Comedy Greats Bob Newhart, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear Share Stage: "Laughter Adds Time to One's Life"

Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett -Paley Center- Publicity -H 2019
Brian To for the Paley Center

Show business can be unforgiving to performers when they reach a certain age. The work often slows to a trickle, audiences dwindle, and the laughter, well, it quiets. Try telling that to Carol Burnett, 86; Norman Lear, 97; Bob Newhart, 90; Carl Reiner, 97; and Lily Tomlin, 80, five comedy legends feted Thursday night during the sixth annual Paley Honors: A Special Tribute to Television’s Comedy Legends at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. 

During the two-hour event, the ballroom overflowed with laughter, presenters doubled down on compliments and praise, and the audience of close to 400 bookended each acceptance speech with enthusiastic standing ovations for the honorees, all of whom are still working, a fact confirmed by the 2019 credits on their respective resumes.

There were generous clips and montages dedicated to milestone moments in scripted comedy, stand-up, late night and sketch/variety series, packages of which played as servers hustled to deliver the night's entrees, desserts, coffee and Canyon Road wine. The real meal, however, was comedy. 

Conan O’Brien was the first presenter to hit the stage, and he wasted no time in commenting on the age gap. “I just did the math. I think I’m the youngest male comedian to take this stage tonight by 600 years,” he quipped. “Norman Lear really skews the average.”

But he got serious, too. He called Newhart one of his “all-time comedy heroes,” someone whose “signature pauses elevated great writing to new heights. Nobody burns fewer calories while getting a huge laugh than Bob Newhart. His resting heart rate is and always has been two beats per hour. Like the greatest matadors, Bob barely moves and everyone is spellbound.”

O’Brien said that everyone has their “favorite Bob moments,” culled from classic TV creations The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. The late-night host even mentioned his own: “The scene where Dr. Bob Hartley is couple counseling a ventriloquist and his dummy, and the dummy asks if he can speak to Bob alone. That killed me when I was 12, and it killed me when I watched it last night. That joke, as it played out, will still be funny in 1,000 years. It is universal comedy.”

He noted that Newhart is still playing out new material as he tours sold-out venues across America, “delighting audiences old and young.” There’s more: “Uncompromising. Principled. Inventive. Timeless. Vulnerable. Daring. Always uniquely hilarious. Bob Newhart is a gift to all of us. I cannot honestly believe I know the man, and I can’t believe I get to share a stage with him, even ever so briefly.”

Newhart then made his way to the stage, practically stealing the show straight out of the gate. He did so by ditching a classic acceptance speech and instead delivering a stand-up set of sorts that had everyone, including O’Brien, in stitches. “Thank you, Conan. You’re always … always there,” he said, displaying the first of many of his signature pauses and expert comedic timing. “A lot of times I wish you weren’t always there.”

Newhart then detailed the “roundabout” path he took to becoming a stand-up star. He started as an accountant working in his home state of Illinois, even if people often asked him, “Were you really?” “Why would you lie about that?” he retorted.

“Naturally, what do you do when you leave accounting?” he asked. “Obviously, you become a stand-up comedian.” He decided to give it a year to see if he could make a living, but one year turned into two, and two turned into three and three became four, he said. What really changed his life, he said, was his 1960 live album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which put him on the map and earned him three Grammy Awards, including trophies for album of the year and best new artist.

“I thought it might sell five or six thousand. It sold a million and a half,” said Newhart, who then detailed that he immediately started getting calls from everyone from Ed Sullivan to Burnett. “I was the opening act for Peggy Lee in Lake Tahoe. I was absolutely terrified … for the next 60 years, really.”

Newhart saved several minutes to express his gratitude to wife Ginny, who also had a big role in his career. She is credited with coming up with the idea for the series finale on Newhart that saw him wake up in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette, who played his wife on the earlier series The Bob Newhart Show. In January, they will celebrate 57 years of marriage, he noted. “She never let me get full of myself,” he said before explaining that one night she asked him to take the recyclables out to the street for pickup. “I was feeling pretty good about myself, and I said, ‘You think Angelina Jolie asked Brad Pitt to take out the recyclables?' She said, ‘If you were Brad Pitt, I wouldn’t ask you.’”

He ended his speech by revealing the secret to his enduring success: “The secret is to just show up next week.”

