An audio version of this interview originally appeared on Bullseye, a weekly radio show and podcast hosted by Jesse Thorn. You can listen to it on select public radio stations, at the Maximum Fun website, and via iTunes.
Bob Newhart is an actor, stand-up comedian, and legend of American comedy. He began his comedy career when he and a friend improvised over-the-phone comedy routines to kill boredom at work, and subsequently sold the recorded bits to radio stations. The “phone sketch” had endured throughout Newhart’s career, and featured in the release of his Grammy-winning 1960 EP The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart. The album’s success eventually led Newhart to television, first with a variety sketch show in the early ’60s, and then three sitcoms: The Bob Newhart Show in the ’70s, Newhart in the ’80s, and Bob, which has just been released on DVD, in the early ’90s. Newhart still performs stand-up regularly across the country, while acting in both film and television. You can follow him on Twitter @BobNewhart.
The A.V. Club: You grew up in Chicago. What did you think a career in comedy could be when you were at the age when you actually have to think of a career?
Bob Newhart: Well I was much too practical to presume to have a career in comedy. I was active in a local stock company. I didn’t believe the movies where the producer’s car breaks down, and while he’s waiting for it to be fixed, he decides to go see the play, and you’re just what he’s looking for… “Hey, I want to sign you up for my Broadway show.” That doesn’t happen in real life. So, I had a degree, in effect, in accounting—it was actually in management—but I was active in this stock company, so that’s really what I wanted to do. But that isn’t the way the world works. Don’t be silly and don’t waste your time.
AVC: Were you the like, the leading light of the stock company or were you—
BN: Oh no, oh no, oh no. Oh I was way, way down, way down in the pecking order. [Laughs.] I played Eliza Doolittle’s father in Pygmalion. In high school, we did The Man Who Came To Dinner, and it was an all-boys school, so a lot of the love interests between Bette Davis and whoever it was… It made for an interesting interpretation of The Man Who Came To Dinner.
AVC: Well you do have Bette Davis eyes.
BN: [Laughs.] I’ve never been told that. [Laughs.] It’s not the case. But then at some point, I went in service. I was drafted in ’52, I got out in ’54. I went into accounting. I worked in accounting for two and a half years, realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and decided I was just going to give comedy a try. People had been telling me, “Oh, you’re very funny. You think very funny. You should go to Broadway.” And I always thought, “Well that’s easy for you to say, but I have to go to Broadway and fall on my face and then somehow crawl back to Chicago.” So I just decided, look, I’ve gotta find out if I can make a living in this business that people tell me I’m very good at. And so I set aside a year, and then the year became two and then two became three, and then about year four, I made a record album. There were moments along the way that I thought to myself, “You have really screwed up your life. The guys I went to high school with are getting married, having kids, and buying homes.” And I was still knocking around Chicago with really nothing on the horizon, but it paid off, far in excess of what I ever expected.
AVC: This is in the mid- and late ’50s. In Chicago, The Second City didn’t get started until the end of the ’50s. Was there any example that you saw of someone who was going on stage and doing comedy for a living? There was regional, sort of joke-based stand-up comedy that was going on in the Borscht Belt, and there were versions of that on TV, but was there even a way that you saw that you could just go on stage and be funny?
BN: Well, it’s interesting, because what happened was, there was this regional comedy, where the Borscht Belt guys would comment on… Phil Foster, a stand-up comic, he had a routine on the Dodgers, and of course all the people in New York loved the Dodgers. But then along came a show called The Ed Sullivan Show, and all of a sudden, you couldn’t do regional humor anymore. I think it really changed comedy, because you had regional comics in Chicago that just played Chicago venues, and it didn’t work in New York, didn’t work in L.A., it worked in Chicago. But then when Sullivan came along, the way he could change people’s career if you were successful on the show, I think it changed the face of comedy. You had to appeal to a country, not to a regional area.
AVC: Did you ever think of yourself as someone who might get up on stage and do a stage act before you made your album?
