"When you grow up in Chicago there's such a thing as putting on airs, you know? And you just learn not to put on airs. Don't act like, "Oh boy, I'm somebody." They'll slap you down."
– Bob Newhart
Guy MacPherson: It's been six years since I spoke to you last.
Bob Newhart: Is that right?
GM: That's right. I guess you've been wondering how I've been doing.
GM: No. What's new with you? Have you been on any trips?
BN: Yeah. Yeah, I've been on a few. This past month every weekend was on the east coast. And I suddenly realized I can't do that anymore. That's why I'm looking forward to Vancouver. Because, you know, it's a six-hour trip back from the east coast.
GM: Every weekend you say?
BN: The past four weekends, yeah. Doing standup.
GM: How many gigs a year do you do now?
BN: I do about thirty.
BN: Yeah, thirty one-nighters.
GM: Have you given much thought to the longevity of your career. You seem to go from success to success while others who may have been huge once have petered out. I won't mention any names.
BN: (laughs) That's for somebody else to say. I mean, I have my own theory. I had a confirmation of my theory. Sometime back I did a Showtime special. And I went on a radio show here in L.A. I went on and announced I was going to be appearing somewhere and call here for tickets. The audience was largely 35 to 40 years old. I reprised some of the original first and second album material and it worked in exactly the same way it worked the first time. I guess the material is as relevant today... The Abe Lincoln routine is probably more relevant today than it was 40-some years ago.
GM: Why is that?
BN: Because of the spin-meisters and the focus groups and the way politics is run now. It's run by polls and focus groups. So it's even more true today, I think, than it was some 40 years ago.
GM: You couldn't have foreseen this 40 years ago when you wrote it. So it's just the quality of material that's kept you going?
BN: Well, I guess it's the universality of the material. Every so often I'll pull out one of the acorns and they still work. So there's something about the universality of it.
GM: There's also something about you, too. There must be. Because it's your TV shows, from your series even to Desperate Housewives -- which owes its success all to you!
BN: (laughs) All because of me!
GM: It's your sexy quality. But I mean, there's something about you, too, right? A universal quality to yourself.
BN: Oh, I suppose I wear well, yeah. I remember when I was doing Newhart and someone asked me, they said, "Who do you think will be the next Newhart?" And right away I said Jerry Seinfeld. Because Jerry just wears well. You're not threatened by him. You're comfortable. And I guess people are comfortable with me. Especially in Canada. When I go there, it works. They're nice people and they enjoy the material.
GM: Maybe it's a northern thing. You're from Chicago, close to Canada.
BN: I think the thing about it is when you grow up in Chicago there's such a thing as putting on airs, you know? And you just learn not to put on airs. Don't act like, "Oh boy, I'm somebody." They'll slap you down.
GM: I always intuitively knew what button-down meant from your albums. But I looked it up last night and it says 'unimaginatively conventional.' That's not right!
BN: (laughs) You know what that was? I didn't even have a hand in it. Somebody at Warner Brother Records, there was the Abe Lincoln routine, merchandising the Wright Brothers, and no one will ever play baseball. And they all had to do kind of with Madison Avenue and advertising and public relations and marketing. And at that time everybody was wearing the button-down collar. It was the uniform on Madison Avenue. So someone at Warner Brother Records said "the button-down mind" and it stuck.
GM: You say your first love is standup.
GM: But that came after the [private] recordings, right?
BN: Yeah. The [album] recordings were made at my very first standup date in Houston, Texas. And of course I had no idea how it was going to be received. I mean, I was totally unprepared the rush. I had to kind of pinch myself everyday and say 'wow!'.
GM: But you knew the material was gold from the reactions you were getting from the private recordings.
BN: At best, I hoped it might sell 25,000 and it would be an adjunct to a standup career where maybe a couple hundred people in the town had heard of the album and would come in to see you. But I never thought of it as the break-out hit that it was.
GM: Any idea how many it sold over the years?
