By Thomas Conner
© Tulsa World
Bob Newhart's inimitable bone-dry wit has tickled the
funny bone of nearly every generation since his meteoric
rise in the late 1950s. First came the hugely successful
comedy records, including the Grammy-winning "Button-Down
Mind of Bob Newhart."
He moved to TV in the '60s with "The Bob Newhart Variety
Show" and "The Entertainers," the latter also featuring Carol
Burnett. In 1972, he launched his television calling card,
"The Bob Newhart Show," in which Bob played the ever-patient
psychiatrist with an office and apartment full of oddballs.
"Newhart" followed in 1982, moving Bob's deadpan delivery
from urban Chicago to rural Vermont. Again, the kooks
abounded, and Newhart's second series proved as successful
as the first. TV Guide listed 1990's final episode of
"Newhart" — in which Bob wakes up to find himself in bed with
"Bob Newhart Show" wife Suzanne Pleschette, proving the whole
second series to be a dream — in the top five most-memorable
moments in television.
The '90s saw a few more stabs at TV — the
schedule-plagued "Bob" and the anticipated but short-lived
"George and Leo" with Judd Hirsch — but Newhart's legacy
manifested itself most brilliantly in a drinking game
called "hi Bob" popular on college campuses. Every time
someone on "The Bob Newhart Show" says, "Hi, Bob," you take a
He is, in other words, ground-breaking, pioneering,
historic and responsible for numerous watermarks in
In recent years, Newhart has returned to his stand-up
roots, taking his deadpan shtick to venues across the
country. In conjunction with the homecoming celebration at
the University of Tulsa this week, Newhart will be
performing his old and new routines for a special show on
We caught up with Bob on the phone this week. Of course,
conducting a phone interview with the comedian who made
one-sided phone conversations high comedy raises
interesting possibilities on its own. If you'd like, you
can read only Bob's half.
Thomas: You're at your office today? What kind of
business do you have to tend to in an office?
Bob: Oh, you know, signing autographs and returning
phone calls and such.
Thomas: Do you write material there?
Bob: No, I've found that the best place to write is the
bathroom. It's the least distracting place in the house. I
imagine most of the world's greatest inventions came to
people between the shower and the john. Orville probably
sat right there and thought, "I wonder what would happen if
we directed the air over the top ..."
Thomas: So stand-up starts sitting down, eh? Are you
enjoying taking your stand-up show on the road again?
Bob: Oh, yes. I've always kept the stand-up side of
things going. I can't imagine not ever doing stand-up
Thomas: What can we expect to see in the show?
Bob: Maybe one or two routines from the old albums, and
generally my kind of observations on this crazy place we
inhabit called the planet Earth.
Thomas: You were a stand-up comic who landed a TV gig
long before that was the established career path. What
differences do you see in the way comedy finds its way from
stage to screen today?
Bob: Well, as this season has proven already, just being
a stand-up comic isn't enough to guarantee the success of a
TV show. Some comics have had great success with it — Ray
Romano, Seinfeld, before them Roseanne — but simply putting
a stage comic on TV isn't automatically the answer. You'd
better be able to act also.
The advantages to it, though, are that you already know
how to time a joke. Secondly, you come with a persona
that's already established; you don't have to spend five or
six episodes explaining why this person is the way he or
she is. Most importantly, though, you need to know the
persona yourself. You have to be able to act as your own
watchdog when writers try to make you say things you know
your persona wouldn't say.
Thomas: Do the old routines still knock 'em dead, or do
'90s audiences have different expectations of a stand-up
Bob: Yeah, they still work. That's the weird thing. I've
re-recorded some of the stuff from the first and second
albums because I didn't have a hand in the editing of them,
and they removed a lot of the silences in order to save
time. In comedy, the silences are as important or more
important than the words. I got to record them again the
way I originally heard them as opposed to the way they were
edited, and we recorded them in front of an audience whose
average age was about 35. And they still worked the same
way. The laughs were just as strong. Funny is funny.
Thomas: Despite where you said you come up with your
material, you've never had a potty mouth. Does that somehow
date you among new comedians?
Bob: When I started, there was a language barrier.
That's been broken down. Some of the younger comics think
that they'll be funnier if they use the strong language. I
think they're confusing shock with funny. Seinfeld worked
clean. Stephen Wright works clean. Jay (Leno) works clean
when he does stand-up. I don't have a problem with the
language, I just always have to look underneath it and ask,
"Is it still funny?"
Thomas: Much of your early routines are recognizable
because of the phone conversations you act out on stage.
That started between you and a friend, right?
Bob: His name was Ed Gallagher, and he recently died,
just two weeks ago. He was a smoker. We were both in a
suburban stock theater company, and I was an accountant at
the time. Just as I was about to flip out at the end of the
day, I'd give him a call and we'd improvise over the phone.
