"Richard Lewis said to me one time, 'I got tired of doing the same material night after night.' And I said, 'Richard, we're not out there to please ourselves. We're out there to please the audience. It doesn't matter if you're tired of it.'"
– Bob Newhart
Guy MacPherson: Hi, Bob.
Bob Newhart: Hi, Guy, how are you?
GM: Good, thanks. Excuse me, now, I have to take a swig.
GM: I just said, "Hi, Bob."
BN: "Hi, Bob", that's right! (chuckles)
GM: I've got to say I'm so glad that you wrote your book [I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!: and Other Things That Strike Me as Funny, Hyperion Books ] because this is the third time we've spoken and frankly I'd run out of questions.
GM: So I read the book. It's great.
BN: I'm glad you read it.
GM: There were some laugh-out-loud moments.
BN: Oh, good.
GM: It's a fun book. You said comedians don't mature; they're still children. Now, you're in, what, in your seventies?
BN: Seventy-seven, yeah.
GM: How old are you mentally?
BN: I said it in regard to "the fat lady in the red dress wants a white wine." As you mature, you get civility beaten into you. But somehow it doesn't take with comedians. Because even though we may be 77, we still say the fat lady in the red dress wants a white wine. There's a part of the comedian that doesn't grow up.
GM: That says what's on their mind whether it's proper or not.
BN: They just say it. I've always said the life of the comedian is we watch you people and then you pay us to see us do you. You could eliminate us and just watch each other. But when you're a comedian, people go, "Oh yeah, that's right, I hadn't thought about that." Being a comedian, I think, keeps you young. You think young. Your life is just a constantly evolving thing that's fascinating.
GM: And it's not just the fact that it's your chosen profession; that's just who you are and that's why you chose that profession, rather than vice versa, right?
BN: I think so, yeah. When I finished the book and was re-reading it for errors and things like that, the one thing that came to me was my perseverance. I didn't know I had that kind of perseverance. I just had to find out if I could make a living being funny. Or if I could make a living making observations about life. I never thought of myself as a persevering kind. But I guess... I guess I am. In my own strange way. I'm a Virgo and they're supposed to be neat and my wife says, "You're the messiest Virgo I ever met in my life." And I said, "No, no, there is an order." Only I know the order, but there is an order.
GM: So you persevere, but would there have been a point where you just throw up your hands and give up? Obviously you never reached that point.
BN: Well, I came real close several times. I mean, here I had a degree in management – I say accounting but actually it was management – and all my friends were getting married and buying homes and I'm working at the department store. And at some point I really felt I had screwed up my life. But then there was that next thing on the horizon and I'd say to myself, "Okay, if that doesn't pan out, I'm going to drop this whole thing." Then it didn't pan out but then there'd be that next thing on the horizon. And I mean, I'm not sure I set out to be a stand-up comedian but it was the only offer I had. So I just said to myself, "Well, I guess you better learn how to do this because this is the only thing they're offering you."
GM: Do you ever wonder how your life might have unfolded if you hadn't stepped on stage?
BN: Oh, I think we all do, yeah. I wouldn't have been as successful as I've been, but I would have been in some kind of creative field, I know that much. I know I thought differently than other people. Other sane people. (laughs)
GM: You mentioned thinking that the bubble could burst any time.
BN: Any time.
GM: At what point did you feel you could exhale?
BN: About six weeks ago.
GM: (laughs) Seriously, though.
GM: Is it really a lifelong thing, or was there a point where you could go, "Even if nothing else works out, I'm okay now"?
BN: Yeah. There was actually a point, and I remember it rather vividly. I had no idea it was going to last as long as it's lasted. Forty-seven years. I had no idea it was going to last that long. I had a habit in Las Vegas. I was at the Sands and just before the show I would kind of peek through the curtains to see what the room looked like, like if there were any trouble tables or a loud guy or a woman who appeared to have had too much to drink. And that was like a ritual before each show. I'd peek through the slit in the curtains. And I was involved in a conversation with my manager and all of a sudden I heard my bow music and I thought, oh my God, I never took a look at the audience. And then I realized, "it doesn't matter, whatever comes up you'll handle. Don't worry about it." (laughs) That's when I realized that maybe I was a stand-up comic and maybe I could handle whatever came up.
GM: And now you don't bother to look anymore.
