Bob Newhart has entertained generation after generation throughout his five-decade career, bringing laughs to all walks of life as a stand-up comedian, sitcom star and big-screen comedic actor. Baby Boomers likely will remember him for his debut record, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, which was the first comedy release to receive the Grammy award for Album of the Year. Gen Xers likely remember his stints on beloved television programs The Bob Newhart Show and Newhart. Those Baby Boomers’ kids can likely recall watching reruns of those sitcoms when Nick at Nite rebroadcasted them throughout the 1990s, and millennials will recognize the iconic performer from his memorable roles in Elf and The Big Bang Theory.
Newhart started playing Las Vegas in the 1960s, when other icons such as the Rat Pack and Johnny Carson were playing Strip showrooms. The funnyman returns to town this week to do some stand-up at The Smith Center, and Vegas Seven simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk to the legend about his November 19 show, vintage Vegas and how comedy has evolved.
You’ll be in Las Vegas November 19 to do some stand-up at Reynolds Hall. What can the audience look forward to? Iconic bits? Commentary on current events?
I’ll probably do one or two of what people call the classic routines, because I know [for] a lot of people, that’s one of the reasons they show up. The rest of it is just commentary on this crazy planet that we all inhabit, and hopefully humor has a lot to do with our getting through it.
You’ve been playing Vegas for decades. What do you like to do while you’re here?
I haven’t been the last several years. I started at the Sahara in October of ’63, then I went to the Desert Inn when it was owned by Moe Dalitz, and then the Sands when Jack Entratter was running it. I was here when Hughes came in, [when he] bought the D.I. and then the Sands, the Frontier, Castaways, and anything else that was available.
You’re quite informed on Las Vegas Strip history.
It was kind of our life. When I was doing The Bob Newhart Show, we’d do three shows and then we’d take two weeks off. Usually [during those] two weeks, I’d go to Vegas. And then during the summertime, [I’d usually] play a month at the Sands or the D.I. or the Frontier, and bring the family up. It was like a second home. The kids saw the other side of the business, the [unglamorous] side of the business. A lot of our friends lived up there, [such as] Jerry Vale [and] Shecky [Greene]. It was a very small town at that time. Everybody knew everybody, and you all got together.
I remember one time I was in town, I think I was at the D.I., and Johnny Carson was at the Sahara. It was announced that day that Johnny’s wife was suing for divorce. Johnny called, he said, “Listen, when [your show is] over, would you mind coming over to my place?” He said, “I don’t want to be alone tonight.” My wife, Ginny, and I, and a friend of ours, Marie, we went to Johnny’s, and we just sat and talked. He kind of loosened up, he said, “You know, there were a lot of good times, along with the bad times.” It was a side of Johnny you didn’t see that much.
We stayed up until 6 in the morning, but that’s the way the town was. You’d do a show at midnight and it would break usually around 1:30 or quarter to 2, and the adrenaline was such that you’re still up. You had your pick, you know: “What do you want to do?” Well, I’ll catch Vic Damone in the lounge at the Riviera, or let’s catch [Don] Rickles at the Sahara, or Louie [Prima] and Keely [Smith]. It would be 4 or 5 in the morning before the adrenaline rush from your show had worn off, and then that was it. That was life, and it was great.
What are you expecting this time around? Will it be somewhat of a homecoming?
Yeah, I suppose it would be. A couple of years ago, I played the Stardust before they knocked it down. And then we went in to tape a thing; Rickles and I did a thing together.
There’s a Catholic church we used to go to. It’s just off the Strip, just past where the Wynn is now, and it [is now] surrounded by these huge buildings. When we would go in there, it was a little tiny Catholic church. It was an experience to see the way the town had changed.
You’re known for your deadpan, straight-man style of comedy. Did anything or anyone inspire your style, or is it really your raw personality?
I used to watch The Ed Sullivan Show religiously, and I would watch the comedians, not knowing I’d wind up being a stand-up. I watched them clinically. It was like, “Oh, I wonder why he chose that joke over that joke. Oh, I see what he did there.” I learned from them. Jack Benny, George Burns, Buddy Hackett, Alan King, Johnny Carson. I just learned from watching the Sullivan shows.
One day I made a record album, and I got a call [from] Ed Sullivan. He said, “Do you want to do six or eight Ed Sullivan shows this year?” It was one of those, “Well, you’ve come a long way, baby” [moments].
I think you might be the only comedian to ever win the Grammy for Best New Artist, which you received for that record. You’ve also been honored by countless other organizations with coveted awards. What’s been the most meaningful?
I [was] inducted into the Television Hall of Fame [in 1992], and that was really quite an honor, because you were joining the giants. You were joining Lucy [Ball], Johnny Carson [and Jackie] Gleason.
I was inducted the same year with Phil Donahue, Dick Clark [and] Agnes Nixon, who was the creator of All My Children. There were two posthumous awards—one was Mark Goodson from Goodson-Todman [Productions], the game-show innovators, and the other was Jack Webb [from] Dragnet. … We used to gather by the watercooler and we’d all talk about what [was on] Dragnet last night, and how great the story was. Then to be inducted into the [Television] Hall of Fame with Jack Webb, it kind of brought it all 360 degrees.
You’ve remained active as an actor, but it seems like you’re quite selective about the projects you choose. How do you make those decisions?
I don’t do one-camera comedy shows where there isn’t an audience. More and more shows are doing that, and to me it’s just very sterile. … There’s an adrenaline factor when there’s a live audience out there, you perform better—the writers write better, the actors act better and you improvise better.
The other thing was always the quality of the writing. I just always insisted on good writing. I’m pretty much just doing The Big Bang Theory [now].
Comedy has evolved throughout your five-decade career. How have you seen it change?
I always thought that Everybody Loves Raymond was a wonderful show. The cast was incredible, and the writing, again, was top-notch. In terms of the material that they were able to do, as opposed to us in the ’70s … we couldn’t have touched half [of] those subjects. The censor would’ve sent it back and said, “No, you can’t do that.” We were considered adventuresome because Emily [played by Suzanne Pleshette] and I, in The Bob Newhart Show, we slept in the same bed. As far as I know, no one had ever [done that], including The Dick Van Dyke Show, which preceded us by a couple of years—they had separate beds. The networks weren’t ready to admit that married people actually slept in the same bed.
There were themes on Everybody Loves Raymond we could never have come close to. That’s the biggest change in comedy, to me. It’s opened up so much, and I think networks are competing with cable, and there are words we could never use that are common. On Raymond, [Ray Romano would] say, “Holy crap.” There’s was no way we could ever say “Holy crap.”
It’s just broadened and opened up … which is what comedy always does. It always kind of breaks down the barriers. It’s healthy and it’s good.
An Evening with Bob Newhart November 19, 7:30 p.m., $29-$99, Reynolds Hall, thesmithcenter.com