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Stand-Up Comic Bob Newhart

Newhart has been a part of the American comedy landscape since 1961 comedy album The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart became a surprise hit. He's starred in three TV shows, including the Peabody-award winning The Bob Newhart Show. The first season of The Bob Newhart Show is now out on DVD.




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Other segments from the episode on April 29, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 29, 2005: Obituary for Percy Heath; Interview with Bob Newhart; Review of the film "The hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript

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Interview: Bob Newhart comments on his career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.

The first season of the "Bob Newhart Show," the classic CBS sitcom from 1972
to '78, has just come out on DVD. Newhart had another successful TV series,
playing a Vermont innkeeper on the 1982-to-'90 sitcom called "Newhart." In
his first and most-successful situation comedy, though, Newhart played Dr. Bob
Hartley, a psychologist with lots of funny patients and with a beautiful and
funny wife, played by Suzanne Pleshette. Here's a scene from the first
season, in which Bob is in session with one of his patients.

(Clips from "Bob Newhart Show")

Unidentified Woman: I just feel so helpless because he's keeping everything
to himself. It's like I wasn't even around. He hardly ever speaks to me,
just leaves and never even says where he's going. And then I even ask what
time he'll be home; he just shrugs and says, `I don't know.' Dr. Hartley,
I'm sure he has girlfriends, but he denies it.

Mr. BOB NEWHART ("The Bob Newhart Show"): (As Dr. Bob Hartley) Well, of
course, Todd's 13 now.

Unidentified Woman: I know he's growing up, but I just don't think he loves

Mr. NEWHART: Well, I'm sure he loves you. And one day, he'll be secure
enough to tell you. In the meantime, I'd just hold him a little more loosely.
You know, if you let sleeping dogs lie, they'll never bite. I didn't mean

BIANCULLI: Before coming to TV, Newhart made his mark as a stand-up comic.
His breakthrough album, "The Buttoned-Down Mind of Bob Newhart," made him a
star, even though Newhart himself complained to me once that listening to it
drove him crazy. Apparently, the producer of the album made the engineers
shorten all of Newhart's trademark pauses, which, to Newhart, ruined the
timing completely. Other than Newhart himself though, few people seemed to
notice or care. His "Buttoned-Down Mind" recording was the first comedy
album to top the record charts.

Terry Gross spoke to Bob Newhart in 1998.


Now you're Catholic, and when you were coming of age as a comic, I think a
lot of the comics were Jewish comics who were getting their start in the
Catskill Mountains, which was a largely Jewish resort area. And I'm wondering
if you ever felt that ethnic comics had a built-in constituency, i.e., people
of their ethnic group. Did you feel like you had that kind of, you know,
because there was no Borscht Belt for you.


GROSS: Did you play in the Borscht Belt at all?

Mr. NEWHART: No. I never have.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. NEWHART: The Catskills, no.

GROSS: Right. So did you feel like that...

Mr. NEWHART: I played the Poconos. But that's as close as I ever came to the

GROSS: Right. OK. Did you feel like you were missing out on something not
being identified as an ethnic comic?

Mr. NEWHART: Well, you know, humor, I think, at that time was very regional,
as I recall. It was--I remember Phil Foster doing routines about the Brooklyn
Dodgers. And then television came along, and you had to make your humor
continental; you couldn't make it regional anymore. It had to be--you had to
find ways of not making it regional is what I'm trying to say. I--after some
time I realized that a lot of my friends that--a lot of the comics were Jewish
that I know, and they would refer to their Jewishness. And then I began
referring to my Catholicism and what it's like to grow up as a Catholic and
began to realize how funny it is in many ways to grow up. It gives you a
chance to kind of stand back and look at it and find the humor in it.

GROSS: What did you find funny about your Catholic upbringing?

Mr. NEWHART: Well, for instance, I said what--the difference between
Catholics and other religions is, basically, we have confession and
non-Catholics don't understand how you go in this little dark room and tell
another human being, like, terrible things you've done during the week. But
if you're raised Catholic, there are certain tricks you learn about going to
confession, like you sit in the very last pew and you watch the two lines
move into the confessional, and whichever line moves the fastest, that's the
one you get in because that priest wants to get out of there. And I remember
the first time I did that, and it got a big reaction from the audience and I
realized, `Oh, I'm not the only one who did that.'

