Comedian-actor Bob Newhart

The TV veteran and comedy icon reflects on his first primetime Emmy win after more than 50 years in show business.

Bob Newhart turned a hobby of doing comedy routines on the radio into a career that has spanned more than half a century. Best known for the highly successful TV series The Bob Newhart Show, for which he earned an Emmy nod and a Peabody, and Newhart, which ran a total of 15 years, he's done turns on the NBC series E.R. and the ABC hit Desperate Housewives. He's also been in a number of popular films and penned an autobiography, I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!, in which he recounted his start as an accountant through his success in show biz. At age 84 and after seven nominations, Newhart recently captured his very first Emmy for his guest turn on The Big Bang Theory.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: His television career goes back more than five decades with hit series, “The Bob Newhart Show”, and then, of course, “Newhart”. Those series earned him six Emmy nominations, but no statue. That all changed when his guest-starring role in “The Big Bang Theory” resulted in his first Emmy win long overdue and, rightfully so, a standing ovation from the Emmy audience. Take a look.

[Clip]

Tavis: What took so long [laugh]?

Bob Newhart: I always say when people say what took so long, I always had better people in the category than me.

Tavis: That is the modest Bob Newhart that I know. Let me try this out on you for size. I think that the voters tend to have – trying to find the right word here – have some sort of bias, some sort of issue with comedians. I think of Jerry Seinfeld who, unless I’m wrong, never won one. I think of Bob Newhart who, of course, never won one of.

Newhart: Cosby.

Tavis: Cosby. There are a lot of comedic giants who somehow never graced that stage in that particular capacity. So how does that argument strike you? Maybe they don’t see you guys as acting. Maybe they just see you as being Bob Newhart. After all, you guys all have shows named after yourselves.

Newhart: Well, we took the persona of the standup world and transferred it to – if I can exclude myself, I would say in the case of Bill and Jerry that they just made it look too easy.

Tavis: Well, you make it look easy too. What do you make of the fact, though, that there might be some sort of inherent unintentional disrespect of the craft, that doing that kind of comedy isn’t as easy as it looks?

Newhart: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. I’m not – and not Bill and Jerry – I’m not classically trained. I never studied acting. But as a comedian, it’s like inherent in what you do. You just watch people. I mean, that’s where you get your humor.

I found the most difficult thing when you became successful – when I had the record album, it won Album of the Year – that you were cut off from the source of your material. Your material was everyday people and you were kind of cut off from that and you had to work at it. You had to – I go into a city and people stop me and they say, “You sure look like him” and I say, “Yeah, I’ve been told that.” [Laugh]

Tavis: How did you process, or did you not process, all those years of being nominated and not winning? I mean, you are – and I’m not saying this ’cause you’re here. I’ve said it many times. You know, we’ve been blessed to hang out together over the years. But you’re a giant. You are a comedic giant. How did you process all those years – you’re 84 now – not having won one of these awards?

Newhart: Yeah, uh…

Tavis: You take that personally?

Newhart: No. No, I never took it personally. I lost to Jack Klugman, I lost to Tony Randall, I lost to Michael J. Fox two times, and they’re very good people. At one point, I stopped putting my name in for a nomination so I could just sit at home and watch the Emmys and say, “I would have won.” [Laugh]

Tavis: Had I submitted [laugh].

Newhart: If I had submitted, yeah, I would have walked away with it, no question about it [laugh].

Tavis: That’s funny. As always, you’re hilarious. Let me take the funny and tweak it just a little bit ’cause your comment now makes me think of something and my staff around here knows this. Some years ago after winning a few awards for this show, I stopped submitting our names. I won’t do it for Emmys, I won’t do it for Peabodys, for Image awards.

I don’t let the staff submit this show for anything, and the reason for that is, one, I just have a thing about – I hope this doesn’t come across as arrogant or hubristic, but I have a thing about other people judging what it is that we do.

