Funniest Americans of All Time: Bob Newhart

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON ASSOCIATEDCONTENT.COM, AUGUST 9, 2008

Bob Newhart is one of the towering figures in American comedy. He has experienced success as a stand-up comedian, on records, in movies and, especially, on television. He made a name for himself in the world of stand-up by virtue of his routines in which he conducted a dialogue with someone on the other end of a phone conversation. If you have never seen Newhart do one of these routines in its entirety and have only witnessed the short versions that he regularly worked into his sitcoms, then you need to track down a copy of one of his incredibly successful records from the 1960’s. During the early 60’s, Bob Newhart’s records of stand-up routine were best-sellers and they established him as one of the premier comics of the period.

Bob Newhart is most famous for his top-rated sitcoms, of course, but what most people don’t know is that he actually began his career on TV in 1961 with a critically acclaimed variety show that earned a Peabody Award and brought Newhart his first Emmy nomination. Throughout the 1960’s Bob Newhart continued to appear on TV shows and in comedy clubs and making records. He also appeared in small parts in some high profile movies such as Catch-22. It would not be until the 1970’s and the Bob Newhart Show that he achieved superstar status, however. That show joined such others as All in the Family, the Mary Tyler Moore Show and MASH in changing the landscape of sitcoms in the 1970’s. The movement was away from tired and recycled plots and outrageous adventures and toward a more mature focus on the reality of life for adults in the wake of the social upheaval of the 1960’s and the opening up of previous taboo subjects. Of course, as always, Bob Newhart’s style of comedy was far gentler than some of these other shows. In addition, there was always a strain of zaniness to be found in the best of Newhart’s shows. Nobody who saw it can ever forget the episode of The Bob Newhart Show in which all the male characters get drunk and decide to order Chinese takeout. This sets the stage for Newhart to do one of his phone call routines, while expanding it to include suggestions from the other drunken characters that have their own requests. When Bob stumbles over his words and orders “moo goo goo-goo” one of the other guys asks him if he heard what he just said and repeats his goof. Bob indignantly replies “Maybe I was ordering Chinese baby food!” This scene offers a glimpse into how Bob Newhart was capable of taking a scene that on paper may seem less than enthralling, but transforms into comedy gold with his own talent.

Another example of Newhart’s prowess takes place on his second series. In one episode, Michael Harris, the Yuppie producer of Dick Loudon’s TV show, pursues his karaoke dreams. The final scene of this show has Newhart mounting the stage in the now empty bar and hesitantly leaning into the microphone to begin singing. He sings a few bars and then prepares to leave, but something draws him back. Over the course of the next two minutes Bob Newhart proceeds to sing the rest of the song, adding gestures and body movement to punctuate the lyrics. On paper in the script and on an computer scene as you read this, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this was one of the single funniest moments in 1980’s TV history. You have to see it to appreciate it because what Bob Newhart does with the incredibly simple concept of singing alone in an empty bar can only be done by a master. Give this set-up to 100 other talented comedians and maybe a half dozen of them could come anywhere close to making of it what Bob Newhart did.

Bob Newhart had one other incredibly funny TV show in his pocket, but it was butchered and destroyed by CBS. It was called Bob and he played a comic book writer surrounding by one of the funniest ensemble casts in history. The next year CBS totally did away with most of the cast and gave the show an entirely new premise. It was awful and quickly canceled. If you get the chance to track down that first season of Bob, you should take advantage of it. Since then, Bob Newhart has received acclaim for a dramatic guest appearance on E.R. and is probably most famous for younger viewers due to his role in the Will Farrell movie Elf. His legacy is assured. What Bob Newhart has accomplished would be the envy of even the most successful new comic to come along today. He had a style that was all his own and it will probably never be duplicated.