GROSS: You kind of treated it as if it was a long line at the supermarket
instead of the confessional. Can you remember for us what the venues...

Mr. NEWHART: You know, that's interesting...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. NEWHART: ...because it does suggest they might have a confessional of,
like, you know, 10 sins or less, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: The swift-moving line.

Mr. NEWHART: I just thought of that.

GROSS: That's good. You started doing stand-up during the era I've come to
think of as the `you dirty rat' era because every stand-up comic was compelled
to do impersonations of James Cagney. And they also were required to do
impersonations of Armstrong and Bogart, and you did some of those yourself.

Mr. NEWHART: I was never much of an impersonator. Comics kind of have an
ear for that sort of thing, but I was never real good at it. I found what was
interesting--and it certainly wasn't planned in any way, but the people I
mentioned--Mike and Elaine and Shelley Berman and myself and Johnny Winters,
Lenny Bruce--it was a different kind of comedy than had preceded it. What had
preceded it was material that could be stolen. In other words, `Take my wife
please' or...

GROSS: Jokes.

Mr. NEWHART: Jokes. I burn a hole in the coat--you know, `I like this
jacket. It's a beautiful jacket, I got eight pairs of pants with it, and with
my luck, I'll burn a hole in the coat.' You know, anybody could deliver that
line. It wasn't personalized at all. But without realizing it, 'cause I
certainly wasn't aware of it--it's only in hindsight that I'm aware of it--you
couldn't steal a Mike and Elaine routine or a Shelly Berman routine or a Bob
Newhart routine, Johnny Winters routine. They would say, `Oh, that sounds
like Johnny Winters.' And so it became--it was a shift in American comedy
that just happened. And I think why it happened was our audience was largely
college kids, and they didn't have mother-in-laws, so mother-in-law jokes
didn't mean anything to them.

GROSS: Thank goodness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: And so to that extent, the humor that was being done in
nightclubs was irrelevant to them. And so they would--and it was also very
expensive. Nightclubs had a cover charge, and it was very expensive to go to
a nightclub, and they didn't have the money, obviously. So they would buy a
record and get some pizza and some beer, and they'd all sit around and listen
to one of us, and that was their nightclub. And I think that's what happened.

GROSS: Right. And, I mean, you had an on-stage persona. Like you said, it
wasn't just jokes; it was a whole character that was telling these stories.

Mr. NEWHART: Exactly.

GROSS: Bob Newhart is my guest.

Let me ask you about the first sitcom that you did, the first "Newhart Show."
And you played a psychiatrist. It's common now to have stand-up comics with
their own sitcoms. In fact, it's almost obligatory. What was it like when
you were a stand-up comic having a sitcom built around you?

Mr. NEWHART: Well, it was paternalistic, really, because my manager--he and
Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker formed MTM Productions. And with the
success of Mary's show, he came to me and he said, `Would you like to do a
sitcom?' And I said, `Yeah, I would,' because it would keep me home, it would
keep me off the road and I could spend some time with the family, which was
very important. So we then went about trying to come up with a sitcom. We
started out with a--`OK, what occupation? First of all, he's married, right?
OK. He's married.' And I insisted on that we not have precocious children
because I hated that--those kind of shows, where the kids are always bailing
the dumb father out of some scrape he's gotten himself into--you know, `We
love you, Daddy. Daddy's an idiot, but we do love you'--and resolved I wasn't
going to do that kind of show.

And so then we started looking for occupations and sat down with Lorenzo Music
and Dave Davis, who I'd worked with before, who had been writers on "The Mary
Tyler Moore Show," and I knew Lorenzo from "The Smothers Brothers" show. And
he said, `Well, you know, Bob is--he's a listener. He's, like, a reactor. He
reacts to people. What occupation would lend itself to somebody who listens?'
And Dave says, `Well, how about a psychiatrist?' So they came to me and said,
`What about a psychiatrist?' I said, `Well, let's make him a psychologist
because I think a psychologist tends to deal with less severely disturbed
people.' And I didn't want to be making fun of severely disturbed people. I
didn't want to be making fun of people with multiple personalities or
schizophrenia or that stuff. So...

