It's been said that the only difference between Bob Newhart off stage from Bob Newhart on stage is the stage. Talking on the phone with Newhart, that would be an easy conclusion."It's just the way I am," says New hart from his home in California. "You can tell by now after we've talked for a few minutes that my stammer is natural. It's just the way I talk."
At 83, Newhart sounds little different from what he did in the early 1960s when he was the hottest young comedian on the circuit or the 1970s when he was the lead character on "The Bob Newhart Show," one of the most popular sitcoms of the decade. He's the unflappable everyman, who is so dry that you sometimes have to back up to recognize he was really joking. His 1960 debut comedy album "The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart" skewered the "Man Men" culture of the day and went on to become one of the few comedy albums to win Album of the Year at the Grammys.
"I never expected the reaction it would get," says Newhart. "It beat out Belafonte, the Sound of Music, Sinatra, Elvis ... I didn't know what was going on. I thought when I made the record that it might sell 10,000. People might come into a nightclub that had heard it. But it went insane. I was totally unprepared for that."
Newhart's comedy often relied on telephone calls in which the audience only heard one side of the conversation. The laughs often come from the audience members mentally filling in the blanks.
"When the audience is applauding they're really applauding themselves for figuring out the other end of the conversation," says Newhart. "Because what I'm saying isn't funny at all."
Newhart grew up in Chicago and says he was always a funny kid, but never "the guy who put the lampshade on his head trying to be the center of attention." Instead, he was the guy who made quips about that guy to the people standing by.
"But it's always been my way of looking at life," he says.
Newhart says he loved making people laugh long before he ever thought about making a living at it.
"It's a need I have to hear that. When I first heard it I thought, 'Wow. That's a nice feeling.' When I was in the service, I was stationed up there at Fort Lewis in Tacoma. I got out in '54 and six years later I was on the 'Ed Sullivan Show.' Having no idea at that time that I was ever gonna be a stand up comedian. That was the furthest thing from my mind."
He just returned from visiting his daughter and doing some shows in Seattle (which is near Tacoma) and it gave him pause to think about how far he'd come since leaving the area.
Newhart remains a comedian who is safe for the family, which is what he prefers, although he believes it is a little harder to be funny and stay in the G and PG realm.
"Nowadays comedy is always pushing the envelope. What were once sacred cows are no longer sacred cows. We took care of those a long time ago."
That said, he never found Richard Pryor, the man who helped redefine the boundaries of comedy, offensive.
"I find shock for shock's sake offensive and gratuitous," says Newhart. "I don't think Richard was ever gratuitous."
He says Pryor was like Mark Twain — relating stories about where he was from. And there are commonalities with most comedians.
"It's just a way of looking at life and defensively getting through life!" he says.
Newhart quotes author Nathaniel West: " ... The universe is against us. The only intelligent response is to laugh."
"You take something really important, like a nuclear bomb, and you trivialize it. They say, 'OK, I've dealt with that. I can move on.' I think that's what we do. I told somebody the other day, 'You know, if one more person falls off a subway platform Hallmark is going to come up with a card for it!' "
Newhart says he's probably always filing things away for routines.
"You're always observing. It's like a radar and you're not even aware of it. You're accumulating these things and, bang, you're on stage and they come out. You're never on vacation because you always have the antenna out for anything weird."
"That's what I love about stand-up as opposed to a television show or movie. A television show is much looser than a movie. You're really locked in there. But (in stand-up), you can just go wherever you want.
Even when Newhart was starring in his television shows (four since the beginning of his career), he's always performed stand-up. During "The Bob Newhart Show" in the 1970s, he warmed up the studio audience by performing before the filmings. He says stand-up is something he'll never stop.
"I guess I could quit, but I don't want to," says Newhart. "I did a thing out here last year in Carmel, Calif., and because it was near where I live my wife was able to join me and we were driving back in the car and I turned to her and said, 'Why would anyone want to stop doing that?' Why would you say, 'You know, I'm really tired of making people laugh'?"
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 2
Where: Tennessee Theatre
Tickets: $47, $152 for VIP pass,including pre-show reception and auctions, available at Knoxville Tickets outlets, 865-656-4444, www.knoxvilletickets.com
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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