BN: Probably my aspiration at that time, if I could have been a comedy writer for Bob [Elliott] and Ray [Goulding], I would have been very happy to have spent the rest of my life just writing for Bob and Ray, because I thought they were so great. They were so inventive and so great. I wasn’t—well, I was influenced by George Gobel. I was not influenced by Jack Benny, and people have remarked on my timing and Jack’s timing, but I don’t think you can teach timing. It’s something you hear in your head. But I admired Jack. To me, he was the bravest stand-up comedian, because he would take the time it took to tell a story. He wouldn’t rush to the end. He wouldn’t get nervous after 15 seconds of no laughter. But George Gobel had this television show about that time, 1955. All the sudden, the possibility of this guy walking out with his own show, not dressed up as a woman, not walking on his ankles, just talking, I guess subliminally it kind of said, “Yeah, maybe there’s a spot for you in this business.”
AVC: The first thing that you did was actually a two-man act that was a little bit like Bob and Ray, right?
BN: More than a little bit like, yeah. [Laughs.] It was a rip-off of Bob and Ray.
AVC: How did it start? This was with a friend of yours whose name was Ed Gallagher.
BN: I was in accounting. At that time, I was with, I’m pretty sure it was Glidden Company. Ed and I were in this stock company, The Oak Park Players. So around 3:30, 4 o’clock, I would become… depressed. [Laughs.] To break up the monotony of accounting, which I wasn’t very good at to begin with, I would call Ed and I would just… We would do things, we would improvise over the phone. I called him one time and I said, [nasally voice] “Mr. Smithers? Yeah this is Bob at the yeast factory, and we have a fire here, sir. The fire company, they’re pouring water on it… Mr. Smithers, I’m gonna have to run up to the second floor.”
So that was one, which could have been a Bob and Ray routine. It could have very easily been. So somebody heard about it and said, “You guys ought to record these things and syndicate them.” His name was Chris Peterson, and he put out the money for an acetate for us to send out to a hundred stations, which we did, and he paid for the mailing and the costs. And we heard back from three stations: Northampton, Massachusetts, Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Jacksonville, Florida. Almost coast to coast, not quite. [Laughs.]
So they said, “What do you want for these?” And Ed and I had no idea. So he said, “What do you think we ought to charge?” We were selling basically 13 weeks of five-days-a-week, five-minute comedy routines. So I said, “Ed, I don’t know. Maybe, I don’t know, $7.50 a week? I don’t know.” Well it turns out that that wasn’t right, and it wound up costing us money out of pocket. But it was a great—
AVC: We should repeat that you were an accountant at the time.
BN: [Laughs.] Yes. So I could keep the books, and I could see that we weren’t making any money. But it was a great discipline because I basically wrote the routines and then I’d tell Ed, “Okay, you’re so and so, and I’m gonna be so and so,” and then we’d just kind of improvise around the basic theme. So to me, it was a great discipline of having to write every day, come up with something every day. At the end of 13 weeks, one of the stations stiffed us. I don’t remember which one. The other two wanted to renew us, and we had to write back to them and tell them we couldn’t afford to do this anymore, that it was costing us too much money in postage and tape. [Laughs.] Ed worked for the Leo Burnett Company, an advertising agency in Chicago, so we would go in and use their recording facilities. We paid for the tape. We weren’t supposed to, I don’t think, but that’s how we lowered the cost even more. It would have been horrendous if we had to go into a studio. But then Ed got an offer to go with BBDO in New York, and he was married, he and Liz were married and had a couple of kids, so then I was faced with finding another partner or doing it on my own, and decided to do it on my own. Some would say I didn’t really do it on my own. There was always that other person; it’s just that he was unheard. He was Abe Lincoln or he was my boss at the Empire State Building. I was a guard there. So, knocked around Chicago, nothing much happened—
AVC: You were, by this point, in your late 20s…
BN: Yeah, yeah.
AVC: It’s no small thing that you’re a sort of straight-arrow Catholic guy in his late 20s who’s unmarried and living with his mom because he wants to do this weird comedy thing, right?
