"It really bothers me that a lot of the young guys coming up, coming out of standup, once they attain success in movies or on television, they stop doing standup. And I think it's wrong. Because if you're able to do standup I think you have a responsibility to do standup."
– Bob Newhart
Guy MacPherson: This is the longest lead time I've ever had to write a story.
Bob Newhart: (laughs) I have to explain. We're going away with the Rickles. We're going on vacation. For all of August.
GM: Where are you going?
BN: We're going to Barcelona, and then, uh, and then the south of France and Sardinia, and, um, Rome, uh, Sicily, uh, Greece, Turkey, and, uh, and then Venice.
GM: Who does the arranging? You go every year, don't you?
BN: Uh, we haven't gone for a couple of years. All of a sudden we have grandchildren and somehow spending time with them was more important. But we were able to work out our schedules so we could, we could do it this time.
GM: Have you been there before?
BN: Uh, yeah. Some places we haven't, but we've been to Venice and we've been to Rome. And we were in Madrid, never in Barcelona. So we're looking forward to it.
GM: Do you guys get recognized when you're over there?
BN: Uh... sometimes, yeah.
GM: By American tourists?
BN: By Americ--, yeah. Yeah, largely. Or Canadian.
GM: You're still doing standup. How many shows do you do a year?
BN: Probably... 25. Maybe. Yeah.
GM: So you just do it because you still love to.
BN: I do two or three a month. Average two or three a month.
GM: Do you write new material or are you doing your classics?
BN: I'll probably do, like, two of the classics and, uh... But then the rest of it is, is... I mean, you're always kind of writing, you know? I mean, if you're a comedian, you're always kind of observing and making notes and working on new material. You can't help it. It's like a lighthouse, you know? And it just keeps kind of circling and circling and circling looking for odd ideas.
GM: Do you find it more difficult to think funny as you get older?
BN: When I first started out, the first two albums, it, it just kind of poured out. You know? Like you'd open these flood gates and they just kind of poured out. And then the third and maybe with the fifth, they kind of trickled out. And it makes you a little nervous. You say, 'Wow, I'm dry.' And you haven't really run dry, it's just natural that it just floods out with the first couple.
GM: Is that because you have a lifetime of thinking of things up until the first--
BN: You have this reservoir of material. And now you have an outlet for it. And then you get down to the business of just being a standup comic.
GM: Is it that it becomes more of a certain technique, or a business...?
BN: One thing that happens is your success is kind of your undoing because you're kind of taken away from the wellspring of your material. So you have to make a conscious effort to not get cut off. To not surround yourself with too many luxuries that cut you off from your, from your source.
GM: What kind of luxuries are you talking about?
BN: I mean, for instance, uh... All right. Living in Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is not a, a microcosm of the United States. You know? (laughs) And you can, somehow get fooled by that, thinking it is. So you have to make a conscious effort. I mean, like, the Retirement Party was my experience when I was an accountant. And so you have to kind of go back there, you know, and relive and not get too comfortable.
GM: Certain comics, once they have achieved certain fame, their whole standup becomes about them being famous rather than about everyday things.
BN: What I object to is, is... I happened to be playing golf with Billy Crystal. Just by chance I happened to be at the club and--
GM: And everyone can relate to that!
BN: (laughs) I think he was playing with Tom Poston, I think it was. And so Tom asked me to join them, and so Billy and I were talking and I said to him, I said, "Do you still do standup?" And he said, "I'm starting to get back into it." And I said, you know, it really bothers me that a lot of the young guys coming up, coming out of standup, once they attain success in movies or on television, they stop doing standup. And I think it's wrong. Because if you're able to do standup I think you have a responsibility to do standup.
GM: That's interesting. Why?
BN: Because everyone doesn't have that talent. So you shouldn't squander it. If you're able to do that, I think you have an obligation to do it. And he said he was getting back into it. Plus, the satisfaction that you can't... I mean, I, I haven't done all that many movies, but standup is immediate gratification and you get conditioned to that. And anything less than that is kind of... I mean, all the TV shows I did were always in front of a live audience because I needed that immediate gratification of is this funny or isn't it funny? And in a movie you're so disconnected from the gratification. You don't find out until six months or a year later whether what you did was any good or not.
GM: I guess a lot of comics are using their standup as a stepping stone.
BN: Yeah, I think they've read... they've seen Robin Williams' and they've seen Billy Crystal's success in movies, and Tim Allen's, and Jerry Seinfeld's, and the kind of money that he got from the series... Yeah, it's a stepping stone. I just read in Montreal, you know, Just For Laughs, a lot of the comics are, you know, they're making TV deals up there. Somebody has a strong standup, they've, you know, they've got a TV deal.
GM: One good set and they're set.
GM: I read that one of your favourites is Richard Pryor.
BN: Yeah, yeah.
GM: That seems a little incongruous.
