Q&A: Bob Newhart
Bob Newhart is determined to perform stand-up as long as he can stand, and will make selective appearances on quality television shows as long as the scripts are good, the cast inspired and the audiences live. Newhart’s Nov. 17 appearance at The Smith Center furthers a legacy as a Las Vegas headliner that dates back to the Strip’s golden age of nightclub comics, which he spoke about with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen in a phone interview.
What are your stand-up sets like now? Do they skew towards your newer material or run the spectrum of your career?
Yeah, you know, over the years things change. You drop things. When I first started out at the Sahara, I’m pretty much doing the album material from the first album, The Button-Down Mind, and then … I was thinking the other day, because I knew we were going to be talking about Vegas, and I started thinking of all the hotels that I played. Started at the Sahara, then played the Desert Inn when it existed, before it became huge. Jack Entratter … it wasn’t a huge hotel I guess. A couple of years later, that’s when (Howard) Hughes bought the D.I. and the Sands and the Frontier.
I read a great story about you coming out onstage at the Frontier.
Yeah, Totie Fields was in the audience, and there was kind of a tradition of … Totie and I were good friends, my wife Ginnie and Totie and Georgie (Johnston, Fields husband). When I heard Totie was going to be in the audience … Vegas was a much smaller town back then. Everybody knew everybody. That’s one of the things I missed, because it really was a small town. So they told me Totie was coming in for the second show, I think. I asked the stage manager, “Can you get me like a cane? A white cane painted red? Because I want to use it.” He said, “What are you going to do with it?” I said, “Just stand behind the curtain and I’ll put my hand back through the curtain, and just hand me the cane.” So Totie was in the audience and I introduced her—this was toward the end of the show—and standing ovations had gotten really big here. Everybody’s trying to get a standing ovation, and they go to all kinds of extent to get a standing ovation. I said, “I could tell you something now I’m sure would get me a standing ovation but I have too much respect for you as an audience to lower myself.” And with that I reached behind the curtain and got the cane, and then I tapped my way offstage as though I were blind. And of course, I got my standing ovation. I could hear Totie laughing in the background. It was such a small town.
What was it like for a rising young comedian to perform in early ’60s Las Vegas?
I was doing the first Bob Newhart Show (NBC, 1961), the first television show, and we shut down for two weeks. I would play two weeks at the Sands or two weeks at the D.I. In the summertime you’d play a month at the Sands or the Frontier, so it became a way of life and almost a month and a half, two months of your life was spent in Las Vegas. You were almost a resident. In the summertime we’d bring the kids up, and of course it’s 110, 115, but the kids would be out by the pool and you’d try to play golf in the morning. That was your way of life, and you got to know everybody. I’ve been in television … the first show was six years and the second show was eight years so it’s 14, and then another couple of years of other things. So maybe 15, 16 years of my life was spent on television, but I don’t know that many people on television. We all shoot at different locations, whereas in Vegas you got to know everybody. I remember it was so great because you had a 9 o’ clock show and a midnight show, and the show would run an hour and a half. Now you’ve done a show, it’s 1:30 in the morning and you’re all charged up. There’s no way you’re going to go up to bed and fall asleep. What do we want to do? I don’t know, let’s catch Vic Damone in the lounge at the Riviera. Or why don’t we catch Shecky, or Louis and Keely? It would get to be 5 or 6 in the morning before you would end up going to bed.
Did you meet Buddy Hackett in Vegas? I understand he introduced you to his wife.
I met Buddy … this was like in 1960, and I was on a show. David Susskind had an interview talk show. He had Buddy Hackett, Alan King, I think Tom Poston was on it, Milt Kamen and myself. I was really just starting out as a standup. Everybody was real deferential to me, which I appreciated, and David Susskind said to me, “You graduated from college.” I said, “Yes. I have a degree in accounting from Loyola University in Chicago, and Buddy said to me (mimics Hackett), “You mean you don’t have to do dis?” (laughs).
That’s a pretty good impression.
I said, “No, buddy. I have to do this.” Then he and I became friends. One day he said, “You’re Catholic, right?” I said, “Yeah, Buddy, I’m Catholic.” He says, “Okay, I got a Catholic girl for you. She’s with somebody else but I don’t think he’s right for her, so I’m going to fix you up on a blind date with her.” So I said, “Yeah, great. Okay.” So he fixed me up on a blind date with her, with Ginnie Quinn, and we dated and dated, and then … we met in ’61, and dated, and then in ’63 we got married and we’ve been married 53 years.
I watched the last episodes of both of your series before this interview, and I noticed your father-in-law (character actor Bill Quinn) was in the last episode of The Bob Newhart Show. It must be nice to be able took back and see something like that now.
