hits, you get your own TV show.

THR: After nearly a half-century of standup, do you still bomb sometimes?

Newhart: Oh, yeah. That's the adrenaline that precedes every performance. It's funny -- other performers, like dancers or singers, will talk about how well their last gig went. Comedians always talk about the last time they bombed. We think, if we talk about it, hopefully it will never occur again.

THR: Do you still get hecklers?

Newhart: Occasionally, but it's so rare that it isn't a factor. I almost look forward to it because you can just go off on them. Milton Berle used to hide his mother in the audience to heckle him so he could practice all the put-downs.

THR: What is it about Chicago that produces so many comedians?

Newhart: For a long time, it was Jewish comics in New York, but then along came Ed Sullivan. They were doing material about subways and hailing cabs, but when you went on "Sullivan" it had to have national appeal, so humor became very midwestern for a while. Chicago had (Nichols & May), Lenny Bruce and myself. Ohio had Jonathan Winters and Tim Conway. Jack Benny was from Waukegan, Ill. I've always said you could fool a New York audience or a West Coast audience, but you can't fool a Midwest audience. They don't put on airs; they just look back at you and go, "I'm sorry, I don't get it. I don't see what's so funny."

THR: You've mentioned your fondness for Jack Benny before. What did you admire?

Newhart: His bravery. Jack wasn't afraid of silence. He relished it because he realized the payoff was going to be that much bigger. Comedians like Henny Youngman would get nervous if there wasn't a joke every seven to eight seconds, but Jack would go a minute and a half without a joke. People always said my timing is the same as Jack's. I don't think you can teach or emulate that; it's something you hear inside your head like a metronome. There's a voice that says, "OK, now!"

THR: What is the biggest change you've seen in television since the 1960s?

Newhart: The one-camera comedy is almost an oxymoron from the way I came up. We always worked to a live audience. On "The Bob Newhart Show," my dresser of several years had a heart attack onstage and died a day later. I went to the writers and producers and said, "I can't do a show in front of a live audience this week. It doesn't seem right." I hated it. It was so sterile. We learn so much from the audience. ("Newhart" recurring characters) Larry, Darryl and Darryl were a one-time appearance, but they got such a reaction from the crowd that we decided to have them back.

THR: What shows do you like today?

Newhart: I watch Leno and Letterman because sometimes there'll be a new comic doing standup and it will tell me what people are laughing at. Occasionally, "30 Rock" and "The Office." I watch a lot of public television and nature shows.

THR: Nature shows?

Newhart: Yeah. My wife and I went on a five-day safari in Africa and it was life-changing. You're back at the beginning of time; nothing much has changed. You see animals devouring a kill, and that has gone on for a long time. Ever since then, I've searched out nature shows.

THR: In your autobiography, you recall a scene from "The Bob Newhart Show" where your wife reveals she has a higher IQ than you. Have you ever had an IQ test in real life?

Newhart: I had it tested in the (military). It was 119 or 129, which either makes me a genius or not very bright. I think I fall somewhere in between.

THR: What is the biggest popular misconception about comedians?

Newhart: The idea that, underneath, there's a Hamlet trying to come out -- someone who wants to be taken seriously. I enjoy doing comedy and I don't have any desire to be thought of as a serious actor.

THR: What was your biggest mistake?

Newhart: What anyone my age says: not stopping to enjoy it more and being driven by things I now realize were never important. I also wish I'd married my wife earlier, when I was starting to get accolades, so I would have had someone to share that with.

THR: If you didn't succeed in comedy, what would you have done?

Newhart: Maybe become a psychologist -- not a psychiatrist, but a psychologist. Comedians are observers of people; you're never on vacation. You go to Oahu with the family and see someone walking on the beach and you think, "That's a funny walk. I have to remember that."