BN: Yeah, and also my mom and dad, they didn’t know what I was doing. They had no idea. They knew I went downtown and I did something. It had something to do with radio, or I fixed radios, or sold radios. It had something to do with radios. I’m sure my father was saying, “What is he doing?” Mom would say, “Dad, just calm down, calm down. He’ll amount to something some day.” It sounds improbable. It does, as you suggested. You think it would have dawned on me, somewhere along the line, that this wasn’t working. [Laughs.]
AVC: The thing that sounds scary, having done comedy on the radio, and having done it with a partner and without a partner, is that you start out performing for no audience, which is very difficult and scary, because you don’t know what is and isn’t funny besides your own instincts, and then to lose—
BN: But also, if it’s not funny, you don’t know that.
AVC: Yeah, all you can do is press play or do your bit and then just imagine everyone out there hating you.
BN: [Laughs.] Well, you just imagine it’s going over well.
AVC: When you have a comedy partner, part of the role that they serve is to be like, “Yeah that’s a good idea, and let’s do this.” And to correct sometimes, too, but mostly just to make you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. And so to lose that is really scary.
BN: You’re right, Jesse. I should’ve gotten out of the business at that point. [Laughs.] You’re absolutely right. As a matter of fact, I think I will right now. It’s scary, as you describe it. I guess it was scary. I don’t mean to put it on a higher level, but I just had to find out. If it didn’t work, then I could spend the rest of my life in accounting or advertising or public relations or something, but I had to find out. I lied to myself and said, “Well I have that thing coming up and that’ll work out, but if that doesn’t work out then that’s it, I’m gonna pack it in.” Even at one point, they had a thing, this was during the Cold War, they had a thing called a DEW Line, the Defense Early Warning system or something like that. It was a bunch of stations up in the upper reaches of Canada, and they paid like $24,000 a year, which was twice what you could make at that point, so I figured, “Okay, I’ll go up there for a year, and then I’ll have some money, I’ll come back here and I’ll try that.” But then I learned what the living conditions were up on the DEW Line. The surprising thing to me as I look back at my career is the determination I had, because I never thought of myself as a determined person. I pretty much went with the flow. I guess I just had to find out if I was any good or not.
AVC: Was part of it that you were sort of moving the goal posts for yourself? You mentioned that it was “I’ll give this a try for a year” and then it was two years and three years and four years.
BN: Yeah, every time I’d say, “Okay that’s it,” and then that didn’t turn out, then there was something else on the horizon, and I said, “Okay, all right, I’ll give that, I’ll wait till, I’ll see if that, well if that doesn’t pan out then I’m definitely [done].” I mean, thank God I persevered all that time, because eventually came the record album, and that was through the roof.
AVC: The Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart was the first huge, smash-hit comedy album, which had this very sort of classic solo comedy form, the one-sided telephone call.
BN: See that’s interesting, because people identify me with the telephone, and it’s a classic form. Shelley Berman did it before I did it. Mike [Nichols] and Elaine [May] did a version of it. There was a thing called “Cohen On The Telephone,” which was a very, very early recording by Edison [Records] of a guy on the phone. There was a comedian named George Jessel—I told this story on Letterman—but George Jessel, at the end of his radio program, he’d call his mother and describe what happened with the show. George fell on kind of hard times, so he was reduced to doing four or five funeral eulogies of strangers. He would go to different funeral homes and he had kind of a set routine. So he would do four or five of these a day, and he got, I don’t know, $50, $100, whatever he got. [Laughs.] And he was doing one and he had started his standard eulogy, which was, “This is a wonderful man who was a man taken from us in the prime of life. He was 95 when he died. And he was a wonderful husband, he was a wonderful father, he—oh my God, I know this guy.” [Laughs.] So anyway, to get back to the telephone, it’s been a prop for a lot of comedians along the way.
