Comedian Bob Newhart

The comedian discusses World Series champs, the Chicago Cubs, and the
DVD release of the final season of Newhart.

Bob Newhart, the "world's second biggest Cubs fan" (next to Bill Murray), turned a hobby of doing comedy routines on the radio into a career that has spanned more than half a century. Best known for his highly-successful eponymous TV series The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart, he finally won an Emmy Award at age 84 for his more recent guest turn on The Big Bang Theory. He's also remembered for his hilarious performance in the new holiday classic Elf and his autobiography, "I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!", in which he recounted his start as an accountant through his success in show biz.

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

We’re just a week away from the start of major league baseball and, for the first time in 108 years, the Cubs are the defending World Series Champions. Their fairy tale victory last November forced Bob Newhart to actually change his act, but the world’s second most famous Cubs fan was still delighted that they made history.

We’ll also talk about the eighth and final season of his Emmy-nominated series, “Newhart”, which was just released on DVD.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Legendary comedian, Bob Newhart, coming up right now.

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Tavis: So pleased to welcome Bob Newhart back to this program. He has been delighting us with his comedy for more than 50 years now, and this month the final season of his show, “Newhart”, was released on DVD, including the surprise ending that is still considered one of the best in all of TV history.

Before we start our conversation with Mr. Newhart and to refresh your memory, here is that famous scene from the “Newhart” series finale.

[Clip]

Tavis: [Laugh] That was one of the best endings ever.

Bob Newhart: And my wife’s idea.

Tavis: Yeah. Your wife’s idea?

Newhart: She came up with it, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Wow.

Newhart: We were in the sixth year. The show went eight years. That’s the eighth year. And the sixth year, I was kind of unhappy with CBS for moving us around and putting in shows in front of us, behind us. We were at a Christmas party and we were waiting to have a picture taken with the guests at the people’s home we were at. I said, “You know, honey, I think this is gonna be the last year of the show.”

She said, “You ought to end it in a dream sequence” because everything was so crazy. It was so surreal. The maid was an heiress and then had Larry, Darryl, and Darryl who were, I felt, straight out of “Deliverance”, you know [laugh]. But they were from Vermont. I had no idea.

I said, “Oh, that’s a great idea.” So Suzy, Suzanne, was there and we told her. She said, “If I’m in Timbuctoo, I’ll be back for that.” She said, “I’ll be back in New York minute.” And the audience didn’t know. You could tell by the reaction.

Tavis: Oh, no. It was a total surprise.

Newhart: When they saw it, they didn’t even see Suzy or myself. They saw the bedroom set and they knew it was from “The Bob Newhart Show” and they started applauding the bedroom set. It was wild.

Tavis: It was a great surprise anyway, if ever there was one. You and I were talking before we came on camera here, and I was saying to you that, in some ways, speaking of Suzanne Pleshette, you’re the last man standing. Mary Frann is gone, Tom Poston is gone. You’re 88 this year?

Newhart: Well, I’ll be 88 in September, yeah.

Tavis: 88 in September, yeah.

Newhart: Still fooling ’em [laugh].

Tavis: Still fooling ’em, still gotten them laughing, still making ’em laugh, rather. But like what do you make of the fact, I mean, you’ve been so blessed — that’s my word, not yours, but you’re still…

Newhart: No. I feel the same way, but I’ve been very blessed. We were talking during makeup and we were talking about the first album I made. It was the very first album, a comedy record…

Tavis: You were still in Chicago then?

Newhart: I was in Chicago.

Tavis: Still living at your parents’ home at the time, weren’t you?

Newhart: That’s right.

Tavis: Yeah, I remember this.

Newhart: And we recorded in Houston, Texas. We thought it might just go, you know, maybe 10,000 records and it just went crazy all over the country. It went to number one, then the number two album, I had the number one and number two album. Then the number two album went to number one, so I had the number one and number two album for like 20 weeks.

But I didn’t even know it. I didn’t know I had that record [laugh]. So my daughter, who her husband was in the music business, she called me up and she said, “Dad, you know you just launched a record.” I said, “What was that?”

She said, “Well, Guns ‘N Roses has had the number one and number two album longer than you had it.” I said, “Well, at least it went to a friend.” [laugh] Ax and I, we talk all the time. Coming here, I was on the sofa on the phone with Axl [laugh].

