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At 91 years old, Bob Newhart’s wit is sharp as ever. And even in a phone interview, he delivers just enough pause to drop a killer quip.
And although the actor jokes he has been “dragged kicking and screaming” into the technology of the 21st century, his stand-up classics finally being made available on streaming platforms such as Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play, among others, is thrilling, he says. Debuting first is “Off the Record,” a collection of his original ’60s routines, available now.
To mark the occasion, Newhart chatted with The Hollywood Reporter about his favorite bit from “Off the Record,” as well as the episode of his beloved Bob Newhart Show that was most special to him. Newhart also explains how he knew Elf would be an instant hit and, naturally, provides hilarious insight as to who should play him should a biopic ever be made.
Is there a bit from “Off the Record” that cracks you up as much now as it did then?
I love “Abe Lincoln’s P.R. Man,” because it is more true today than it was then. The material, when I first did it in 1960, there was really a sea change in comedy. I don’t think anyone set out to change comedy, but the subject matter was being changed. The material was protest material. The Abe Lincoln bit, as far as I was concerned, was that the ad agencies should not be allowed to manipulate you as far as the political process is concerned.
Fans have their picks. But is there an episode of The Bob Newhart Show that stands out as being special for you?
We did a show [“Some of My Best Friends Are …” in which Bob’s therapy group revolts against a new gay patient, whom Bob defends] where I was with the group, and we introduced a new member. The role was played by Howard Hesseman, and he explained that he was having an argument with his partner. And then he said, “My partner, Gerald.” And the group went, “Wait a minute.” It wound up being a show about gays and the prejudice. I was very proud of that show because we were able to combine a message with humor.
It being Christmas time, do a lot of children stop you to talk since, after all, you are Papa Elf?
Oh, yeah. (Laughs.) It’s been phenomenal. When they sent me the script [for Elf], I said to my wife, “Honey, this is going to be a perennial. This is going to be like Miracle on 34th Street.” And that is exactly what happened. That is a wonderful thing, to be part of kids’ enjoyment of the Christmas season.
Your reoccurring character of Arthur Jeffries, aka Professor Proton, on The Big Bang Theory was a fan favorite and won you an Emmy. How did the experience compare to your heyday on sitcoms?
It’s funny how that came about. Chuck Lorre and I knew each other because we were on the same lot. I was doing Newhart and he was doing Roseanne or Cybill. We wanted to work together, but we just had not found the right project. And he finally came to me and said, “I’ve come to you for your annual turndown of my show.” And I said, “No, I really like Big Bang. I like the writing on it. I love the cast and I still have my [comedy] fastball. It is more like 42 mph now. I still know how to do that.” And I missed it. So he said he would write a script to see what I thought, and that was the start of it. The only request I made was that [my portion] had to be done in front of the live audience because with my shows and background in stand-up, I was used to a live audience.
This is a deep cut, as the kids say, but one of my favorite projects you did was the Braveheart mashup on the MTV Movie Awards in the mid-’90s. How did that come about?
(Laughs.) MTV came to me. They sent me a script, I loved it and I said, “Let’s do it.” It took on a life on its own. That was fun. We did all of it in one day.
And finally, when a biopic is made of your iconic life and legacy, who could possibly handle the role of Bob Newhart?
(Laughs.) The Rock. Because of our physical resemblance, I am always confused for him. Fans start talking wrestling and I have to say, “No, I am not him.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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