AVC: What’s interesting is that you set yourself up as the straight man in the one-sided conversation, which is unusual. Shelley Berman had huge success and hilarious records doing this, but Shelley Berman is not the straight man. Shelley Berman’s comic persona was a brilliant ball of mess. You were always implying the insanity rather than embodying the insanity.
BN: In McLuhan’s terms, Marshall McLuhan, what I was doing was hot, as opposed to the cold medium of just sitting back and listening, because it involved the audience. The audience had to supply the other end of the conversation, as in Abe Lincoln, as in the Empire State Building. So at the end, when you finish, they applauded, but they really were applauding themselves on how clever they were to figure out what was going on on the other [side], so they were involved. They weren’t just passively sitting back and listening to something.
Once you accept the premise of, for instance, the guard at the Empire State Building the night that King Kong climbs the outside of the Empire State Building—his first night on the job and he’s gone through a week’s orientation on the problems he can expect to face his first night on the job, and here he’s faced with a giant gorilla climbing the outside of the building and having to call his supervisor at home. Once you accept the premise, that yes, that did happen, that an ape actually did climb the outside of the Empire State Building, and yes, it’s possible that a new guard might have been in the building, once you accept that, everything after that is totally logical. Once you accept the fact that there hadn’t been an Abe Lincoln, but that the tools were so advanced at that time that these ad people were able to create an Abe Lincoln, once you accept that, then everything after that is totally logical and follows. That’s the thread I find running through what I do.
AVC: You recorded a few of these pieces yourself and brought them to a meeting with some Warner Bros. executives, and at the time, Warner Bros. Records was standing on shaky ground, which is why they were taking meetings with random comedians from Chicago, solo acts with no live records.
BN: Well, a friend of mine was a disc jockey. His name’s Dan Sorkin, and he was a very hot disc jockey, so they were touring the country because it was on shaky ground, and Jack Warner in fact said some time later that he was actually about to pull the plug on it. So they were going around, and they called on Dan because he was a top disc jockey. Dan said, “I have this friend of mine I think is very funny,” and they, either to placate to Dan or whatever, we’ll never know, or their desperation, they said, “Put something on tape; have him put something on tape.” At that time, the driving instructor, Abe Lincoln, and the submarine commander were the three routines that I had. So Dan called me, he said, “Borrow a tape machine if you don’t have one.” I didn’t have one, so I put them down on tape and brought them to the studio, and Dan played the tape for Warner Bros. Jim Conkling was president, George Avakian I think was there, and they said, “Okay, we’re starting to make some records with Jonathan Winters, Shelley Berman, Mike [Nichols] and Elaine [May], Mort Sahl…” Comedy records were starting to make some noise. They said, “We’ll record you at your next nightclub.” And I said, “Well, we have a problem, because I’ve never played a nightclub.” So they said, “Well, we’ll have to get you into a nightclub.”
George Avakian, who turned 90 recently, he said it took them almost a year to find a club that would take a chance on someone who had never walked on a nightclub floor. And so in February of 1960, I walked onto a nightclub floor, terrified out of my mind, but one of the first things you learn in stand-up is you can never let the audience know you’re nervous, because then you’re chopped meat. You make them nervous, it doesn’t work, so you have to muscle all the bravado you have and pretend you know what you’re doing. I walked out and did that, and for two weeks, I had half an album actually, with those three, and then I had two weeks to find the other side of the album, which I would try different things every night. I was the opening act for Ken and Mitzie Welch, who had a New York nightclub act, later wound up writing a lot of special material on The Carol Burnett Show, and so they would help me. I’d go to their room after the show and [they’d] say, “Well what’s another idea?” And I’d say, “I have this idea about maybe the Wright brothers trying to sell their airplane.” And they would say, “Okay, do that tomorrow night.” So I’d do that tomorrow night and part of it would work, part of it wouldn’t, so I’d take the part that worked and I’d do that the next night. So by the time they were ready to record, I had a full album.
