Comedy Q+A: Bob Newhart Comments on Our Weird World
It’s difficult to mention Bob Newhart without using words like “legend” and its associated superlatives, but the facts are the man created two of the bestselling comedy albums of all time, he’s the only comedian to win the Best New Artist Grammy Award, and he was the first comedian to win Album of the Year. His The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart was released in 1960, and it beat out Elvis’s album that year as well as the album by the cast of The Sound of Music. Newhart went on to be a part of several TV programs, and created two of the most popular shows of all time, The Bob Newhart Show, and Newhart, for which he received numerous Emmy nominations and a Peabody Award, just to name a few honors. He continues to appear on TV including an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” a few weeks ago, in film (Elf, Horrible Bosses), and touring the country performing crowd favorites and fresh material. Lewis Black, Norm Macdonald, Ray Romano, Tom Rhodes, and Conan O’Brien have all cited him as an influential force for their comedy careers. Bob Newhart will be in Boston this Saturday to perform at The Wilbur Theatre.
When you come to town, what will your show format be like?
BN: Probably one or two of the classics from the original albums. That’s one of the reasons why people show up—they want to hear their favorite, they want to hear The Driving Instructor, or Sir Walter Raleigh, King Kong, or Abe Lincoln. So I’ll probably do one of those and then the rest are observations. I guess I’d call it a survival course of how to make it through this strange planet we live on and the weirdness of it.
You’ve been such a pioneer in comedy and television, what is your take on what you now see on TV?
BN: To me, it’s amazing the subjects you can deal with today. We couldn’t even touch these—CBS would have sent the scripts back with a note saying “You’re kidding.” I loved Everybody Loves Raymond because I like Ray and I thought it was beautifully cast, I thought it was great writing. I thought Patricia Heaton was wonderful. What a great wife, probably reminiscent of Suzanne [Pleschette] because she was her own woman and didn’t really take anything from him. The areas they were able to get into, we couldn’t even approach. I think we were [one of the] first shows that had the a couple that slept in the same bed.
It’s interesting that such a detail was so groundbreaking, just that bit of reality.
BN: I remember seeing a movie with José Ferrer and Rosemary Clooney where they were husband and wife and they got in bed and he had on polka-dot pajamas and she had on striped pajamas and when they got up the next morning he had on the striped pajamas and she had the polka dot pajamas, and that was considered racy at that time! But that’s the way it’s always been—every new generation, they just push the limits a little further than where they were.
How about the different styles and material currently in stand-up? When you got going, there’s what you created on your albums compared to what you might have seen in cabaret—that kind of crowdwork, in-your-face comedy—what your friend Don Rickles has always been a master of.
BN: When I first started out, Time magazine did an article on what it called “the sick comics,” and they were myself, Shelley Berman, Nichols & May, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, and Mort Sahl. We were considered “sick.” But “sick” today is a lot further out than when we were doing it.
Since you were a part of corporate culture in the early 1960s, what do you think of Mad Men?
BN: Oh, I love Mad Men because it is so close to the world I was in. After I left accounting, I got into the advertising world where I was a copywriter. I think Matthew Weiner has done such a great job of capturing that era and that time. As a matter of fact, in the first season, they played cuts from my first album as a way of setting the time, and they had arguments within the office where one character liked Mort Sahl and one character liked me and one character liked Shelley Berman. I thought it was wonderful, but at the same time it was scary because it made you realize how much time had passed and how quickly it had passed.
Do you have a current favorite TV comedy that you enjoy?
BN: I like Modern Family and Parenthood. I have an aversion to laugh tracks—the moment I hear a laugh track I go to another channel. We always did the show in front of a live audience and our performance rose or fell [depending] on whether they liked it or not. That’s the way I Love Lucy did it, the way Mary Tyler Moore did it, Carol Burnett, and us. To me, that’s the genre. You do it in front of a live audience and you get judged. The writing was much better because the writers knew it was going to be judged.
You mentioned our weird world. What are some things that are inspiring your current material?
BN: I deal with being Catholic. A lot of my friends, being in the business, are Jewish comics, and they would talk about what it’s like being Jewish and growing up Jewish. I got to thinking one day: it’s kind of funny growing up Catholic. So I’ve started talking about what it’s like to grow up Catholic and have to deal with this whole religion. I had to make a presentation at the Grammy Museum, and I was going to make some remarks before the Q&A session. I had just read something about author Nathanael West, who wrote The Day of the Locust, who said “The universe is against us, so the only rational response is to laugh,” and this really struck a chord with me. Perhaps this is why I’m on Earth, to just point out how strange this place is. It’s a great thing to be able to do. I have this private idea that when it’s all over, if you’re lucky, you go up to Heaven and there is God, and he says, “What did you do down on Earth?” and you say, “I made people laugh.” If I’ve done that, hopefully God will say, “Get in that short line over there.”