It’s easy to picture Bob Newhart as a mild-mannered caricature in a Cosby sweater, an enduring image of the curmudgeon and everyman he has played on his hit sitcoms “Newhart” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” Younger audiences have seen an interpolation of that character in movies including “Legally Blonde,” “Elf,” and “Horrible Bosses.”
What sometimes gets left behind is that Newhart, an Army veteran and onetime accountant, was a groundbreaking comedian in the 1960s. His collection of character monologues, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” was the first comedy album to hit number one on the Billboard chart. He grabbed the top two spots simultaneously when “The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back!” joined it there. And lurking in those old routines is a very dark sense of humor: See “Ledge Psychology,” in which a policeman tries to convince a suicidal person to jump off a building so as not to disappoint the crowd below.
At 83, Newhart still does a handful of live dates every year. He comes to the Wilbur Theatre on Saturday.
Q. How does one survive 52 years doing stand-up comedy?
A. [Laughs] Well, I don’t know if survive is the word. I just couldn’t imagine not doing it. You never go in saying, “Wow, this is going to be a piece of cake.” I guess that’s what makes you keep coming back: It’s that challenge, that next audience. It’s a risk. It reminds me of Christopher Walken in that scene — “Deer Hunter,” was it? That scene where he’s playing Russian roulette. It’s kind of the same thing. You hope the bullet isn’t in the chamber. And that’s when you pull the trigger and it just goes “click” and it doesn’t explode. You kind of go, “Whew.”
Q. You said in your autobiography that you had a dark sense of humor that you felt may have been hidden. I feel it might not have been hidden as deeply as you feel it might have been.
A. Yeah, it’s there. If you look for it, it’s there. When I first started out, I used to do a routine called the “Retirement Party”: Charlie Bedloe’s retiring after 50 years, and he’s drunk. He explains that’s the only way he could make it through the day with the lousy salary they were paying him. I got a letter from somebody, and they said they had just listened to the “Retirement Party” and they resented the fact I was making fun of Charlie. And I said, I’m not making fun of Charlie; I’m making fun of the corporation that made Charlie the way he is.
Q. In the old routines, there’s an indication of an increasing coarseness in American culture. People don’t care about each other’s feelings, or safety, or even their lives in “Ledge Psychology.”
A. Yeah. I love portraying the totally indifferent person. It was true in the “Grace L. Ferguson Airline (And Storm Door Company),” where someone says, what happens if we should have to ditch? He asks the pilot, and the pilot says, “It’s hard to say. Some go down like a rock and others will stay afloat for a couple minutes.” There is darkness. There is a dark side. But that’s kind of common among comedians. It’s our way of dealing with pain. You make fun of it and it’s like, oh-ho-ho, that doesn’t bother me.
Q. If you were to start today with your sketch style, you’d probably be in the “alternative” category.
A. I suppose. Well, you know, even back when the first album came out, Time magazine lumped us all together. Shelley Berman and myself, Mike [Nichols] and Elaine [May], Lenny [Bruce], and Jonathan Winters. They called us the sick comics. And I guess we were. It seems pretty tame now, but I guess the areas we were dealing with hadn’t been dealt with before in quite the same way they were being dealt with.
Q. There’s a certain amount of crude humor in “Horrible Bosses.” Isn’t that something you have a strong opinion against?
A. You know what happened? At first the profanity kind of turned me off. I had passed on movies that had the profanity. And then I thought to myself, you’re kind of being a hypocrite, because the guy who you think is the funniest guy who ever lived was Richard Pryor. And you laugh at him. So you’re kind of being a hypocrite. I still work clean [in my stand-up]. I may have been tempted along the way to work blue. It just never felt comfortable. And there’s a kind of satisfaction. Jerry Seinfeld and I have talked about it. Steven Wright and other people. You do a clean show and it’s over and the audience have enjoyed themselves and you’ve enjoyed yourself, and you haven’t had to resort to shock.
Q. What attracts you to a project these days?
A. It’s all in the writing. I have trouble watching television because the writing, it just isn’t what it was when you had people like Jim Brooks writing for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “Taxi” or “Cheers.” I think a lot of the writers are heavily influenced by “Saturday Night Live,” the young writers. You write yourself into a corner and then, well, I guess we’d better do something gross to get us out of here.
Q. You mentioned in your book that you feel like comedians never mature. Do you still feel that way?
A. No, I don’t think mature is the word. I think there’s a part, just a part of comedians, that is still childlike. They still question things. They still are very honest, and you go to a grown-up and they go, “That’s the way we do it.” To the child, it doesn’t make sense. So I’m not saying that comedians are immature; I’m just saying there’s a piece of us that remains a child.
Q. Do you think there’s something about military service that made for funny people at some point? George Carlin and Dick Gregory both served.
A. All comedians are, in a way, anarchists. Our job is to make fun of the existing world. We’re certainly anti-authoritarian, and the military is certainly the most authoritarian thing you’re probably ever going to run into in your life. And the waste is incredible. And I think there’s that antipathy immediately between a comedian and structure. We make fun of the status quo.
Q. Is there anything that you haven’t done that you’d like to?
A. The only thing I really haven’t done is Broadway, but I don’t think I’d be very good at it. Eight shows a week, being locked into the lines exactly. If I’m doing the submarine commander and then I say to myself, I haven’t done “King Kong” in a while, maybe I’ll do “King Kong.” I have that freedom. But I don’t want to give the impression it’s all the old routines, because it’s probably one or two I’ll wind up doing. The rest is just improvisational observations on this crazy world that seems to be getting crazier. We’re all kind of stuck on this planet, and we’d better laugh, because I don’t know any other way of getting through it.
Interview has been condensed and edited. Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at email@example.com.