GROSS: Right. Suicidal depression, yeah. Right.

Mr. NEWHART: And...

GROSS: Just Mr. Carlin.

Mr. NEWHART: Yeah, Mr. Carlin actually was worse at the end of six years than
he was when he originally came to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: So he has a class-action suit against me, I figured, as do most
of my group.

BIANCULLI: Bob Newhart speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. We'll hear more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Bob Newhart. They were
talking about his first TV sitcom, "The Bob Newhart Show," season one of which
is now available on DVD.

GROSS: Now part of your persona in "The Newhart Show" was--he was this
straight-laced, middle-of-the-road guy who was kind of dull.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Right? How did the writers come up with that aspect of it? Lot
of--surrounded by a lot of nutty, eccentric people, but he was kind of dull.

Mr. NEWHART: Well, he--part of the success of "Newhart" was we tried to
isolate what made "The Bob Newhart Show" work. And what seemed to make part
of "The Bob Newhart Show," at least the working environment of "The Bob
Newhart Show," the psychologist's office, was you had to have a situation
where, no matter how outrageous, how--the statement was made by one of the
patients, you couldn't react to it. You couldn't say, `That's the craziest
thing I've ever heard, Mr. Carlin.' You know, you'd have to say--I remember
one time I said, `How did this week go?' He said, `It went very well.' He
said, `Oh, Saturday, I was possessed by the devil.' And I think my line was
`OK, you want to go with that, Mr. Carlin?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NEWHART: You know, I couldn't say, `You were what?' So we tried to find
those elements in "Newhart," and we found them in the guests. No matter how
unreasonable the guests were, you still had to kind of say, `Well, certainly
I'll send the maid up to the room right away.'

GROSS: Do you have a favorite episode from the first "Newhart" show?

Mr. NEWHART: I have several. I have--there's one that kind of summed up
comedy to me. It was a--I had an African-American insurance salesman came in,
and he was very tall and muscular, and he wore the jibuti(ph), and he had a
black Great Dane that he called Whitey. And he came to me and he said, `I
don't seem to be able to sell insurance policies.' And I said, `Well, it has
nothing to do with your personality. It's just that you kind of scare people,
you know.' And he said, `Well, thank you very much.' So then we leave my
office, and he said, `Is the men's room'--and I pointed out just down the
hall. And, well, then he let the Great Dane stay there. So with that, Jerry
comes out, and comes over to me and we started talking. And the black
gentleman comes back in, and he says, `Sit, Whitey.' And with that, Jerry sits
right on the reception desk, you know? And it was--it got a huge laugh. And
to me, it sums up what comedy does. It diffuses tensions in many areas. It
gives you distance, so that you can stand back and laugh at things.

GROSS: You know, the--your shows have been rerun a lot on Nick at Nite. And
I think there was a one, I don't know, 24- or 48-hour period when they did a
whole Bob-A-Thon. They were bringing on, I guess, a new series of yours--a
new-in-rerun series of yours. And to introduce it and celebrate it, there was
just hour after hour of continuous "Newhart" programs. What was that like for

Mr. NEWHART: Well, that's a tribute to the cast and to the writing that the
writing is still valid. And I had something to do with that. I said--I told
the writers, `Don't put in any Gerald Ford jokes, you know, because this is
going to be rerun and rerun and rerun, and we're going to look silly,' you
know, because I knew then that it would go into syndication and people would
be watching. And we tried to get away from being trendy...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. NEWHART: ...for that reason, and it holds up.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. NEWHART: The material holds up, which is largely attributed to the

GROSS: ...the lapels and the sideburns don't hold up.

Mr. NEWHART: That's the only thing, I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You wore a lot of plaid also.

