Happy Birthday, Bob Newhart. The comedian turns 90 on Sept. 5.
Special to the Daily
Known for turning improbable situations into comedy gold with his witty stand-up routines and as the star of two popular TV series from the ‘70s and ‘80s, Bob Newhart will celebrate his 90th birthday today.
The Chicago accountant-turned-comedian suspected he lacked the temperament to remain in the accounting profession back in the mid-1950s. His attitude toward taxation arithmetic could be summed up in three words: “That’s close enough!”
So, he and a friend began writing humorous routines based on telephone conversations, which they sold to radio stations.
He eventually dropped the partner but kept the one-sided phone conversations. The act remained a staple throughout his radio, recording, television and stand-up career. They are as much his trademark as his basset-hound eyes, deadpan delivery and slightly-forced stammer.
“I got my home in Beverly Hills because of that stammer, so I’m not about to drop it now!” he said during a 2008 interview.
Newhart stormed onto the comedy scene in the 1960s when “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” became the first comedy record to win a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, with its now classic routines such as “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue.”
He wrote the routine in Chicago when Bill Daily (1927-2018) asked the unknown local comedian to write a piece about press agents. Daily went on to co-star with Newhart and Suzanne Pleshette for five seasons of “The Bob Newhart Show.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I got to work with Bob and Suzanne,” Daily said in a 2008 interview with the writer for Albuquerque Magazine. “Bob is one of the nicest men who ever lived and he’s beyond talented — a comic genius. And what’s amazing is that Bob wasn’t acting on the show — that really was Bob!”
Comedian Elayne Boosler came away with a similar impression when she first met Newhart following a Las Vegas show in the late ‘90s. Given changing tastes in comedy since Newhart’s debut decades ago, it’s tempting to suggest Newhart’s cleaner style of humor is obsolete. But Boosler disagreed.
“That would be like saying Mozart is outdated,” she said.
“Classics survive. When something has a solid foundation and is so unique and perfect, I don’t think it can ever be outdated. And when you’re the best at something, it just doesn’t go out of style.”
Newhart makes no apologies for his tamer humor, although he still appreciates more bawdy comedians.
“I even know most of the words they use because I was in the service and they were often directed at me!” he said. “It’s just my choice to work the way I do.”
One of Newhart’s closest friends was fellow funnyman Don Rickles (1926-2017).
“Bob and I are like apples and oranges in terms of our comedy,” Rickles said in an interview with the Malibu Times in 2008. “But we share the same family values, make each other laugh, and enjoy each other tremendously — he’s brilliant at what he does.”
Newhart delighted in recounting his first encounter with the sharp-tongued comedian in the late 1960s in Las Vegas. The two comedians and their wives met in a cafeteria where Rickles, acting the perfect gentleman, invited Bob and his wife, Ginnie, to his show.
“Don steps out on stage and the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘The stammering idiot from Chicago is in the audience today, along with his hooker wife from New Jersey,’” Newhart said. But the two families became fast friends and would eventually travel the world together.
In a 2008 interview with Dom DeLuise, DeLuise recalled working with Newhart in 1964 on the long-forgotten CBS variety show “The Entertainers.”
“It was my first show,” he said. “Bob would do his telephone sketches and create magical little stories that were hysterical and he’d hit a bull’s-eye every time.”
DeLuise was one of millions of viewers stunned by the 1990 series finale of “Newhart,” Newhart’s second TV series, set in a Vermont inn.
“Bob woke up from a dream on the set of the original ‘Bob Newhart Show’ with his wife Suzanne Pleshette in bed next to him,” DeLuise said. “The entire second series had been a dream! That was just brilliant.”
But Newhart was quick to offer credit. “The whole idea for the ending was Ginnie’s,” he said.
The episode remains a cherished moment in television history — the type of comic twist that the buttoned-down mind of Bob Newhart has masterfully exploited throughout his 60-year show business career.
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Alabama, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 magazines and newspapers. See http://www.getnickt.org