(From left) Bob Newhart, Peter Scolari, William Sanderson, John Voldstad and Tony Papenfuss in Newhart
(From left) Peter Scolari, Julia Duffy, Tom Poston, Bob Newhart and Mary Frann of Newhart
Emmy Rewind: Newhart
In this emmy rewind, revisit the quirky crew at Bob Newhart's Vermont inn as Newhart marks its 40th anniversary.
"It was all typically Newhart — the line, the tone, the awed sense of belief," writes journalist Don Freeman in his 1983 emmy magazine article. The writer interviewed Bob Newhart for the comedian's new series, Newhart (1982–90), and described what made a quintessential Bob Newhart line delivery.
The former accountant started his career in entertainment as a stand-up. One of his classic bits — a snippet of which is included below — was a one-sided phone conversation in which Newhart voiced a publicist advising Abraham Lincoln on his delivery of the Gettysburg Address.
By 1983 Newhart had already experienced television success with his first CBS comedy, The Bob Newhart Show (1972–78), which ran for six seasons and followed the personal and professional life of psychologist Bob Hartley (Newhart). The rest of the cast was rounded out by Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Daily, Marcia Wallace and Peter Bonerz. Last month, the series celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, as commemorated in this recent emmy magazine interview with Newhart.
On October 25, 1982, his second eponymous sitcom, Newhart (1982–90), debuted on CBS and went on to garner twenty-five Emmy nominations and run for eight seasons. The cast included Mary Frann, Tom Poston, Julia Duffy and Peter Scolari, with Newhart starring as Dick Loudon, a writer-turned-innkeeper in rural Vermont. Today the comedy celebrates its fortieth anniversary.
In this interview, Newhart discusses his two sitcoms, flunking out of law school and what he wouldn't joke about.
It was the late Joe E. Lewis, nonpareil among nightclub comics, who once observed that Bob Newhart looks like a fellow on a street corner trying to sell Watch Tower to the passersby. Newhart disagrees with that assessment: "Me, I think I look like a fella who's about two years away from being branch manager of one of the smaller markets."
Newhart utters this with the disarming, understated, self-deprecating manner that has brought him success as a standup comedian, recording artist, and vastly underrated actor in his own series. For six years he played a psychologist on The Bob Newhart Show, and in his current hit series, Newhart, he is an innkeeper.
Does he look like a psychologist or an innkeeper? "The truth is," says Newhart, "I look like an accountant, so I always got hired as one, even though my degree from Loyola University was in management.
"Translated, a management degree means you went through school without knowing what you wanted to be. But I wasn't cut out for accounting. I was always putting a dollar or two of my own into petty cash to keep the damned books straight."
By the time Newhart found his true niche, in comedy, he had also flunked out of law school after two years — "which is no disgrace," he adds, "because so few people do make it at Loyola that they have to hold their graduations in a closet."
As a kid growing up in Chicago, Newhart had three main comedy inspirations — Benchley, Max Shulman, and Jack Benny. "I read everything Benchley wrote and I saw every movie he was in," Newhart says. "Shulman got to me with the wild insanity of his books. And Jack Benny — listening to him on the radio, I learned about timing. Jack was utterly fearless. He could move slowly, take his time, because he knew the joke would always pay off. Jack's great strength was that he trusted his material."
Newhart sees himself as a distillation of those three early influences, with perhaps a shade more of Benchley than of Shulman or Benny. But at the outset, when he emerged out of nowhere in the late 1950s, Newhart's distinctive style of humor was difficult to pin down.
For one thing, Newhart was one of the first comedians to talk the way ordinary people do — sounded like the fellow who comes to read the meter. What's more, he had a sharper ear for the vernacular than any other American humorist since Ring Lardner.
One of his first routines, now a classic, went on the premise that the sly art of image-making was as highly polished in Lincoln's day as it is today. Raising an imaginary phone to his ear, Newhart would become the high-powered public relations counsel calling long distance to President Lincoln in Gettysburg: "Abe, listen, you got the speech? You haven't changed the speech, have you, Abe? You typed it? Abe, how many times have we told you — on the backs of envelopes! Anything else? You changed 'four score and seven' to what? To 87? I understand it means the same thing, Abe, but that's meant to be a grabber. We test-marketed 'four score and seven' in Erie and they flipped, Abe."
And then there was Newhart the driving instructor questioning his student: "How fast were you going when Mr. Adams jumped out? 75? And where was that? In your driveway?"
As he ventured into the choppy seas of the TV sitcom, Newhart brought his great capacity for listening in a funny way. In one scene from the old Bob Newhart Show, Newhart is listening intently to a tall, outrageously handsome, ego-bound tennis pro who looks down his perfectly etched nose and says, "You have no idea what it's like to be incredibly good-looking."
Newhart pauses and stares at the man. And then he summons up a wan reply: "I suppose not."
It was all typically Newhart — the line, the tone, the awed sense of disbelief. It was a line flawlessly delivered, a fat pitch belted out of the ballpark, and the studio audience roared.
Looking back on that exceptionally well-crafted show, it seems incredible that in its six-year run it was never honored with an Emmy. The decision to end the series, in June of '78, was Newhart's own. "We hadn't slipped in any way," Bob says. "The show was still funny, which is the time to get off. But I felt like a club fighter, the way the other networks threw everything at us. I was very proud of our show but chagrined that the show and the people on it were never truly acknowledged by the TV industry — not one Emmy. We had so many good people — Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Daily, Marcia Wallace, Peter Bonerz, and the rest, and they all made it look too easy."
Newhart insists on only one proviso, which runs stubbornly against the grain of the traditional sitcom — no kids, no dogs. And, as a general rule, there are no golf jokes. For many years, golf has been his consuming passion, but for Newhart the game holds no mirth. Friends say that on a golf course he's about as funny as Pearl Harbor.
For his first comedy-variety show, which did win an Emmy, as well as a Peabody award, the writers had suggested some golf bits. "I'd listen to their golf jokes," Newhart says, "and then I'd say, 'Yeah, fellas, but what's so funny abut some schnook in a sand trap? To me that's tragedy.' Well, isn't it?"
This reminds Newhart of a cartoon in which a golfer says to the foursome ahead, "Mind if we play through? I just heard that my house is on fire." Newhart shakes his head sadly. "Some funny cartoon!" he cries. "Hearing that his house is on fire could easily upset a man's game. That kind of news would have to affect his putting, and he'd probably hurry his backswing. Cost him five, six strokes...."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #4, 1983, under the title, "Neighbor Newhart."