What if Bob Newhart had never become a sitcom icon? What if he'd gone through his post-'60s career as just another standup comic, TV show guest star, occasional movie character actor?
How would he be remembered?
He should be remembered, not for his pleasant sitcoms, but for the brilliant comedy albums he made in the 1960s. His telephone technique had, as we saw last time, already been anticipated by Shelley Berman. But they were two very different performers. Berman came out of the Compass Theater-Second City tradition of improvisation, with its suggestions of, and empathy for, method acting.
Newhart didn't improvise. He had no great interest in Second City or the new "riffing" comics like Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce. In many ways he was a throwback to the old "monologists", who recited their material like a dramatic soliloquy. The telephone was an important prop for Newhart -- it limited the amount of direct contact he had to make with the audience.
Newhart used two basic situations -- the authority figure who turns out to be less than authoritative, and the cog in bureaucratic machinery. His famous "history" routines, where some mid-level exec type listens disbelievingly as a Great Figure describes some Great Innovation they've come up with, were sort of a combination of the two forms:
This is similar in approach:
The following is probably Newhart's second most famous routine, after "Abe Lincoln". The instructor is basically a helpless everyman, but thrust into the authority situation:
The previously posted "King Kong", with the new janitor desperately trying to learn official corporate policy on giant apes climbing the building, is one of my favorite Newhart bits. Another great
"little man" routine is this:
Newhart shows more Berman influence as we suffer along with the old accountant. But there's never as much pain as in a Berman bit -- Newhart will not allow the hurt to overwhelm the absurdity.
Although Woody Allen is the standup associated with the New Yorker, it was really Newhart who most brought that magazine's style of humorous "casual" to the nightclub stage. His routines are pretty much Robert Benchley stories reworked. Allen essentially combined the styles of Sahl, Berman, and Newhart- -- masochistically suffering more than the latter, but similarly never permitting the masochism to overpower his nebbish characterization.
If you're interested in exploring humor more thoroughly, check out my book What's So Funny? Theories Of Comedy, available at Amazon.