INTERVIEW: For Bob Newhart, Affection is Still the Essence of Successful Comedy

April 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Posted in Interviews | Leave a comment
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DISCLAIMER: I did not write this article, I do not own this article, and it appears here on this blog purely for educational purposes.

Title: For Bob Newhart, Affection is Still the Essence of Successful Comedy
Publication: The New York Times
Date: December 26, 1982
By: Karen Stabiner, Los Angeles

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If comedians were articles of clothing, Bob Newhart would be a classic navy blue blazer: not faddish, not flamboyant, hardly at the fashion vanguard and yet an essential component of a man’s wardrobe. Always in good taste, never dull.

Comic fashions may come and go with the 13-week season, but Mr. Newhart seems to be timeless. After a four-year hiatus, he returned to television this fall with a new situation comedy – named ”Newhart,” in deference to his personal appeal, even though the character he plays is Dick Loudon, writer of how-to books and the owner of an aging country inn. The CBS show, on Monday nights at 9:30, has been consistently placing in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings, an achievement that is all the more impressive when considered in the context of what Mr. Newhart calls the ”intelligent” comedies, like ”Taxi” and ”Cheers,” which languish at the bottom of the ratings list despite positive reviews.

If he is too circumspect to consider himself exceptional, Mr. Newhart will admit to being an exception, in terms of staying power. Like Lucille Ball, who brought back her daffy redhead in all sorts of guises in several long-running television series, Mr. Newhart’s comic persona is a man for all television seasons.

His primary resource is a look of total incredulity, accented by a suspicious raised eyebrow and a perfect wince when the world surprises him. His tendency, as evidenced in a recent interview, is to downplay what he does. Whether he is portraying Dick Loudon or psychologist Dr. Robert Hartley, his character for six years in ”The Bob Newhart Show,” Mr. Newhart says he gets laughs merely ”listening to people and having to be nice to them no matter what they do.”

”The recurring theme,” the comedian added, ”is that the person, through no fault of his own, is put in the middle of a situation and forced to sort it out. There’s a put-upon quality to him. Those stories have always worked the best for me.”

Originally, Mr. Newhart wanted to play the manager of a large hotel, a person who would listen to all manner of eccentrics for a living. But some veterans of his earlier series, including ”Newhart” executive producer Barry Kemp, convinced him to relocate his idea to a small country inn. From there, it was simply a matter of coming up with a new band of neurotics to complement Mr. Newhart’s rather repressed, minimalist style. Mary Frann now plays Mr. Newhart’s bemused wife; Chicago’s Second City alumnus Steven Kampmann is the resident compulsive liar; Tom Poston plays the inn’s out-tolunch handyman, and Jennifer Holmes is the poor little rich girl working as a maid.

To make sure it works, Mr. Newhart has surrounded himself with many of the writers and directors from his previous outing, who congregate on the CBS sound stage with last-minute suggestions when the show is taped every Friday. Their style is resolutely Ivy League, low-voiced and mild-mannered. This, despite instant rewrites and a flap-on appearance during a recent taping by a squawking chicken who, just before her scene, had confronted her mortality in the form of several dozen electric Char-B-Ques being given to the cast and crew as Christmas presents.

What Mr. Newhart calls a comedy about a man who listens seems more, in the making, like a scientific experiment, carefully controlled and measured to avert a crisis. But then, he says, self-deception is essential to continued sanity: Mr. Newhart can barely conceive of being watched by 50 million people – ”Three thousand Los Angeles Coliseums piled on top of each other,” is the way he visualizes the home audience – so he pretends that he is playing only to the 250 people who watch the live taping. A small comedy in a small theater makes for fewer frayed nerves than a top prime-time comedy fighting for supremacy every week.

To Mr. Newhart, the kind of comedy he does is risk enough. It may seem odd to speak of a 10-year-old formula as a revolutionary concept, but Mr. Newhart believes that both his shows represent a ”radical departure” from the bulk of television comedies. He does not rely on what he calls ”hard humor,” the slapstick physical comedy of a ”Laverne and Shirley,” nor does he feel comfortable doing the kind of issue-oriented comedy that Norman Lear has turned into a cottage industry.

In searching for a label, Mr. Newhart settles for ”Chicago humor,” of the sort he and Shelley Berman and Mike Nichols and Elaine May developed working clubs in that city back in the 1960’s. It is comedy based on character; the jokes are mostly about an individual trying to cope with a day’s worth of unexpected, unwieldy events.

”I think that what comes through in Chicago humor is the affection,” he said. ”Even though you’re poking fun at someone or something, there’s still an affection for it.”