AVC: When the record took off, it took a minute, but it became a national phenomenon. How did you feel about that? At that point, you had 10 years of doing various things that hadn’t worked at all; you hadn’t been climbing the ladder, you’d basically just been walking straight.
BN: Again, that’s another point. When other comedians hit it, they had been climbing up this ladder, and they knew exactly what they were gonna do if they ever got their own show. It’s gonna be this, it’s gonna be that, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna have an entourage, the first thing I’m gonna buy is a Cadillac. All these grandiose plans. But all the sudden, I was thrust into the limelight, totally unprepared for what was happening. I never expected that the album would be as well received as it was. It was New Year’s every night. All the sudden I’m getting calls and my manager Frank Hogan in Chicago said, “You wanna do six or eight Ed Sullivans?” [Laughs.] I said, “Eight, I guess.” I never even expected to do an Ed Sullivan. So all these offers were coming in, and I was totally unprepared to handle them.
AVC: Did you feel guilty or uncomfortable about it at all?
BN: I didn’t feel guilty. I felt, “I don’t know what I’m doing and they’re going to find this out pretty soon.” [Laughs.] “And there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
AVC: Your first television show was not long after that record hit. It was ’62 or ’63, right?
BN: The record was recorded in February of ’60, probably came out around April or May, and went to No. 1 I would guess August, September. So the variety show I did for NBC was in ’61, ’62, so yeah, about a year later.
AVC: We’re sitting in front of the Peabody Award that you won for it. So in some ways, it was extraordinarily successful. It also only lasted one season, and I got the impression you were a little bit lost in it.
BN: Yeah, it was. Trying to maintain the quality of a monologue every week was impossible. It was just impossible to maintain the quality, because what I had done was, I had taken material that, over 10 years I had developed, and I was awfully uncomfortable in the sketches. I saw them differently than they wound up being played. I was having disagreements with the producer, Roland Kibbee, and he had been a writer for Fred Allen, and had great credits, great writing credits, so I didn’t know that much. I went home back to Chicago at Christmas time, and I called my manager, Frank Hogan, I said, “Frank, why don’t you call up NBC and just tell them I don’t want to do this anymore? I’m not enjoying it. I just want to do college concerts. That’s all I want to do. So just call NBC and say ‘Find something else to put in the last half of the year.’” That’s how simple I thought it was.
So the next thing I knew, an agent from MCA flew into Chicago and explained to me the reality is, no you can’t do that. They will sue you. So I went back and finished up the year. We were borderline, ratings-wise. We could have gone into another year. It would have meant replacing Dan [Sorkin], which I wouldn’t do. They said, “You have to get rid of the announcer.” I said, “No no, you don’t understand, he has a lot to do with why I’m here.” And they said, “Well, we can’t renew you.” And I said, “That’s fine with me.” I just wanted to go back to stand-up and college audiences.
AVC: Your first two sitcoms were the first time that a stand-up comedian’s persona had been translated into the sitcom format, something that became popular and then to the point of cliché in the ’80s and ’90s, but it was totally new at the beginning of the ’70s. What led you into that kind of TV?
BN: Well, I was married by that time. Had our firstborn, Rob. I was on the road. I didn’t want to be on the road. I wanted to be home and live a somewhat normal life. I was approached at that point by Arthur Price, who was also my co-manager at that time. He and Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker formed MTM [Enterprises], and he said, “Would you like to do a situation comedy?” And I said, “Yeah. Get me off the road in some kind of normal life.” So of course Mary’s show had been very successful and CBS wanted anything that MTM came up with. They had the magic gut at that time, the golden gut. I think what a stand-up brings to a situation comedy—look at Roseanne [Barr] or look at Jerry Seinfeld or on and on and on—to me, they know how to time the joke, they know what the joke is, they understand the joke, the construction of the joke, but more importantly, what a comedian brings is his knowledge of himself. The integrity of what he does, which is, they could have a killer line, and you have to say, “See, but I wouldn’t say that. Give that to somebody else because I wouldn’t say that. I mean it’s a great line. It’s a funny, funny line, but I shouldn’t be saying it.” I think that explains the longevity of the stand-up comedy. And Bill Cosby, of course… When I heard Bill was gonna do a situation comedy, I knew it was going to be hip because I knew what Bill was going to do. He was gonna do Bill and the family, and the mother and father and the grandparents, you just knew, and the first year was pretty much Bill’s stand-up act.