I'd tell him I was someone famous, and he'd interview me.
He suggested we record them. It was kind of a poor man's
Bob and Ray, and it wasn't very successful. Ed was
eventually offered a job in New York, and I decided to go
it on my own. Out of that, the phone bits evolved.
Thomas: Are there any comedians out there now you think
resemble your dry wit?
Bob: Stephen Wright and I are similar in our delivery. I
was talking to someone the other day about him. They said
he's like today's Henny Youngman. I said, "Yeah, Henny
Youngman on acid." He's so surreal. When I did "Bob" — "the
ill-fated `Bob' " as it's now known — he was on. He's very
dedicated. At some point during "Newhart," I was asked who I
thought the next Newhart would be, and I said Seinfeld.
It's that same kind of easy-to-live-with, non-pressured,
laid-back style, and all those terms people use to describe
Thomas: "The Bob Newhart Show" has been running regularly
on Nick at Nite, which advertises its line-up as "America's
TV heritage." What do you think of the idea of us having a
TV heritage, and how do you feel to be a part of it?
Bob: I'm proud of TV and what it's accomplished, and I'm
proud to have been a part of it. I've done a couple of
movies, but I prefer TV because of its immediacy and
especially because you can do it in front of a live
audience. Not enough shows today are done in front of live
audiences. Laugh tracks are so transparent.
Thomas: Specifically, how does the live audience enrich
Bob: The audience teaches you about your comedy. We were
rehearsing one week on "The Bob Newhart Show," and there was
one line that (made me say), "Guys, this is not going to
work. It's not funny." (The writers) said, "Trust us. Just do
it." So I did it, and sure enough, it didn't work. Nobody
laughed. I looked over at them, and they kind of nodded.
The next week, they knew their material would be tested
against that audience, so they wrote harder and looked
An audience tells you a lot of things you can't find out
with a laugh track. One was Larry, Darryl and Darryl (from
"Newhart"). Once they showed up, the audience went wild, and
they were only planned for one show. So right away we put a
couple of more scripts together working with them, and they
were a huge success. Every time they would enter, we'd all
have to pause for the roaring applause, and the same thing
happened every time they left. We couldn't have found that
out with a laugh track.
Thomas: Your shows always seemed to pit you, the stable
individual, against this sea of nutballs. Was that a
Bob: I used to tell Mary Frann (who played Bob's wife in
"Newhart"), "If we appear to be crazy, then the show isn't
going to work. We have to be the glue that holds this
together because everyone else is nuts." For a while, they
talked about spinning off Stephanie and Michael, and I
said, "It isn't going to work. They're cartoon characters.
They only work within the framework of this sanity."
Thomas: Any new series in the works for you?
Bob: No. "Bob" and "George and Leo" were such
disappointments for me. When something doesn't work, there
comes a time when you have to admit that it's someone
else's time. I'm happy with the huge success I had.
Thomas: Finally, I have to tell you: they're planning a
big game of "Hi Bob" on campus before your show here.
Bob: (laughing) With all the success I've enjoyed, I'm
going to go down in history for "Hi Bob." For some reason, I
was told that game started at SMU, which I kind of hope is
true because it seems like such a staid campus. It's a real
compliment to the show that people have picked up on that.
We weren't even aware when we were doing "The Bob Newhart
Show" how many "Hi Bobs" there were. The only thing I hope is
that the players stay on campus and don't drive anywhere
Newhart by the numbers
Bob Newhart's first career wasn't comedy. For many
years, he was an accountant — which, as he said, drove him
to comedy. In order to calculate his indelible success as a
comedian, though, here's Newhart by the numbers, courtesy
Number of TV shows in which Bob has starred: 6
Number of those shows which incorporate some element of
his full name, George Robert Newhart: 5
Number of episodes in his four most recent series: 378
Number of U.S. viewers who tuned in for the final
episode of "Newhart" on May 21, 1990: 29.5 million
Number of U.S. viewers who tuned into the cameo episode
on "George and Leo": 15.7 million
Number of Newhart's former co-stars who appeared in that
Number of "Hi Bob" greetings in all 142 episodes of "The
Bob Newhart Show": 256
Most in a single episode: 7
Number of personal Emmy nominations for Newhart: 4
Number of Emmy wins: 1
Number of Grammy awards he's received: 2
Number of weeks "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart"
stayed on the Billboard magazine Top 100 albums chart: 108
(with 14 weeks at No. 1)
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Reynolds Center, University of Tulsa, Eighth
Street and Harvard Avenue
Tickets: $10 at the Reynolds Center box office or all
Carson Attractions outlets; 584-2000
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.