I think we come here every day and we try to do the best show that we can do. And once we’ve done that, that’s it. If people like it, they like it. If they don’t like it, then we’ll try to do better tomorrow. But there’s something that hangs people up about waiting for the affirmation, looking for the judgment of others, when you know you have done your best work.

With all due respect, I don’t need the Emmys or the Peabodys to tell me that what I’m trying to do every night is to get to the humanity of the persons that I’m talking to. And if you judge your success by accolades and by awards and by honors, it sort of stifles you and sometimes forces you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t do ’cause you’re trying to win the adoration of other people.

Newhart: Yeah. I wish I had thought of that. Can we go back to the – I’ll use that.

Tavis: [Laugh] Yours is funnier, man. Yours is funnier and the punch line comes a lot quicker. You’re an expert at this.

Newhart: But that’s true in standup. I mean, I was a standup comic for 12 years before I ever went on – I did “The Bob Newhart Show” in 1972 and started in comedy in ’60. At the end, you know if you’ve done a good show or not and you know if you’d done a bad show. People can be standing and applauding and you know that wasn’t my best. I got to find a way of doing my best every night.

Tavis: Who was it that taught you? Was it Benny that taught you the appreciation for silence?

Newhart: Yeah, just watching Jack. Of course, his famous thing now, of course, Jack had said in his radio program for years that he was very cheap.

He’s walking in the park and a guy jumps out of the bushes and he says, “Your money or your life” and there’s this long pause, as Mel Blanc says, “Your money or your life” and Jack says, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” [Laugh] They say it’s one of the longest laughs in radio ever [laugh].

Tavis: What is the greatest lesson – I’m sure there are obviously many. But what have been the lifelong lessons, the takeaways, for you from having been such a successful comedian all these years? I suspect whatever you’ve learned on the stage, you have used that in every other aspect of your life.

Newhart: I just found that I just like to make people laugh and then go home to a normal life.

Tavis: Does that mean you’re not funny at home?

Newhart: Well, there are arguments. I think I am. My wife doesn’t think I am [laugh]. We have a great time, my wife and I. It’s very funny, but comedians’ marriages – my wife and I, as I mentioned when I got the standing ovation – we were married 50 years in January.

I’m Catholic, Ginny’s Catholic. We went to this priest and we wanted to get married and he said, “Well, what do you do?” and I said, “Well, I have a television show” and he asked my wife, “What do you do”? And she said “I’m an extra in movies.” He said, “Well, I can’t marry you.” I said, “Well, why not, Father?” He said, “Well, because your marriages, they never last. Show business marriages never last.”

I tried to contact him on our 50th anniversary to have him attend, but I’m not sure he’s even a priest anymore [laugh]. I know we’re still married.

Tavis: It was a beautiful thing watching you that night. I don’t want to say you were emotional. That word troubles me sometimes.

Newhart: I was.

Tavis: You were full and you deserved to be and I suspect it wasn’t just because you won the award. Your wife was in the audience and there’s a story behind the health challenges that she’s been going through.

Newhart: Yeah. About four or five years ago, she had liver cancer and she was put on a list and was quite low on the list, and then a liver came. Dr. Busuttil at UCLA was the doctor we’re going to. A woman came in. She’s much larger than my wife and the liver wasn’t big enough for her. So they called me. They said, “Tell Ginny to get to UCLA. We’ve got a liver for her.”

So I called her and she was getting her hair done or something. I said, “You’d better get home. They have a liver.” Of course, we weren’t expecting it. It was out of the blue. And she was beginning to show signs that things were shutting down. This is about 5:00. She got home at 5:30. I took her right away to UCLA and they put her right in the operating room.

I was there in the waiting room and the doctor called me and said, “We’re taking the bad liver out and we’re putting the good liver in.” That was four years ago and she’s made a remarkable – so that was part and parcel of her being there and the standing ovation, and it just got to me.

Tavis: As it should. I totally get that. You know, your answer to the previous question begs the obvious now, which is what is the secret to 50 years of wedded bliss?

