Musings of a self-effacing Everyman and star comic
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.