BN: I've been told the first one was in excess of a million and I think it's above that. But no, I've never gotten an actual... I finally found out the other day that I lost a record that I never knew I had, which was the number one and number two album on the Billboard charts for thirty-some years. The number of weeks it was on was the record and that lasted for some thirty-some years. And then it was beaten by Guns N'Roses. Their number one and number two albums stayed on the charts longer than mine.
GM: But where are they now?
BN: And I always said, well, at least it went to a friend.
GM: (laughs) Did you have to be forced on stage?
BN: No, I didn't have to be forced because what happened was I had this disc jockey friend in Chicago and he said, "I have this friend of mine who I think is very funny." So they said, "Well, let's hear him." So Dan called me up and said "put some of your stuff on tape and I'll play it for them." So I put it on tape and brought it down there and they listened to it and they liked it. And they said, "Okay, we'll record you at your next night club." I said, "I've never played a night club." And they said, "Well, we're going to have to get you in to play a night club." No one had to force me, but I was terrified when I walked out, not knowing how it would be received. But at the same time, I'd spent so many years of nothing happening that this was the first glimmer of any kind of good stuff coming along.
GM: How old were you then?
BN: Uh, I think thirty.
GM: This was in 1960, right?
GM: I think of comics of the day sort of having fast patter and being really big [in their actions].
BN: There was a change that was going on, of which I was part of. There was Mike and Elaine [Nichols & May], Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, myself, Johnny Winters, and Lenny Bruce. We weren't doing "take my wife, please" jokes. We weren't doing "jokes"; we were doing little vignettes. So there was a change in comedy. I mean, we didn't all get together and have a cabal and say let's change comedy; it was just our way of finding what was funny in the world.
GM: You did it all individually.
BN: Yeah, yeah!
GM: Did you model your act or style on anyone in particular?
BN: Well, I guess if anybody, Jack Benny. I've always been credited with Jack's timing. I don't think you can teach timing. I think timing is something that you hear. But I kind of patterned myself after Jack. I always said that Jack was fearless. He was absolutely... As a standup comic, he was fearless. Because he wasn't afraid of silence. He would take whatever time it took to tell the story and get the laugh. So if I learned from anybody, it certainly would have been Jack Benny. Another would have been George Gobel. As I said in the past, all of a sudden I realized, "Oh my God, you don't have to put on women's clothes and walk on your ankles to get laughs."
GM: Not that there's anything wrong with that.
BN: Not that there's anything wrong with that, no. (laughs)
GM: I know that you like different styles. I know Richard Pryor was one of your favourites. But did you see the movie The Aristocrats?
BN: No, I heard about it. And of course I knew the joke. The joke's been around for years and years and years.
GM: Would you have done it?
BN: No (laughs).
GM: Did you think the joke was funny?
BN: When I heard it, yeah, I thought it was funny. Then when I heard about [the movie], everyone seems to think that George Carlin and Bob Saget did the best Aristocrats version.
GM: But you haven't heard them.
GM: So this would be the kind of joke that you heard and might have told in private but you're just not interested in performing it?
BN: Yeah. I'm not going to, after all these years, branch out into that. No. I just get a kick out of doing a show and having it well received and I haven't had to resort to anything like that. But at the same time I can listen to Richard Pryor and become absolutely hysterical.
GM: And others like him? Or just him?
BN: Well, he's influenced so many. There are a lot of road company Richard Pryors out there.
GM: What's one thing the public would be surprised to learn about you?
BN: Uh, probably the bestiality thing.
GM: Oh yeah.
BN: That's coming out (laughs) despite my attempts to quell it.
GM: Well, you know, with the internet these days everything gets out there.
GM: I read that when you were young you had this aversion to public speaking. But obviously you don't have this aversion anymore.
BN: That's an urban myth. I never had an aversion because I was active in the drama club. If I had that aversion I certainly wouldn't put myself in the position of being on stage. Of course, in the drama club you're hiding behind a character.
GM: I read that in a book about the rebel comics of the fifties and sixties.
