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

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

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?”

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. 

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.

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.

A few years before you returned to TV for “The Bob Newhart Show,” you did a small flurry of films. Do have a favorite from that bunch?

Well, there was “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” “Cold Turkey,” “Catch-22,” and…I’m trying to think what else. Oh, there was also one with Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, and Karl Malden.

Oh, “Hot Millions?”

That’s the one! That was done in England. That was fun. I enjoyed “Cold Turkey,” too. And “Catch-22,” for that matter. 

You worked with Buck Henry on both “Catch-22” and, a few years later, “The First Family.” 

True. And when you work with Buck Henry, you know there are going to be stories…though, of course, most of them have to stay off the record. [laughs] 

You’ve got to be thrilled that Shout Factory is both releasing a complete-series set of “The Bob Newhart Show” as well as continuing to release seasons of “Newhart.” 

Oh, it’s great.

You’ve gone on record before as having been pretty chafed that the DVD releases of both shows stopped abruptly.

Well, yeah, I felt that it was unfair to the people who’d bought the first four years, which were distributed by Fox, that Fox just stopped. So when I heard about the Shout Factory thing, I was relieved, because people had been writing me, asking, “When are we gonna get seasons five and six?” I personally think that there’s an obligation there that, once you release the first four years, you need to release all six years. I mean, I know it’s business, but…[trails off] 

And, yes, the fact that they’re releasing the second and third year of “Newhart” as well is great, too. With “The Bob Newhart Show,” though, one of my first concerns when I talked with the Shout Factory people was to somehow protect the people who had bought the first four seasons and make a special deal. I mean, why should they have to buy six years when they already bought the first four? So they’re trying to work that out. 

Looking back over the history of “Newhart,” it seems like a switch was suddenly flipped when the show hit the seventh season: there was a sudden influx of old friends and former co-stars suddenly showing up as guests. Jack Riley (Mr. Carlin from “The Bob Newhart Show”), Don Rickles, and even Johnny Carson all turned up on the show that year. Was it just coincidence, or was it because you’d decided that the end was nigh and figured, “What the heck?”

Yeah, it was…well, I don’t remember that it was a conscious decision on our part. I think the producers came to me and asked, “Can we get Johnny Carson? Can we get Don Rickles?” So I was on (“The Tonight Show”) with Johnny, I asked, and he said, “Yeah, sure! When?” So we had to make it so he just came in, did his thing, and left, but he was a dear friend for doing it. And Don, he also said right away, “When?” And then Jack…I thought it kind of gave it a surreal attitude that Mr. Carlin should be on the show with his exact same personality from “The Bob Newhart Show.” 

In retrospect, it also can be seen as a bit of foreshadowing for the series finale. 

That’s right!

You’ve received no end of acclaim for that finale, which is as it should be, and several other shows have played off that concept, some of which you’ve participated in. Has there ever been an occasion when someone asked you to do a callback to the finale and you just had to decline?

I’d better not. It was my wife’s idea. [laughs] She’s the one who came up with it, so I’d better take any chance to pay tribute to her! It was actually in the sixth year of “Newhart” when it first came about. I was kind of unhappy with CBS at the time because they kept moving us around. They’d put us at 9:30, at 8:30, after “Murphy Brown,” in front of something else, and…I personally didn’t think they were being very fair to the show. 

So we were at a Christmas party in Beverly Hills, we were waiting to get our pictures taken with our host and hostess, and I said to Ginny — and I think she knew I was unhappy — “I think this is going to be the last year of the show.” And then right away, without even taking a breath, she said, “You ought to end it on a dream sequence.” Because there were so many inexplicable things about the show, including the maid being an heiress and especially Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. I mean, what were these people from “Deliverance” doing in the middle of Vermont? [laughs] So I said, “Great idea!” Suzy (Pleshette) happened to be at the party, and we told her, and she said, “No matter where I am, I’ll be there. Even if I’m in Timbuktu, I’ll do it in a New York minute. I’ll be there.” Even though she was…well, she wasn’t that sick yet. But she was getting sick.

You’ve been on “The Big Bang Theory” a couple of times now, and there’s a third appearance on the horizon. 

Yeah, I can’t disclose much about it right now. But, yeah, I randomly made up that I wanted to do three appearances on the show, mostly just because it was more than one. [laughs]

It’s amazing that you got your first Emmy nomination back in ’61, with your first series, but you didn’t actually win your first Emmy until “The Big Bang Theory.”

That’s right. But there were a lot of reasons for that. For the six years of “The Bob Newhart Show,” we kind of lived in the shadow of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” And then I just kind of realized, “Look, what you do doesn’t get awards. But it’s what you do, so…just keep doing it!” [laughs] And then for a couple of years, I didn’t submit my name. I didn’t feel slighted in any way. 

As far as the future goes, do you foresee continuing to do stand-up for the long haul?

Yeah, I still do about 20 dates a year. I can’t imagine not doing stand-up. It’s where I started and getting there might be a pain in the ass sometimes, but I still love doing it.

“Pioneers of Television” airs Tuesday nights at 8pm on PBS.

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