Don't Judge My Book By Its Title
I realize that most people skip the introduction and the acknowledgments. If you are one of these people, then you're not even reading this. But if you are, I want to share with you the alternative titles I had for this book.
I was told by my editor that titles sell books, so the first title I proposed was A Slimmer You in Three Weeks. That would've been an instant best seller because diet books sell like crazy. But my publisher's weak-kneed lawyers refused to approve the title because there were no diet tips in my book.
My next title was Finding Mr. Right, because dating books are also very popular. Again, the attorneys nixed this idea, this time on the grounds that the book contained no dating tips. The attorneys suggested that I find something related to comedy in some way since I am a comedian.
I came up with The Fat Lady in the Pink Dress Wants a White Wine. This comes from the parties we've had at our house when my kids helped serve the grown-ups. I'd ask my son to go and see what Mrs. Petersen would like to drink. He'd come back and say, "The fat lady in the pink dress wants a white wine."
Besides being a catchy phrase, I thought this would make a nice title for a book written by a comedian. When you mature, you realize you can't say something like that in polite company. But comedians don't mature. For some reason, comedians are still children. The social skills somehow never reach us, so we say exactly what we think without weighing the results. But as a title, it sounded too much like a book written by a bartender.
You Didn't Let Me Finish was a candidate because it neatly sums up Hollywood. I first heard the phrase in a story about Harry Crane, a comedy writer who worked for Dean Martin. Harry was sent by Greg Garrison, who produced The Dean Martin Show, to check out a lounge singer that they were thinking of booking on the show. The singer, it turned out, was Mama Cass, back when she was known as Cass Elliot.
Harry completed the trip and reported back to Garrison: "This immense woman walks out on the stage in a muumuu and it's stained," he said. "It's not even clean. She had perspiration dripping down both armpits, and she cannot sing. She can't carry a note."
Garrison interrupted, "Dean loves her." To which Crane said, "You didn't let me finish."
Deciding that was too Hollywood, I toyed with Which One Would You Like to Hear Again? This phrase was my sole line of defense as a naïve and neophyte stand-up.
It was my very first stand-up gig, and I was the opening act at the Tidelands Motor Inn in Houston. I performed the only three routines I had, "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue," "The Driving Instructor," and "The Cruise of the U.S.S. Codfish. " The audience was particularly responsive one night, and they gave me a lengthy applause. As I left the stage, I walked by the maître d'.
"Go back out there. They want to hear more," he said.
"That's all I have," I explained.
I reluctantly walked back onstage. The applause died down, and I asked them, "Which one would you like to hear again?"
In considering phrases that have stuck with me over the years, I recalled a story that Art Linkletter used to tell in his routine on how kids say the darnedest things. In one bit, there was a boy who was off by himself brooding in a corner while all the other kids were laughing and enjoying themselves. Art went over to the boy and attempted to comfort him.
"Is something wrong?" Art asked.
"Yeah, my dog died this week," the boy said.
"Well," Art said, "your dog went to heaven and when you go to heaven you will see your dog again so don't be too unhappy."
The boy looked at Art quizzically. "What does God want with a dead dog?" Another example of the logic of children.
And then there's the title I settled on: I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This!
That's from a gag about a guy who is having an affair with his boss's wife. They are making mad, passionate love, and she says, "Kiss me! Kiss me!"
He looks at her very seriously and replies, "I shouldn't even be doing this!"
That disproportionate side of life ties nicely to my career. I became a comedian by way of accounting. I recorded several comedy albums, three with The Button-Down Mind in the title. I starred in several television series, all of which have my name in the title: The Bob Newhart Show, The Bob Newhart Show (again), Newhart, Bob, and George and Leo (a bit of a stretch but it uses my given name, George Robert Newhart). I acted in several movies that didn't have my name in the title, including Hell Is for Heroes, Catch-22, and Elf, and I guest starred on ER and Desperate Housewives. All the while, I've been married to the same woman for forty-three years, had four children, played countless rounds of golf, and met some very interesting people.
However, it didn't take me long to realize that I couldn't write a traditional memoir. A memoir is a weighty tome. Former presidents and the Marquis de Sade write memoirs; Bob Newhart doesn't write a memoir. So I proposed that we call it a roman à clef and leave it at that. Again, my weak-kneed lawyers objected.
