Bob Newhart can make people laugh by talking into a fake telephone to nobody. Imagine being on the other end of a real phone connection with him.
Fifty years ago next month, the chart-topping album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart introduced a different style of standup comedy, in which the straight man — a purposely bland chap — delivered the punch lines. Newhart's signature was the one-way telephone conversation with absurd characters, with the audience eavesdropping in stitches.
A half-century, two classic TV sitcoms and assorted movie roles later, Newhart, 80, is still comedy royalty, considered one of the nicest guys in the business. His personal life is equally remarkable, without scandal but with insult king Don Rickles as a best friend.
Newhart and his wife Ginnie celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary two days after his Clearwater appearance, which seemed like a good conversation starter:
How does 46 years of marriage happen for anybody, especially show biz?
I really think laughter has a lot to do with it. A lot of comedians have long marriages: Don and Barbara Rickles are at 43 years. Jack Benny. George Burns. Bob Hope. There are just too many for it to be coincidence. You laugh and somehow those problems just go away. But you don't want to be funny all the time, you know. Some things have to be taken seriously (suggestive laugh).
You and Rickles make a really odd couple. How did that friendship begin?
Barbara and Ginnie knew each other long before Don and I got to know each other. We were in Vegas, and Don was playing at the Sahara. He had to do a 3 a.m. show, so Barbara invited us to eat a late dinner and go. On the way to the show, Ginnie says: "Oh, Don is so sweet, such a family man." I said: "Well, hon, his act is a little different than that."
They put us right in front, of course. Don comes out and the first thing he says is: "The stammering idiot from Chicago is in the audience with his hooker wife from Bayonne, N.J." Her jaw dropped and I said: "I tried to tell you."
What is a Bob Newhart standup act like these days?
I'll do one or two of the old album routines and the rest is just observational about this crazy world we all inhabit and are trying to survive. At the end, I show clips from the TV shows and our family life together. You could say it's a history of the Newharts in America.
What's it like revisiting your life, sometimes three times a week, in front of strangers?
Hmmm. I've never been asked that. The real feeling at the end is: What the hell happened? It all went by so fast. I have a daughter who's 32 now, with kids of her own. I'm sure that most people feel that way, that everything was only yesterday. Where did the time go?
You've always worked clean, but did you ever consider working "blue"?
There was a time, probably around Laugh-In. To survive in comedy, you have to be aware of changes and adapt. But I never felt comfortable with it, like some old sweater that just doesn't fit. I have nothing against profanity. I was in the Army, so I know what the words are. A lot of times they were directed at me.
But I've talked to people like Jerry Seinfeld and Jake Johannsen about it. We agreed that if people have a great time without resorting to (profanity), you feel good about yourself. That being said, I think (Richard) Pryor was the greatest influence on comedy in the last 50 years. Even when you take the dirty words away, the concepts are so rich.
I loved your '70s movies, Catch-22 and Cold Turkey. Today's kids love Elf and Legally Blonde 2. Why haven't you done more movies?
I'd like to say I'm picky about roles, but the truth is I haven't been offered that many. I may have turned down two or three in my career.
There was a Norm MacDonald movie, and also a Will Ferrell movie, the basketball movie he did (Semi-Pro). I just had a problem with the language. I haven't spent 50 years doing one thing to turn around and say: "Yeah, yeah, I'll do that." I just couldn't bring myself to do it.
That's called integrity.
Well, there has always been a little guy on my shoulder saying: "No, I don't think so." And a wife on the other shoulder saying: "No, I don't think so, either."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.