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Spencer Green

Spencer Green

Posted: May 28, 2010 11:35 PM

Bob Newhart: The Quiet Comedy Master

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Twenty-five years ago--a passage of time that is painful to acknowledge--I wrote an article about Bob Newhart for my college newspaper. Newhart had been nominated for an Emmy Award as Best Actor for his performance on his eponymous sitcom Newhart and I predicted he would lose because his kind of subtle, self-effacing work rarely won awards.** Unbeknownst to me, an assistant at the newspaper sent my article to Newhart at MTM Studios in Los Angeles and, shockingly, he wrote back. Among his comments: "When I am sure my family is asleep and there is little chance of my being discovered, I pull out your article with obvious glee and reread it. What perception in one so young in years."

And from this, to my utter delight and eternal confusion, we became occasional pen pals. Why a comedy legend would bother corresponding with me was a mystery and I could only chalk it up to the kind of person that Newhart was and continues to be. What kind of person is that? In a letter, I asked where one could find or order copies of his early comedy albums (yes, children, albums) and a few weeks later, I received a package containing two audio tapes--tapes he had clearly recorded himself--with "1st album" and "2nd album" handwritten labels on each. When I moved from my hometown of Miami to Los Angeles to pursue a writing career, he took time before a vacation with his family to have lunch with me and later I would see him at tapings of Newhart, including the now legendary finale where he wakes up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette.

This memory-laden preamble comes in advance of the Television Academy's June 1 salute to Newhart for his fifty years in show business, with lifelong friends and co-workers like Don Rickles, Tim Conway, James Burrows, Bill Daily, and Marcia Wallace expected to be in attendance. It is always heartening to see great, long-lived artists acknowledged and celebrated, particularly when said artists are, of course, still around to appreciate it and, especially, when said artists' careers are still in bloom. The continued success and durability of people as disparate as Newhart and, say, Betty White, Tony Bennett, or Clint Eastwood fulfill all the clichés one is forced to endure about timelessness and multi-generational appeal and everything else designed to prettify the obvious: they are as good as they ever were at what they do. Which is, to say, very.

Cultural historians and critics have described Newhart's comedy far more ably than I can ever manage but, to provide the context required for columns like this, it is important to note just how important his initial success was. Newhart came to prominence during the wave of "new" comics bridging the 1950s and 1960s and it is amusing to remember that he was tagged a "sick" comedian along with the likes of Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May. Newhart's first album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart in 1960 was the first comedy album to sell a million copies and the first to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, beating out such contenders as Frank Sinatra and Harry Belafonte. Newhart's follow-up album The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was another hit and, for two consecutive weeks, Newhart had the number one and two albums in the country--a record finally broken 31 years later by Axl Rose. (Newhart would later comment, "At least it went to a friend.")

For audiences used to the stone-washed irony or gut-and-purge observations of today's comedians, Newhart's routines about driving instructors ("It's hard for me to believe you've only had one lesson after you make a turn like that...One little thing--this is a one-way street") and Khrushchev ("Make a note, Jerry--we're gonna have to spray his head") may seem comfy 'n' quaint. But, they were born of changing values in the 50s and remain quietly caustic essays about cultural mood swings, corporate-dictated society, media saturation, and increasingly debased language which are as funny and relevant today as when they were conceived. Witness the classic "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue":

"You what? You typed it? Abe, how many times have I told you--on the backs of envelopes...I understand it's harder to read that way, but it looks like you wrote it on the train coming down...What else, Abe? 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."

Newhart's one-sided conversations and mild-mannered delivery are the efforts of patient, long-suffering people trying to maintain sanity in a world spinning out of control; the frustrations and anger just below that seemingly placid surface are what give them lasting impact. And it was this persona that translated so brilliantly to his 70s and 80s sitcoms, whose successes paved the way for every stand-up comic that followed to have his or her own TV show. Newhart was the oasis of bemused stoicism, whether dealing with his patients and equally quirky friends as Bob Hartley on The Bob Newhart Show or the surreal guests and backwoodsman brothers as Dick Loudon on Newhart. The Bob Newhart Show was also one of the first TV shows--comedic or otherwise--to feature a husband and wife in a true marriage of equals, with Newhart and the wondrous Pleshette. (Famous story: Newhart was adamant about Bob and Emily Hartley not having children during the course of The Bob Newhart Show. When writers submitted a script in which Emily is pregnant, Newhart praised its quality, then said he had one question: "Who's going to play Bob?")

Newhart's exquisitely wrought pauses, stammers, and delayed reactions also allowed his TV casts to shine and are certainly a balm to the one-upmanship that seems to be the norm for most sitcom acting. In his book I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!, he recounted a meeting with one of the producers on The Bob Newhart Show: "He wondered if I could cut down the time of my speeches by reducing my stammering. 'No,' I told him. 'That stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills.'"

Since the final Newhart, Newhart has never stopped working: he had two unsuccessful 90s sitcoms, Bob and George & Leo, but he scored in movies like In & Out and Elf and has also appeared in character arcs on series like Desperate Housewives and ER, as the library head in The Librarian TV movies, and continued to tour with his stand-up routines. (And, unlike Betty White, he has hosted Saturday Night Live. Twice.) Most recently, he parodied the Newhart finale on Jimmy Kimmel Live, where producers Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof posited an alternate Lost ending with Newhart waking up in bed with Kate/Evangeline Lilly. The sight of Newhart was not only a reminder of his own series' infinitely superior finale but a tip of the hat to his instantly recognizable cultural legacy.

I'm sure Newhart will handle the TV Academy tribute graciously but I suspect he finds such events--as well as attempted analyses of his work like this one--just a little unnecessary. One need only turn to his "Retirement Party" routine for a more accurate (and honest) assessment:

"I never heard such drivel...You put in your fifty years and all they ever give you is this crummy watch. I figure it works out to about twenty-eight cents a year. If it hadn't been for the fifty bucks a week I glommed out of petty cash, I couldn't have made it."


** My prediction was correct. In fact, neither Newhart nor The Bob Newhart Show ever won a single Emmy in a combined 14 seasons on the air. His 1961-62 NBC variety-comedy show did win an Emmy and was summarily cancelled, leading Newhart to later note, "It won an Emmy, a Peabody, and a pink slip."