BN: Time magazine called us – the ones I mentioned – they called us the sick comics of their day, Lenny Bruce and myself and Johnny Winters and Mike and Elaine and Shelley Berman and Mort Sahl.
GM: You were included as a sick comic?
BN: Yeah. Well, because I was making fun of one of our revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln. That hadn't been done before. I was making Abe out to be a dim bulb.
GM: Jonathan Winters was kind of like your Art Tatum, wasn't he? Some piano players would hear Art Tatum and go, "I can't play anymore."
BN: I said that once. I went to see Johnny and I was just starting in standup. I really had never worked in a club when I saw him in a club in Chicago. And I said, "What's the point? He's the best there is." But then I said to myself, "Number four isn't bad, you know?" (laughs)
GM: That's a very Canadian attitude! That's why we like you.
BN: My grandmother was from St. Catherine's. Maybe that's where I get it from.
GM: Was there any resentment from other comics at the time at how fast your broke?
BN: If there was, I wasn't aware of it. I suppose there was. It's only natural. Especially among whoever you usurped at that point in time, whoever that was. I remember when I was the number one comic, I'd hear people say on Sullivan they have this new comic who's supposed to be very funny, and I'd watch him and I'd laugh and say, "Yeah, he's good. He's good." And that went on and on and on. And then I saw Bill Cosby. And I said, "Okay, Bill, go run with it. It's yours now." It was kind of a relief, you know? (laughs)
GM: Yeah, whatever happened to Bill Cosby?
GM: I'm really excited to learn that you have a book coming out.
GM: When is that coming out?
BN: I think they're shooting for September (2006).
GM: What kind of book is it?
BN: Well, it covers a lot of things. It covers the conceptualization of some of the routines, where they came from, some movies I've been in and some weird things that have happened in movies, the first television show, The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, observations. It covers really a wide range of things. And the buzz I'm getting back is being very well... I mean, the galleys are out there and they're being well received.
GM: Was it difficult to remember these things?
BN: Yeah. The hardest part was remembering some of the things pre-celebrity. Because there was no reason to remember them. I didn't think that anybody would ever want to know anything about them, you know? I didn't say, "Oh, you better remember that. That'll be important when you become a celebrity."
GM: Did you get help from people who knew you back then?
BN: Yeah, I called some people, but unfortunately they're my age their reaction is kind of, "No, I don't remember." (laughs)
GM: (laughs) Well, then, just make it up.
BN: Yeah, yeah.
GM: We know of your friendship with Don Rickles. Did you hang out with lots of other comics at the time?
BN: I hang out with comics now. I didn't at the time because you're on the road. Like Dick Martin. I've known Dick Martin since 1960. That's one thing I write about, also, in the book: what it's like being a standup and the camaraderie among the standups. It's a little like astronauts. If an astronaut says to another astronaut, "You know when the second stage comes in, I wouldn't call it a boost but it's kind of a...". And the other astronaut says, "Yeah, I know what you mean." That's kind of what standup comics have. We've all been there. We all know what it's like to have great nights and to have terrible nights. I was in Minneapolis at one of the first clubs I played after Houston [his very first club]. In fact, the record [album] was just then breaking around the country. And Rowan & Martin were appearing at the Radisson Hotel and I was appearing at a club called Freddy's. And the phone rang one day and it was Dick Martin. And he said, "Hi, I'm Dick Martin. I'm with Rowan & Martin." And I said, "Yeah, Dick, of course I know." And he said, "Do you want to play golf?" And I said, "Yeah, that'd be great." There's just a camaraderie that Dick felt he could call me up even though we had never met and say, "I'm a fellow standup."
GM: Did you ever have any dealings with Lenny Bruce?
BN: I'd run into Lenny every so often when we were in the same city. Then, of course, Lenny got all hung up on the legality of his being arrested in Chicago. And he kind of stopped being funny for a while. He was kind of ponderous. He had all this stuff about freedom of speech and people came to laugh; they didn't come for a civics lesson. But Lenny was a pioneer. He eliminated a lot of sacred cows.
