The Charm of Bob Newhart

Known for his gentle satire, basset-hound eyes, and witty routines, former Chicago accountant-turned-comedian Bob Newhart turned 90 this month, on September 5 (see site).

Newhart suspected he lacked the temperament to remain in the accounting profession back in the mid-1950s when his attitude towards 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 telephone in his act. The one-sided phone conversations have remained throughout Newhart’s radio, recording, television, and stand-up career. They are as much his trademark as the deadpan delivery and slightly forced stammer.

Why keep the stammer all through his career? “I got my home in Beverly Hills because of that stammer, so I’m not about to drop it now!” he explained.

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 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 come up with a piece about press agents. Known for his sidekick role in the 60s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie,” Daily went on to co-star with Newhart and actress Suzanne Pleshette a decade later for five seasons of “The Bob Newhart Show” making famous his trademark greeting “Hi Bob!”

“I couldn’t believe it when I got to work with Bob and Suzanne,” Daily told me from his home in Albuquerque. “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 the same impression when she first met Newhart after a show in Las Vegas in the late 90s. And at a time when in-your-face, crude comedy is now everywhere, it’s tempting to suggest Newhart’s gentler style of humor is obsolete. But Boosler didn’t think so.

“That would be like saying Mozart is outdated,” she said.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 When something has a solid foundation and is so unique and perfect, I don’t think it can ever be outdated.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 and Suzanne Pleshette in “Newhart”

During the final 1990 episode of “Newhart,” Bob’s second TV series set in a Vermont inn, millions of viewers were stunned when the entire series was revealed to have been a dream.

“The whole idea for the ending was Ginnie’s,” noted Newhart referring to his wife. The episode remains a moment cherished in television history – the type of comic twist that the button-down mind of Bob Newhart would relish.

When trying to sum up the comedy genius of Newhart, the words of the late comedian Ed Wynn come to mind: “A comic says funny things; a comedian says things funny.”

Clearly, Bob Newhart is a master of both.

Happy birthday, Bob!

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