Tavis: After all these years, as you mentioned a moment ago, so you’re still doing what? A dozen shows a year?

Newhart: I do about 10.

Tavis: About 10 shows a year?

Newhart: 10 or 12 shows a year, standup.

Tavis: Standup, yeah, yeah. What does that consist of? Is it classic stuff? Is it new stuff? Is it a mixture of classic stuff and new stuff like…

Newhart: It’s a mixture. I’ll do one or two from the album.

Tavis: Yeah, sure.

Newhart: And then the rest is all just observations on this crazy world that we live in. It is true. The only way to survive is to laugh.

Tavis: Laugh, yeah.

Newhart: That’s the only way — my wife and I, we’re married 54 years. We were married in January, 54 years. Someone once asked me what’s the reason. I said, “I think laughter has a lot to do with how long a marriage lasts.” And it’s true among comedians. Jack Benny was married to Mary for a long time. George Burns, Buddy Hackett. I mean, there’s something about laughter and longevity of a marriage.

Tavis: Yeah. What do you make of the fact that stuff that you did on record 50 years ago still kills in front of an audience a half century later?

Newhart: Luck. I mean, I didn’t plan it, you know.

Tavis: But the joke — I mean, you don’t tell jokes. You tell stories. But the material must — I mean, it says something about the material.

Newhart: Well, because it’s still true. I mean, first I had the driving instructor.

Tavis: Driving instructor. Funny stuff. yeah.

Newhart: Then I had the submarine commander which is about being in service, and that still exists. Then I had Abe Lincoln, you know, talking to his press agent. I mean, that’s even more prevalent than it was 50 years ago.

Tavis: Trying to imagine Abe Lincoln talking to Sean Spicer, but that’s another conversation for another time [laugh].

Newhart: He’d get mad at him.

Tavis: Sure. Which leads me to this. If you have done it, I have never seen you do it. You don’t really toil in political stuff in your standup. Why have you avoided that, number one? Because it seems to me that nowadays these Trump jokes are writing themselves.

Newhart: Yeah. Well, you lose half your audience. That’s one reason [laugh]. Very simple.

Tavis: Okay, it makes sense to me, yeah [laugh].

Newhart: I never got into that. I didn’t feel that was my role to convince people of the way I felt, you know. I mean, because they like me in that television series or enjoying my albums, that’s no reason to vote for a person I’m going to vote for. I just never felt that.

Tavis: I want to circle back to this “Newhart” series and the series, of course, before that. Those series are still playing on TV somewhere like every day, it seems. I watch “The Bob Newhart Show”, one of my favorites, I love that MeTV channel.

Newhart: Yeah, they’re wonderful.

Tavis: I love Me. I watch them all the time, MeTV. To what do you attribute the fact that, again, those shows like the jokes on those records are still playing and people are still laughing at the material?

Newhart: Well, people tell me that, you know. They just go back to that time in their life and it was very special to them. The world wasn’t nearly as crazy as it is today. Politically, it wasn’t nearly as crazy as it is today. They just go back to that time, a wonderful time in their life.

Plus, great actors, a great cast and great writing. I mean, my secret was to get a great cast and great writing and then take all the credit myself, you know [laugh], and it worked.

Tavis: Do you watch anything today? Comedy stuff on TV? Do you watch anything?

Newhart: “Modern Family”. “This is Us”, I watch. Of course, “Big Bang Theory” because I’m involved in it.

Tavis: You’re involved in that, yeah, yeah.

Newhart: I kind of avoid watching laugh-track shows, the one-camera comedy shows, because they’re sterile, as you could tell on that. That was a live audience. I mean, “Mary Tyler Moore” and “All in the Family”, every show did a show in front of a live audience because you got that feedback and the writers had to write better.

You know, today somebody walks through the door and says hi, and there’s a huge laugh [laugh]. What’s funny about hi. I don’t know.

Tavis: I take your point. If you — just imagine for a second — how do you figure that you would fit in? How do you figure you would do — this may be an unfair question — if you were starting your comedy career now versus 50 years ago?

Newhart: I’d probably sell about 20,000 records, I think [laugh] instead of the 1.5 million.

Tavis: And why do you say that?

Newhart: There’s a different — well, I’ve had to adjust to it on “The Big Bang Theory”. It actually started with “Laugh-in”. I was playing Vegas. I was playing The Desert Inn and The Sands and I was doing my record material. I noticed when “Laugh-in” came on that like the attention span of the audience became shorter and shorter and shorter.