BN: Uh, no. I don't check.
GM: You said that writing was cathartic for you, like a lot of people say it is.
BN: Well, that was kind of tongue in cheek. Every book I'd ever read of the same type - memoirs - they'd always mention how cathartic it was. And I didn't feel cathartic. And I was worried about the book because you're supposed to feel cathartic: "Maybe this isn't a very good book because I don't feel cathartic." So I went to this guy and I said, "Is this cathartic?" and he said, "No, it's just self-pity."
GM: But you did learn something about yourself: that you persevered.
BN: What I learned is what I knew already, which was, where the hell did the time go? That was the gut-wrenching part of it: "Oh my God, was that really thirty years ago? That was last week!"
GM: Is anything cathartic for you? Or would be?
BN: Uh... A good enema, probably. (laughs)
GM: There's that perverse sense of humour!
BN: I was talking to somebody about Richard Pryor – newspaper man – and what a great admirer I am of Richard Pryor even though we work totally differently, and how brilliant I thought he was. And he said, "Who would you say is second behind Richard Pryor?" And I said me. (chuckles)
And I said, "See, that's known as a hanging curveball. You can't throw out that kind of question at a comedian and not expect him to hit it out of the park." (laughs)
GM: Speaking of Richard Pryor, your wife said, "If they found out what your sense of humour is really like, no one would show up. You have this dark side." A week or two ago I was interviewing Brian Regan. I don't know if you know him. He's a clean comic.
BN: Oh, is he? Oh, good for him. I may have seen him.
GM: And he said something similar. He said, "My wife and friends say 'if your fans only knew what comes out of your mouth'".
GM: Why would you be afraid to show that on stage? Because certainly there are successful precedents for dark humour. Is it just because it doesn't fit your persona?
BN: Yeah. Like, for instance, there's a level that the comedian or the audience sets and you can't go below that level. That's the floor that you can't go below. Because then they don't laugh. So what you try to do is you try to approach that floor but just miss it. It's kind of like bouncing off the atmosphere, which is supposed to be our new way of travelling. I mean, I don't like flying as it is, but I sure as hell wouldn't enjoy bouncing off the atmosphere to get to Tokyo in two hours, you know? I'd rather take the ten hours it takes now. But to me, it isn't sick; it's our way of dealing with the terrible things in life. You have to find a way of dealing with it. And one way of dealing with it is a supposed complete indifference to it. Like, there was a story that caught my eye about this minister in Afghanistan that was assassinated. It said he was the minister of tourism. And that just struck me funny. Other people might have read that and said, "Oh, that's too bad. And he was quite young, too. That's a shame. He probably left a family and a couple of kids." But my reaction was, "How busy can he be?" I mean, I didn't know there was a minister of tourism there. You might get a call like every seven, eight months. And a lot of wrong numbers: "Yeah, can I help you?... No, that's all right. We get that a lot." And he doesn't get a call for another six months. I mean, it was unfortunate for his family and I feel sorry for any little children he might have had in Afghanistan, but I couldn't resist. That's the way it struck me.
GM: So you hit on these things but you don't get too dark with them.
BN: Oh, I'll venture there every so often just to see if that floor still exists.
GM: You said there's a camaraderie with other stand-up comics because you've all been through the wars, which I take to mean the bad crowds, heckling, whatever. When was the last time you ever had a rough crowd? That must have been years and years ago.
BN: Well, it happens less and less as you get older and I guess more respected. But I used to hate hecklers. Geez, I shouldn't say this because I'll wind up with a room full of hecklers, but in a way you kind of look forward to them because you know how to deal with them. I remember I was in San Diego a couple years ago and there was this drunken woman, which is the worst kind of heckler that you can get because the sympathy very soon turns toward the woman and away from you so you have to be very careful. You can do maybe one or two lines and then you better get out. The sympathy is going to go to her. And she just wandered up to the stage and she obviously had too much to drink. And she was like, "Bob! Hey Bob!" And I said to her, "Oh, how are you? You know, I haven't had a heckler in probably four or five years. I just wondered what had happened to all you people. It's so good to see you, that you're still around." That was my way of dealing with it.
GM: That's a very civilized way.