He was in radio, Ginnie’s dad. He was really a very well-known radio actor.
He was Mr. Van Ranseleer on (All in the Family and) Archie Bunker’s Place.
That’s right, that’s right. He was frequently on radio, did a lot of mystery theaters. He and Art Carney were great friends, and Frank Lovejoy. They lived on Long Island, and this was ’57, ’58. He could see the writing on the wall, that everything was moving out to California, and everything was going to television and away from radio. He took the family and moved to California in 1958, and then he was also in the Spielberg movie The Twilight Zone. He was a bartender in Rifleman, and Mr. Van Ranseleer in Archie Bunker’s Place. He had a very distinguished career, yeah.
I understand that while in production you looked at your television shows as work, on to the next one after wrapping an episode, but now you look back at them with more of a sentimental appreciation. Is that correct or am I off track a little bit?
No, no. What happens is it comes with time. I’m still doing stand-up. I’m doing 10 appearances this year. It’s just something I could never stop doing. As long as I’m physically able to do stand-up and still make sense, or at least what I think is still making sense (laughs). You get on a plane, you fly across country, someone will say to you, “Oh, you’re Mr. Newhart. My dad and I used to watch The Bob Newhart Show with you and Suzanne Pleshette, and I have such wonderful memories of that show. We’d sit there and just laugh.” And you realize that you’re part of people’s lives. You aren’t a movie star. You don’t play a role and then in the next movie you’re somebody else. Every week you’re in people’s living rooms, and they almost think of you as members of the family. That’s a very special feeling to have, that people feel about you that way. Then they’ll say something like, “My dad died three years ago,” but I brought back happy memories of when he was alive. Those are things you just come to realize.
I think Elf marked your entry into the elder-statesmen phase of your comedy career and your appearances on The Big Bang Theory cemented that, with the cast speaking about you reverently in interviews. How does it feel to be in that phase? Do you get a sense of pride?
Oh, yeah. Very much. I remember we did both The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart in front of a live audience, because that how we did television in those days. Every show. It started with (I Love) Lucy, they came up with the three-camera concept, and then The Honeymooners and Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family. Every show was done in front of a live audience, and so when Chuck Lorre approached me to do The Big Bang Theory, he’d been after me for some time and we could never agree on which show. Finally he said to me—this was four or five years ago—he said, “Okay, I’ve come for my annual turndown.” And I said “No, not necessarily. I’ve been watching The Big Bang Theory and I really think the writing is good.” He said, “Oh great, so you’ll do it.” I said, “I only have two requirements, really. One is it has to be done in front of a live audience. I don’t if you don’t do the show in front of a live audience.” He said, “Well, we do.” And I said, “Well, that’s the only way I know how to do a show. I can’t imagine doing a show without a live audience.” And then the other condition was that it be a three-parter, not just the one shot.” And he said, “You got it.” And I said, “Okay,” because I admire the writing. I thought it was excellent writing. I thought it was a wonderful cast. I thought it was a very daring concept when I first heard of it, that it was a very intellectual show and I didn’t know if it would work on television, but it certainly did.
And it led to winning your first Emmy, which I guess was the icing on the cake.
Yeah, I had been nominated … I think last time was the eighth time I’d been nominated. And interesting, two of the nominations were for dramatic shows that I had done. I’d done an ER, and I did a Librarian show, so I thought the Academy was telling me I should really get out of comedy. There were good reasons I had never received one in the past. I was in with some pretty tough competition during both shows. I was in against Carroll O’Connor and Alan Alda, and Ed Asner—some pretty good actors. And then I didn’t want to go through the process anymore. It was up to the actors to submit themselves for an Emmy, and I just stopped submitting myself for consideration. Then the results would come out and the Emmys would come out, and the winners were announced and I could say to myself, “Yeah, I would have won it.”
Are you going to be back for another season? Will you make another guest appearance on The Big Bang Theory?
When Chuck approached me it’s interesting because I thought to myself, “You know, I can still do that. I still know how to do that.” And yeah, it would be great to be back on the stage in front of a live audience and be given good material. Yeah, I want to know what that feels like again. They’re looking for an idea for Dr. Proton to reappear this year, and I enjoy it. It’s a wonderful cast, they’re just a beautiful cast, and they’re wonderful people to be with. The whole atmosphere on the stage is very … I remember I think we were doing Newhart and Tom Poston, playing the part of George, and his wife Kay just came to have lunch with Tom and then she’d hang around the set until 4:30 or 5 and we’d go on break, and Tom told me they were driving home and she said to Tom, “Don’t ever tell me how hard you work, because all you people did was laugh all day.” And it was true, we did. We just had a good time. It’s the same thing with The Big Bang Theory. It’s just a lot of laughs, and that comes across. That comes across the tube when people are getting along and like each other, and are enjoying their work. I think that comes across, and the one-camera shows, as they call them now, one-camera comedy shows, I think they’re missing that, that element.
