“Being a comedian is one of the best things anybody can be,” says Bob Newhart, whose current season of Bob marks his 18th year as the star of a popular comedy series. “If I had a choice of being a singer, dancer, comedian or anything else, I’d be a comedian. It keeps your brain working. There’s an adrenaline rush when you work. You’re out on the stage, making people laugh, and when it’s over they walk out and say, ‘Boy, I had a good time tonight.’ That’s about the highest high there is. I still insist on being paid for it. I don’t enjoy it that much.”
Born in Chicago in 1929, Newhart graduated from Loyola University and began work as an accountant for the Glidden Paint Company. “When I first started out in show business,” Newhart recalls, “they called me ‘the funny accountant,’ which was an oxymoron. I always made people laugh, but not with silly hats. I was the guy on the edge of the crowd who would turn to the guy next to me and whisper something and he’d laugh and the guy next to him would say, ‘What did he say?’ I was never out in the middle. That’s kind of obvious in my work.
"It was really out of boredom that I began making people laugh. At the end of the day, I was so frustrated that I would call a friend and make up characters. He suggested that we do a radio show in Chicago. It was like Bob and Ray. Then I was befriended by disc jockeys and record people and wooed by Warner Bros. records.
“They wanted me to record some of my routines, including the Driving Instructor, Submarine Commander and Abe Lincoln routines. They said they would record them at my next nightclub engagement. I said, ‘I’ve never played a nightclub.’”
Newhart was booked into a club in Houston to record his first record. “The album took off beyond anyone’s expectations,” Newhart remembers. “College kids would buy the record, order pizza, have a beer, and listen to the album. That was their entertainment. They couldn’t afford to go to nightclubs, and nightclubs were irrelevant to their lives. I didn’t talk down to them and I got into historical stuff. They had to have some familiarity with Lincoln and William Seward and buying Alaska.
“And my comedy routines, like a lot of the routines from the other new comics coming up, were very individualistic. No one could steal my Submarine Commander. I saw comedy albums as an adjunct to a nightclub career, but it became a case of the tail wagging the dog because overnight the album became so big that Jack Paar booked me on The Tonight Show.”
After his television debut in 1960, Newhart spent several months performing standup routines in nightclubs and college auditoriums and on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“It was scary," Newhart remembers of his first night on the Sullivan show. So much was riding on it. People became overnight stars. I was very naive and in a haze. Things were going so well for me. And I got my first offer to play Lake Tahoe. They offered $2,000 a week. I thought, ‘Do they beat you up between shows?’”
In 1961, Newhart starred in a short-lived comedy-variety program. Newhart remembers: “It won an Emmy, a Peabody, and a pink slip from NBC."
For the next 10 years, Newhart mixed television appearances and movies with nightclub and feature-film performances. In 1972, he was approached by MTM Productions and CBS about creating his first sitcom.
Newhart remembers the genesis of The Bob Newhart Show. “I’m more a reactor,” he says, “and we wanted to find a profession where I could listen and react to what I hear. We settled on a psychologist, which was kind of a gamble because psychologists were still viewed as strange people. But the show did very well. We would do 43 shares. That’s a Super Bowl number today.”
Suzanne Pleshette, Newhart's costar in his first sitcom, says, “Bob had not acted in a sitcom before The Bob Newhart Show, so this whole procedure was very new to him. Grant Tinker had the good sense to surround him with people who were fast and good on their feet. It was amazing that he was so wonderful, so fast at something he had never done before. And he just got better and better.
“The show was a very wise transition for Bob that the audience responded to. Bob is very clever in not wanting to get too far away from his own persona because he doesn’t want to have to travel the road back. He doesn’t ever ask the audience to take too big a leap of faith. You always know that he’s intelligent, quirky and uncomfortable with emotional displays. That’s why it’s so funny when it breaks through.
“But Bob is much hipper than the characters that he has played. And he is much ballsier than he’s played. He's not a Milquetoast at all. He’s very strong. And he does not need to be ‘on.’ He thinks funny. He perceives the world in a funny way.”
Dick Martin, who guest-starred in and directed several episodes of The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart's subsequent CBS series Newhart (which debuted in 1982), and Bob (which premiered last year) says, “Bob is funny because he has established himself as ‘Mr. Everyman’ as well as almost anyone in show business. Every man watching him says, ‘That looks like me!’ Sometimes they see someone else. ‘That looks like Uncle Harry!’ He is Mr. Very-Very Normal.
“Bob is not outrageous. His reactions are priceless. I have heard people say the dumbest things around him, and he just kind of stares at them. And that’s funny. He’s like Jack Benny in that Jack was a very reaction-prone comic. The more outrageous the situation around him, the calmer he got. It’s a marvelous thing to have going for you.”
Is Bob Newhart the man as normal as Bob Newhart’s stage persona? “I’m afraid so,” says Martin. “He is the most devoted family man, and he likes to play golf. He really likes to do very ordinary things. For example, Bob is very well known in all the electronic stores in Los Angeles because he always has the latest stuff. He was so excited the other day because now he has a color laptop computer. He just loves it. Again, very normal. And very polite. You never see him screaming and hollering. He just kind of “lumpty-dumps” through life.”
Martin regards Newhart’s likeability as the key to his ratings success over the decades. “Certain people are welcome in the living room,” Martin says. “The best that comes to mind is Lucille Ball. There are an awful lot of stars who have tried television and failed because they just weren’t welcome in the living room. Bob is.”
In 1982, Newhart began its eight-year run. “I wanted to take the pluses of the first series,” Newhart remembers, “and I thought, ‘What if I ran a small hotel where I had to deal with the guests and they would be like the patients?’ We would also have a home environment that was separate and apart, and the people who worked in the hotel could be the extended family.”
Pleshette remembers what she describes as Newhart's “historic” last night of taping: “About two years before that series ended, one night at dinner, Bob’s wife, Ginny, said to me, ‘In the last episode, Bob should wake up in bed with you, and Newhart would all be a dream. It would be fabulous.’ So the producers had a secret last scene written. Only a few people knew about it.
“It was a historic moment,” Pleshette says, “because the fact that they allowed us to wrap up the second series with the first series showed the affection and love for the original show.”
Now in his second season of Bob, in which he plays the president of a greeting-card company, Newhart nevertheless continues to appear frequently before college, corporate and concert audiences.
“I’m always learning,” Newhart says. “Otherwise, you lose the edge.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Bob Newhart's induction in 1993.