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Keeping It Buttoned

In spite of success in TV and film, Bob Newhart continues to hone his stand-up skills.



There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

"That's some catch, that Catch-22," he observed.

"It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.

-- Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Bob Newhart, the befuddled comic genius best remembered for his TV shows The Bob Newhart Show and, later, Newhart, proved he was sane. He got out. He looked around, realized that there was something missing in his humdrum life, so he changed everything.

The Jesuit-educated funnyman began his professional life as an accountant. He looks like an accountant. He is, on the surface, the picture of boring. His best-selling comedy album, The Buttoned-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, alludes to the most boring feature of the most boring shirts worn by those whose only sartorial goal is to not stand out too terribly much: a broadcloth mask hiding the many sins of day-to-day insanity. The vast majority of his work as a comedian and writer revolves around the premise laid down in Catch-22, the film in which Newhart starred as Major Major Major: Bob is the last sane man in a universe gone topsy-turvy. He wants to get out, but he can't. The crazies keep pulling him back in. And worst of all, the crazies misinterpret Newhart's sanity as a kind of wisdom, and they look to him for advice. Alas, nothing useful is ever forthcoming.

"Look at Bob Hartley," Newhart says of the psychologist he played on his original TV series. "He was incompetent. Not only was he incompetent, he should have had his license pulled years ago. He never helped anybody." In fact, according to Newhart, the advice his character gave to the cast of nutjobs that surrounded him only made matters worse.

Newhart was drafted in the 1950s and spent some time in the army before moving on to accounting and, later, comedy. And the experience clearly had a profound effect on his worldview.

"The military," he says, "is a place where, just like in big corporations, a person can quickly rise three or four levels above his competency. That's why, back when I was making comedy records, I came up with the character of the submarine commander. Here is a guy who is clearly in over his head."

"I'm still doing observations on this crazy planet we inhabit," Newhart says of his new material. "It's still all about the shock of recognition." He begins his days in the exact same way he has for the past 43 years, combing the newspapers, searching for traces of insanity. And he performs regularly, driven by the fear that if he doesn't use his comic skills, he will lose them. "There is an edge," he says, "and the only way to keep that edge is to perform live." But that's only part of the dilemma.

"When you become successful," Newhart cautions, "you become estranged from so much of your source material. I could do some joke about this limo company I use and how awful they are, but the audience would just stare at me, you know? A friend at the club I belong to once asked me why I didn't do a routine on wedding planners, after his daughter got married. I told him that most people don't have wedding planners."

So how does Bob Newhart stay in touch with his source material?

"Marlon Brando once said if you want to be an actor, watch Candid Camera. Forget the Actor's Studio, forget all the training, and just watch people. I think that's why so many comedians can make the transition from comedy into acting. Because that's what comedians do: They watch people." The rest is, according to Newhart, all up to the audience.

"Once you accept the premise that King Kong lived," Newhart says, referring to an old routine, "and that he was this giant ape, and once you accept that there is a brand-new guard whose very first night on the job just happens to be the night King Kong climbs the Empire State Building, then the comedy can happen. Once you accept that, anything can happen."

Bob Newhart will perform at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre Saturday, September 20th.

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