BN: I know, I suppose it does. But once you get away from the language, which I don't choose to use, but he does – and I'd feel cheated if he didn't. The underlying concept of the humour is just so funny. At times it's beyond standup. It's up there with Mark Twain and Will Rogers. It really is. It's a folklore of a sort. It's a description of a folklore.
GM: You don't have a problem with the language, per se.
BN: No, no. You know, I know what all the words are, and how you say 'em, and what they mean (laughs); I just choose not to use them.
GM: So are there other such comics who work "blue" that you admire?... Or, it just depends on their material, I guess.
BN: Yeah, it depends on their material. I mean, if it's just shock, um... If it's Andrew Dice Clay, no. No, I don't find him funny. But at the same time, humour is so individual. You know, I mean, if people want to go to see Andrew Dice Clay, then go! I have no problem with that. If they want to see me, come see me. If you want to see someone else, see someone else. I'm not prudish about it. It's just that I don't choose to work that way. I don't have a problem with people who do. If the underlying material is funny and not just gross for grossness sake.
GM: Right, and not racist or hurtful.
GM: Are there some young comics that you do like?
BN: Uh, Steven Wright... Seinfeld, of course. Um, a kid named Jake Johannsen. I haven't seen much of him lately. I thought he was very promising.
GM: Yeah. He kind of has the stutter that you have!
BN: I guess, yeah, I guess so... (laughs) He doesn't quite finish sentences. Yeah, I have to differentiate: Mine is a stammer.
GM: Yes. Well, then his would be, too. But with his, it seems more of a character. Yours seems natural.
BN: Uh... Yeah. I know what you're saying. It's the half-finished sentence or where the ideas are coming at such a rapid pace that he's on to something else. But again, how much of that is invented and how much is Jake, you know? He knows. I just found his concepts were very funny. He's not a clone of other people.
GM: I saw Ellen DeGeneres a couple weeks ago, doing her standup. And I noticed her one-sided conversations, not on the phone, but they were very similar to yours. Has anyone ever said that?
BN: Someone had told me that. Yeah, that, I guess, she has mentioned that I have been influential in her... To what extent I've been influential, I don't know! (laughs) I don't know, comedy or otherwise (laughs).
GM: Well, you both like girls.
GM: So maybe you have.
BN: (laughs) Yeah, but I took that as a compliment. It's very nice.
GM: Who's your favourite rapper? (long pause) Nah, I'm just kidding.
BN: That's the wrong subject.
GM: That's the next interview. Mixed up my notes...
BN: (laughs) Dr. Dre! Because that's the only name I know. (laughing) So he would have to be my favourite. Puff... Puff Daddy.
BN: I know the names, you know?
GM: Big Fat Bastard.
BN: I don't want people confusing... that's not poetry, you know? Don't confuse it with poetry.
GM: You mentioned you were an accountant. That doesn't seem like it would be a good jumping-off point for show business. But it worked for you. How did that happen?
BN: Well, it was the practical side of growing up in the midwest. And when I got into comedy, I didn't know if it was going to be in radio or television or standup or as a writer. I had no idea. It was like a toboggan: wherever it went, I went with it. And I happened to wind up in standup, but I don't think I ever started out saying I want to be a standup comedian. I just wanted to be in comedy is what I wanted.
GM: You just had these bits that you wrote and it snowballed.
BN: I had these ideas and I couldn't... I was working at a local TV station in Chicago and it happened to be at the time that Khrushchev was landing in New York and was being met at the airport by Eisenhower. Oh my God, that would have to be '56 or '58. '56, I guess. And I was watching the feed, the network feed, and I got the idea for Khrushchev's Landing. Now I knew I would never use it anywhere. I mean, I had no need. I wasn't looking for material, but I just had to write it. I just heard it and I had to write it. Whether there was an outlet for it or not, which probably defines being a comedian as well as anything. It's something you just have to do. You're not in control of it. So, I was like a cut short, one or two cuts short on the second album and, uh – I think we recorded it at the hungry i in San Francisco – so I threw in Khrushchev one night thinking this is much too inside for anybody. And then realized that the reaction it got, that people were aware of television and what goes on on television and that you spray someone's head because you get shine off it. You know? And that amazed me. But, I mean, the point is, I didn't have a choice. The idea came and I had to get it down on paper. To that extent, I was a prisoner of the idea, you know?
GM: Whatever happened to Ed Gallagher?
BN: Ed died recently.
GM: But from the time he retired from your act?
BN: Well, Ed went to New York. He was offered a job in New York and he was married and he had a couple kids at that point. So for his family's sake, he had to take the job in New York, you know, for security. So then I was confronted with, do you try to find another Ed or do you do it on your own? And I opted to do it on my own.
GM: Did he ever regret it?
BN: Did Ed?
GM: Yeah. With all the success that you had.