Newhart: It’s funny because comedians tend to have the longest marriages. Jack Benny, Mary Livingstone, George Burns and Gracie, Danny Thomas and Rosie, Ginny and I, Don and Barbara Rickles. So there’s something about laughter that – Sid Caesar and his wife, Florence – there’s something about laughter and the longevity of a marriage.

You know, we’ll be in a heated argument, really heated argument, and I’ll say something and then I’ll think to myself, “Oh, I gotta remember that line. That was a great line. I can’t write it down now, but I gotta.” [Laugh] Then we’ll both look at each other and we’ll start laughing and the fight’s over [laugh].

Tavis: That is funny. Given how warped my thinking is, my thinking is so warped, as you were telling the story about comedians tend to have long marriages, I was thinking of a special, a wonderful documentary that I saw the other night that you were a part of about the life and times of Richard Pryor.

And I was laughing watching the show because there were a couple of wives and they would cut around. Wife number five and number seven, wife number two and number four.

Newhart: There are exceptions.

Tavis: There are clearly exceptions to the rule [laugh]. Pryor, one of the greatest ever, and he couldn’t stay married to one person. But I raise that in part, all jokes aside, because I was moved by the profundity of what you had to say about the artistic genius of Richard Pryor. I was like, wow, there’s Bob Newhart talking about Pryor. Tell me about Pryor and your respect for his craft.

Newhart: Well, he’s just huge. I may have mentioned it, I’m not sure, but I received the Mark Twain Award from the Kennedy Center. Pryor was the very first to receive the Mark Twain Award which to me was very appropriate because what Mark Twain was doing at the turn of the 20th century, talking about life on the frontier at that time, life on the Mississippi, and what Richard was doing was talking about life in the inner city. They were doing the same thing.

And, of course, as a comedian, the language doesn’t bother me at all. I always said I was in the service, so I know all the words and they were directed at me very often [laugh]. It isn’t that I don’t know the words.

But I would feel cheated if Richard, in describing life in the inner cities, said, “Gosh darn it.” You know, that isn’t life in the inner city. So I never found that offensive. I think Mudbone is a piece of genius. I gave him the comedy award and he turned to me. He was in the wheelchair at the time. I had to leave the stage, they went to commercial and came back, and I handed him the Lifetime Achievement Award.

He looks up and said, “I stole your album.” I said, “What’d you say, Richard?” He said, “I stole your album in Peoria. I walk into a record store; I put it in my jacket.” I said, “Richard, I get a quarter for an album.” He said, “Somebody give me a quarter.” He handed me a quarter for the album [laugh]. No, he was just brilliant. He was above comedy.

Tavis: Take me back to those days when comedy albums actually worked. I don’t know that they could work again today. We’ll talk about it. But take me back to what was happening in the country that allowed you to put this stuff on vinyl and, after all these years, again, the best-selling comedy album in the history of records.

Newhart: Well, a lot of things happened in the 50s. The 50s are kind of dismissed, but a lot of things were going on, you know, beneath. And in the 60s, there was a sea change in comedy. It went from “Take my wife, please” or “I’ll burn a hole in the coat” or “If you get that tiger out of there, I will.” [Laugh] I’ll tell you that after the show [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know the story [laugh].

Newhart: But then it became conceptual. It was Michael Lane, Shelley Berman, Mort Sahl, Johnny Winters who they just paid tribute to.

Tavis: Wonderful tribute the other night too. I thought Robin Williams did an amazing job, yeah.

Newhart: Yeah. And there was a sea change and we all were just expressing ourselves the best way we knew how about what was going on in the world and what was wrong with the world. It wasn’t a kabow. We didn’t all get together and say – it just all kind of happened at the same time.

Tavis: But to do that humorously, these were challenging times to find the humor. These were the 50s. I mean, to find the humor in that, though.

Newhart: Well, I did Abe Lincoln which, of course, was…

Tavis: That’s one of your classics, man, yeah.

Newhart: Which was maybe one of the most revered presidents. Wasn’t the brightest bulb in the room, you know, [laugh] so that was kind of a departure. Yeah, we were attacking sacred cows, but it was just our way of – a lot of people have said you laugh not to cry, and that’s what we were doing.

