People — 02 February 2013
Bob Newhart: You give us all the material we’ll ever need

Iconic comedian Bob Newhart, the featured entertainer at this year’s Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, reveals fearsome and fortunate secrets to milestone anniversaries.

By Elizabeth Rahe

Milestones have been whizzing by for Bob Newhart. The comedian – who marked his first appearance at Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance last month – recently celebrated the 30th anniversary of the hit sitcom Newhart, the 40th anniversary of the hit sitcom The Bob Newhart Show, and the 50th anniversary of his triple-Grammy win for his two career-launching Button-Down Mind comedy albums and as Best New Artist. Then there’s the real accomplishment: the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Ginnie last month.

The secret of his success, if you ask him, is a combination of luck and fear.

”I think fear has kept us together. That’s the secret of a long marriage,” he says with his familiar dry delivery. He’s on the phone from his Bel Air, Calif., home, yet one can imagine the deadpan face that accompanies it.

He can’t explain his luck – what he calls his charmed life. He grew up in a working-class community on Chicago’s West Side. His comedic journey started after college and military service in the mid-’50s, while he was working as an accountant, swapping offbeat, role-playing phone conversations with a friend. They eventually recorded their routines and sold them to radio stations – at a loss of $18 per week. His friend moved on with his life, but Newhart kept working on his bits, which eventually led to a man-on-the-street TV show in Chicago and – his big break in 1961 – The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart album, followed quickly by The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back.

“After the album broke, my price for performing standup skyrocketed from basically zero to $500 a week,” he wrote in his 2006 memoir I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! (Hyperion). “Then I was offered an eye-popping $2,000 a week to play Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. I wondered what the catch was. Do they beat you between shows?”

Soon he had his own variety program on NBC – the single-season The Bob Newhart Show – and he was juggling standup engagements, movie roles (Hell Is for Heroes, Catch-22) and TV appearances (The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times). The Bob Newhart Show sitcom ran from 1972-1978 and Newhart from 1982-1990. He received The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2002.

To this day Newhart’s career is a source of wonder to him – mixed with some residual fear.

“It’s like you’re walking down the street and you turn the corner and hear this big crash … a safe has fallen 15 floors and just missed you. That’s kind of the way I feel sometimes. It could’ve all not happened,” he says.

Referencing his start as an accountant, he adds, “I probably would have gone with Enron, and I’d probably be in prison now.”

His dark portrayal of good fortune may seem incongruous, but it’s that ability to turn circumstances inside-out – along with his stammering style and intelligent, clean humor – that have made him a comedy legend, and some of his comedy routines legendary. His most famous bits are conversations with imagined characters in which Newhart plays the straight man.

There’s the one about Abe Lincoln’s press agent trying to convince him not to shave his beard or revise the Gettysburg Address. You changed “four score and seven” to “eighty-seven”? … I understand it means the same thing, Abe. That’s meant to be a grabber. … Abe, we test-marketed that in Erie, and they went out of their minds. Then there’s the novice Empire State Building security guard phoning in a problem not covered in the guard manual – a King Kong infestation. I looked under unauthorized personnel and people without passes and apes and apes’ toes. … Apes and apes’ toes, yes sir. There’s an ape’s toe sticking through the window, sir… 

Although he includes classic routines in his act, he describes his current comedy as “observations on what a weird place this is we inhabit” – and he is constantly on the lookout for these absurdities.

“I have said that all comedians do is we watch you people in the audience. You give us all the material we’ll ever need the rest of our lives, and then you pay us to do you. You should just watch each other and pass the money back and forth and leave us out of it all together.”

At age 83 Newhart still does around 20 standup dates a year, and he’s not about to quit. He recently performed in Carmel, Calif. – it was a very good night, he says – and he recalls talking to Ginnie on the drive back to the hotel.

“I said to her, ‘Why would anybody want to stop doing that?’ What do you say? ‘Yeah, I’m really tired of making people laugh. I’m going to stop doing it.’ ”

Newhart considers performing comedy a rare privilege, as well as a responsibility. “I have a feeling when you go up on Judgment Day and they say, ‘What did you do?’ And you say, ‘I made people laugh,’ maybe they’ll say, ‘Get in that real short line over there.’ ”

Still, he says, every show is challenging. “The minute you feel comfortable and don’t worry – bang – it gets up and hits you. I wouldn’t know how to walk through a show. Every audience is a challenge, and when you get through and it’s been good, it’s just a great feeling.”

Since Newhart wrapped in 1990, he has continued to get acting roles, including film appearances in Elf and Horrible Bosses, TNT’s The Librarian movies and guest-star stints on ER (for which he received an Emmy nomination), Desperate Housewives and NCIS. In addition, The Bob Newhart Show sitcom reruns are on MeTV (weeknights, 10:30 p.m.).

He enjoys being able to pick and choose his roles and dates, having time to spend with the couple’s four grown children and soon-to-be 10 grandchildren as well as with close friends, including comedians Don Rickles and Tim Conway and actor Mike Connors (Mannix).

Newhart couldn’t pass up the offer to play a retired medical examiner on NCIS. Ginnie got hooked on the series when she was recovering from a 2009 liver transplant due to cancer. He is thankful for a saving grace in her case because, after the surgery, doctors found a tiny spot of cancer in her lung. If they had found it before, she would not have been a candidate for a transplant.

“That’s scary and at the same time you go, wow,” he says. “Luckily she got the transplant and she’s in great health.”

Although Newhart jokes about fear being the secret to a long marriage, he says the real key is humor. “As crazy as comedians are supposed to be, they have the longest marriages in show business – Jack Benny, George Burns, Buddy Hackett, Danny Thomas. As long as you can laugh it will get you over those rough times. I think that’s kind of what comedians do – we help people get past the rough times.”

Over the past 50 years, it is likely legions of fans have weathered rough times with laughs from Newhart’s comedy. There’s no doubt he and his biggest fan can thank laughter – and maybe a shot of fear – for their 50-year matrimonial gig.

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