In light of the amazing amount of celebrity deaths taking place each week, I thought I would jump in and give my two-bit opinion on perhaps one of the most influential, yet alarmingly neglected, comedians still with us.
Now, let’s see how many of you know who I’m talking about before I get to the next paragraph. Recording his first comedy album in 1960, it went on to top the Billboard charts and won two Grammy’s. His second album swiftly followed, winning yet another Grammy, and for an eight month period, both albums occupied the number one and number two places in the charts – I think it’s fair to say this guy started his comedy life at the top!
Two hugely successful sitcoms later, more albums, and a handful of movies, his career has been an irresistible force for the last 60 years. Now in his eighties, and only appearing in the occasional episode of The Big Bang Theory (for which he bagged an Emmy), he is still relevant, still hilarious, and still one of my all time favourite funny people.
Any ideas? Ok, I’ll tell you. I’m talking about the great Bob Newhart.
It’s a name that might cause a few of us ‘limeys’ to scratch our heads in utter ignorance and start trawling IMDB for a reference point. You see, Newhart is an all-American comedian and not particularly well known outside of their borders – which is a total tragedy as his work has pretty much shaped the way modern situation comedy is built.
First off, you need to listen to those first three albums he cut. The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back! and Behind The Button-Down Mind. Whilst a few of the bits are a little dated and entrenched in their time (late 1950’s, early 1960’s), it’s clearly evident that Newhart was bringing something different to the mix. With a style on stage that felt conversational and stammered in the set-up; the delivery of each piece (usually started by a brief explanation, and embarked upon with his famous phrase “something like this…”), was nothing short of flawless and utterly mesmerising.
With such immediate success from the vinyl, and after a few years working the nightclub circuit, Bob looked towards television. The Bob Newhart Show was recorded in the seventies, and sealed his image as the amicable everyman with the deadpan delivery and apologetic tone. The show is, on occasion, very much an animal of its time and can be a little inaccessible for a modern audience, however, it remains warm, light-hearted and truly provided the template for so many after it – The Cosby Show, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Frasier, and more recently, Two and A Half Men, How I Met Your Mother, and ironically, The Big Bang Theory.
With that said, for me the real strides in his TV career were made during Bob’s second sitcom, Newhart. His earlier guise of a psychologist in Chicago was replaced and for the new show came a new Bob, that of an author who owns and operates a Vermont hotel.
With a perfect stage to play on, new challenges to overcome each week and a string of secondary and tertiary players that filled the gaps between memorable and inconsequential; the show ran for eight seasons, was hugely popular and caught the attention of a very young Paul Millard.
Only airing in the UK sporadically during the mid-1980’s, and not via any substantial series run you would expect by today’s standards, it found me in the twilight zone of being too young to remember everything, but certainly old enough for the wry humour to seep into my subconscious and linger. It was also around this time I was discovering those other American greats, Abbot and Costello, The Marx Brothers, Mel Brookes and Sid Caesar. For the record, and to ensure my British heritage is firmly established, this American invasion was built upon the foundations that Tony Hancock, Will Hay, Peter Sellers and the Ealing Comedies had already laid – all of which was gently influencing my own later attempts at comedic styling.
Newhart was wonderful in its simplicity. It didn’t act highbrow or folksy, overly staged or under performed. The material was consistent, mild mannered, easily reached and always funny. Its comfortable viewing and accessible cast delivered a sitcom you can wander into, and out of, without any feeling of unfamiliarity. Seinfeld and Friends owe a great deal to this method, and for my money became the leviathans of comedy they are, from the vantage point of Newhart’s shoulders.
I could go on, and in all fairness my wife will probably be subjected to back-to-back seasons of Newhart after this post hits the website – I can only assure her that it will be time well spent. For me, Bob Newhart is a gentle giant of comedy whose influence can be seen most evenings… all you need to do is switch on any sitcom post 1972 and sit back!
On a more sombre note, we have all recently been stung by the mortality of some comedy greats – Robin Williams, Joan Rivers and James Garner in particular. In the face of so many funny voices leaving us, I can’t help but feel the need to cherish those that are still here.
To this end I say thank you, Bob… for everything.
Paul Millard 2014
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