Mr. NEWHART: Oh, yeah. Well, see, my...

GROSS: Now whose idea was all the plaid?

Mr. NEWHART: My dresser was color-blind, really.

GROSS: Are you kidding?

Mr. NEWHART: His name was Ralph, yeah. And he was such a nice guy, we
didn't want to say anything, but...

GROSS: Oh, that's so "Newhart."

Mr. NEWHART: My wife...

GROSS: It's like quintessential "Newhart."

Mr. NEWHART: My wife would come in, and I was ready to go out and I'm not
good with colors either. So she would say, `Oh, my God, you're kidding.' And
I said, `What?' She'd say, `Oh, take the jacket off. It doesn't even come
close to going with that shirt.'

GROSS: That's funny.

Mr. NEWHART: But, you know, of all careers to choose when you're color-blind,
I mean, wardrobe seems like the last one.

GROSS: Yeah, you'd think somebody might have said something about it at the
studio or...

Mr. NEWHART: I remember reading an article in the paper about a one-eyed
bullfight in--again, we get back to material coming out of the paper--a
one-eyed bullfighter in Spain, who was reapplying for a license to fight the
bulls. And it occurred to me then that if there's one occupation where you
really want to have two good eyes, I think bullfighting would be right up
toward the top, you know? I mean, of all professions to choose...

GROSS: When I think of the Newhart character in your shows from the '70s and
the '80s, I think of somebody who stammers a lot, not because he's unsure of
what he feels, but because he can't really afford to reveal what he really
feels 'cause it might be a little harsh or it might be a little too something.
So there's this constant kind of like stammering to just, you know, cover up
and to try to kind of package in a better way what it is that he's really
thinking or feeling. Does that work for you?

Mr. NEWHART: Well, that's interesting because the stammer's real. I didn't
invent the stammer. I remember in the first year of "Newhart," when we were
doing an episode--and it was running long. And one of the producers came up
to me and said, `Can you run some of the words together because we're--the
show is really spreading?' And I said, `Look, this stammer got me a home in
Beverly Hills, and I'm not about to change it now, so you'd better cut some
words out of this thing.' No, it isn't an affectation. It's the way I speak,
although I do use--I know what you're saying. It does help to get you over an
uncomfortable moment. I mean, I think that he's--I think of him as a nice
person who doesn't want to hurt anybody's feelings...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. NEWHART: ...but at the same time has difficulty saying, you know, what he

GROSS: Well, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you. I want to...

Mr. NEWHART: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: ...thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Bob Newhart speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. The first season
of his classic 1970s sitcom, "The Bob Newhart Show," is now out on DVD.

Coming up, a review of the new film "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."
This is FRESH AIR.

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Review: New movie "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," based on the imaginative ramblings of
Douglas Adams, arrived in theaters this weekend as a brand-new motion picture.
But it's already been represented in several other media, including print,
radio and television. Because of its broadcast origins, I was eager to check
out the latest incarnation.

The first appearance of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," in any form,
was in 1978 when the six-episode comedy was broadcast by BBC Radio in England.
In terms of science fiction and science reality, that was a long time ago.
"Star Wars," the original movie, the one that started it all, had come out
just the year before, which was why Douglas Adams' weird comedy about
intergalactic exploration was considered doable in the first place. There
were no personal computers then, much less the sort of hand-held encyclopedic
reference Adams imagined in the title of his story.

Today you can look at Adams' portable "Hitchhiker's Guide," with its helpful
animation and warm-sounding computer voice, and imagine a BlackBerry or some
other modern miracle of engineering. Back when Adams wrote his radio series,
though, one of the modern miracles, which he made fun of mercilessly, was the
digital watch. We've come a long way, baby, and so has "The Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy."

After its radio run, the story was adapted to the theater and then, in 1980,
as a novel, the first in a hugely successful series. A version of the story
was released on record albums; this was long before CDs. And National Public
Radio imported the original radio series and broadcast it in 1981. That same
year a six-part TV mini series was presented in England, starring Simon Jones,
David Dixon and, as the voice of the computerized hitchhiker's guide, Peter
Jones. It was seen in the USA shortly thereafter, and that's when I fell in
love with the story. It's available now, by the way, on DVD from BBC Video.

