Mus­ings of a self-ef­fac­ing Ev­ery­man and star comic

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Be­fore he fi­nally set­tled on “I Shouldn’t Even Be Do­ing This!” Bob Ne­whart con­sid­ered and dis­re­garded five other ti­tles. His first choice was “A Slim­merYouinFiveWeeks,”which “the pub­lisher’s weak-kneed lawyers re­fused to ap­prove be­cause there were no diet tips in my book.”

So he tried “Find­ing Mr. Right,” which the lawyers also nixed, this time on the grounds that the book didn’t con­tain any dat­ing tips ei­ther. Next was “The Fat Lady in the Red Dress Wants a White Wine,” a line one of his sons had shouted when the Ne­whart kids were help­ing serve the grownups at a fam­ily party, but that bit the dust be­cause “as a ti­tle it sounded too much like a book by a bar­tender.”

Un­daunted, he toyed with and then re­jected “You Didn’t Let Me Fin­ish,” a clas­sic gag line he deemed “too Hol­ly­wood,” and the same fate be­fell “Which One Would You Like to Hear Again?” — a ques­tion he asked the en­core hun­gry au­di­ence af­ter his first stand-up per­for­mance be­cause he only had three rou­tines.

Fi­nally, hav­ing come close with one punch line, he chose an­other. It comes “. . . from a gag about a guy who is hav­ing an af­fair with his boss’s wife. They are mak­ing mad, pas­sion­ate love, and she says, ‘Kiss me! Kiss me!’ He looks at her very se­ri­ously and replies, ‘I shouldn’t even be do­ing this!’”

Once given that ex­pla­na­tion, the reader also has the tone, the tempo and a good idea of the con­tent. The ti­tle also sug­gests Ne­whart’s sig­na­ture pose, a ten­ta­tive stance from which he de­liv­ers his lines while ner­vously look­ing over his shoul­der as if he ex­pects some­one in author­ity to come on stage, pull him off and ask him why he isn’t up­stairs in Ac­count­ing.

That look, as much a trade­mark as his hero Jack Benny’s side­ways glance, sug­gests Bob Ne­whart still can’t un­der­stand how a life­time of per­form­ing rou­tines and telling jokes brought him, among many other hon­ors, the Mark Twain Prize for Amer­ica Hu­mor.

This slim book is ideal for read­ing at your leisure on a late win­ter af­ter­noon, and in ad­di­tion to the many laughs it is also rich in per­sonal in­for­ma­tion. Read­ers un­fa­mil­iar­withMr.Ne­whart’sear­ly­days will have great fun learn­ing about his em­ploy­ment his­tory be­fore and af­ter he de­cided to make a se­ri­ous ef­fort to get into show busi­ness. Two of my fa­vorites are his job as an ac­coun­tan­ta­t­a­com­pa­nyin­down­town Chicago and his stint at the Illi­nois State Com­pen­sa­tion Board.

In the first po­si­tion, Mr. Ne­whart had to rec­on­cile the cash drawer with the re­ceipts at the end of each day. “It was al­ways close, but it never bal­anced. At five o’clock sharp, ev­ery­body in the ac­count­ing de­part­ment would leave the of­fice. I would be the only one left, tear­ing my hair out over why petty cash was short by $1.48 cents. Usu­ally around eight o’clock, I’d find the dis­crep­ancy.”

Af­ter two weeks of this frus­tra­tion, Bob solved the prob­lem by per­son­ally mak­ing up the dif­fer­ence or pock­et­ing the small over­age. Dis­cov­er­ing this ac­tiv­ity, the boss told Mr. Ne­whart he was not fol­low­ing “sound ac­count­ing prin­ci­ples.”

In re­ply, he told the boss he was not cut out for ac­count­ing be­cause the Ne­whart method made “ab­so­lutely per­fect sense . . . Why would you pay me six dol­lars an hour to spend three or four hours find­ing a dol­lar-forty? It’s much eas­ier if I just make up the dif­fer­ence out of my own pocket be­cause I’ll get it back next week.”