So I had to compress the original down to, you know, where the audience was. It’s even more true today. I mean, Suzy and I had a scene where we both took an IQ test and it must have taken a minute and a half to set up the joke. The story was — it was a beautifully written joke.

We took an IQ test. I said to Suzy, “Honey, you never told me how I did on the IQ test.” She said, “Well, Bob, I don’t think it’s that important that you know.” I said, “Honey, please, I had four more years of college than you did.” She said, “Yours was 119.”

I said, “Well, that’s good.” She said, “That’s gifted.” I said, “Is that gifted? What was yours?” She said, “I don’t know.” I’m like, “Honey, I had four more years of college.” She said, “Mine was 122.” I said, “Well, mine was 119 and yours was 122, which is a difference.” She said, “Three.” [laugh]

Tavis: See, we love it [laugh].

Newhart: But that took us a minute to set…

Tavis: Yeah, to set that up, yeah.

Newhart: You don’t have that kind of time now. The audiences, their attention span is just less. It’s bang, bang, bang, bang. Joke, bang, joke, bang.

Tavis: How difficult was it for you to adjust to that style, given the way you’ve done it for all these years?

Newhart: You have to. You know, you just have to.

Tavis: But your style is to set it up and to massage it and lather it until you get…yeah.

Newhart: But in today’s world, if you want to survive in it, you have to adjust. Jack Benny was one of the great adjusters to time.

Tavis: Well, you figured it out and you’re still doing it. Since you were here — this has been a great conversation so far, but now we’re getting to the fun stuff here.

Newhart: Okay.

Tavis: All right. Because when you were last here…

Newhart: What was this? [laugh]

Tavis: As soon as that came out of my mouth, I said, “I walked into that joke chin up, booty out.” I just walked in chin up, man [laugh]. You gotta be careful talking to these comedians, man, especially legends like Bob Newhart.

What I was trying to get to, Mr. Newhart, was that when you last sat in that chair, the Chicago Cubs were not the World Champions that they are. And now they get to start a new season in just a few days.

Newhart: That’s right.

Tavis: With that distinction, you have been a lifelong Cubs fan.

Newhart: That’s right.

Tavis: Where were you — just take the time, set it up. Just tell me where were you? How’d you process it? How’d you feel about it? You been living with this your whole life.

Newhart: I was 16 years old in Chicago and in 1945, the Cubs won the National League pennant. And they had this big parade down LaSalle Street and they all were riding in convertibles and waving. I was a 16-year-old kid waving at Stan Hack or Phil Cavarretta and that was 71 years ago.

It was in 1945. Now 1945 was the end of World War II and most able-bodied men were off to war, which was the year the last time the Cubs won the National League pennant [laugh]. All the able-bodied men were off to war [laugh].

So I waited 71 years and then I got to see the Cubs win the pennant. I mean, the tweeting started. I was at home and I was watching. It was a Dodger game and the Cubs were down. It was like the bottom of the eighth and the Dodgers were ahead five to three.

So the Cubs are up. The Dodgers got on base. They hit a homerun, the Cubs were ahead six to five. Now bottom of the ninth and they bring in Chapman, right? 105 miles an hour, he throws the ball. He strikes out the side.

So I sent a tweet to one of the people I knew in the Cubs organization. I said, “Look, I’m 87 years old. I can’t take this, you know. Will you please ask them score more runs?” [laugh]. So they told the Cubs players, as a favor to Bob, “Would you mind scoring more runs?”

Now I do an impression — actually, 105 miles an hour — I do an impression of batting against Chapman at 105 miles an hour. “Okay, come on, baby, let’s see what you got.” Woosh, bang! “Let me see what you got, baby. He hasn’t thrown it yet. What the…?”

Tavis: So how then did you process — that’s the Dodgers series. I went to two of those games, all right? So how did you process the final round where these guys are in Chicago, have a couple of chances to close it out, and they can’t.

Newhart: I know, I know.

Tavis: How’d you handle that?

Newhart: Not well [laugh]. No, I tweeted every time the Cubs won, they sent me a W flag and we would take a picture with the game in the background when the Cubs won. But I was sure when the Cubs were down two games, I said it’s over, okay. And then they went to Cleveland and they won it. It was incredible.

