Bob Newhart is the light at the end of the tunnel. No flashlight is needed. Just follow the sounds of laughter and you will find yourself heading into the Land of Newhart. The veteran stand-up comedian, who was a staple on shows like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," is responsible for two of the funniest sitcoms to ever hit the airwaves: "The Bob Newhart Show" (1972-1978 -- with on-screen wife Suzanne Pleshette) and "Newhart" (1982-1990 -- with on-screen wife Mary Frann).
The Grammy winner continues to share his home-spun humor traveling the country doing what he was born to do: stand-up comedy. Thank God he gave up his accounting career early in life (where he always tried to balance the books "within 2 or 3 dollars"). Newhart sat down with The Huffington Post to talk about the national debt crisis (Not!), why he thinks he never won an Emmy, and his take on proctologists.
Before we get started, I want to avoid asking you any stupid questions. What is the most stupid question anyone has ever asked you in an interview? I don't want to ask you that question.
The dumbest question I was ever asked was in a letter in 1961. The guy wrote to me and said I don't know who else to contact, but it's such a waste of government money. He said, 'All these moon shots, they always make them when there's a half moon or a quarter moon. Why don't they wait until there's a full moon, and they would have a better chance of hitting it.' (Laughs) I didn't even reply to that one. It's just a whole physics thing ...
Your stand-up act on shows like Ed Sullivan was so unique. Your comedy involved "telephone" calls in which the audience only heard your side of the conversation. How did you come up with that concept?
I wish I could take credit for it. It's been around for years and years and years. My understanding is that one of the first records ever made by Edison was a thing called "Cohen on the Telephone." I think it was a comedy routine. And then, George Jessel used it on his radio show. I can't take credit for coming up with the phone routine but somehow I've become identified with it. You have to give just enough information. You can't give too little and you can't give too much. You have to give just enough so the audience will know what the response was [on the other end of the phone].
On a radio interview recently, you said you have a lot of material like 'how do doctors pick their specialties?' So how do they do that?
I don't know how doctors pick one specialty over another. Some you can understand. Pediatricians. Or gynecologists delivering babies, bringing a new life into the world, but how does someone want to be a proctologist? How can you fall in love with proctology? It's like you talk to a pediatrician who says he can't wait to get in the office on Monday and look at those little faces, but a proctologist -- what does he have to look forward to? There are no smiling little faces.
Your low key personality with that adorable stammer has served you well.
That's the way I am normally. What you see on stage is pretty much the way I am ... a dry sense of humor. That's my natural way of looking at life really. We were doing the pilot for "The Bob Newhart Show," and the show was running a little long so one of the producers said could you run some of the speeches together? And I said, 'This stammer has gotten me a home in Beverly Hills so you better take out some words because I'm not dropping the stammer.' I've always talked like that.
I was totally shocked when I discovered that neither you nor your sitcoms ever won an Emmy! What's up with that?!
Members of the show were nominated, but you're right, the show never got an Emmy. They'd say, 'That's just Bob being Bob. It isn't really acting.' ... But when it's somebody else's words and there's furniture and you've got to try to avoid the furniture, and there are marks on the floor that you have to hit, then it becomes acting. (Laughs)
Would you ever do another sitcom?
That's too bad!
Well, it's physically tough but it's also mentally tough. What goes into getting it ready and then what your time slot is opposite, how did we do last week, we're down a tenth of a point ... I couldn't go through that again. It's for younger people.
The ending to the "Newhart" show was classic. Mary Frann had been your wife during that series, and in the very last episode, your first TV wife, Suzanne Pleshette, woke up next to in bed you after your 'bad dream.' You give your real wife Ginny credit for that idea. Was there a little extra green stuff in an envelope for her after the writers used that idea?
She has been amply rewarded, let's put it that way.
When you do a sitcom, I'm sure the creative differences can get a little touchy. I read that if you didn't like a line in a script from "The Bob Newhart Show," rather than complain, you would go over, get down on your hands and knees reading it to your co-star's dog who would yawn, and you would say, 'See, I told you it's not funny.' True?
Marcia Wallace used to bring her dog to the set. Yes, I did that. (Laughs)
How did you personally frame "The Bob Newhart Show?"
When we were first putting the show together, we hit upon [Bob] being a psychologist as opposed to him being a psychiatrist and where he lived, and one of the things I didn't want is any kids because I didn't want to do that kind of show: 'Oh, daddy's such a dope, but we love him and he gets himself in these fixes and the family pitches in and how do we get daddy out of this, they huddle and figure out how to get me out of this. And the show closes with them patting me on the head ...he's not the brightest person in the world but we love him ... I didn't want to play the dumb guy.' So in the last year, they gave me a script [that involved my wife, Emily, being pregnant] on Friday night, and I read it over the weekend and I called our producer and he said, 'How'd you like the script?' I said, 'Oh, I thought it was one of the funniest scripts we've ever had.' He said, 'Oh, yeah, we were a little worried about it.' I said, 'There were some great lines, but who are you going to get to play Bob?'