But the biggest problem of all came when I was halfway finished with the book. I began to get nervous because deep in the process of writing a book about myself, I didn't have one of the primary ingredients. I wasn't feeling cathartic. I've read enough of these kinds of books and seen enough authors promote them on talk shows to know that they are always cathartic. So I sent the book to a specialist in recognizing catharsis and asked him if what he read could be considered cathartic.
"No, it's self-pity," he said. "But I like the title."
Comedians See Life Through a Different Lens
Most comedians are committable. People say I'm the most normal of all comedians—and I'm still certifiable.
Larry Gelbart once said that comedians look at life through a different lens. Comedians by nature are observers of people. Even if a comedian is on vacation and he sees something funny on the beach, he'll say to himself, "I have to remember that because I may need it someday."
When I was a child, I remember watching a garbage truck with the name "Neal Norlag" on the side. Subconsciously, I filed the name away for later use. Remember Neal Norlag.
Comedians are innately programmed to pick up oddities like mispronounced words, upside-down books on a shelf, and generally undetectable mistakes in everyday life.
Recently, for instance, I've noticed on the cable news channels that the guy who writes the news crawl along the bottom of the screen can't type. Clearly, there is no one watching him and saying, "Gary, what's wrong with you?"
These aren't glaring errors, but they certainly stand out to me. One day last summer, a typically misspelled news bulletin announced: "In the Mideast, peace talks are underway between the Palestinians and the Israelis and there is the possibility that Egypt may play a roll"—as opposed to a "role."
Stranger still, I came across a solemn news item in the newspaper about an assassination in Afghanistan. A minister was killed. I read further. It turned out that he was the minister of tourism. Now, how busy can Afghanistan's minister of tourism possibly be? You don't picture a young honeymooning couple saying, "Enough of the bickering. Let's flip a coin: It's Paris or Kabul."
Maybe I am the only one who notices.
I think it was Jack Benny who once said, "A comic says funny things, but a comedian says things funny." I guess I'd fall into that latter grouping.
Many comedians would probably agree that you start off doing someone else while your own voice evolves. You start out as an imitator because hiding behind success is easier than finding it. Richard Pryor started out doing Bill Cosby and then came into his own. For me, the models were Mike and Elaine, Bob and Ray, and, of course, Benny.
When I first performed, I didn't study all the working comedians and say, "There is nobody stammering out there....What a great opportunity." In interviews throughout my career, I've often been asked if my stammer was natural. My stock response: "Have you been listening to my answers?"
Truly, that's...the...way I talk.
When I was doing The Bob Newhart Show, one of the producers pulled me aside and said that the shows were running a little long. He wondered if I could cut down the time of my speeches by reducing my stammering. "No," I told him. "That stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills."
Stammering is different than stuttering. Stutterers have trouble with the letters, while stammerers trip over entire parts of a sentence. We stammerers generally think of ourselves as very bright. My own private theory is that stammerers have so many ideas swirling around their brains at once that they can't get them all out, though I haven't found any scientific evidence to back that up.
There are exceptions to the imitation rule. I remember watching a show on TV from the Improv in New York one night in the eighties. One young comedian after another came onstage. I'd say to myself, "Okay, he's doing Seinfeld. He's doing Benny." Then Norm MacDonald appeared. He wasn't doing anyone. He was doing himself, which made him stand out.
Norm later wrote a sketch for me when I hosted Saturday Night Live. I played a supervisor at the post office who had to discipline a disgruntled worker regarding his appearance. Gingerly I instructed Norm's beatnik character: "There is a uniform that you have to wear. Again, let me assure you that this is coming from the guys upstairs and I'm just relaying it to you. It's strictly procedure. I personally have nothing against combat fatigues, but it's just that the guys upstairs..."
Long before I started performing my own routines onstage, I loved watching comedians on television. I'd hear a joke and then ask myself why it got a laugh. What made it work? Why did he choose that particular word? In the fifties, I watched George Gobel. He wasn't doing "Take My Wife, Please." He would just tell these neat little stories, like about how his wife, spooky ole Alice, came up to him the other day. It was a softer, less aggressive brand of comedy. Later I saw Bob and Ray performing similar routines. I thought to myself, you can be successful without having to be as broad as some of the comedians were in the early years.
That was the first inkling I had that maybe I could make it as a comedic storyteller.
But it wasn't all positive reinforcement. Early in my career, I saw Jonathan Winters perform in a comedy club in Chicago. He was hilarious. Each joke was funnier than the one before it. I was totally discouraged. I thought to myself, why bother? There's no way you can be as funny as Jonathan Winters.
I gathered my wits and decided that being No. 2 wouldn't be so bad.