Everyone who showed up to Paley Honors and paid for a ticket will see their funds go to support ongoing education programs, as well as the creation of the Paley Center’s Comedy Collection, a compendium of programs and comedic moments preserved as part of the Paley Archive. Boldface names in the room included Allison Janney, Sean Hayes, Jason Alexander, Bob Mackie, Brenda Song, Jane Leeves, Jane Seymour, Jimmie Walker, Kat Dennings, Mackenzie Phillips, Marla Gibbs, Michaela Watkins, Mitzi Gaynor, Novi Brown, Peri Gilpin and Tichina Arnold.

Lisa Kudrow showed up next to honor her onetime Web Therapy co-star Tomlin, calling her an icon who never “does anything half-way; she always comes prepared, and often with a lot of wigs.”

During her speech, Tomlin made it clear that she was not, in fact, Bob Newhart. “I'm not able to fill that amount of time with sterling, absolutely hilarious one-liners,” she said. But she gave it a go anyway, offering some quips made famous by her many iconic characters, including telephone operator Ernestine’s “one ringy dingy.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Tomlin continued, expressing humility along with humor. “Although I’m happy I was invited. It’s the first time I’ve ever been invited to a top-tier industry gathering, and I’m really, really grateful. People on the red carpet acted like I really belonged here, and I don’t feel like I do.”

Rob Reiner came next to the stage and delivered a nice segue from that sentiment by saying that the reason his father had found such success throughout his iconic career as a writer, actor, producer and emcee is that he found out where he belonged and stayed. "Find out where you stand where nobody else stands, and mine that," said the 72-year-old, who has carved out a new niche for himself as a political pundit on MSNBC. 

In accepting, the elder Reiner, a veteran of the big and small screen who broke ground on The Dick Van Dyke Show, surprised the audience by delivering a soliloquy from Hamlet before turning his attention, like Newhart, to his significant other. "The gift of my life is I married a girl called Estelle," he said of his late wife, who passed away in 2008. "The single most gifted woman I know." They were together 65 years and had "three of the greatest children anybody could have," he said, saying that Rob "should be president of the United States." "I couldn't be more proud of my children and my grandchildren; they inform me. That's who we are — who we send out into the world. We send non-toxic people out in the world and we can be proud."

Kristin Chenoweth said she was beyond proud to be honoring her longtime friend Burnett, a woman who can sing, dance, act, write and basically do it all, talents that were on display on her groundbreaking The Carol Burnett Show on CBS, which won 26 Emmys. "Very few can do it all, and even fewer can do it with such heart," Chenoweth said. 

In her speech, Burnett detailed the sexism she encountered along the way. "As a woman in this business, it wasn’t always easy to do what naysayers said couldn't be done," she said. "When I exercised a clause I had with CBS that would allow me to do an hour comedy variety show, I was told by the network comedy executives that comedy variety was a man’s game. ... They said, and I quote, 'it's not for you gals.' Huh." 

She continued: "Because of that contract, they had to put us on the air, and, as a result, I became acquainted with Mr. Paley himself. I'll never forget, he said, 'You guys are the artists, and I'm the businessman. You do what you do, and I'll do what I do.' That resulted in the fact that CBS never ever interfered with our process."

Burnett then said it has been her joy to work with nearly every one of her fellow honorees, except Lear. "I hope we can make a clean sweep of it someday," she said. "Thank you." 

The night's final award was given to Lear, thanks to friends Jimmy Kimmel and Anthony Anderson, with whom Lear recently worked on ABC's Live in Front of a Studio Audience in a tribute to Lear's All in the Family and The Jeffersons. The duo praised Lear's groundbreaking work on the small screen as he tackled such weighty topics as homophobia, racism, abortion and class. Before Lear came out to close the night, Kimmel joked that the honoree had disappeared. "Norman said, 'Fuck this. I'm going home.'" 

But not yet. Though THR did spot him coming back from the bathroom during the presentation, Lear did make his way to the stage just in time. "Holy shit, my God," he said in opening his remarks. "I don't know what to say." 

He found the words, and the ones he chose punctuated a night that proved to be so much about legacy, age and comedy, but mostly about the power of laughter. 

"There’s nothing I believe more than this, that laughter adds time to one’s life. I believe that as much as I believe my mother loved me. She said she did. But I wasn’t sure. At 97, I want to tell you, like I know my name — whether it's six months or six years — laughter has added a huge amount of time to my life," he said.

He added that there was a a mischievous irony at play in the fact that he was accepting the honor alongside Carl, Carol, Lily and Bob. "Had I not known these people and laughed with them and at them and for them, I may have been too deceased to pick up this award tonight," he said. "Bless you all. Thank you all. To be continued."