AVC: The central strength of a sitcom is that this is a group of characters that you want to be with.
BN: Let me tell you something I heard along the way that helped me in The Bob Newhart Show. Jack Benny. Jack was just doing his television show, and Ronald Colman, the actor, was his guest. On Monday they have a table read, and everybody sits down and they read, and the writers are there and the producers, everybody’s making notes and laughing at their joke. Whichever comedy writer wrote that joke, you could tell, because he would be hysterical. So Jack says, “No, give that line to Dennis [Day]. That’s funnier if Dennis says that line. And give that line to Phil. Give that line to Phil Harris.” So the reading is over and Ronald Colman came up to Jack and he said, “Jack, you gave away almost all your best lines.” And Jack said, “Yeah, but I’ll be back next week.” [Laughs.] If you want to last, you better get a lot of good people behind you and let them do their thing, because if you try to claim it all for yourself, you’re going to last about two weeks.
AVC: That is something that’s special about your shows and about you as a performer, which is that there are very few straight men who get laughs. It’s really a special skill to be able to get laughs from reacting to the craziness around you rather than by acting crazy. I get the impression that on the set of your shows, you were the guy saying, “Okay, I’m gonna do a little bit less than that. I’m gonna be a little quieter than that. I’m gonna stretch it a little longer.”
BN: Well, I did two things on the show. I had a rule that each day we could rehearse a scene twice and then do it at run-through for the writers and the producers. Because I didn’t want to get down on the material. Like, by Thursday, you’re saying to yourself, “Why did I think this was funny? This isn’t funny at all.” I remember once, I was supposed to do a scene, I think it was in the Vermont show [Newhart], we went to see Peter Scolari, he was appearing somewhere, and everybody leaves, and I’m alone. And there’s a stage, and no one else is there, and it’s kind of a Walter Mitty moment, and I go up on stage and I do this, in effect, Vegas closing number with all the stops out, with “I Gotta Be Me”—I think that was the song, as a matter of fact. And I told the director, I’m pretty sure it was Jay Sandrich, I said, “Jay, on Friday, it’ll be there, okay? I’m not gonna do it all week. It’ll be there, trust me, it’ll be there.” Because I wanted the cast reaction to it. I knew exactly what I was gonna do. I wanted the cast reaction to it. I wanted the audience reaction to it. If I had done it four or five times, I wouldn’t have had the enthusiasm. And that was from the nightclub years, the immediate gratification of, if I were given a great line on Tuesday by one of the writers, just a great line, I wanted to do it that night. I didn’t want to wait until Friday to do it. “Can’t we get an audience in here and do this part of the show so we’ve done it?” That’s all nightclubs. That’s all that immediate gratification from a nightclub, from an audience.
AVC: You’ve had a pretty remarkable career, and you still do road gigs, you still do a couple dozen one-nighters a year, and you’re still acting in film and television, not as prolifically as you once did, but when things come along—
AVC: What keeps you moving forward? Is there something you want to achieve, or do you enjoy being in a state of motion?
BN: Yeah, I get asked that question. “Why are you still doing it? Why are you getting on planes and putting up with lost luggage and cancelled flights? Why put yourself through that? You don’t have to do that.” The alternative to me is Sunset Boulevard. The alternative is sitting in a darkened room and having Erich Von Stroheim come in and ask me which episode of The Bob Newhart Show I want to watch that day. [Laughs.] If I think of a really great routine, am I gonna do it for the dog? [Laughs.] So as long as I’m physically able to travel and stand up and still make sense, I just don’t see myself stop doing it. Why would you stop making people laugh? Why would you say, “I don’t want to do that anymore”?