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Bob Newhart Breaks Down How to Transition from Standup Comic to Sitcom Star

By Will Harris | Indiewire April 15, 2014 at 12:48PM

"Pioneers of Television" kicks off its fourth season on PBS Tuesday night with a look at standup comics who made their way to your living room TV set, and we found one of the best to discuss the process.
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Bob Newhart delivering standup comedy to the masses.
Pioneers of Television Archives Bob Newhart delivering standup comedy to the masses.

When PBS's "Pioneers of Television" returns for its fourth round of retrospectives of various classic TV genres and the casts and creative teams behind some of the most famous and influential programs of all time, the first new installment -- airing tonight at 8pm -- will delve into the various stand-up comedians who successfully made the jump from telling jokes onstage into full-fledged sitcom stardom. 

There's a long list of folks included in this particular category, but there's no question that Bob Newhart is one of the most successful, having had sitcom success in the '70s ("The Bob Newhart Show"), the '80s ("Newhart"), the '90s ("Bob and George & Leo") and, only last year, earning his first-ever Emmy Award for his guest appearance on "The Big Bang Theory."

We caught up with Bob when he stopped by the Television Critics Association press tour in January in conjunction with a panel for "Pioneers of Television," and chatted with him about making the jump to stand-up in the first place, the length of time it took him to settle into a sitcom, and why he wanted to be killed off quickly in his very first film role. 

In reviewing your history, it looks like your last job before you really broke through as a comedian was as an ad copywriter. Given that background, what do you think of "Mad Men?"

The Bob Newhart Show
Pioneers of Television Archives The Bob Newhart Show

Oh, I love "Mad Men." Matt (Weiner) and I have become friends over the years. "Mad Men" was so well done that it took me back to those times. I was a copywriter for…well, as a matter of fact, it was for Fred Niles in Chicago. I worked at Fred Niles Studio, which is now well known because it's Harpo Studios. Oprah came in and took over where I used to work! [laughs.] We did everything. It was industrial films, commercials...But I was on the wrong side of the room, or at least that's my explanation: Fred was a guy who would fire half the room, and I was on the wrong side when he did. But that turned out to be a blessing in a way because at that point I just said to myself, "Okay, people keep telling me, 'You're funny.' You have no obligations, you're single. Try comedy. Give it a year, give it two years. If it doesn't work, at least you'll know it didn't work, rather than spending the rest of your life wondering, 'I wonder what would've happened with the road never taken.'" Luckily, it worked. [laughs] It took three or four years, but it worked. It was a long road, but it got me there. 

In regards to "Mad Men," if you're a fan, then you probably know that they used one of your albums in an episode.

Yeah, in the very first season! That's how I learned of the show, in fact. They were trying to set it in the ‘60s, and they thought that one of the best ways to set it in the ‘60s was to show The Button-Down Mind (of Bob Newhart), which, of course, came out in 1960.

There's a rumor that your famous "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue” routine was actually suggested by your "Bob Newhart Show" co-star Bill Daily, but that seems like an apocryphal tale that's too good to be true. 

I...[starts to laugh] I don't remember, I have to be honest. It could've happened. Certainly, Bill's a dear friend, and we've been friends for years. I don't remember that to be the case, but it certainly could be.

Your transition from stand-up to sitcom is a bit longer than many people realize. You actually had a variety show long before "The Bob Newhart Show."

In '61, yeah. 

I said to my manager, "I just want to do college dates. That's all I want to do. I want to do stand-up. I don't want to do television." So that's what I did.

Was that inspired by the success of your album? Did the network just come to you and pitch the idea of you having your own show?

Exactly. Actually, the show was on the bubble for another season. It could've gone into a second year. I was thinking about this the other day, in fact. When the album came out, it was just like a dam bursting. All this material just...oozed out of me. [laughs.] But on a weekly series...at that time, we did 33 shows in a season, so doing 33 quality monologues alone was very difficult. And then we'd do sketches, and...I wasn't particularly good at sketches. I always had characters in my mind, and I saw them and heard them a certain way, and I never quite managed to make them turn out the same way in sketches. 

So NBC put it to me that if I were willing to make some changes...I think they were embarrassed that I'd won a Peabody Award for the show, and yet here they were maybe going to cancel the show, and they didn't want to have to go through that, so they said that, if they were going to keep it going, they wanted to make several changes. But I just said, "No, I don't want to do this anymore. I don't want the pressure of having to do a quality monologue every single week. It's just impossible to do." And then I said to my manager, "I just want to do college dates. That's all I want to do. I want to do stand-up. I don't want to do television." So that's what I did for...what, 11 years, I guess? 

Yep, "The Bob Newhart Show" premiered in '72. But just after that first series, you did something else that's a little surprising: you were in the 1962 World War II film, "Hell Is for Heroes." Was that just something you did for a lark, to see what it'd be like to be in a movie?

Well, just to be offered a movie was exciting to me! [laughs.] I never thought I'd be in a movie! I signed for the record contract, and...I don't think anybody held out any great expectations that it was going to be hugely successful. I thought it might be a mild success and might help my standup career, which was the only thing I had going at that point. But it exploded! And as a result, I was offered the movie "Hell Is for Heroes," which was with Steve McQueen, Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, Nick Adams, and Harry Guardino.

Jerry Seinfeld's early standup.
Pioneers of Television Archives Jerry Seinfeld's early standup.

But what also happened was that my money had gone up for nightclub appearances and personal appearances...and it was much more than I was making on the movie, so I kept trying to get killed! [laughs] I kept trying to get run over by tanks! I would go up to Don Siegel, who was the director and who went on to do a bunch of Clint Eastwood things, and I said, "You know, Don, when that tank goes over, I could trip..." "No, no, no!" he said. "You're in the movie, so you'll just have to deal with it!" So I did it.

But then I got married in '63, I had my son Rob and then my son Tim, and I was on the road doing college concerts and nightclubs and doing stand-up. And then eventually I was offered "The Bob Newhart Show" by MTM, which got me off the road, which was my primary concern at the time. I just wanted to be with the family and not be on the road, living out of a trunk. And, of course, it didn't hurt my manager at the time was also a principal with MTM. [laughs.] And Mary [Tyler Moore] was a huge success, so they were looking for another project for MTM, so they said, "Well, what about 'The Bob Newhart Show'?” And they put me together with writers Dave Davis and Lorenzo Music, we did the show, and it lasted for six years. I pulled the plug on it after six years, and I stayed away for about four years, but I knew I was going back to television, because I loved it. It was nine to five, and it was a normal life. You were at home! So four years later came "Newhart," and that lasted eight years.

This article is related to: Bob Newhart, PBS, Pioneers of Television, Television, Interviews, TV Interviews







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