BN: N-no. I think he enjoyed my success. That was one thing about Ed. He didn't have a choice. I mean, he had a family. He had to support the family. We weren't going anywhere. I mean, literally. We were losing money. We, we were out of pocket – money – with our radio program. Seeing what happened, maybe he did. But at the time, there were no decisions. It was something he had to do.
GM: Were you guys called, like, Newhart and Gallagher? Or something? What was your--
BN: (pause) Boy, I forget. We were a poor man's Bob and Ray. Not as good. But enjoying it as much. (laughs)
GM: Your routines are still classics, still relevant. Your Sir Walter Raleigh Explains Tobacco was probably one of the reasons I never smoked.
BN: Well then, I did accomplish something in life, I guess. Somebody else told me that. They played it for their son and said, "See?" and he said, "Don't worry, Dad, I'm never going to smoke."
GM: Although you smoked at the time.
BN: Oh yeah. Oh, I smoked up until 15 years ago.
GM: I think everybody should hear that bit to realize how stupid it is.
BN: I heard that apparently they give it out to people who are trying to give up smoking. They have a cassette of just Sir Walter Raleigh. I had occasion recently, talking about the material holding up, I did a date in Cincinnati and the person they were honouring specifically requested The PR Man for Abe Lincoln. So I had to go back and I had to listen to it again because I hadn't done it for a long time. And I was amazed to find that it held up. More so today than in 1960.
GM: And your Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Co.) is probably one of the reasons why I'm afraid of flying.
GM: And another favourite is the Bus Drivers' School. Now it's probably--
BN: You know them all!
GM: It's probably been years since you've ridden public transportation, but let me tell you, they still drive like that.
BN: (laughs) There's a good example.
GM: Yeah, exactly.
BN: You're cut off from your source. So you really have to work at... You either overhear people's conversation because you're trying to – you're not trying to eavesdrop, but you're trying to see what people are talking about and what's going on in their lives, you know? But you have to work at it. The more successful you are, the harder you have to work at it.
GM: Any more series for you?
BN: You never say never, but I don't want to go through the disappointment again. I mean, you invest so much of yourself into it and then...
GM: You're talking about the last two?
BN: The last two, yeah. Emotionally, it just takes an awful lot out of you.
GM: What were the problems with them?
BN: Well, with George and Leo, we had a cast problem that we never really solved. We never resolved the relationship with my son and his girlfriend-slash-wife. We were searching. We were searching on air (laughs), you know? And it never really quite... It's a very tough thing to find. And it happens rarely. I mean, Friends and Seinfeld and Frasier and Mary Tyler Moore, those shows were all great. Our show, The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, they were great casts and there was a chemistry there and it worked.
GM: It's something that strikes a chord. It's the cast, it's the writing, it's...
BN: It's actually the writing and then it's the cast. And we never quite resolved that with George and Leo.
GM: What about movies? Was your last one In and Out or have you done others since?
BN: The last one was In and Out. I did a thing with Kelsey Grammer, which is going to be out in November, I understand, on ShowTime. It's a short half-hour, um... They're doing like a sports anthology series, I think, called Sports Pages or Sports Page or something like that. And ours is on golf and I think the hour-long one is on the day when NBC, or whoever it was, cut away from the end of the Super Bowl for Heidi. We shot that up in Vancouver, as a matter of fact.
GM: Oh really.
BN: Yeah. With Kelsey and, uh...
GM: So you've been here before.
BN: Oh, yeah. I played the Cave years ago.
GM: My dad was the band leader at the Cave.
BN: Was he? Oh, my God.
GM: Yeah. Fraser MacPherson.
BN: Yeah. Oh my God.
GM: So what year were you there?
BN: Oh, I'm guessing late sixties, early seventies.
GM: Have you ever worked with Rickles?
BN: Yeah, he did my show. He did Newhart. We did, we did a talk show and I was kind of his Ed McMahon. And he was terrible to me.
GM: There are a couple movies coming out this summer with older actors. Buddy movies with Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Donald Sutherland, the other one has Richard Dreyfuss, Burt Reynolds... You know, you and Rickles should do one.
BN: Yeah. We haven't been approached. Yeah, if the right material, decent material came along, I'd love to do it.
GM: What can we expect at your standup show?
BN: Probably a couple of the classics. And then observations. It's a month away, so anything. You know, I could pick up, uh, the paper tomorrow and there's an item in there and I say, "Oh, that's a funny idea," and expand on it.
GM: Or something that happened in Europe.
BN: It could be our trip, yeah, with the Rickles.
GM: Do you ever just sit back and marvel at the career that you've had?
GM: It's amazing.
BN: (laughs) Uh, there are times when I'm reminded... I mean, I go back to Chicago. I'm on the board of trustees of my university and I go back to Chicago and that kind of brings me up short every so often. "Oh, wow," you know? After I went to Loyola, I'd go in and have a beer, you go, "Wow, has that much time passed?" You know.