It’s easy to see the parallels in the casts of The Big Bang Theory and the shows you’ve done before. Like I can see Jack Riley (Elliot Carlin on The Bob Newhart Show) on The Big Bang Theory.
(Laughs) Jack just died, you know. He just passed. I could see him on any show.
In your 2006 book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This, you often provide inside into a comedian’s nature and psyche. I know you are often asked variations on “What makes you keep doing this?” but as far as performing stand-up live, do you think you’ll be motivated as long as you’re a compulsive observer?
Yeah, yeah. My first love, of course, was stand-up because that’s where I started out in 1960 with a comedy album, and then television. I just can’t imagine, as long as you are physically able to do it and still make sense, kind of make sense, why would you ever say, “I’m tired of making people laugh. I don’t think I want to do it anymore.” What possible reason would you have for saying, “I’m tired of that”? It’s such a joy when you’re out there, either doing a TV show of doing stand-up, and the audience is having a good time and you’re having a good time. Why would you ever want to give that up?
Do you think texting has ruined phone humor for the next generations?
You’re asking the wrong guy (laughs). I tell you, I got into computers—I know the exact year—in 1977, because that’s when my daughter was born, my daughter Courtney. We had to add on to the house, so we were renting another house, and I was reading Popular Science magazine, which I loved as a kid, which really ties into The Big Bang Theory. Popular Science was the precursor of The Big Bang Theory, and the scientists and what they’re talking about doing. So I saw this ad for a computer. It was called a Commodore 64.
I had one, later.
You had to put a tape in it. It didn’t have a floppy disk at the time. So I thought to myself, “My kids, my two boys, they’re going to have to learn computers so I guess I had better learn something about them because they’re going to be asking me questions and I want to be able to give them the answers.” And so I became computer literate quite early, but the reason I laughed when you asked me this question was because it has passed me by so fast. My kids are so much more computer literate than I ever was, and I’m not into texting I know what it is, but I’m not into it. Certainly not like (Anthony) Weiner is into texting (laughs). I’m sure he’s sorry it was ever invented.
Actually there was one more question I wanted to ask you. At the Frontier you had asked the stage manager to stop the hydraulic stage short. You remember that one?
Yeah, everybody was doing “Frank,” “Sammy” … first names. And they were doing dramatic openings, special effects, so I was about to play the Frontier and I said, “You know what I’d like?” … Jack, that was his name. That was the stage manager. I said, “Jack, I’d like to have the band announced …”—he was also the announcer— “In a very dramatic way, say, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, the Frontier Hotel is extremely proud to present the humor of the greatest humorist of our time.’” And with that the stage would start coming up and revealing me. And it got to “Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Bob Newhart …” and then I had it stopped as though it were broken or something. So then after that great introduction I had to crawl out of the pit up to the stage. I thought it’d get a big laugh. Well, it didn’t. It didn’t get a laugh at all.
And that was the era of the standing ovation.
I guess people were saying, “Oh, that’s a shame. I guess it broke.” And then finally at the end I was playing the MGM Grand, and I just finished two weeks or whatever it was, and my wife and I were walking through the showroom. And of course it’s empty. Everyone had just left and it’s just some guys working, but they’re hanging a sign that says “Rich.” Rich Little, but it just says “Rich,” which goes along with the “Sammy” and “Frank,” that whole era. My wife said to me, “You know, you ought to do a put down of all the closing acts in Vegas. We’ll get a sign that says ‘Bob’ and you’ll walk down this giant stairway (laughs).”
Did you do it?
Yeah, we did it. There was an orchestra, and I was in a top hat. I walked down these stairs and I remember one of my favorite lines … it never got a laugh, but I loved it. It went, “You know, ladies and gentlemen, when you think of the great dancers you think immediately of the greatest male dancers of all time: Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse.” And it never got a laugh. Cyd was a woman, you know. And I said, “When people think of me, I guess they think of what a great dancer I had been,” and proceeded to do a salute to dance, kind of a salute to Fred Astaire. It’s just kind of a send-up or every closing number you’d ever seen all tied into one.
I wish we could see pictures of this.
I wish we had copies, yeah. We had a sign that said “Bob” that must have been 12 feet tall, and I remember at the very end of the act I sang and danced my way into the “Bob” sign and then sat in the “o” as it was raised up into the flies (riggings above the stage).
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19, starting at $29 plus tax and fee. 702.749.2000