Your two TV wives -- Suzanne Pleshette and Mary Frann -- were very different. Was it tough on Mary to follow Suzanne?
I did say to Mary Frann when we started "Newhart"... I said, 'Mary, I've got to tell you something. It's going to be tough on you because Suzy and I had a great relationship. We had a great chemistry, and that's hard to duplicate. I just want to warn you ahead of time that you're going to get compared to Suzy, and she's a tough act to follow. But Mary did a great job!
You just celebrated your 50th wedding anniversary. Congratulations! When did your marriage go from the 'honeymoon' phase to the 'you're in my space' phase after the wedding?
(Laughs) I would say the next day. That's a joke. I'd say the reason it has lasted is we have a partnership. She tells me what to do and I do it.
Picking the right person is important. Carl Reiner recently told us that his wife said the secret to a long marriage is: 'Marry someone who can stand you.'
Yes! My wife sent me a wonderful card on our 50th anniversary. It said we lasted 50 years and the reason is I married my best friend.
How do you keep your positive attitude about life in general?
Comedians, we hang out together. It's great to laugh. The other night, I went back stage to sign some autographs. There was an elderly woman there who was about my age. I'm 83. She said, 'You're an inspiration to us all.' That's kind of the way I feel now about performing ... especially when I'm performing in Florida in some of the retirement places. I want to say, 'Hey, I'm 83, and I'm still on the stage and I'm still making sense. It isn't over. Age is just a number. It's whatever you want to make of it. Don't give up.
Did you make your kids laugh when they were growing up?
Well, they all have kind of a sick sense of humor which I think I played a large part in. I said to my daughter the other day, "'If one more person falls off a subway platform, Hallmark is going to come up with a card for it."
That's interesting that you would admit to having a sick sense of humor because I was reading an interview with your wife, Ginny, recently, and she said, 'What people don't know about Bob is he has a sick side to his comedy.'
Ginny said to me, 'If the American public knew what you were like, they would never show up,' and I said, 'I know, and that's going to be our little secret.'
You told David Steinberg on "Inside Comedy" that someone asked you: ' When you go on at 8 o'clock, what are you doing at 6 o'clock?'
I'll be pacing. I've been doing stand-up for 53 years. You shouldn't ever get used to it. You try to bring that same enthusiasm to every performance.
Do you pace because you're nervous?
I wouldn't call it nervous. I would call it apprehension. It's a friend that is always there about 6 o'clock before I go on. Fear is a friend. It's just there, and it pumps the adrenaline, and it gives you that adrenaline rush and gets you out on stage and gives you that enthusiasm. I would worry if it weren't there. It's a friend that's been there for 53 years.
Early in your career, did you ever bomb?
Oh, yeah! There isn't a comedian in the world that hasn't bombed. What they say with comedians is: there is no net. You're a high wire act but there's no net, and if it doesn't work ... if you're a singer, you can blame the arrangement or you can blame the band or you can say I never liked that song, but if you're a comedian and it's not working, they don't think you're funny. And that's what gives you that adrenaline rush: is this going to be the night?
When you bombed, how do you get the courage to go back?
That's what you have to do. I did a show one time, I used a word that I didn't think was that big a word, and nothing happened. So now I'm doing the rest of the act, and the other side of my brain is fast forwarding, like: do I have any other big words coming out? Suddenly, when you've done that to your best joke and you've got 45 minutes left ... after a while, it becomes funny. I played a place in Canada when I was first starting out. They didn't know who I was. I did two shows a night, seven days a week and never got one laugh. They just kept eating and never looked up. To me, it's like the scene in the "Deer Hunter." Christopher Walken's got the gun up to his temple, and they're betting on whether there's a bullet or not in the chamber, and he pulls it and it goes click. And they give him a shot of heroin as his reward. (Laughs) That's kind of what it's like.
What do you do in your spare time when you're off the road?
I am one of the great wasters of time. I have made it an art form. I can get up at 8 o'clock in the morning, be out of the house by 8:30 and back by 5 p.m. and I'll be going all day long and accomplish absolutely nothing. It's an amazing talent.
You and Don Rickles have been friends for over 40 years. When you're together on vacation, do you throw one-liners at each other all day?
He hates it, but I describe it ... People will say how can you go on vacation with him? How can you take that all day long? I always explain it's like Muzak. You're in an elevator and there's this sound, and you're really not paying very much attention to it because if you paid attention to it, you'd go crazy. (Laughs)