The 83rd General Meeting Opening Remarks
Comedy and Television Legend Bob Newhart
The following presentation was delivered at the 83rd General Meeting Monday morning session, May 12, by legendary television actor and comedian Bob Newhart. It has been edited for content and phrasing.
Bob Newhart has enjoyed not only a long career, he has punctuated that career with countless successes: the winner of a prestigious Peabody Award; an Emmy; not one, but two long-running, highly-successful television series; membership in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame; a comedy album that is considered to be one of the best over the past 40 years; grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses Parade; and a movie career that has seen him cast alongside such motion picture greats as Steve McQueen, Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau, Debbie Reynolds, Peter Ustinov, and Gene Wilder.
More recently our speaker co-starred with Will Ferrell in the movie Elf, and alongside Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blond 2. He has also starred several times on the current No. 1 hit comedy series The Big Bang Theory. When you think of comedians, our speaker is right up there with the legendary top funny men of all time, including his good friend Don Rickles. During a career spanning over 50 years, he has played to sold-out comedy concerts, nightclubs and on theater stages all over the world. As testament to his popularity, he received a standing ovation from a star-studded audience during the 2013 Emmy Awards Show. That audience included some of the entertainment industry's most celebrated actors and actresses.
Thank you for inviting me. I am 84-years-old and I still travel around the country. I love it because I get to meet real people. I live in Los Angeles in Hollywood, and Hollywood is weird. It is. I am from Chicago originally. That's my home town. It's great to get out of LA. I do about 20 dates a year and get away. I love LA, I love the weather and everything about it, but the lifestyle is different. In Chicago someone would say, “Do you want to go to a Cubs game?” And, in the Midwest, and I'm sure all over the country, you keep track of things by the age of your kids. You say, “Well, gee, the last time I went to a Cubs game, Tim was 12,” and that's how you kept track of it. But in LA, they say, “Do you want to go to a Dodgers game?” And you say, “Gee, I think I was still married to Elaine the last time I went to a Dodgers game.” My wife and I are married 51 years this year. She was the leveling influence in our marriage.
The question I am most often asked is if I was really an accountant, and I really was. I wasn't cut out for accounting. I have a degree from Loyola University in Chicago, and I worked as an accountant for about two and a half years, but it never really made sense to me. One of my duties was petty cash. The salesmen who came in off the road would give you a bill for gas or a motel or something, and you give him cash, and then you get a receipt, and then at the end of the day you have to balance the receipts against what's left in the petty cash drawer. And they never balanced – at least in my case it never balanced. Everyone left at five, and I was still there. Sometimes I would be there until 8:30 trying to figure out what was wrong. And I got tired of staying late. So if it was two dollars under, I would take two bucks and I would put it into petty cash. But then the next day if it was over four bucks, I would take the four bucks out. And the head of the accounting department, Mr. Hutchinson, said, “Bob, those are not sound accounting principles.” And I said, “Well, you are paying me six bucks an hour. Sometimes it takes me four or five hours to find two dollars, so it doesn't make sense.” Needless to say, I left accounting.
People had always said, “You have a sense of humor and you are funny. You really ought to try it.” So I left accounting. I knew I wasn't cut out for it, and I decided that I was going to take a year and give comedy a chance. To me it was a road never taken. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life wondering what would have happened. And a year turned into two years, and then two years turned into three years. There was always something hanging in front of me, there was always a possibility.
I had a syndicated radio show with a friend of mine, Ed Gallagher. We were in three markets. We were in North Hampton, Massachusetts; Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Jacksonville, Florida. And at the end of the 13 weeks, two stations paid us and one of the stations stiffed us. Two stations wanted to renew, and we said, “Well, thank you, but we can't afford to do this anymore.” We were losing money. It would cost us more in tape than we were getting from it. But it was a great opportunity for me to write and perform. Ed was married and he had kids, and he was offered a job in New York, so I was on my own after that.
I had a disk jockey friend in Chicago named Dan Sorkin, and I would get an idea and I would scribble it down. Record people from Warner Brothers were coming through, and they stopped by to see Dan, and he told them about me. He said, “Listen, I have this friend of mine and I think he's funny.” And they said, “Have him put some stuff down on tape and we’ll listen to it,” because comedy records were starting to make a little noise.
So Dan called me up, and I borrowed a tape recorder. I had three routines: the driving instructor, Abe Lincoln, and the submarine commander. So I put those three on tape and they listened to them and they said, “Okay, we will give you a recording contract and we will record you at your next nightclub,” and I said, “Well, we’ve got a problem, because I have never played a nightclub.” It took about a year for anyone to take a chance on a guy who had never played a nightclub before. But a club in Houston, Texas, the Tidelands, took a chance on me. This was January 1960, 54 years ago. I walked out on stage absolutely terrified, but one of the first things you learn in stand-up is that you have to look like you know what you are doing. If the audience senses you don't know what you are doing, you are dead meat.
