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Bob Newhart knows how to leave 'em laughing

Sunday, December 30, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bob Newhart couldn't have known there was a Nick at Nite or TV Land in his future, but he knew comedy was all about timing -- and being timeless.

"I remember when we were doing 'The Bob Newhart Show,' and they'd come up with a Gerald Ford tripping joke. And I'd say, guys, people are going to be watching this 20 years from now, and we're going to look kind of silly doing a Gerald Ford joke. We had to realize this was going to be around for a long time."

In fact, Bob, Emily, Howard, Jerry, Carol and cranky Mr. Carlin are still around, entertaining viewers through reruns and boxed sets with episodes from the landmark situation comedy. It was just one milestone in a long comedy career that shows no signs of flagging.

Newhart, who does about 20 concerts a year, is coming to Pittsburgh Friday night as headliner for the Pittsburgh Public Theater's annual celebrity fund-raiser. It's sold out.

Ask the performer which of his favorite routines he will include, and he can't predict.

"Well, I don't really decide that until I'm actually on stage in front of the audience. They kind of dictate what direction to go in. I can't quantify it in terms of how it happens, but there's a feeling you get about it -- if it's a driving-instructor audience or Sir Walter Raleigh audience or King Kong audience," he says, mentioning his famous one-way phone conversations.

That is the beauty of doing stand up. "You can just go somewhere. Something strikes you or somebody in the audience says something, and you just go. And that's the freedom that you love." It's a risk, but one with rewards.

In a recent phone interview, Newhart graciously talked about a range of subjects, including:

Whether the public's appetite for comedy has diminished: "I haven't found that at all. In fact, it's increased, nearly as I can tell from 9/11. I think you may have to change some of the areas you used to go into. For instance, I used to do a thing about flying, and you kind of drop that. It just reminds people of the tragedy."

Newhart, who canceled one concert when planes were grounded after the attacks, took the stage Sept. 17 in Atlantic City. He included a joke about how he didn't think the terrorists were too bright, since they didn't want to learn how to take off or land, just how to fly the plane. But it may have been too soon for audiences to laugh about that, he now reasons.

On whether he wishes there had been a Comedy Central or HBO when he was coming of age: "Looking back, it was the best of all worlds as far as I was concerned, the way it worked out. You had the Jack Paar show and you had Ed Sullivan, so you didn't have overexposure."

As a fledgling performer, Newhart didn't listen to other comedians. "I was afraid I'd hear something and then maybe six months later, I'd start doing it and not realize I heard it somewhere. You know what happens, you start writing something and it comes too easy and you just say, wait a minute, there's something wrong here."

But the good routines -- the nervous driving instructor, Abe Lincoln's PR man -- come quickly, too.

On the construction of comedy: Newhart still writes the old-fashioned way, on lined yellow legal pads. First, though, he may tape-record a bit so he doesn't lose it.

"What you learn to do is you build; it's like a tunnel, with a lot of exit doors. So you go to the first exit door and if it's still working, then you go to the next exit door, and if it's still working, you go to the third. And if it's not working, you get the hell out."

Sometimes, a single word can make the difference. "You may do a routine one night and it will work, and the next night you do it and it doesn't work. And you say, 'What happened?' And very often, it's just a word you changed."

On his TV viewing habits: He doesn't watch a great deal. "I have a purist kind of sense, and if I hear a laugh track," he clicks away. "It's too easy. You don't have to have a great joke. You can have a fair joke, and if you put a huge laugh on it, it sounds like it's funny. All my shows, I did in front of a live audience," as did the greats, such as "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners."

In fact, he thinks the term "situation comedy" should be reserved for one performed before an audience, not juiced by artificial yuks.

On soaring Seinfeldian salaries: "I say, 'Hooray for you.' Because they aren't going to pay that kind of money if it isn't doing what it's supposed to do, and obviously 'Seinfeld' did. The fact they were willing to offer him $5 million [an episode] obviously had some value, and I think the actors should participate. If you're doing something, you should be compensated."

On reinventing yourself on TV: Newhart, who reinvented himself a couple of times, says "television is a very funny medium" and "Seinfeld" worked because of the chemistry among its four stars. "You take some of those elements out, and it isn't the same. And that was true of 'Cheers,' " which made Kelsey Grammer a star and allowed him to shine in "Frasier" while other players faded from the scene.

"Television has its own peculiar rules. This year, you have some Academy Award winners not setting the [TV] world on fire. It doesn't automatically translate from one to the other. A lot of it's writing. ... If you don't have that, you don't have anything."

On whether Newhart will return to series TV: Although he is in early talks with CBS about a one-time special (the network was ecstatic over response to its Carol Burnett special), he doesn't envision another weekly show. "It's a different time, really. I don't want to go through what I went through with 'George & Leo,' where you run and look at the numbers every Tuesday.

"There's a time to say, thank you very much, it's been great, and I enjoyed it. I'm a little gun-shy. It's different themes that are being dealt with; it's another person's time and place."

He wasn't surprised that Burnett attracted almost 30 million viewers to CBS -- TV's fourth-biggest audience this season. "I think it said something about television, and I think it said something about a brand name. They knew what they were going to get. ... And there was a nostalgia and maybe a return to less complicated times, more serene times."

On the marriage of former co-stars Suzanne Pleshette and Tom Poston: "They're happy as clams. I don't know how happy clams are supposed to be. I've never seen a happy clam," but he knows they fit the phrase.

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