[16 November 2006]
“Humor is an affirmation of dignity, a declaration of man’s superiority to all that befalls him.”
In 1960, a virtually unknown 30-year-old bookkeeper for a Chicago paint company cut a record still considered to be one of the top ten comedy albums of all time. The opus was The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history. The comic, who made having an uptight mentality not only acceptable but popular, went on to have several television sitcoms and a successful nightclub career, be a regular guest on late night TV talk shows and appear in more than a dozen major motion pictures, most notably Catch-22.
In the autobiographical I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This!, Bob Newhart connects the creative dots between his private life and the personas of his comic routines. Newhart’s characters are ordinary guys—nice albeit inept, well intentioned but ineffectual and befuddled as they bumble their way through problems nobody ever told them they’d have, and constantly frustrated in their efforts to make things turn out right. Perhaps the most outstanding example of his situational humor is the classic routine, one of the earliest he wrote, entitled “The Cruise of the USS Codfish.” In it, the commander of a submarine addresses his prank-playing (read: disgruntled) crew and tries to put a positive spin on their disastrous tour of duty:
Golly, nobody enjoys a joke more than me, but I’d like the executive officer returned… Now, we’ve looked in the torpedo tubes, we’ve looked in your bags… It’s been more than two weeks, men. We’re just damn lucky it wasn’t the navigational officer or someone real important like that… Looking back on the mutiny, I think a lot of the trouble stemmed from the fact you men weren’t coming to me with your problems. As I told you, the door to my office is always open… I think you know why it’s always open. It was stolen. I’d like that returned. It looks like the work of same man… I’ve just been notified that we will be surfacing in a moment, and you will be gazing at the familiar skyline of either New York City or Buenos Aires.
Newhart can identify easily with the situationally challenged. He was a polite, well-raised little boy who went to parochial schools and Loyola University. Of his childhood, he remarks: “I always thought we were from an upper-middle-class family until I met an upper-middle-class family and realized we weren’t. The rich people were easy to spot because they all had suntans in wintertime. We didn’t have much money so we didn’t go to Florida. If we went on vacation, it was to Wisconsin.”
He did a stint in the military, dropped out of law school, and lived with his parents until he was 30 because his motley jobs in sales and bookkeeping didn’t pay enough for him to have his own place. He was not particularly successful at anything he did, although he developed a keen eye for the absurdity of modern life and the foibles of human nature. He started writing comedy skits as a hobby and performed them on local radio shows, all the while dreaming of making it big in entertainment (and finally being able to move out of his parents’ house.) By an only-in-America sort of success story fluke, his dream came true.
Newhart burst on to the comedy scene in the 1950s and ‘60s, a heyday for brash stand-up comedians. “Uncle Miltie” Berle amused his fans by wearing a dress. Sid Caesar would do anything, no matter how sophomoric and asinine, for a cheap laugh. Don Rickles perfected the art of insulting the audiences who paid his bills. Angry young man Lenny Bruce scorched listeners’ ears with streams of obscenities and rants on hitherto taboo themes such as race, religion and drug use. Mort Sahl turned his scathing wit on the political scene of the day. Jackie Mason built his career on politically incorrect Jewish humor. Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor unequivocally delineated the realities of being black in America.
Newhart, however, stood out from the crowd of other funny men. In an era of edgy, in-your-face, let-it-all-hang-out, no-holds-barred humor, he created a niche for himself as the inverted nipple of comedy.
He was quiet… very quiet. He stammered—a lifelong personal problem he used to great advantage in the entertainment world. He was civil and well mannered…or tried his damnedest to be so. It was obvious, in every skit, that his character’s mom and dad (as well as his own in real life) had raised him right. He didn’t raise his voice or get ugly. He did get testy, but the worst he ever said was, “Same to you, fella!” He probably wanted to say a whole lot more, but he just wasn’t that kind of guy. Maybe he went home and yelled at the wife and the kids, and kicked the dog. Probably not. He was too damn nice to do that… but he did think about doing those things, and then felt horrible for even doing that.
His jokes were deadpan and subtle—so subtle, sometimes, that you could miss them if you weren’t paying attention. He portrayed white bread, white collar, repressed, oppressed, slightly peevish and flummoxed men with a flair never seen before and not replicated since by any other comedian. He was the manager who couldn’t get his point across in meetings. Forget phone conversations. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t communicate—and his characters desperately wanted to. This sense of disconnection pervades almost all his work as a recurring theme and touches upon the greatest angst of the modern era: does anyone hear us and understand us? Does anyone care? He was Everyman fumbling his way through modern society, interpersonal relationships and bureaucratic red tape, and he played it brilliantly.