BN: There was a reason I hated hecklers. When I first started out, I just went from one routine to another. I went from the Submarine Commander to Abe Lincoln to the Driving Instructor. And if I'm in the middle of the Driving Instructor and I got a heckler, I can't just put him down; I have to put him down within the context of the Driving Instructor. Like Mrs. Webb saying, "What did he say?" "Oh, it's just some drunk that drove by us. Don't pay any attention to him." So you had to put them down within the context or you had to get out of the routine and take all the momentum you've built already and then get back into it. After a while you learn how to deal with it.
GM: You also talked about singers hiding behind songs, that Sinatra thought Strangers in the Night was stupid but he sang it because people wanted to hear it.
BN: That's what I was told, yeah.
GM: I was wondering if you ever did material that personally wasn't your favourite but the audience loved it so you did it anyway?
BN: Well, I wouldn't say I hated the material. It's material I had done a lot. But that was a challenge, to do it as well as I could because I knew the audiences wanted to hear it. And they paid the money and they're entitled to hear what they want to hear. And even though I may be tired of doing it, I had to find a way of giving it life. That's what you do. That, to me, is the art form. No matter how many times you've done it, to make it as energetic as the first time.
GM: It's all about being a professional, too, right?
BN: That, to me, is being a professional. Richard Lewis said to me one time, he said, "I got tired of doing the same material night after night." And I said, "Richard, we're not out there to please ourselves. We're out there to please the audience. It doesn't matter if you're tired of it."
GM: But you don't want to pander too much. You want to do stuff that is true to you while pleasing the audience, but not just go for every corny joke there is that you know will kill.
BN: Yeah. I don't think comedians pander. I think they're too rebellious. We're really anti-establishment. All of us. We're anti-system.
GM: Even the bad ones? The hacks?
BN: We used to call them technicians. Because they stole material. And sometimes they did it better than the person they had stolen it from because they were such good technicians, but they never had an original thought in their entire lives. So those were hacks. They didn't create anything. I think the creators are basically anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, whatever that authority is, whether it's the army or big government or large corporations or whatever the authority figure is.
GM: Speaking of thieves, you mentioned Don Adams in your book.
BN: Okay (laughs).
GM: Even before your book came out, I had a guest on my radio program [Kliph Nesteroff] give an example of joke theft, and it was Don Adams. He played a Jackie Mason record followed by an album that came out later by Don Adams with the exact same routine.
BN: Oh my God.
GM: At the time I thought it could have been a coincidence or there might have been an alternate explanation. But after reading your book, I realized he really was.
BN: Well, I think I explained in the book that I had never mentioned it was Don Adams until after Don had died. I just credited this unnamed comedian who was responsible for my being a stand-up because I figured if they were going to steal it, I may as well do it myself. So they had this memorial service for Don. And Don and I were friends. We laughed about it and he'd say, "Yeah, yeah, I know." So Dorothy said, "Would you get up and say something." I said the only thing I could think of would be when Don stole that material. She said, "Yeah, because he read it to me and I loved it. I thought it was funny." And I said, "Dorothy, it's a funeral. I don't know if it's appropriate to tell this story." And she said, "No, no, please tell it." So I told it. And the audience reaction – and there were a lot of other comedians there – they laughed because they said, "Yeah, that was Don." (laughs) If he heard something, he borrowed it. I read recently – and it's something I kind of knew – he hated stand-up. He didn't dislike it; he hated stand-up. It's in a book called I Killed, I think. Stories about stand-ups on the road.
GM: It's funny to think that if it weren't for him, you might not be where you are today.
BN: Well, I'd probably be a comedy writer.
GM: A broke one, with people stealing your material!
BN: (laughs) Yeah, I'm indebted to Don. That wasn't his intention. In fact, I left that particular piece he stole out of the Submarine Commander when I recorded the Submarine Commander because I didn't want to be accused of stealing from Don Adams! (laughs) But then I put it back in. I said, to hell with it, I wrote it, I'm going to do it.
GM: And no one ever accused you of stealing it? No one made that connection: "Hey, that's Don Adams' bit!"
BN: (laughs) Probably not, no.
"I'm a grounded person anyway. And my wife keeps me grounded. She keeps me from getting full of myself, as all wives do."
– Bob Newhart
GM: You wrote that comedians can teach you something. I've always found this to be true no matter how seemingly dumb the joke. You may think you're alone on something, then a comic will talk about it and you learn that it's a common problem or whatever. Comedians are the philosophers of our time.
