Still Alive: Bob Newhart

The return of the column where we celebrate the greats before it's too late!

Too often we only celebrate the lives of awesome people when they're newly dead. We're bringing back this column to celebrate, every month, the lives of awesome people while we still have them with us.

Imagine a comedy duo, but it's missing the funny guy. That's very much the tone of Bob Newhart's stand-up, where his dry, po-faced sense of humor is used to make him a straight man to often unseen comic foils. Newhart didn't invent this style - you can trace it back to early 1900s comedy routines dealing with the then-new telephone - but he did perfect it. And then he went on to help perfect the sitcom, including creating the best ending of any TV series in the history of television.

Bob Newhart has such a complete comic persona - his stammer, his polite befuddlement - that it's hard to believe he didn't start out as a performer. Newhart was an accountant (after getting drafted and serving in the Korean War, that is. Even old mild-mannered comedians have tougher backgrounds than our toughest tough guys in the 21st century) before becoming an advertising copywriter. Newhart and a friend would pass the time by having silly phone conversations; eventually they began taping them. It was a lark, but a lark that Newhart continued even after his buddy dropped out; he recorded his own half of imaginary weird phone conversations. 

He began sending these tapes to radio stations in the Chicago area, and one of the DJs forwarded a tape to the head of Warner Bros records, who signed the inexperienced copywriter to a record deal in 1959. Suddenly Newhart was out from behind his desk and doing nightclub sets in order to build material for a record, and that record - The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart - was an absolute smash, heading right to the top of the record charts, blowing past Elvis Presley. It was named the Album of the Year at the 1961 Grammys and Newhart became the only comic in Grammy history to be named Best New Artist.

Newhart recorded more records and became a staple on TV, guesting on Carson, Dean Martin, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and other variety shows. But his great contribution to comedy on TV wouldn't be his stand-up, it would be his two classic sitcoms. The first was The Bob Newhart Show, debuting in 1972, which ran six seasons. Newhart played a cracker-dry psychologist surrounded by wacky types at work and home; the show included him regularly doing his one-sided phone conversation schtick. The supporting cast of The Bob Newhart Show was incredible, and included talents like Marcia Wallace (lately best known as Mrs. Crabapple on The Simpsons), John Fiedler (the voice of Piglet!), the impeccably named Peter Bonerz and, of course, the golden-throated Suzanne Pleshette. 

After that show ran its course Newhart took a few years before returning to once again dominate the sitcom form. This time the show was just called Newhart, and this time Newhart played a Vermont inn-keeper. Somehow Newhart hasn't exactly become the nostalgia powerhouse other 80s sitcoms have, but I can't imagine why; the show featured super-popular characters like Tom Poston's George the handyman and backwoods trio Larry, Darryl and their other brother Darryl (featuring William Sanderson as Larry!). Like a lot of Newhart's material, Newhart was a gentle show, but always hilarious.

And it featured the finest ending of any TV series ever. The last episode of Newhart concludes with Bob waking up from a bad dream and waking up his wife - who it turns out is Suzanne Pleshette from The Bob Newhart Show. The entire run of Newhart was a dream psychologist Bob Hartley was having after eating too much sushi.

Newhart had a couple of other sitcoms since then, but none stuck. He's done some movie work - including the underrated The First Family, and some cameo stuff in movies like In & Out and Elf - but its his standup and the two amazing sitcoms that will be his great legacy. Bob Newhart's style is so unassuming you don't even realize he's doing some truly absurd material. Bob Newhart kept his accountant's look and mannerisms - especially that stammer that has become his trademark - but he uses them in the service of wonderfully weird comedic bits. 

He's the last guy you'd expect to get into a controversy, but it happened late last year. Bob Newhart was raised Catholic has maintained his faith throughout his life; last year it was announced he would be doing a show for Legatus, a Catholic group that is very explictly anti-gay. There was a brouhaha, and Newhart, 84, quietly backed out of the gig. Does Newhart, who is a member of the Catholic Motion Picture Guild, hold similar beliefs? Maybe, but the dude is 84 - let's see how progressive your beliefs seem to younger people when you reach that age. 

Despite all of his great TV work, Newhart only just received his first Emmy. Unfortunately it was for guest spots on The  Big Bang Theory, but it's better than nothing. But perhaps the greatest honor yet bestowed upon Bob Newhart is a life-sized statue in Chicago, depicting him as Bob Hartley, ready to talk to a patient - who could be you. 

Photo from Flickr user hazboy