May 8, 2018


40 Years Later, 'The Bob Newhart Show' Seems Revolutionary (Travis M. Andrews, 5/07/18, The Washington Post)

Newhart exploded onto the comedy scene in 1960 with his live album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. On it, Newhart has fake phone conversations, such as the one between Abe Lincoln and a New York ad man -- only Newhart just plays one side, leaving the other to the listener's imagination.

"On the telephone bits, he did the seeming impossible. He gave the punchline to the person he was talking to that you couldn't hear," comedian Norm Macdonald told The Post via text. "The idea of playing straight man to silence seemed revolutionary to me."

That comedic attitude informed the show. Newhart wasn't flashy or loud. He played the straight man, subtly reacting to the craziness round him. And his phone call routines were regularly baked into the plot.

"The show was a perfect showcase for Bob's skill set," Macdonald said.

In typical Newhart fashion, the show's namesake doesn't take much credit. "It was all about the writing," he said. "The writers were brilliant. I just tried to get out of the way." But others say his demeanor was the key ingredient.

"He would give away the biggest and funniest lines to others. He would let other people have jokes," O'Donnell said. "Somehow that generosity ended up creating a show that's so much better and funnier than all other shows."

Newhart said he learned this from Jack Benny. Benny once told him a story in which he gave the best line of the night to another actor. When asked about it, Benny simply said, "Well, I'll be back next week."

"That stuck with me," Newhart said. "I'll always be back next week. Let everybody be good. Because if you want this thing to last, it's going to take everybody."

The result was a show that warmly seeped into people's houses. That was Hunt's experience, at least. She said Newhart remains a gold standard for her, and is one of the reasons she became an actress.

"I feel so lucky to have grown up during a time when Bob Newhart and his show was on television," Hunt said in a phone interview. She has "such profound memories of my parents loving that show so much," and of watching their faces as they watched the screen on Saturday nights. The week's problems, any tension or unhappiness, melted away as the TV flickered.

"It was kind and full of love," Hunt said. "And it's very challenging to be funny with all those things in order and not to be gross or shocking."

That kindness was radical in its own, quiet way.

"We took a chance, and it worked," Newhart said.

But, reflecting back on the show, what Newhart takes the most pride in isn't the barriers the show broke nor the fact that it inspired and influenced so many comics. It's the simple fact that it brought joy to people.

To this day, one of the funniest scenes in tv history features Bob & Emily being robbed at gunpoint. When Howard walks in and sees them speadeagle up against the wall of the apartment he runs over and helps "hold the wall up."

Posted by at May 8, 2018 4:30 AM