BN: I said in the book that it's kind of adult Aesop's fables. I think the example I gave was Danny Thomas' jack story. My wife and I, that's a thing that we'll say, and I guess other people say it. I'll be complaining and she'll say, "You're doing a jack story. Why don't you just do it and see what happens?" Don't go to the "you can take that $500 tire jack and shove it". There's a kernel of, of... I hate to call it a conduct of life, but there is an element of that in almost every joke. There's something to be learned from almost every joke. I'll give you an example: A guy is visiting an insane asylum. A friend of his is there and he goes to commiserate with him. And he walks by this room and this guy says, "Psst, come here." And he says, "What do you do?" And the guy says, "I'm an attorney." He says, "Oh, my God, that's exactly what I need." He says, "There's nothing wrong with me but my kids, they want my money. I'm a very wealthy man and they had me committed. And I need someone to defend me to get me out of here. I don't belong here." And the attorney said, "Well, I'll certainly look into your case and maybe I'll take it." He said, "Oh great, thank you very much." And the attorney turns to leave and as he's leaving he gets hit in the back of the head with a brick. And he turns and the guy says, "Don't forget now." (laughs)
GM: And the moral of that story is...?
BN: Don't be fooled by appearances.
GM: You started your career in show business relatively late. Do you think this helped keep you grounded, if in fact you are? Because sometimes younger people don't know how to handle the fame and money.
BN: I don't know. I wouldn't think my career is a model for anything. It was all backwards. You come out and you give away your material to the people. When I first started out, the people knew the material. But they wanted to see you do it. You were like a singer with a hit record. Like, Buddy Hackett would say to me, "You're giving away your material." And I'd say, "Yeah, but that's what they want." No, I wouldn't use my career as a model.
GM: Not as a model, but I was wondering if it helped keep you grounded because your fame happened to you later in life.
BN: I'm a grounded person anyway. And my wife keeps me grounded. She keeps me from getting full of myself, as all wives do.
GM: But you know, if you had hit when you were 21, say, before you met your wife, and you had all this money and fame, who knows? I know you're a grounded person naturally but sometimes that can make a younger person go a little squirrelly.
BN: I've thought about it, yeah. When it happened to me, I was playing nightclubs but I still was learning my craft. It wasn't like I had spent 20 years in the trenches. So I was learning it at the top. I see some television stuff I did and there was a rawness there. I can see it. But I survived it. I have a thing, and it's not true in my case, but the giant stars, I mean the really super stars, the Frank Sinatras, the Dean Martins, are people whose talent is so big that it survives their death wish. It's true! I mean, Frank Sinatra did everything in the world to prevent him from being... He left Nancy, he married Ava, he got in fights, he hung out with mobsters, he got in fights in Australia where they wouldn't let him out of the country, he said things like "I hate this song". But the talent was so immense that even he couldn't kill it. Dean Martin had a licence plate called 'Drunky'. I'm sure Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, that's not their favourite licence plate. He talked about fooling around on Jeannie. He did everything wrong but he was such a huge talent that it didn't matter. And Gleason. Gleason was larger than life. I think it's true. I think the really great talents have a death wish. Maybe we all have a death wish.
GM: A physical death wish or just for their career?
BN: I don't know. I shouldn't expound on it because I'm not really sure. I know Buddy Hackett one time walked out on stage and he was particularly obnoxious. Intentionally so. And he'd say, "I know you hate me right now but you'll love me at the end." He kind of dared the audience to dislike him. Strange people (laughs).
GM: Yes, it's a strange profession you're in.
BN: We're not talking about normal people.
GM: Do you still have the old radio recordings of you and Ed Gallagher?
GM: Have they ever been released or will they?
BN: Uh, no. You're probably one of the few that really knows about them. It was a wonderful training ground for me. I had to write a five-minute routine every day. And there was one day where we just improv'd. Ed had been sick for, like, two weeks and we were against a deadline. Our contract would have been void if we didn't turn out, like, ten five-minute routines and get them in the mail by midnight, so they were postmarked by midnight. I think I had ideas for three. And then I said I'd make up something. I'll be a CEO of a major company. And then it turns out that I'm totally unqualified. And I'd say it doesn't matter because they pay you so much, and you spend the first month or two just touring plants so it's at least six to eight weeks before anybody finds out you don't know what you're doing. And by that time you've made a lot of money. So that was just me saying, "Okay, I'll be so-and-so." And Ed would say, "Okay, I'll interview you." It's kind of like Second City. It's kind of like just taking a premise and running with it.