With all the bravado I could summon, I went out and did my three routines. And we recorded the album two weeks later. I thought it might sell maybe 25,000 copies and I would go into a town and maybe two people would have heard of me and come in to see me. It was an album called The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, and it went crazy. Millions of albums were sold and I was totally unprepared for it. It was 1960 and it was the Album of the Year. It beat out Belafonte and The Sound of Music. It beat out Elvis and Sinatra. Sinatra had an album, Nice 'n' Easy I think it was. Frank wasn't crazy about the fact that a comedy album beat his album.
It didn't take much to set Frank off, but he was one of the most generous men in the business. I did a show one time with Frank, a salute to Frank called Mr. Anonymous, because he donated a lot of money to people and his name was never, never mentioned. They told a story about Frank. He was doing The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and he decided to have his shoes shined, and they had a shoe shine stand at NBC. Frank got his shoes shined, and he was getting ready to go in and do the show, he asked the shoe-shiner, “What's the biggest tip you ever got?” And the guy said, “A hundred dollars, Mr. Sinatra.” So Frank took out two hundred dollars and gave it to him. Frank said, “Now that's the biggest tip you ever got. Just out of curiosity, who gave you the hundred dollars?” And the shoe shiner said, “You did, Mr. Sinatra.”
I did a movie called Hell is for Heroes. I called it a light-hearted look at World War II. It was a story of a small squad of men – and I think it was a true story – they pulled a division out, and this squad of men had to make it sound like they were still a division to throw the Germans off because they knew their lines were being attacked. And it was Bobby Darin, Fess Parker, Harry Guardino, me. Then they added Steve McQueen to it. And it became kind of a different movie. It wasn't quite the light-hearted look at World War II that I thought it was going to be. A Steve McQueen movie is a ‘man against the system’ kind of movie. In the meantime, my album sold a lot, so my money in nightclubs had doubled or tripled, so I kept trying to get killed in the war movie. I kept going to the director, Don Siegel, and said, “When that tank comes over, I could trip and fall in front of it.” He said, “No, no. You are in it for the rest of the movie.”
After the record came out, I did the Jack Paar show, and it was my first television appearance. This again was 1960. On the Paar show, you went out and they had a mark on the stage, and you walked out to the mark and did your routine. And then you'd just wait and look over at Jack, and Jack would either signal if you had scored or bombed. And if he went like this [hand signal], it meant that you had scored. And so I finished my routine, and it seemed like an eternity, I looked over at Jack, and he signaled that I had scored. Whew!
I also did a lot of Ed Sullivan shows. You never knew what Ed was going to say. I was on his show once just before Memorial Day, and at the end of the show, he said, “Monday is Veterans Day. We have in our audience some of the veterans from the paraplegic ward at Walter Reed Army Hospital. Fellows, would you stand up?” You never knew what he was going to say.
I did Johnny Carson's show a number of times. Letterman and Jay Leno are great, and Jimmy Fallon, but there will never be another Carson. He was just something else. Johnny and I were good friends, and before a Carson show, you always met with one of the writers and you went over things you were going to talk about, and they were on the notes that Johnny had right in front of him. And they said, “What do you want to talk about, Bob?” I said, “Well, Rickles and I went on vacation and I’ve got a story about Rickles on vacation.” So I go out there, and Johnny says, “Did you ever go skeet shooting?” Now, I had nothing on skeet shooting. He just loved to see the expression on my face.
I was on his show and when I was through with my slot, and I moved down the chair, and an actress came on and she finished and moved down the chair, and now I'm down at the end. This is when the show came from New York and he used to have an author on the last 20 minutes of the show. So I'm down at the end with Ed, and there is a clock. And so Johnny is talking to the author, and this guy is a particularly dull author, and you could tell by Johnny's expression. So he'd looked at the clock, and I motioned to Ed to take the clock and move it back five minutes. So Johnny would be talking to the author and he would look over at the clock. That was my way of getting back at Johnny.
The idea for my TV show Newhart came when I was here in Seattle. My wife and I were at the Paramount. I was there for a week and we were staying in a small Hilton. She and I were in the cafeteria having lunch, and people would come in – guests and employees – and I thought, that's really not that dissimilar from The Bob Newhart Show. So I called up my manager, because I knew I was coming back to television, because I love television. You have a normal life working in TV. You go in at ten o'clock in the morning and you are through at five in the afternoon. I was on the road a lot, married, and I had three kids. I wanted to be home. So I called up my manager, Arthur Price, and I told him I was ready to go back on television. He asked me not to tell anyone, and he called up Bud Grant, who was president of CBS Entertainment, and told him that he might be able to talk me into coming back on television.
I gave him this idea for a show taking place in a hotel, and we could do all the rain jokes about Seattle. And a writer friend said, “Why don't we make it an inn in Vermont?” He said there were a lot of true stories about the northeast, such as the town meetings and that kind of thing. And I agreed. So he went off, he researched it, and he wrote this story about owning an inn in Vermont, and he sent me the script. And I circled it for about a week. I kept going around it because I wondered what if it wasn’t as good as The Bob Newhart Show.
