For all of Bob Newhart’s work in television, it is astonishing to know that he had never won an Emmy Award until being bestowed with one last September for a series of guest spots on The Big Bang Theory. This would earn him a well-deserved standing ovation. Ever modest, Newhart quipped to Big Bang star Jim Parsons, “I don’t know if that’s a compliment or you’re just trying to rub it in.”
Yet perhaps the funniest thing Bob Newhart said did not appear on television or on one of his comedy albums. When ratings for The Bob Newhart Show began to decline in the late 1970s, the show’s producers approached him with some changes. The most significant of which was that Emily Hartley (played by the late Suzanne Pleshette) would become pregnant, making Newhart the newest in the long line of TV Dads.
He listened to these suggestions politely and offered this deadpan reply, “It’s very funny. Who are you going to get to play Bob?” With that, Newhart managed to convey his contempt for the producers’ scheme with aplomb and without a hint of anger. And of course it was absolutely funny.
Needless to say, when I learned that Newhart would be making a rare appearance in Boston, I knew I had to be there. After all, Newhart turns 85 in September and who knows how many more chances like this there will be. Clearly I was not alone in thinking this as there was nearly no seat to be had at the Wilbur Theater (except perhaps for the seat to my left).
Before making my way to the Wilbur, I went out for dinner and was debating whether to have Japanese or Chinese. After remembering Emily Hartley admonishing Bob for having Japanese food before going to bed in the last scene of Newhart, I opted for Chinese.
Newhart’s voice does not have the strength it once had, but that voice can still supply ample laughter. Because of his age, his stature, and the goodwill he has built over the past 50 plus years, Newhart is among the few white, male comedians who can get away with making ethnic jokes in 2014. For instance, he spoke of Vietnamese gangs in Los Angeles asking, “How can people in L.A. tell if their home has been robbed by a Vietnamese gang? The dog’s gone and someone has completed the math homework.”
There were some groans, but Newhart made no apologies and said political correctness was “dumb and stupid” and said so with conviction. Of course, some of this ethnic humor was aimed in his own direction. Newhart described himself as “three quarters Irish and one quarter German.” “In other words I’m a very meticulous drunk.”
Naturally some of Newhart’s humor was dated, particularly when he took aim at televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Oral Roberts. Most comedians stopped telling televangelist jokes 25 years ago. Tammy Faye and Roberts are long since dead. Nevertheless, Newhart drew one of the biggest laughs of the night when commenting about Roberts’ mentioning meeting Jesus in his third book. “You know if I had met Jesus, I’d mention that in my first book.”
Although it’s true that many of the stories Newhart told were decades old, some humor never ages. He spoke about how the late jazz pianist George Shearing’s plane made an unexpected landing in St. Louis. The pilot asked Shearing if he wanted to disembark and walk around the airport lobby. Shearing declined but asked if the pilot could walk his dog. Newhart did not even get to the punch line before the audience began breaking up. The punch line: “Nobody got back on that plane.”
Dated or not, old jokes are often the best jokes. This was evident when Newhart reprised what is arguably his most famous bit — The Driving Instructor. Newhart did ask the audience if anyone thought making a woman driver his foil was sexist. Most didn’t mind, but he offered to make the driver Chinese instead. After speaking a few lines of mock Chinese, he said, “Look, I can do eight more minutes of this or I can do this with a woman driver,” to much laughter.
From there, Newhart showed some “home movies” of his family dating back to 1776 all the way up to his success as a stand up comedian on Ed Sullivan and a hilarious skit with Dean Martin in which he told the Rat Pack alum that he wanted “a straight man that didn’t laugh.” Clips were also shown from The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart to the delight of the audience.
After this presentation, Newhart said goodnight and left the stage, but came back for an encore. I’ve never seen that with a comedian. One of the stories Newhart told during the encore concerned the parrot and the magician aboard a pirate ship. The parrot would always ruin the magician’s show by telling the crew how the magician did his tricks. Then one night a storm hit and the ship capsized. Somehow the parrot and magician survived by clinging to the same raft. After not exchanging a word for weeks, the parrot finally asked the magician, “O.K., how did you make the ship disappear?”
The jokes might be old, but people still want to hear these jokes. And let’s not forget the people hearing these jokes for the first time. But most important of all, we want to see Bob Newhart tell them while he still can.