The greatest comedian I've ever seen is Jack Benny. He wasn't afraid of the silences. Once Benny was following the Will Maston Trio with Sammy Davis Jr. They absolutely killed. The audience was still applauding for them when Benny walked onstage. He complimented them and then started his routine.
"In the afternoon, I like to have some tea. I go in the coffee shop, around four o'clock or four-fifteen." Pause. "More like four-thirty." (Terrifically unnecessary information, by the way.) Pause. "So I went into the coffee shop....I did a movie with an English actor whose name I couldn't remember...he was in the coffee shop, but I couldn't remember his name..."
Here Benny stopped for what seemed like an eternity. "I'm sorry," he said, breaking the silence. "I promised Sammy Davis Jr. that he could do another number. Let's hear another number from him."
Everyone dutifully applauded, and Sammy reappeared onstage. He performed "Birth of the Blues," and destroyed the audience again. Benny returned to the stage, himself applauding, and watched Sammy and the band walk off. When the applause finally died down, Benny said, "Nevil. That was his name...Nevil."
Trust me, you don't do that unless you know it will play.
The interesting thing I discovered about my material was that once I convince the audience to accept the premise, then everything that follows is logical. My routine "Defusing the Bomb," for instance, is about a small-town patrolman named Willard Hackmeister who finds a live mortar shell on the beach and calls headquarters to ask how to proceed. If you accept the fact that he's in a small town that doesn't have the equipment necessary to defuse a bomb, everything that follows is logical.
Take my two favorite lines:
"Willard," his captain says over the phone, "if this thing goes off, it's me they are going to want to talk to."
Later, the captain adds: "Willard, if we can save one human life...that's the way you feel about it, too."
For some routines like "King Kong," the jump is a tad bigger. If you accept the premise that King Kong really existed and was this huge ape who came to New York, that it could have been the first night on the job for this new security guard at the Empire State Building, and that a large ape climbing the building wouldn't have been covered in the guard's week-long orientation and training program or mentioned in any of the manuals and therefore would cause the guard to reluctantly call his supervisor, then everything else that follows is logical.
"King Kong" is a routine that came to me full-born. It happened when I was living in New York doing the television show The Entertainers with Carol Burnett. My wife, Ginnie, and I were having dinner with Carol and her husband, Joe Hamilton, at the Top of the Sixes restaurant, which had a panoramic view of Manhattan. I was talking about jobs that I held before I became a stand-up. From my seat I could see the Empire State Building out the window all lit up. I made a connection between these two seemingly opposite thoughts, and boom! The whole routine just came full-blown. Like this:
Hello, Mr. Nelson. This is Sam Hennessy, the new guard. Sir, I hate to bother you at home like this on my first night, but, uh, something's come up and it's not covered in the guard's manual....Yeah, I looked in the index, yes, sir. I looked under unauthorized personnel and people without passes and apes and apes' toes....Apes and apes' toes, yes, sir. There's an ape's toe sticking through the window, sir....See, this isn't your standard ape, sir. He's between eighteen and nineteen stories high, depending on whether there is a thirteenth floor or not....Sir, I'm sure there's a rule against apes shaking the building....There is, yes, sir. So I yelled at his feet. I said, "Shoo, ape," and "I'm sorry but you are going to have to leave."...I know how you like the new men to think on their feet, so I went to the broom closet and I got out a broom without signing out a requisition on it....I will tomorrow, yes sir....And I started hitting him on the toes with it. It didn't bother him much....See, there are these planes and they are flying around him...and they are shooting at him and they only seem to be bothering him a little bit, so I figured I wasn't doing too much good with a broom. Did I try swatting him in the face with it? Well, I was going to take the elevator up to his head, but my jurisdiction only extends to his navel. You don't care what I do...just get the ape off the building. This may complicate things a little—he's carrying a woman in his hand, sir....No, I don't think she works in the building, no, sir....As he passed by my floor...she has a kind of negligee on, so I doubt very much she's one of the cleaning women. Well, sir, the first thing I did was I filled out a report on it. Well, I don't want to give the building a bad name either, sir, but I doubt very much if we can cover it up, sir. The planes are shooting at him, and people are going to come to work in the morning and some of them are going to notice the ape in the street and the broken window, and they will start putting two and two together. I think we're safe on that score, sir. I doubt very much if he signed the book downstairs. You don't care what I do...just get the ape off the building. Well, I came up with one idea. I thought maybe I could smear the Chrysler Building with bananas...