Finally after about a week I started reading it, and it turned out it was good, it was a very good script. So we did the show. And one of the very first episodes we had a witch that was buried in the basement of the inn. This made Joanna very nervous, and she said we had to get rid of the witch. So I looked at the Yellow Pages in Vermont, and there was a firm called "Anything for a Buck," and I called them up. And this was Larry, Darryl, and Darryl. I said, “We have a problem here at the inn and we would like it taken care of.” And he said, “We’re pretty busy. We couldn't probably get to it until a week from Thursday.” And I said, “No, we need this problem taken care of right away.” He said, “Just out of curiosity, what's the problem?” When I told him we had a witch buried in our basement, Larry said, “We’ll be right over.” So they came in, and that's the first time I ever heard, “Hi, I'm Larry. This is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl.” That was my introduction to Larry, Darryl, and Darryl.
That show went on for eight years, and then we did the final episode where I wake up in bed with Suzanne and we talk about this dream I had that I owned an inn in Vermont. It's been called one of the best final episodes of a show.
Question and Answer:
MEETING ATTENDEE: Could you describe your relationship with Don Rickles?
MR. NEWHART: How did I know that was coming up? He's remarkable, he really is. When I was dating my wife, she was dating an agent, and his secretary was Barbara Sklar, who later married Don Rickles. So they became good friends. I was in Vegas, and I was in the main room and Don was working in the lounge at the Sahara. We saw that Don was in town, so Ginny said she wanted to get together with Don and Barbara, because she hadn’t seen Barbara since they got married. So we went over to Don's show, which was at three o'clock in the morning, weird times, and we went over and we had dinner. Don was talking to Ginny, my wife, I'm talking to Barbara, and now the dinner is over, and we are going in to see Don's 3:30 am show. As we are walking in, my wife says, “He's just the dearest man. He is such a family man. He hates to be away from his family.” I said, “Honey, his act is a little different than the guy you just met.”
So we go in to see the show and they put us right in front. And Don comes out and says, “Oh, this stammering idiot from Chicago is in the audience along with his hooker wife from Bayonne, New Jersey.” I looked at my wife’s face and she dropped her jaw. I said, “I tried to tell you, I tried to tell you.” We are dear friends, and he just turned 88 and is still working and is still as funny as ever. And everybody should have the dear friends that we have in the Rickles.
MEETING ATTENDEE: Did you enjoy working on The Big Bang Theory?
MR. NEWHART: Oh, yes. Chuck Lorre and I were friends and he was after me for a long time to do the show. I was never a big fan of Two and a Half Men, so he came to me last year and he said he was ready for his annual turn-down. And I told him that I thought his show The Big Bang Theory, was very well written with a marvelous cast and that I’d like to do the show, but it had to be done in front of a live audience, because that's the only way I know how to do a show. A lot of shows are done to a laugh track, and I just don't know how to do that kind of show. And I said, I would like to make it three appearances. So I did my third appearance just a week ago Thursday, and I die in it. But they tell me I'm coming back as Obi Wan. So whenever Jim Parsons (Sheldon) has a problem, he apparently will go to me to see if I can help him out. So I'm looking forward to it. It's a joy to be on it.
MEETING ATTENDEE: What was it like working with Will Ferrell in Elf?
MR. NEWHART: Will didn't get the credit he deserves for that. That very easily could have been a movie about a guy who is not bright and just doesn't get the fact that he’s different from the elves – like an American twit – but Will pulled it off. He's great to work with.
MEETING ATTENDEE: First off, Bob, I want to thank you for all the years that you have been a great entertainer. I have watched a lot, and I appreciate it.
MR. NEWHART: That is not a plant, I promise you. I didn't plan that.
MEETING ATTENDEE: I wanted to ask you how it was to be on NCIS. It was a different role for you.
MR. NEWHART: Yes, it was. Again, I hate to sound Pollyannaish, but I have been very fortunate in working with some of the great people on television, and Mark is one of those people. And, yes, it was a departure. I got the Emmy last September – I think it was 2013. I had actually been nominated six times up till then. Three were for The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart and three were for dramatic shows. I did an ER, I did an NCIS, and The Librarian, which I guess the Academy is trying to tell me to please stay in drama and don't do comedy anymore.
MEETING ATTENDEE: I was a loyal Bob Newhart guy, but my question is, do you feel like television is going in a good direction or a bad direction?
MR. NEWHART: Well, television has been so good to me, that I don't like to downgrade it. Television comedies always are pushing the barriers and always pushing over sacred cows. They just came out with a box set of the six years of The Bob Newhart Show, and it's doing very well, and I think one of the reasons why is that people want to go back to those times when the world seemed to make sense. And I'm sure the world will start making sense again. Thank you all very much. I have had a wonderful time.