LOS ANGELES—Bob Newhart didn’t invent standup comedy, but more than any performer he can lay claim to giving birth to the modern industry of the comedy special.
His still-funny 1960 album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, was arguably the first blockbuster special, selling more than 1 million copies, hitting No. 1 on the charts and winning the Grammy for best album, beating out Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Since that breakout debut, he has starred in sitcoms and movies, hosted talk shows and even gave the eulogy for Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons.
But Newhart still identifies as a standup comic, and he returned to the stage this year for multiple dates west of the Mississippi. He turns 90 this week and Newhart, sitting on a couch at his home in Los Angeles, seemed physically slighter but still deployed his distinctive stammer with precision as he looked back at his six decades in comedy and forward to what lies ahead. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation:
What brings you back to standup?
What I’ve learned is: I love the danger. This thing I thought I hated all my life, that’s why I was doing it. If the show is at 8, and it’s 6, what will I be doing? Pacing. After 60 years, still pacing. I like that feeling.
Do you feel 90 years old?
My mind doesn’t. I can’t turn it off. The other day, there was a story about a pilot getting arrested for being drunk in the cockpit. I immediately thought: What if he had made it past security, wound up flying the plane and said to the passengers (in a slurred voice): “Welcome to Delta. Welcome to a flight from Los Angeles to, um, to, um, I have it written down here somewhere, it’s the mountains and then there’s some more mountains and then we’re on the other side of that.”
Has your sense of humour changed since you started?
Something very sick makes me laugh. My wife says to me, “If people ever found out what you find humorous, they’d stop showing up.” I said to her: “That’s our little secret.”
You have a low-key, clean act, but in the early days, you were sometimes lumped in with Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl as a “sick comic.”
Well, it was true. In one of my routines, I was dealing with one of the most revered presidents in American history, Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t present him as stupid, but packaged, focus-grouped.
On the pilot of the Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, her husband does that routine, where an ad man advises Lincoln on the telephone. Did you see it?
He stole my act and he was terrible! Oh my God, I watched it. I think it’s a wonderful show.
You still do the Lincoln bit. Do you ever get tired of performing it?
Richard Lewis once said to me, “I get tired of repeating the material. It’s a real problem.” I said: “Richard, we’re out there to entertain them, not ourselves.”
You did so many brilliant comic bits with the telephone. The comic Shelley Berman famously said that you stole the idea of the telephone from his act. Did that bug you?
It bugged me a little because it wasn’t true. The phone has been a comedy prop for long time. Mike (Nichols) and Elaine (May) used it. One of the earliest recordings ever made by Edison involved a telephone that (the comic George) Jessel used to do.
When you starred in The Bob Newhart Show, in the 1970s, is it true that producers asked you to cut down on your stammer?
Yes, for the pilot. I told them: “This stammer got me a home in Beverly Hills.”
On your 1980s sitcom Newhart, you had one of the most famous finales in TV history, waking up to discover the entire show was a dream.
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Some people felt cheated. They devoted eight years of their life and it turns out none of them existed.
What’s your response?
You and Ginny have been married for 56 years. Incredible in this town.
It is and it isn’t. Among comedians it’s not unusual. Buddy Hackett, Jack Benny, George Burns, Alan King, they all had long marriages. That’s why I think laughter is the secret to longevity of relationships. If you can laugh you can get through it.
You were good friends with Johnny Carson and a frequent guest on The Tonight Show. He was so smooth onscreen. What was he like off?
He could be a bad drunk. One time, he was trying to give up smoking, and we were out to dinner at the old Palm restaurant with (The Tonight Show producer) Freddie de Cordova and Ginny. And Ginny said: “I thought you were going to give up cigarettes,” and (Johnny) snapped at her. Totally uncalled for. He stormed out. Years later, I did an interview where someone asked if I see Johnny. I said “Not as much as I used to.” So I get a call from him saying, “Why don’t we get together?” I said I didn’t want to get into the whole Palm situation. He had no recollection of it at all. But, boy was he good on that show.
Do you ever think about death?
I think I know what’s on the other side, but I’m not sure. Maybe it just ends. Some people think you come back. Maybe I’ll come back as Shelley Berman and be pissed off at myself.
What do you think happens on the other side?
I think if you lived a good life, some people say it is rapture. You spend the rest of your life in a state of rapture. That’d be nice. What I’m actually hoping is there’s the pearly gates and God’s there and he says to me, “What did you do in life?” And I say, “I was a standup comedian.” And he says: “Get in that real short line over there.”
God has an incredible sense of humour, an unimaginable sense of humour. Just look around.