The TV version was a low-budget affair with lots of cheesy special effects,
but it also had a dry sense of humor that's shown through perfectly.
"Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" begins with the destruction of Earth, after
which we follow one of its only survivors, a quiet Englishman named Arthur
Dent, who has been rescued by a researcher doing field work updating entries
for the computerized guide to the galaxy. Here's how the guide and the TV
series sounded more than 20 years ago when Peter Jones provided the voice of
the soothing, informative hand-held computer.

(Soundbite of "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" from 1981)

Mr. PETER JONES ("Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"): "The Hitchhiker's Guide
to the Galaxy" is a wholly remarkable book. The introduction starts like
this: `Space,' it says, `is big. Really big. You just won't believe how
vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long
way down the street to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.
Listen'--and so on.

After a while the star settles down a bit, and it starts telling you things
you actually need to know, like the fact that the fabulously beautiful planet
Bethselamin is now so worried about the cumulative erosion caused by over 10
billion visiting tourists a year that any net imbalance between the amount you
eat and the amount you excrete whilst on the planet is surgically removed from
your body weight when you leave.

(Soundbite of man screaming)

Mr. JONES: So every time you go to the lavatory there, it is vitally
important to get a receipt.

BIANCULLI: Hollywood first approached Adams about turning "Hitchhiker's" into
a movie in 1979. He did enough work on it over the years that he's credited
with Karey Kirkpatrick as co-author of the screenplay, even though he died in
2001. The problem, as Adams often pointed out, is that it takes time to
destroy the Earth in the beginning of the movie, and that doesn't leave much
time for the rest of the story. That's why a TV mini series was ideal and why
I was so skeptical about this new movie version. Even though computerized
special effects and puppetry have progressed to the point where all of Adams'
crazy imaginings can be put on the screen, can they be put there in a coherent
and entertaining fashion? The answer, I'm both surprised and delighted to
report, is yes.

"Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," directed by Garth Jennings, ought to
please longtime Douglas Adams fans and make plenty of new ones. The movie
stars Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent, and it's a perfect bit of casting. He
played the polite porn star in "Love Actually" and the likeable paper
salesman, Tim, in the brilliant British version of "The Office." Mos Def
plays Ford Prefect, the alien researcher who saves Arthur from certain death.
Zooey Deschanel, the sister in "Almost Famous" and Will Ferrell's girlfriend
in "Elf," plays Trillian, one crew member of the spaceship that gives Arthur
and Ford a ride. And Sam Rockwell, in a delightful role that's equal parts
George W. Bush and Wayne Newton, plays another, the two-faced and two-headed
alien Zaphod Beeblebrox.

All these characters and performances are playful and delightful, and the fun
doesn't stop with them. One of my favorite characters, the superintelligent
and superdepressed robot named Marvin is a real stand-out here. In this new
movie version, he has the body of a metallic Charlie Brown: big-round head,
constant sad slouch. He also has the perfect voice provided by Alan Rickman.
In this scene, Marvin welcomes cosmic hitchhikers Arthur and Ford to their new
spaceship. Well, welcome may be too strong a word.

(Soundbite of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy")

Mr. ALAN RICKMAN: (As Marvin) Ghastly, isn't it? I've been ordered to take
you up to the bridge. Oh, please yourselves. Here I am bringing the
(unintelligible) of the planet, and they ask me to take you up to the bridge.
You call that job satisfaction? 'Cause I don't. You can thank the Sirius
Cybernetics Corporation for building robots with GPP.

Mr. MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Arthur Dent) What's GPP?

Mr. RICKMAN: (As Marvin) Genuine People Personalities. I'm a personality
prototype. You can tell, can't you?

BIANCULLI: "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," like Marvin, is a lot
smarter than most things around it.. In the area of science fiction
especially, you won't find many movies as clever or as amusing as this is.
And as a bonus, it also provides the answer to life, the universe and

(Soundbite of music)


BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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