After the success of his first album and a decade’s worth of experience in stand-up comedy, Newhart translated his trademark on-stage persona into a TV sitcom showcase. In The Bob Newhart Show, which ran from 1972 to 1978, he played a squirrely psychologist who had almost as many complexes as his flaky patients. He exhibited no outward emotions to emotion-evoking events and offered long-winded analogies that made no sense to desperate people casting around for a lifeline. Supported by a splendid ensemble cast including Suzanne Pleshette, Bill Daily, Peter Bonerz, and Marcia Wallace, among others, it is probably the vehicle that the midlife crowd of Baby Boomers remember him from, appearing after The Mary Tyler Moore Show on the Saturday evening TV schedule. A later second sitcom in the ‘80s, entitled Newhart, basically placed him in similar comedic set-ups, except in this go-round as a how-to writer running a Vermont inn. It also featured a fine supporting cast of actors and was well received for its eight year run.
Although lacking the acerbic bite, anger and cynicism of other stand-up comics of his era, Newhart was a social critic as well as a funny man. His humor was insightful but never cutting, and while nothing was a sacred cow, he demonstrated a gently ironic respect for the people he spoofed. His low-key, laid-back approach allowed him to pass safely under the radar, something that cannot be said for many of his contemporaries in the field during the mid to late 20th century who were the targets of Middle American public outrage and occasional police intervention for their verbal excesses and lapses in good taste. Without offending a soul, he poked barbed fun at the corporate world, ad agencies and PR men, the tobacco industry, historical figures, people in authority, pundits, and gurus, and pop culture icons. He was, in short, a subversive with an enviable societal cloaking device.
One of Newhart’s favorite ploys was to cast well-known personages in incongruous situations. In Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue, a publicity agent trumps the president in how to make his points in the Gettysburg address: “Abe, do the speech the way Charlie wrote it!” A corporate guy tells the founder of baseball, Abner Doubleday, that his sports brainstorm will never catch on because it requires too many players. Similarly, Orville and Wilbur Wright get the bad news from a slick salesman that their flying machine isn’t going to ‘fly’ with the public. When King Kong’s huge hairy toes come through an Empire State Building window, a newbie night watchman finds himself helpless to do anything because intrusion by a giant ape isn’t covered in the official guard’s manual. In another sketch, Superman is helpless and Metropolis is in peril because the dry cleaner lost our hero’s cape and tights.
The remarkable thing about Newhart’s comedy is its underlying complexity that is only apparent on closer scrutiny. It manages to encompass dual and conflicting POVs within the framework of a monologue in a way that makes us empathize with both parties. We certainly understand Honest Abe’s desire to communicate, well, honestly, but we also can identify with the publicity agent’s plight—the poor schmuck’s just trying to keep his job. The dry cleaner is having as bad a day—or worse—than Superman. Baseball is a damn confusing game at best, and plenty of smart folks back in the day thought the Wrights were out of their mind to invent such a crazy contraption. Though we sympathize with the woebegone USS Codfish commander, we suspect the crew’s ill will may well be justifiable.
The bottom line in all these monologues is inescapable: the system doesn’t really work in anybody’s best interests. Ultimately, Newhart’s forte is as an equal opportunity humorist. He points no fingers in anger or blame or condemnation—we are all guilty as charged. We all are absurd and ridiculous and silly, and if we dare to laugh, we should laugh at the whole human race, not just certain specific target individuals.
I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This is a book as amusing, idiosyncratic and wry as its author. It’s liberally sprinkled with samplings of his stand-up comedy sketches (which many Generation X and Y members may not be familiar with) and personal anecdotes that shed light on the creative process and the private life behind the famous name. You won’t find any big, juicy scandals here—the worst thing Newhart mentions is a couple of comedians stealing his material (although a little peevish about it initially, he did forgive them, of course.) He’s been married to the same woman for years and is a family man whose major vices are playing golf on Sundays and enjoying a good glass (or two or three) of Scotch. Gotta love him.
Oh, and if you want to know the meaning of the book’s title, you’re going to have to read the book. I’m not going to give that away. It’s too crazy.