BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
“I last played here 18 years ago,” Bob Newhart told the reporters at a Toronto press conference in 1978 when he announced his return to stand-up comedy. “I think the act went over well because, as you can see, they invited me back.”
It was the kind of dead-panned wisecrack one would have expected from Dr. Bob Hartley, the stammering psychologist Newhart played for six years on television from 1972 onwards. That’s where his press conference shtick began and ended, however. Like many comedians, Newhart saved his best jokes for his stage and screen performances.
He had pulled the plug on The Bob Newhart Show, he told the reporters, because he thought his type of low-key humour was losing popularity, and he wanted to call it quits while he was still ahead.
“Much of today’s television humour is more fast-paced,” he said. “The Monty Python style of non-commentary humour, zaniness and absurdity has affected society. People don’t want to listen to messages any more. They just want to be entertained.”
Newhart felt The Bob Newhart Show would not have sustained its popularity had it continued on television for a few more years. “I didn’t want to take a chance on the show getting less successful. It would be terrible to limp off after so many good years.” He had tried to end the series a year earlier, because the ratings were starting to drop. Plus, he was disappointed that the show, at the height of its popularity, had never been nominated for an Emmy Award. But Newhart was contracted by CBS to do one more season in 1977-78, and so this sophisticated situation comedy, which had been highly praised by Time magazine and TV Guide notwithstanding the show’s lack of Emmy recognition, had one last hurrah in prime time before fading to black.
Newhart had no regrets about The Bob Newhart Show going off the air. The show had been based on character and situations, not on easy laughs, and there no longer seemed to be a big market for that kind of humour. As one of the Newhart show’s writers, David Davis, put it, “we were selling class and charm and wit.” Judging by the new comedy shows then emerging, Newhart said there seemed to be an exodus away from television by the more intelligent viewers. “Have you seen the new Ted Knight Show?” he asked. “Mindless and derivative.”
Asked what he planned to do next, Newhart said he would still be appearing on the small screen from time to time. He had completed negotiations with CBS to do one comedy special a year, and was on standby to replace Johnny Carson whenever the Tonight Show host went on one of his extended vacations.
Newhart also planned to do more stand-up comedy. But he wouldn’t be reprising the familiar one-sided telephone conversation with which he had first made his name as a a comedian in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The harried driving instructors, army sergeants and suicidal help-line callers had been retired from active service. In their place, Newhart would be using comic routines drawn from his daily interactions with ordinary people, and from the stories he was reading in the newspapers.
He picked up a newspaper and pointed to a story about a threatened strike by Air Canada pilots. “Have you read this?” he asked the reporters. “What’s the difference between first and second-class seats anyhow? If they guaranteed that the first-class passengers would be saved when the plane goes down, then I could see it. But what’s the difference?” He smiled as he considered the humorous possibilities.
I asked him if he would ever consider doing another sitcom. “Not right now,” he said. “But you never say never. In a few years time, people might be ready again for my kind of humour.”
By 1982, it seemed the people were ready again. Newhart returned to television with a new sitcom, titled simply Newhart. It ran for eight seasons and closed with an episode that cleverly reintroduced actress Suzanne Pleshette, who had played Newhart’s wife in the first series. It was followed in 1992 by Bob, a show that never caught on and was cancelled after the start of its second season. Newhart joked on the Tonight Show that he had now used up all the variations on his name, so his next show would be called simply The. In 1997, he returned for one more shot at sitcom glory with a show, George and Leo, that died during its first season.
In 2005, with reality television dominating the airwaves, Newhart told The New York Times he regretted the loss of air time for new scripted shows. Aside from leaving writers in the lurch, reality shows like Big Brother and Survivor were taking over the time slots previously reserved for both new scripts and reruns of old favourites, a development Newhart called “television eating its young.”
But even with the range of options becoming more and more limited, the veteran comic was still in demand as a sitcom actor. In 2013, at age 84, Newhart guest-starred in three episodes of The Big Bang Theory playing a down-on-his-luck former children’s TV science-show host named Professor Proton. For one of the episodes, Newhart finally won his first Primetime Emmy Award. He wept as he accepted the trophy. “This is my seventh shot at this,” he said. “For the longest time, I felt that the kind of stuff I do just doesn’t win awards.”
He continues to perform. This past week, according to his Facebook page, Newhart was scheduled to do his stand-up routine at a concert hall in Anchorage, Alaska.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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