GM: So no plans to release those?
BN: Well, you're the only one who's been asking (laughs).
GM: Just send them to me, then. That's all I care about! Because you transcribed some of them in the book: "We've lost both of Lincoln's eyebrows to graduation." That's hilarious. I think these would still go over well. They still hold up great.
BN: Do they really? See? Okay. I don't know. Ed died a couple years ago. I don't know if I'd release them. It's just something I want to have for myself. I gave them to Josh [Young], who worked with me on the book. Because Josh had the distance. He could say, "That's very funny." And I'd say, "Is it? Okay, then let's put it in."
"Larry, Darryl and Darryl became cult figures, really. When they walked in, I was reminded of Deliverance. I always thought there was a lot of inter-marriage that took place that produced Larry, Darryl and Darryl."
– Bob Newhart
GM: Do you have a favourite between your two most famous sitcoms?
BN: No. I like them both. I guess some people like The Bob Newhart Show more than Newhart. But I enjoyed doing both of them for different reasons. They were different times in my life. They both allowed me to stay home and not be travelling on the road. I thought they were both good. I thought they were both well-written, well-cast. I was talking with Tim Conway and Mike Connors last night. It's kind of a ritual thing that we do every Tuesday. We were talking about shows today and I said I thought Raymond was extremely well-written. And Mike had just done a Two and a Half Men. And his particular part they didn't do in front of a live audience; they just filmed it. And I lamented the absence of live audiences. I can distinguish a laugh track from a real audience. And Everybody Loves Raymond was done in front of a live audience and was well-written and beautifully cast, as I think both our shows were. As was Mary Tyler Moore, probably the best-cast sitcom maybe ever. Some people would argue All in the Family, I suppose. But a lot of the shows are done with a laugh track and I tune them out. I don't bother. It's not part of the genre I grew up in.
GM: Maybe they have an audience there and they're just not laughing because they're not funny.
BN: (laughs) Well, maybe, that could be! Some producers have said it's a distraction to have an audience and I thought, "Are you nuts?" It's not a distraction. The actors are better, the writing is better. I mean, if we hadn't had an audience, Larry, Darryl and Darryl would have been on one show and that would have been it. They were in this one show and they were so well-received I went to the writers and they agreed and we said, "We gotta have these guys back as soon as possible." Mr. Carlin, too. Mr. Carlin was a one-shot. And that's the story with a lot of shows. It was just going to be a one-shot but was received so well they said, "Geez, we ought to bring them back." Larry, Darryl and Darryl became cult figures, really. When they walked in, I was reminded of Deliverance. I always thought there was a lot of inter-marriage that took place that produced Larry, Darryl and Darryl. (laughs)
GM: So these two shows are like your kids: you can't choose a favourite between them.
BN: Exactly, yeah. They were at different times in my life. I mean, The Bob Newhart Show was my first one and it will always be my first one. And Newhart was, you came back and you did it again.
GM: You mentioned giving advice to Richard Lewis, and you told me previously, and it's in the book, too, telling Billy Crystal about the obligation to do stand-up if you have the ability. Do a lot of younger, or even more established, comics come to you for advice or your take on things? Or do you just offer it up?
BN: I guess I'm aware of it when I go... I went to the Aspen Comedy Festival. I did a thing with David Steinberg where we just sat and talked. And a lot of the younger comics would come up and ask questions. There's a kind of reverence that I had for Jack Benny that maybe they feel with my work. Which is a nice feeling. It's a great feeling, that people admire your work. The thing I most get, people come up and say, "Thank you for all the laughter." And I say, "It was my pleasure." And that's really the truth. I enjoyed it as much as they enjoyed it. I enjoyed doing it as much as they enjoyed watching it.
GM: Do you have any more TV in you?
BN: We're talking to TBS about a comedy anthology series that I would host. It would be like a Rod Serling thing but instead of science fiction it would be comedy, with a different cast every week. I would set it up and tie up the loose ends at the end and in the middle would be this 20 minute comedy story.
GM: That would be different.
BN: Yeah. Well, it keeps the mind active, which is what you have to do.