Harris: We have comedians on this show all the time. Dozens of them, hundreds of them, have appeared on our show over the years. Very few, however, could have the title Comedy Legend added to their introduction. This man certainly deserves that. Ladies and gentlemen, here is Comedy Legend Bob Newhart, live from Los Angeles. Hi, Bob!
Newhart: H-h-hi. Thank you!
Harris: You’re very welcome. There’s that recognizable Bob Newhart voice and stammer. I love it. Bob, when you were first starting out in this business it was very unlike nowadays when a comedian comes out, does a stand-up act up on TV for one shot, goes and works clubs for 20 minutes, and then they give him a sitcom. That was not the case when you started out. How did you get your first TV show, which I think was 1961, wasn’t it?
Newhart: My first show was, yeah, 1961. That was based on the success of the record album. I did a comedy record album and NBC approached me. I had been approached to do a game show by Mark Goodson. I didn’t think it was a good idea and NBC ask me if I wanted to do a variety show and they put me together with some writers. And we won an Emmy, a Peabody, and a pink slip from NBC all in the same year.
Harris: And then it was a decade or so before you got back together with another TV show, the legendary Bob Newhart Show. And now, is your grandchild able to watch you on Nick at Night?
Newhart: She was just down here and she gets very confused. My daughter tells me that she watches Nick at Night, but she only laughs when I say something.
Harris: Well, good! That’s good family training then.
Newhart: Everybody else could have the funniest lines in the world, but she only laughs at my jokes. She’s a little confused, because I’ll notice. We put on a tape the other day just to see her expression. She kept looking at the box and looking at me. So yeah, it’s great.
Harris: It must also be very odd for you. You’ve got kind of a renaissance here. You’ve got your own primetime show with Judd Hirsch, George and Leo, which is saving Monday nights on CBS, frankly. And at the same time you’ve got this renaissance with a whole new audience through Nick at Night. Dave and I grew up watching you on that Saturday blockbuster line-up, but how is that for you at age 67 to have that renaissance happening?
Newhart: I took a year off. Well it’s, yes, a great feeling and secondly it’s not just me. We have some pretty good writers and some pretty good co-stars, you know. We had a great cast on The Bob Newhart Show. It really starts with the writing and the fact that it is finding a new audience is a tribute to the writing as much as anything else.
Harris: Every show you’ve ever been on has been well written. Do you have a say in who writes the show?
Newhart: Well, you sit down with them and see if there is a chemistry and see what direction they see the show going and who they see me as. On the first show, The Bob Newhart Show, one of the conditions I made was that we don’t have children and that I be a psychologist rather than a psychiatrist. The reason being that a I know a psychiatrist would deal more seriously with people. I didn’t want to be making fun of really serious people.
Newhart: I didn’t want to have children because I didn’t want to be the dumb husband/father who keeps getting in trouble and then the precocious children bail him out at the last minute.
Harris: Which is the plot of every major sitcom on television today, by the way.
Newhart: Exactly! So, in the sixth year of The Bob Newhart Show, I got a script to come home with on Friday night. I was reading it Sunday afternoon and noticed that it said that Emily was pregnant. So I called the producer. I said, “I read the script.” He said, “Oh, what did you think of it?” I said, “Oh, it’s a very funny story. It is great.” He said, “We were a little concerned, you know.” I said, “It was very funny. [pause] Who are you going to get to play Bob??”
Harris: [laughs] So what did you end up doing?
Newhart: Well, if you ever see it, it’s a dream sequence where Emily dreams she is pregnant. That is how we solved it.
Harris: Gotcha. Speaking of dream sequences and Emily, one of the greatest final episodes in TV history was the finale of Newhart, where it turned out all to be a dream and you wake up in bed with Suzanne Pleshette and got a giant sustained laugh that went on for minutes. Just huge. Now, of course, Seinfeld is coming to a finale. Do you think you’ll call Jerry and suggest the Suzanne Pleshette ending to him? Maybe you can do a cameo or something?
Newhart: [laughs] I haven’t heard from Jerry. We could wake up in bed, Emily and I, with the Seinfeld cast!
Harris: Or, you wake up in bed with Kramer! Forget about George and Leo. It’s Bob and Cosmo!!
Harris: Is that hard, by the way? To end a show that is so successful? You’ve had this with both of your previous shows. To have a show that is so succesful and say, “Look, that is it. We’re stopping here.”
Newhart: Yeah, it is hard because so many people are dependent on you. And it’s hard because they are your second family.
Harris: But why did you decide to stop doing the original Bob Newhart Show?
Newhart: I just thought it was time. I felt, I didn’t know if there was another year of stories left in it. I felt we were running a little thin on story lines and I always wanted to go out a year or two early, rather than a year or two late.
Harris: So the timing was right. As a comedian, you have that sense of timing and that is exactly what Jerry Seinfeld talks about in Time magazine. You just know it is time to go off, leave them wanting more?
Newhart: Yeah, there is a little man on your shoulders and he has been on my shoulders for 37 years now and he has been right. There are shows, I think, that stayed too long. No reflections on it, but I think Who’s The Boss may have stayed on a year or two too long.
Harris: People have talked about Cheers and M*A*S*H having the same problem.
Newhart: Well, I don’t know that I can say that about Cheers. I think maybe the Alan Thicke show [Growing Pains] may have stayed on a year or two too long. I mean, it’s painful to watch shows that were good, kind of struggling.
Newhart: I never wanted to be in that position.
Harris: How long do you think George and Leo is going to be on?
Newhart: That is really hard to say. It is up to the public, as long as they want you on. They are the ultimate arbiters of what stays on and what goes off.
Harris: The man just doesn’t want anymore pink slips, is what he is saying.
Harris: A listener wanted me to ask you whether any of those old comedy albums of yours are going to come out on CD?
Newhart: We are in the process of trying to work something out with Blockbuster. There is a video of a standup concert I did a few years back, and there is an anthology CD of a lot of the routines from the first and second albums, only performed in front of a live audience.
Harris: I saw that tour. I think it was at Wolftrap. You came through here and did all that just brilliant stuff. And like the Nick at Night renaissance, I think a lot more people would re-discover it if it were re-released. Because Button Down Mind, which was the first million-selling comedy album, is almost a benchmark in comedy.
Newhart: Well, thank you!
Harris: You’re very welcome. Bob, thank you for joining us.
Newhart: Well, thank you, guys!
Harris: George and Leo has moved to 9pm Mondays. It’s the cornerstone of the Monday line up — basically saving the CBS Monday night line up, if you don’t mind my saying so.
Newhart: I don’t!
Copyright 1998, Paul Harris.
Transcript by Sean Healey.