Mr. Ne­whart took the job at the Com­pen­sa­tionBoard­be­cau­seit­was only for six weeks — if a show busi­nes­sop­por­tu­ni­ty­openeduphe­could leave­with­min­i­mu­min­con­ve­nience to his em­ployer. (“This elim­i­nated any of the B.S. of the guy who pro­fesses his long-term loy­alty to the com­pany, but re­ally just wants to make as much money as he can in three months so he can buy a con­vert­ible and move to Cal­i­for­nia.”)

Like most peo­ple who took the job, which in­volved help­ing peo­ple fill out the forms for un­em­ploy­ment com­pen­sa­tion,Bob­soon­fig­ured­out why­he­washired­foronlysixweeks: “I worked five days a week and earned sixty dol­lars, while the un­em­ployed were col­lect­ing fifty-five — and they only had to come in one dayaweek.Iad­mi­tit­took­sixweeks, but it fi­nally dawned on me that I was com­ing in four ex­tra days a week for a measly five bucks.”

But se­ri­ously, folks, those two anec­dotes go a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing Mr. Ne­whart’s ap­peal — and its longevity — be­cause they il­lus­trate his com­mon sense and his hon­esty (de­cency, if you pre­fer) which are at the heart of all of his rou­tines. In one way or an­other, the book, thin as it is, pro­vides ex­am­ple af­ter ex­am­ple of this re­al­ity.

The per­sonal his­tory is in­ter­est­ing too, es­pe­cially his re­count­ing of how he broke into show busi­ness. His first com­edy record album, “The But­ton-Down Mind of Bob Ne­whart,” shot right to the top at a time when he still had only three pol­ished rou­tines (see the sixth dis­carded book ti­tle).

Prior to record­ing the album — attheTide­land­sMo­torIn­ninHoustononFeb.10,1960—BobNe­whart had never per­formed be­fore a live au­di­ence. The album was an enor­mous suc­cess, sell­ing more than a mil­lion copies. Ac­cord­ing to Mr. Ne­whart, it out­sold ev­ery Bea­tles album made in the ’60s. The fol­lowup,“The­But­ton-DownMindStrikes Back,” sold more than 500,000 copies.

“Af­ter the album broke,” Mr. Ne­whart writes, “my price for per­form­ing­stand-up­sky­rock­et­ed­from ba­si­cally zero to $500 a week. I booked sev­eral dates at the new rate. Then I was of­fered an eye-pop­ping $2,000 a week to play Har­rah’s in­Lake Ta­hoe.Iwon­dered­whatthe catch was. Do they beat you up be­tween shows? Why in the world would they pay some­body $2,000 to tell jokes as the open­ing act for Peggy Lee?”

That last line is pure Ne­whart, part self-dep­re­ca­tion, part gen­uine sur­prise, but sur­prise not just that hecom­mand­ed­suchalarge­fee,but at the idea that at a time when school teach­ers were mak­ing $200 a week any­body would be paid ten times that “to tell jokes.”

Of course, this Ev­ery­man-NextDoor im­age could be noth­ing more than a mask, and the real Bob Ne­whart could be an in­suf­fer­able jerk. To find out, I asked the only per­son I knew per­son­ally whom I thought would know — Jerry the den­tist from the orig­i­nal “Bob Ne­whart Show,” a k a the tal­ented ac­tor-di­rec­tor Peter Bon­erz. (Full dis­clo­sure: Peter Bon­erz and I have been friends since col­lege.)

Mr. Bon­erz replied, “Bob Ne­whart is, from my per­spec­tive, a to­tally de­cent guy and a good guy, a Church-go­ing, fam­ily-ori­ented, meat-eat­ing Amer­i­can golfer. The only thing that dis­tin­guishes him from Mr. Av­er­age Amer­i­can is that he is a truly orig­i­nal comedic voice. One of his sev­eral unique fea­tures is that he is so to­tally ‘Amer­i­can.’ He has not de­rived his style from eth­nic roots or prior in­flu­ences, but seems to have made it up all by him­self for him­self. The fact that he is so much like ev­ery­body else made his au­di­ence as large as all out­doors.”

Good night, Bob. Good night, Emily. Thanks, Jerry.

John Greenya is a writer in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

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