Tavis: Yeah. I think that was certainly the case, I think, for Pryor. I mean, you look at the way Pryor grows up in Peoria.

Newhart: Oh, such a life, such a life.

Tavis: Yeah. But the exact opposite of your life. There’s almost a consensus that part of what makes the great comedians great is a troubled life and you’re one of the icons and your life was nothing like Pryor’s.

Newhart: Well…

Tavis: They say that comedy comes from that sort of darkness and you didn’t have…

Newhart: Well, there was some hurt in my life that I would have – well, I would have just preferred a better relationship with my father than I had. Maybe that is. I don’t know. I just like making people laugh. It’s my favorite thing.

Tavis: How did you learn to be a great storyteller? Because part of what comes to mind when you think of Pryor or Cosby or a number of other greats is this capacity just to be brilliant at storytelling. What I hate these days – I love comedy shows.

I mean, when I’m on the road, when I finish doing whatever I’m doing, if there’s a music concert, if there’s a comedy show, I’m trying to get there. I just love those kinds of venues. It’s good for my spirit and good for my soul.

Yet these days, you go to comedy clubs and a guy gets up or a woman gets up and tells a joke, you see the punch line coming, they’re just not really good. They’re good at cracking jokes, but not good at telling stories. You’re such a great storyteller. How did you perfect that?

Newhart: I don’t know. All I can think of was that I always watched the “Sullivan Show” and the “Steve Allen Show” and I watched the comedians and I’d study them. It was like, “I wonder why he used that word rather than…” and I was a student of comedy.

I would watch great storytellers like Danny Thomas was one of the great storytellers. Sam Levinson and Myron Cohen was, of course, was an incredible storyteller. I guess just by osmosis from watching them and appreciating them. I know comedians. Dick Martin, if you put a gun to his forehead, he couldn’t tell you a joke. And I know great comedians, they can’t tell a story. It’s another art form.

Tavis: Yeah, that you perfected.

Newhart: Well, thank you.

Tavis: What did you make of the fact that the way to this Emmy for you was “The Big Bang Theory”? It’s a very successful show, obviously.

Newhart: Yes. This year Chuck Lorre, the creator and producer along with Bill, he and I talked over the years and he would call and he’d want me to do the show. For one reason or another, I didn’t do the show. So this year, he said, “Okay, I’m ready for the annual turndown. Why can’t you do the show?” I said, “Okay, I’ll tell you what. Do you shoot in front of an audience?”

I can’t do a one-camera show. I don’t know how to do that kind of show where you count in your head and then you do the next line. He said, “Yeah.” I said, “I would like to do ‘Big Bang Theory’ because I think it’s the best-written show and I watch the quality of the writing, and I’d like it to be a recurring part, not just a one-shot.” He said, “You got it.”

They sent me the script. The cast was unbelievable. I only worked with Jim Parsons, I worked with Kaley and with Johnny. They threw themselves on the sword for me. They just wanted it to work. I said they kept throwing me hanging curve balls and I kept swinging at them [laugh].

Tavis: You’re too modest. I love this about you. When you looked out in that audience after all these years of doing what you’ve done so brilliantly, what did you take from that standing ovation? What did that feel like for you?

Newhart: Well, first of all, it’s your peers. They’re saying you’re pretty good. The Creative Arts Award – they were about to hand me the Emmy and I was about to have an Emmy in my house which my wife would have to hide ’cause she doesn’t believe in ostentatious. But I think we found a place in the attic where we can hide it and no one will find it [laugh].

And then the standing ovation, that’s from your peers and that’s as high a compliment as you can get in this business. It was a wonderful night, just a gorgeous night.

Tavis: Long overdue and well-deserved, richly deserved. I enjoyed having you on tonight.

Newhart: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: You come back any time, any time.

Newhart: Thank you.

Tavis: Bob Newhart, after all these years, with an Emmy, well-deserved up in his attic. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 22, 2013 at 7:11 pm