Still going out on the road, the comedian uses mostly new material.
By FRAZIER MOORE
AP TELEVISION WRITER
NEW YORK -- Bob Newhart has some lessons for us about comedy.
Comedians are sadistic, he writes in his new book. Also self-absorbed, perverse, thin-skinned and prone to exhibit multiple personalities.
Newhart doesn't bother to excuse himself from these blanket pronouncements. But anyone who reads his charming memoir, "I Shouldn't Even Be Doing This [and Other Things That Strike Me as Funny]" (Hyperion), will come away only more sure of what they already knew: After nearly a half-century making us laugh, Newhart remains what set him apart from other comedians in the first place ... an ordinary man befuddled by the world around him. A guy like us. Just much shrewder and funnier.
Through the years, he has had a half-dozen TV series -- two of them highly successful, and one, "The Bob Newhart Show," a classic that granted his comic sensibility the perfect outlet: a discomfited psychologist with a loopy clientele.
He has also been in numerous films, including the hit "Elf" as the diminutive dad of adopted full-size son Will Ferrell. In a guest role on "Desperate Housewives" last season he played the sad-sack ex-husband of Teri Hatcher's dishy mom.
Still going strong
And at age 77 he continues as a standup with the same refreshing insight that, in his 20s, made this Chicago-born ex-accountant the hottest comedian in the land.
"I've always likened what I do to the man who is convinced that he is the last sane man on Earth," Newhart writes, "... the Paul Revere of psychotics running through the town and yelling 'This is crazy.' But no one pays attention to him."
Except Newhart has never, ever yelled. Also: His audience hangs on his every word.
He was launched into stardom with the 1960 release of "The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," an instant best-seller that won him the Grammy for record of the year.
Among the routines on that album, Newhart imagined the flak the Wright Brothers must have met with when marketing their invention: "It's going to cut our time to the coast," their salesman warns, "if we have to land every 105 feet."
Newhart could also embody a security guard at the Empire State Building who, his first night on the job, has to phone his supervisor to ask what to do about a giant ape: "I doubt very much if he signed the book downstairs."
And he was able to penetrate the pinched brain of a railroad dispatcher who does nothing to stop a head-on collision because he doesn't have the proper form: "I can't touch these levers until I get a D-07."
Newhart zeroed in on stupid rules, by-the-book policies and bureaucratic muck, as well as the rest of humanity's SOP: all those things we do that don't make sense.
A bit rebellious
"Being a comedian," he writes, "means you are antiauthority at heart." And not only was Newhart rebellious with the targets he chose, but also in his "button-down" delivery, itself a rebellion against the typical style of standup at the time: a rapid-fire, "take-my-wife-please" onslaught of jokes.
Funny, but Newhart doesn't fit the picture of a revolutionary. Not then. And not recently during an interview, this easygoing guy in gray slacks and blue blazer who looks like an affable retired accountant.
"I wasn't part of some comic cabal," Newhart cautions. "Mike [Nichols] and Elaine [May], Shelley [Berman], Lenny Bruce, Johnny Winters, Mort Sahl -- we didn't all get together and say, 'Let's change comedy and slow it down.' It was just our way of finding humor. The college kids would hear mother-in-law jokes and say, 'What the hell is a mother-in-law?' What we did reflected our lives and related to theirs."
It still does. On the road today, not only do Newhart's vintage routines click with audiences, his trusty formula for comedy continues to bear fruit.
"I always said I wasn't gonna do a 'doo-wop show,' recreating my 'wonderful hits from the '50s,"' he says. "On my show now I'll do one or two of the record pieces. But 90 percent of the act is new."
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