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Bob Newhart Looks Back On A Career Of One-Sided Conversations


Amazing to think comedian Bob Newhart has been in television for more than 50 years. But his first Emmy - last year for a guest role on "The Big Bang Theory." He played a professor who hosted a geeky science show that was canceled long ago.


JOHNNY GALECKI: (As Leonard) If you would've told me when I was a kid that someday I would be doing science next to Prof. Proton, I would not have believed you.

BOB NEWHART: (As Prof. Proton) If someone had told me that people would still call me Prof. Proton when I was 83 years old, I never would have quit smoking.

GREENE: Bob Newhart has always embodied that dry, low-key comedy. His character never seems like the funniest person in the room. In the 1970s, he played psychologist Robert Hartley on "The Bob Newhart Show."


NEWHART: (As Robert Hartley) Yes, this is Dr. Hartley. What can I do for you? Well, Mr. Johnson, smiling and whistling while you work doesn't seem to be a problem you should - you should see a psychologist about. You drive a hearse?

GREENE: It is worth noting, I mean, that Dr. Robert Hartley never seemed to actually help anyone overtime.

NEWHART: He should've had, probably in his second year of the show, he should've had his license pulled.

GREENE: Thankfully he didn't, and "The Bob Newhart Show" lasted for six hilarious seasons. The complete series is out for the first time today on DVD - a good moment, we thought, to catch up with the 84-year-old comic to talk about his career. As a standup comic, he was famous for one-sided conversations. Here he's an air traffic controller talking to a passenger trying to land a jet.


NEWHART: (As air traffic controller) You never landed a big plane like this before? No, no, it's easy. You just disengage your automatic pilot. It's a lever over your head to the right. Not all the way to the right. You just emptied the washroom. Viper, could you hold on. I have an emergency call. Yeah, Pan Am, what is it? Yeah, that was 209 from Miami. It won't happen again. I guarantee it.

NEWHART: You hear the applause at the end of the routine, the people are actually applauding themselves. What I'm saying is not necessarily funny. It's what you don't hear that's funny, and the audience supplies that. It presumes a certain intelligence on the part of your audience, and I think they appreciate that.

GREENE: Your reaction to things seems like such an important part of Bob Newhart. I mean, the co-creator of "The Bob Newhart Show," Lorenzo Music, once said that you listened funny.

NEWHART: Well, the idea was - as we were working on the concept for "The Bob Newhart Show" - they were saying that Bob is a good listener based on the telephone routine. So let's find a profession where he is a listener. And they suggested a psychologist.


NEWHART: (As psychologist) All right, I'm going to be right here through the whole trip. And once we're up in the air, we can walk around and talk and share our feelings.

GREENE: In the first episode, you take your patients on a flight to address their fear of flying.


NEWHART: (As psychologist) Now, here's our stewardess. I'm sure she has some very reassuring words for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As stewardess) If the cabin pressure changes suddenly, the oxygen mask will drop in front of you.

GREENE: I read, Bob Newhart, that you yourself have some trepidation about flying.

NEWHART: It's more turbulence rather than flying that bothers me. I'm not in control. And I like to be in control.

GREENE: It's so interesting because your characters - it's so much feeling like a lack of control, reacting to the craziness around you.

NEWHART: Exactly.

GREENE: So you're pulling off something really interesting here.

NEWHART: I can get out of the business now because you've stumbled upon the secret of "The Bob Newhart Show" and standup. So this may be my parting shot. There is a difference between when I did "The Bob Newhart Show" and today. On "The Bob Newhart Show," Emily and I were taking an IQ test.

GREENE: And this is your wife on the show played by Suzanne Pleshette.

NEWHART: Suzanne Pleshette, yes. And it turns out her score was higher than my score, and I became somewhat petulant about it. And I said, well, Emily - I said, a perfect marriage is where the husband is one point above the wife. The second best is where the husband and wife have the same.


NEWHART: (As Dr. Robert Hartley) Third is where the wife is 151 and the husband is 129, which is a difference of...

SUZANNE PLESHETTE: (As Emily Hartley) 22.


GREENE: That's wonderful.

NEWHART: That - to set that up, probably took a minute and a half. I don't think you can take a minute and half anymore. There's a different rhythm to comedy.

GREENE: But his rhythm did remain popular for years after "The Bob Newhart Show" went off the air. In the '80s, he did another sitcom called "Newhart." He played an innkeeper in a small Vermont town filled with eccentrics.


WILLIAM SANDERSON: (As Larry) Hi, I'm Larry. This is my brother Darryl. That's my other brother Darryl.

GREENE: The show was best known for its final episode, dreamed up by Newhart's real wife Ginnie. She thought what if Dr. Robert Hartley woke up in his old bedroom from the original the original "Bob Newhart Show"?


PLESHETTE: (As Emily Hartley) All right, Bob? What is it?

NEWHART: (As Dr. Robert Hartley) I was an innkeeper in this crazy little town in Vermont.

PLESHETTE: (As Emily Hartley) No more Japanese food before you go to bed.

GREENE: And so the dream sequence, all your wife's idea?


GREENE: Makes me wonder if you're in that third kind of marriage where your wife has the higher IQ.

NEWHART: There's no question about it.

GREENE: You know, Bob Newhart, you have had a tremendous career in between all of those successes. Is there a failure that sort of sticks out for you?

NEWHART: No. No, I don't at all feel that way. I've lived in an incredible time. I lived in the days of Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin - incredibly rewarding times. And, oh, my God, I could never look upon my life as a failure. It's far beyond anything I ever thought I would attain.

GREENE: Bob Newhart. The full box set of "The Bob Newhart Show" is out today. Now, before we said goodbye, he noted something funny about our interview. It was a little chaotic. His phone kept ringing. Our producer's tape recorder ran out of juice. He didn't mind.

NEWHART: It kind of sums up my life, doesn't it?

GREENE: Why do you say that?

NEWHART: I'm surrounded by people, these crazy people, and I've been called the last sane man on earth. Just trying to get through life and phones keep going off and tape recorders run out of batteries, and it's somehow fitting.

GREENE: Well, it's an honor to be included in that crazy group surrounding you. So I appreciate that.

NEWHART: Thank you, David.

GREENE: All right, great talking to you. Thanks again.

NEWHART: Thank you.

GREENE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steven Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.