GM: Your stuff still holds up 40 years later. But you listen to his and it's not as funny.
BN: Oh really?
GM: But you say he was hilarious.
BN: Oh yeah, yeah. No, I'll say this: he was in and out. You'd see him one time and he would be just absolutely hilarious and then the next time not quite so. But of course he was into drugs and that can affect performances.
GM: He should have been into bestiality and maybe he'd still be around.
GM: In this book about rebel comedy I was reading [Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, by Geral Nachman, Pantheon Books, 2003], he was saying he predicted big things for you because the executives want a goy, somebody who's not Jewish.
BN: I remembered there was a New York Times article and it was by Gilbert Millstein. He came to see me in St. Louis and he wrote an article and the banner was "The Man Who Bites the Hand That Feeds Him". Because I was doing some corporate stuff, like The Retirement Party. And he felt that was my audience and they would come in and here I was skewing the corporate pipe. So maybe that's where he got the goy.
GM: You also have a DVD coming out? Or is it out?
BN: The DVD is of that Showtime thing I did. It's standup. A lot of material from the first and second albums.
GM: And you did this well after the fact.
BN: Oh, yeah. I did this in the '90s and the material broke through in 1960, so it was a good 30, 35 years.
GM: Do you have to go back and listen or take notes from the original material to get the wording exactly right?
BN: Somebody took them down word for word because they had to. Being a television show, they had to have a script to work from. Then I just went back and kind of refreshed my memory. A couple didn't work: Khrushchev's Landing didn't work. Baseball worked great. I did a thing on a television show that I had in 1961. It was a thing called Phil's Fires, a private fire department. And that didn't work. That just kind of laid there (laughs). That's how you find out, you know?
GM: That's what Seinfeld said in his documentary: the audience will give a celebrity comic ten minutes, then after that you've got to be funny.
GM: Are there still copies of your 1961 series around?
BN: No, I don't think so. There was a copyright problem with ownership so nothing ever really happened. It was only 33 shows.
GM: But so many old shows are being released on DVD, you'd think it would be perfect for that since a lot of people didn't get to see it.
BN: Well, a LOT of people didn't get to see it, you're right! (laughs)
GM: It won Peabodys and Emmys.
BN: Yeah. When I watch it from time to time if I'm looking for a particular routine, I'll look at it and it's a pretty raw talent, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, I cringe a little bit when I see it.
GM: You're constantly toying with it and rejigging your act?
BN: Oh yeah, you're always on the prowl for new material. That's the real kick, to get a piece of material and do it and have it work. That's what it's all about.
GM: Do you sit down and do it or just while you're out doing other things?
BN: I kind of do it in my head, then I'll try pieces of it on stage and if it looks promising, I'll put it together.
GM: Are you doing something on the Last Supper now?
BN: Yeah. Without giving it away, the way I set it up is with The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson and what a huge success it was. But there are other things in the Bible that aren't really to my mind fully explained. And one is the last supper because you don't just have a last supper. First of all, you have to get a room. And this [routine] is one of the disciples getting the room for the last supper.
GM: This sounds like a classic Bob Newhart routine already.
GM: Are you surprised you hadn't thought of this before?
BN: Maybe it took Mel's.... I had toyed with it before but I didn't have the hook until Mel's Passion of the Christ. Again, there's another routine, King Kong, that I do where the people laugh at the premise, which is whenever you start a new job they give you a week's orientation and then your first day on the job nothing that was ever covered in the orientation is the first problem you face. And then I say I wonder what it was like for a new guard at the Empire State Building on the night that King Kong climbed the outside. And now he has to call his boss at home and explain what's going on.
GM: And now with the movie King Kong, you've got a hook.
BN: Yeah, exactly.
GM: Did you like Passion of the Christ?
BN: Yeah. I thought Mel did a wonderful.... I admired him very much for doing it, for having that kind of commitment. Because everybody's looking for the next commercial hit and he just kind of said, "No, I've got to do this." You don't see too much of that these days.