It plays best to an older audience. Mr. Newhart has a clear image of who’s watching: ”They’re 35 to 40, college graduates, second marriage, a Mercedes and a station wagon, one kid from the first marriage, two from the second.” What this means, to him, is that his viewers will not tolerate insults or condescension.

”I think,” he explained, ”that if we do anything we compliment the audience by saying, ‘We think that you have intelligence, that you will understand this joke. So, we’re not going to hit you over the head with it.’ This usually elicits a perfectly good response, because they realize they’re being complimented. When I was off TV, people would ask me to please come back, which I think was their way of saying, there’s nothing out there for us.”

Inadvertently, Mr. Newhart reaches another audience – the college crowd which, as he sees it, ”wants nothing more than to be cool.” His shows have become such a favorite with this audience that they have spawned a particular brand of cultish behavior: when groups of students watch reruns of ”The Bob Newhart Show,” they pass around a can of beer, and each time Dr. Hartley is referred to as ”Bob” the student who has the beer must take a swallow. When a character says ”Hi, Bob,” the student who has the beer must empty the can.

”I am responsible,” said Mr. Newhart shaking his head, ”for hangovers all over this country.” Yet, he does not work with that audience in mind. He makes decisions for the viewers with two marriages and two cars, and for them abides by two rules he established within his first series. He insists that his show be taped in front of a live audience for live laughs, and his character is again childless. Not that the actor himself doesn’t care for children; he has three, and speaks fondly of them. But he does not care for offspring as a comedic crutch, and will not use them for an easy laugh.

”Our show is radical in that it’s based on the premise that two adults can actually solve their own problems without the aid of their children coming in at the last minute,” he said. ”And I certainly wouldn’t use young children, because that’s a standard ploy, where you put these gems in the children’s mouths. It’s the precocious child. We did discuss whether the couple has an 18- or 19-year-old, but then you’re dealing with dating and rebellion and all that. So, it came down to no children.”

Once he decides, he means it: In the sixth and final year of his earlier series, the writers presented a script in which his wife became pregnant. ”Just in case I decided to do a seventh year, so they could do baby humor,” he recalled. ”I called up the producer and asked him who he was going to get to play my part.”

By paring away the more obvious sources of laughs – no kids, no slapstick and, aside from an occasional pullet, no pets – Mr. Newhart makes it tough on his writers. He eschews overkill for understatement, and the jokes must remain in proportion.

”I think the show is harder to write than others,” he said. ”When I left the old show, one of the reasons was that I saw shows coming out that seemed aimed at preteen-agers. Even if we said, ‘O.K., let’s sell out and give them that kind of stuff, if that’s what they want,’ I’m not sure our writers would have known how to write it.”

He does know, instinctively, how to do Dick Loudon. Beyond lastminute retooling, the nervous comic’s prerogative, he tries not to intrude on the writing process. ”I’d say 90 percent of what you see on the tube is what the writers wrote,” he said. ”I don’t like to interfere.” But he can tell immediately which ideas won’t work and may short-circuit a concept before it is ever set to paper.

He also has a better sense, now, of when to bring one of his characters into living rooms nationwide. CBS would have welcomed a seventh season of ”The Bob Newhart Show,” but the performer left prime time rather than risk being ushered out. At that point, neither his motivation nor the essential adult audience seemed solid to him.

”I left partly because of frustration and partly because of internecine wars,” he said, recalling that the last two or three years of the series were done in ”a state of panic” because competitor NBC was programming a new series against them as often as every four weeks. In addition, as more youth-oriented series appeared on all the major networks, Mr. Newhart’s professional doubts increased. They coincided with a set of personal doubts, a desire to escape the routine of a half-hour series and to try other projects, including several feature-film appearances he would now, with a few exceptions, prefer to forget.

Four years later, a pleasant coincidence: Just as television began to seem more receptive to Mr. Newhart’s mid- to highbrow style (he took ”House Calls” and ”Two’s Company,” two now-canceled series, as evidence that the tide was turning), the comedian was ready, with a new certainty, to get back to television. Aside from fleeting fantasies – appearing as the feared gunslinger in a Western, for example – he has come to terms with the fact that what he does seems to work best on the small screen.

”I think I’ve grown,” he said. ”Maybe I’ve matured a little. And maybe I’ve found out, in doing some other things – features and things that I thought I wanted to do, that I couldn’t have done while doing a series – found out that what I really wanted to do is this. It’s a question of knowing who you are and what you are.

”Besides,” he added, contemplating the implausible Western of his dreams, ”they talk about so-and-so coming into town, and then the music would start, and the doors would swing open. And there’s me. People would get hysterical.”

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