Bob Newhart, an Unbuttoned 'American Master' Alex Chadwick chats with legendary comedian, writer and actor Bob Newhart, who will be profiled in a career retrospective airing Wednesday night on PBS.
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Bob Newhart, an Unbuttoned 'American Master'

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Bob Newhart, an Unbuttoned 'American Master'

Bob Newhart, an Unbuttoned 'American Master'

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

On PBS tonight, the series "American Masters" devotes 90 minutes to one of the funniest men this country has ever produced, Bob Newhart. He was funny from the start. Who could imagine a Chicago accountant morphing into a comedian who played straight man for a telephone and turned this routine into the huge hit album, "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart" back in 1960. And then he remade himself on TV's "The Bob Newhart Show."

(Soundbite of theme from "The Bob Newhart Show")

CHADWICK: There are photos from that program and all sorts of other mementos in the office at Bob Newhart's Los Angeles home: a collection of old telephones, pictures with other comedians--Jack Benny, Richard Pryor--and with politicians, presidents, the Bushes, the Reagans, and a telegram and letter from John Kennedy, thanking Bob Newhart for performing at the birthday party in June 1963, the same one where Marilyn Monroe serenaded the president with her legendary version of "Happy Birthday."

Mr. BOB NEWHART (Comedian): And, of course, he was the first Catholic president, and I'm Catholic. And so if you didn't campaign for him, obviously, you went to hell.

CHADWICK: This is pretty early in your career.

Mr. NEWHART: Very early, yeah.

CHADWICK: Yeah. And the president of the United States is sending you telegrams thanking you for campaigning for him and then inviting you to his birthday party. And here you are, participating in that with apparent ease.

Mr. NEWHART: Well, `apparent' is the operative word.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: The first thing you learn--one of the first things you learn when you walk out on a nightclub floor for the first time is you can't show fear. If you show fear, you're dead meat. So there was a lot of bravado in the first three or four, five years of my career that I didn't want people to catch on to me, you know, how I really didn't know what I was doing.

CHADWICK: How did you learn that, and how long did it take you to learn that?

Mr. NEWHART: To get back to Jack again, Jack Kennedy, Dinah Shore and I were doing a show the week that Jack was assassinated, so we were dark for about two or three days. And finally, the promoter, Sammy Lewis(ph), called us up and said, `Could you guys do a show tonight?' So I said, `Well, I would do the show if Dinah would do it,' and with some apprehension. I didn't know if people were in the mood to laugh or not.

I went out and, to this day, it's one of the greatest audiences I've ever worked with, because they had to get away from that news. And it taught me that's what--part of what comedy is all about, is taking people away from whatever's troubling them and then letting them go back and face the day.

CHADWICK: This "American Masters" program covers all of your career. I first knew you from those early records, which we would listen to again and again. But I'll bet most people know you today from the television shows.

(Soundbite of "The Bob Newhart Show")

Mr. NEWHART: (As Bob Hartley) Yeah, hi. This is Bob Hartley. Yeah. I'm holding confirmed reservations on your New York Flight 21 for 22 on the 29th.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Bob Hartley) Yeah, I'd like to change that to 21. I realize it's Flight 21. I'm changing the 22 people to 21.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: (As Bob Hartley) Twenty-one on Flight 21 on the 29th.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: You're a minimalist, a word that you used in describing your comedy.

Mr. NEWHART: I like to get laughter out of the least, and I think one way you do it is by giving the audience some credit for some intelligence. To say the least and get the most; that's always been gratifying to me.

CHADWICK: I mean, you wrote a monologue about a PR guy giving advice to Abraham Lincoln about the Gettysburg Address, and it is just howlingly funny.

Mr. NEWHART: Well, that is one of my favorites.

(Soundbite of "Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue")

Mr. NEWHART: You changed `fourscore and seven' to 87?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: I understand they mean the same thing. Well, Abe, that's meant to be a grabber.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: Abe, we test-marketed that in that in Erie, and they went out of their minds up in that area.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: Well, Abe, it's sort of like Marc Antony saying, `Friends, Romans, countrymen, I got something I want to tell you.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: You see?

CHADWICK: Is it true you got a call from someone in the middle of the day and you needed a routine that evening? You wrote Abe Lincoln in one afternoon?

Mr. NEWHART: No, I didn't get a call. I got the idea and, really, at that point, had no outlet for it. I mean, I wasn't--I'm not sure if I was an accountant, but I may have still been an accountant, but it came full-blown. It just--it was a matter of `How long do you want to make it? Do you want to make it 12 minutes or do you want to make it eight minutes or do you want to make it six minutes?' And most of the good routines, that's what happens; they just come out complete. And that was certainly true of Abe Lincoln, if you accepted the premise of a not-very-bright Abe Lincoln and a very bright PR man.

CHADWICK: And a telephone.

Mr. NEWHART: Yes. And that the telephone existed at that time.

CHADWICK: Yeah. Did you write in longhand on pads or work at a typewriter or what was--did you do?

Mr. NEWHART: Usually, legal-sized yellow. I still do. I don't trust it unless it's there on a legal-sized paper.

CHADWICK: Are you--you're still writing material now for performing?

Mr. NEWHART: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I was thinking the other day--an idea came to me that I'm in the process now of determining the best way of mounting it. You know, there's so much outsourcing, and a guy calling up that something has gone wrong with his computer. And, of course, now there's so much outsourcing to India, and now they're teaching the Indians to speak with a Southern accent so that--you know, they feel that it hasn't been outsourced. So I imagined one end of a conversation--and again, in this case, I'm not sure which end of the conversation--I'm still--but it would be--it would go something like...

(In Southern accent) `Well, how you doing and what can we do for you? 'Cause I assumed 'cause you called us that you're having some problems with your computer. And I would just--I was fixin', actually, to go on my break, but I think I can take a little time here. And why don't you tell me what's wrong? My name? Mohammed is my name, yes.'

CHADWICK: How often do you perform now?

Mr. NEWHART: Approximately 30, 35 times a year. I could never imagine not doing stand-up. It's where I started. Why would you say, `I don't want to make people laugh anymore. I'm tired of that'?

CHADWICK: When you travel, do you go to the airport and fly commercial?

Mr. NEWHART: Yeah.

CHADWICK: You go through those lines?

Mr. NEWHART: Yeah.

CHADWICK: Do you ever find yourself doing comedy routines in the midst of `I'm going take off my shoes, I'm going to take off my belt and'--they must know that you're Bob Newhart. Right?

Mr. NEWHART: Yeah. Well, no, I'll tell you what I get more than anything is, `Boy, you sure look like him.' And I usually say, `Yeah, I've been told that,' because the alternative is saying, `I actually am him,' you know.

CHADWICK: But what is it that's difficult about saying, `Yes, I'm Bob Newhart'?

Mr. NEWHART: Well, now you're analyzing me.

CHADWICK: Well, no, I don't want to do that.

Mr. NEWHART: No. I don't know. To me, it's just--it's rather--I don't--it's just difficult to say, `I am actually him. You are actually looking at him.' I don't know. Pretentious--I guess that's the word I was looking for. It sounds pretentious to say, `I'm--well, I am actually him.'

CHADWICK: But it's not pretentious; you are him.

Mr. NEWHART: I am him. Yeah, I know.

CHADWICK: Bob Newhart, thank you for being with us.

Mr. NEWHART: Thank you, Alex. I enjoyed it.

CHADWICK: The "American Masters" profile of Bob Newhart airs tonight on PBS stations.

For photos of Bob Newhart and to hear one of his signature stand-up routines, go to our Web site,

And there's more to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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