At 67, Bob Newhart maintains TV legend status that remains slightly below Seinfeldian proportions. Two successful series – “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart” – have made him one of TV’s most beloved performers.
Newhart, however, still does stand-up comedy. That’s what brings him to Madison Sunday night – almost precisely 36 years after his Madison debut at the Wisconsin Union Theater.
He’s also eyeing a return to series TV on CBS this fall. The bad taste of “Bob,” a short-lived show in 1993, angers him.
With a new series, Newhart says, “The title going to be the hardest part.”
Then he uses his trademark deadpan: “Maybe ‘The.’”
Question: I listened to “The Button-Down Mind” (his breakthrough 1960 comedy album) last night. I still sounds fresh.
Newhart: “Thank you. It’s interesting. I re-recorded it a few years ago in connection with a Showtime special. I did the same material in front of a young audience – mostly 30- to 35-year-olds, which meant they were either 5 years old or weren’t born when it came out originally. But it worked in the same way.”
Question: Do you find people need a reminder that you’re a stand-up comic?
Newhart: “Very much so. That happened even after the first show (‘The Bob Newhart Show’). People would ask, ‘What did you do before this?’ Well, I was a stand-up comic for 12 years before that. Now I get promoters who say, ‘We liked his TV shows, but what does he do live?’ It bruises your ego.
Question: OK, tell me about the live show.
Newhart: “It’s a combination of about 80 percent new material and one or two of the old routines. I have a video I show at the end. It call it, ‘The History of the Newharts in America.’ It shows how, like Forrest Gump, Newharts were involved in every important event that happened in America. It also includes the scene in the last episode of ‘Newhart’ when I wake up next to Suzy (Suzanne Pleshette of ‘The Bob Newhart Show’).”
Question: Let’s talk about TV. How much did it hurt when “Bob” struggled after you had two successful series?
Newhart: “That was painful. I would hate to think ‘Bob’ is my parting shot.”
Question: So you’re interested in doing another series?
Newhart: “And a lot of that is influenced by how poorly received ‘Bob’ was. CBS has approached me with material, which I can’t divulge.”
Question: Who thought of the idea to have Suzanne Pleshette appear on the last episode of “Newhart”?
Newhart: “That was my wife’s idea. She said, ‘You what your final episode should be,’ and gave the idea. Suzy happened to be at the same party and agreed to do it.”
Question: Bob and Emily never had kids on “The Bob Newhart Show.” Was it ever discussed?
Newhart: “It was one of the original conditions that I imposed on the show. I didn’t want to play the bumbling father and the kids get together saying, ‘Look at the mess Daddy’s got himself in.’ Or, ‘Oh, Daddy, we love you but you sure are stupid.’
“I used to get scripts on Friday nights and I’d read them over the weekend. Then we’d have reading sessions on Monday. I read a script in the sixth season and Emily is pregnant.
“I called up the producer and said, ‘It’s really a funny script.’ He said, “Oh, good, we weren’t sure if you’d like it.’ I said, ‘It’s very well written. The only problem I see is, ‘Who are you going to get to play Bob?’”
Question: Have you ever played the drinking game “Hi, Bob”?
Newhart: (laughs) “I’ve never played it. We were never aware how many times ‘Hi, Bob’ was said on the show. I’m complimented and slightly alarmed by it.”
Question: How do fans react to you in public?
Newhart: “It’s funny you should ask. I was standing outside my car, waiting for my daughter and my wife recently. As they walked up, my daughter said, ‘Would you look at him – he’s the most unlikely start I’ve ever seen.’ I’ve been able to strike a balance between recognizability and a normal kind of life.”
Question: You got into show business in an unconventional manner.
Newhart: “I was an accountant in Chicago, then left that and went into advertising – which lasted six months. I worked for a guy who, when he had bad times, fired half of the room. I happened to be on the wrong side of the room. They call it ‘downsizing’ today. It was ‘getting fired’ then. When I was in accounting, I’d call a friend up on the phone and do these comedy routines. Eventually, I decided I would give comedy a try for a year or two. Warner Bros. liked my tapes. They said, ‘We’ll record you at your nightclub gig.’ I said, ‘Well, we have a problem there because I’ve never played a nightclub.’”
Question: Living in Chicago so many years, did you ever get up to Madison?
Newhart: “I didn’t until I was performing. In 1961, I played the university and I happened to be walking down the hall and there was a notice on the bulletin board: ‘Young Communists meeting Wednesday.’ (laughs) That really caught my eye.”