Tavis: In remarkable fashion.

Newhart: I’m waiting for the day when they say, “We’ve got to break up the Cubs”, you know [laugh]. Just like the Yankees. You know, break ’em up. Everybody knows they’re gonna win.

Tavis: That would be some day.

Newhart: That would be some day.

Tavis: Is it true — either I heard or I read somewhere that you were quite an athlete in your day?

Newhart: Well, you wouldn’t think so. I mean, [laugh], I heard some laughter. Apparently, they don’t think so either [laugh]. Played football, the running back in high school. And in college, I thought I’d get a scholarship. You know, on the fake handoff into the line, I’d yell out, “I don’t have it!” [laugh]. I didn’t want to get hurt, yeah.

Tavis: I’m sweating, man. You got me laughing so hard. I’m over here sweating. We got the air condition on, fans blowing and I’m just sweating like…[laugh]

Newhart: So now I play in a celebrity sportswriters’ game at Dodger Stadium. First of all, they put me in right field. Now Chuck Connors was — you remember Chuck Connors?

Tavis: “The Rifleman”, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Newhart: And he was the first baseman for the Cubs. My father-in-law, Bill Quinn, he was a bartender on “Rifleman”, right? So I’m playing right field and I don’t want to embarrass him in any way, so I’m playing right field. Nothing’s hit and I’m very happy nothing’s hit toward me [laugh].

Somebody plated and the ball starts tailing off coming to right field, so I’m running like hell and I see it and I dive and I’m like this on the grass. I’m sliding along on the grass like this and I stop. The ball landed about there and I’m here looking at the ball [laugh].

So now I’m pitching. They let me pitch, which is a thrill. I mean, I never thought I’d be on a major league mound. You got like 15,000 people there. There’s a Dodger game afterwards, but people would show up. So I’m there and I’m on the mound. It’s hardball. You gotta throw it, you know, Not softballs underhand or anything. So I figure, okay, I’m gonna give ’em my heat.

Tavis: Give ’em the heat, Bob. Give ’em the heat.

Newhart: I shot off with the heat. That’s my fastball. My fastball’s around 46 or 47 miles an hour [laugh]. It’s been clocked as high as 48, but 46 or 47. I started out, the only pitch I had was a change-up and they said, “Well, you’ve got to get another pitch. Otherwise, you can’t have a change-up.” [laugh]. So I said, “Okay, I’ll learn another pitch.”

So then I get this foo ball. That’s my best pitch. I throw it like that. That’s about 22 or 23 miles an hour [laugh] and my sinker, which I call it a sinker, but, well, it just ran out of velocity [laugh]. Just dropped, but I call it a sinker. But sometimes it would sink four or five feet in front of the batter. So that’s my career in sports [laugh]. You’re a great audience.

Tavis: [Laugh] I’m dying over here. Growing up in Chicago, you could have fallen in love with the Bulls or certainly, you know, the Bears. Why baseball for you?

Newhart: Well, my dad was a White Sox fan, so I, being a rebel, naturally I gravitated toward the Cubs. I found the White Sox were very dull as a team compared to the Cubs because they’d have Nellie Fox work a walk and then Luis Aparicio would bunt and move Nellie to second base.

Then Nellie would steal third and then somebody would fly out to left field and Nellie would score and they’d win one to nothing, you know. It was a boring team, you know [laugh]. But with the Cubs, you never knew, you know. Well, like in the World Series…

Tavis; You never know.

Newhart: You had no idea.

Tavis: All right, I’m done with this. Oh, my God, look at this. This is embarrassing. Gee, I see that camera shot. I know, Sheila, my makeup artist, is like, “Stop the camera! He looks horrible!” It’s over now, Sheila. It’s okay. I apologize for just sweating like a pig in slop. But with the Bob Newhart Show, this is kind of what happens [laugh]. That’s why you’re not coming back next week.

Newhart: Okay, all right, okay.

Tavis: Making me look bad on camera. The final season of “Newhart” is now available on DVD and the Cubs will kick off, as will all of major league baseball, in just a matter of days from now. The new season, the World Champion Chicago Cubs, the team of Bob Newhart. Mr. Newhart, come back any time, sir, but not next week.

Newhart: Okay [laugh].

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: March 27, 2017 at 11:51 am