Talking to Bob Newhart on the phone is strange at first. You half-expect the comedian, whose stand-up act has long featured imaginary phone conversations about bizarre situations, to act like the Empire State Building security guard responding to King Kong’s arrival, or Abraham Lincoln’s press agent giving feedback about the Gettysburg Address.
Once that feeling passes, Newhart is simply the nice guy with the dry-as-dust wit whose persona has served him well for more than 50 years.
Newhart, 84, who performs at the Wilbur Theatre Friday, says that despite the shifting mores and trends since his mega-selling, Grammy-winning debut record, “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart” in 1960, his comedy’s purpose remains unchanged.
As an example, he describes a scene from a 1973 episode of “The Bob Newhart Show,” the CBS sitcom in which Newhart portrayed Bob Hartley, straight man psychologist to his eclectic patients. In the scene, a black insurance salesman visits Hartley’s office building with his dog, Whitey. Enter Jerry, a dentist in the next office. The salesman tells the dog, “Sit, Whitey.” Jerry, alarmed, sits. The audience goes nuts.
“It was one of the biggest laughs we’d ever done,” remembers Newhart. “I think it defused a lot of tensions that were around. That’s part of what comedy does, I think.”
Newhart’s name doesn’t usually come to mind when you consider comedians who have responded to turbulent times in society, but it makes sense on a smaller scale. All of his characters — Bob Hartley; the Empire State security guard; innkeeper Dick Loudon from his second sitcom, “Newhart” — are everymen overwhelmed by chaos, producing humor as a result.
Wilbur promoter Bill Blumenreich says Newhart has near-universal appeal.
“Most of our shows are aimed at a young crowd because they go out more often,” he says, “[and] Bob appeals to an older crowd who grew up watching him on TV. To our surprise, the younger crowd also wants to see Bob Newhart. He is that good, much funnier than most.”
Newhart says he was always funny, but he didn’t always have his sights set on comedy. He served in the military during the Korean War, and then had jobs as an advertising copy editor and an accountant. After leaving the latter job (“I didn’t have the patience for the dullness of it”), he tentatively tried stand-up, giving himself one year at a time to succeed while working part time and writing down the occasional funny idea.
“I looked in the [Chicago] Tribune in the part-time jobs section,” he says. “I would go past these huge, full-page ads: ‘Wanted, driving instructors.’ I wondered why there was this insatiable demand for driving instructors.”
So Newhart wrote a routine in which a driving teacher helps an accident-prone student. He recorded it and sent it to Warner Bros. Records. The company liked it so much, they put him in front of a nightclub audience and recorded a show that was released as “The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” the first comedy record to top the Billboard charts. The rest is hilariously deadpan history.
“It exploded,” says Newhart. “I was just at the right place at the right time. I have a theory: It was aimed at college people. Nightclubs became very expensive. They had cover charges, and they priced out the college kids at that time. Besides that, the humor [in clubs] wasn’t being directed at them, at their areas of concern, anything having to do with their life. It was mother-in-law jokes, ‘Take my wife, please.’ So [students] sort of set up their own nightclub, in their dorm.”
He adds, “I was totally unprepared for what followed.”
Newhart wasn’t very comfortable in his next role, the host of a variety show (also titled “The Bob Newhart Show”), which he left after one season.
“When I made the first album and I did those monologues, those had developed over several years,” he said. “I had to do a monologue every week [on the show]. Some were good, some were not very good.”
Newhart instead tried sitcoms, where he struck gold twice in a row with “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart.” He says the transition from stage to screen was somewhat uncharted territory in 1972.
“I was one of the first, if not the first stand-up to translate into television. If you’re somewhat well-known, people know what to expect,” says Newhart, pointing to “The Cosby Show” as an example. “When I heard about that, I thought, ‘It’s going to run forever.’ I knew it was going to be about his family and his kids. As a stand-up, you have your own timing, you know where the joke is.”
Newhart still knows. In addition to stand-up, he has recently appeared on the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” which has reminded him that he loves television, though the experience is different now.
“I realized that the rhythms are different today than I was used to,” he says. “‘Sit, Whitey’ took a minute to set up, if not longer. You don’t do that anymore. You have 10, 15 seconds.”
“Big Bang Theory” producer Chuck Lorre invited Newhart on the show every year, and every year Newhart politely declined, until last year.
“He came to me and said, ‘OK, I’m ready for my annual turndown,’” recalls Newhart. “I said, ‘Actually, Chuck, I still have my fastball, but I wasn’t getting a chance to throw it anywhere.’ I’ve since realized that it wasn’t my fastball, it was more of a changeup.”
Regardless of the pitch, his fans are just happy he’s still in the game.