Bob Newhart: Laughing Through Life

This month I wanted to honor one of our most beloved television comedians: Bob Newhart. Next week we’ll spend some time learning more about The Bob Newhart Show.

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Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in 1929 in Oak Park, IL. He grew up in a typical midwestern family where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply company, and his mom was a housewife. As a young boy, he always wanted to be called Bob. He had a Catholic education and went on to Loyola University of Chicago in 1947. Graduating in 1952 with a business degree, he was soon drafted into the US Army in the Korean war where he stayed until 1954. He considered getting a law degree and went back to Loyola. He decided not to pursue that; some sources site that he was asked to behave unethically during an internship which led him down a different career path.

He worked as an accountant and as an unemployment office clerk. In 1958 he was hired as a copywriter for Fred Niles who was a television producer in Chicago. It was while working here that Newhart and a colleague began entertaining each other by making telephone calls about absurd scenarios. They sent these to radio stations as audition tapes. A radio station disc jockey Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to a Warner Brothers Records executive who signed him in 1959 based on those recordings. Bob then began creating stand-up routines which he performed at nightclubs.

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He released an album in 1960 which changed his life. Titled, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the comedy album made number one on the Billboard charts, and he won a Grammy for best new artist. A follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was released soon thereafter. He would continue releasing comedy albums in 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973.

During a 2005 interview for American Masters on public television, Bob stated that his favorite routine was Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue which was on his first album. A promoter for Abraham Lincoln has to deal with his reluctance to boost his image. A tv director named Bill Daily suggested the routine to him. Daily would be known later as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show (as well as Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie).

The success of that first album led to a variety show titled The Bob Newhart Show. It only lasted a year, but it did receive both an Emmy nomination and a Peabody award. Apparently, he didn’t enjoy his time during the show so much. Halfway through the season he wanted to quit, but his agent explained that being under contract meant that was not possible. At a later date, he referred to his first show, saying “It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a pink slip from NBC. All in the same year.”

He began making the rounds on television shows, appearing on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show 8 times. He guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times. When discussing his appearances on Johnny’s show, he stated “I remember once when I emceed The Tonight Show in New York, I arrived with my manager’s son. After a while, they asked, ‘When are the rest of your people coming?’ I had to say, ‘This is it.’”

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In 1962 Newhart accepted his first movie role, Hell is for Heroes, starring Steve McQueen. He would continue to do movie roles throughout his career including the Christmas classic Elf, but the small screen would make him famous.

In 1963 Buddy Hackett introduced Bob to Virginia Quinn, whose father was character actor Bill Quinn. They wed in January of 1963 and 57 years later are still happily married.

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For the next decade, he continued to accept movie and television roles. In 1972, television history was made when The Bob Newhart Show debuted. Until 1978, Newhart played Bob Hartley, psychologist, and we got to know his unusual patients, quirky co-workers, and eccentric friends, including neighbor Howard Borden. Bob chose a psychologist based partly on his old telephone routines. As he said, “Much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic.”

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In 1982, Bob gave television another go for another eight years. Simply titled Newhart, the show featured Bob as Dick Loudon, an innkeeper and author from Vermont. He still had quirky co-workers and eccentric friends.

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On cue a decade later in 1992, Bob showed up in a new show even more simply titled, Bob as Bob McKay a comic book writer and artist who had retired long ago and was trying to get back into the workplace. Unfortunately, after 33 episodes the show was canceled due to low ratings.

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In 1997, Newhart starred in his last sitcom, George and Leo. As George Stoody, a bookstore owner, Newhart offers a temporary home to a full-time magician and part-time criminal who recently robbed a Mafia-owned casino. The series failed to catch on with viewers, and it was canceled after a season as well.

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Though he never took on another sitcom, Newhart has made appearances with recurring characters in several shows. In 2003, he showed up on ER as Ben Hollander. In 2005, he was Morty on Desperate Housewives. As Judson, he guest starred on The Librarians.

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Perhaps, younger audiences know him best as Arthur Jeffries or Professor Proton on The Big Bang Theory. He had been Sheldon’s boyhood hero who played the professor on television. Sheldon idolized the professor while the professor tolerated Sheldon.

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It’s hard to believe with all of his years being a successful television comedian, but Newhart won his first Emmy in 2013 for his role of Professor Proton. I can’t argue with the nominees for most of the 1970s during the airing of The Bob Newhart Show–names like Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Alan Alda, and Hal Linden. Even with my bias of Norman Lear shows, I get nominating Carroll O’Connor every single one of those years. I understand the tough competition. What I don’t understand is the fact that he was never nominated during that eight-year period. When Jack Albertson wins, and Bob Newhart is not even nominated that is wrong. During the Newhart years, he was at least nominated three times. But I don’t understand it when John Ritter wins for Three’s Company or Richard Mulligan for Soap and no nomination for Bob Newhart. What especially appalls me is the fact that The Bob Newhart Show was only nominated one year; I can accept the fact that it got beat out by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I cannot accept is that during this same time, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, and Welcome Back Kotter received nominations, and The Bob Newhart Show did not. Anyway, this blog is not about the television academy and its procedures, so let’s move on.

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Even though he was never awarded with an Emmy for his time as Bob Hartley, TV Land placed a life-sized statue of Newhart in front of Navy Pier, complete with an empty couch. He was best friends with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the show, and spoke at her funeral. He remembered their time together, “Her laugh. Her laugh. We just laughed. We just had a great time. We all loved each other and respected each other and we got paid for it.” Bob also remains close friends with Marcia Wallace who played his receptionist Carol on the show.

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While Bob has appeared as different characters throughout his career, he has also remained the same character. With his deadpan delivery and slight stammer, he perfected the straight-man role, surrounding himself with wacky castmates. He has often cited George Gobel and Bob and Ray as influences in his comedy career. When discussing his career choice, he explained “I like the humor to come out of character. When you’re going for a joke, you’re stuck out there if it doesn’t work. There’s nowhere to go. You’ve done the drum role and the cymbal clash and you’re out on the end of the plank.”

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In 2006, he released a book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. It’s a memoir with some of his classic comedy routines. Actor David Hyde Pierce reported that “the only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”

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I am so appreciative of those stars who agree to entertain us for our entire life, such as Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Bob Newhart. They are classic comedians who can make us laugh no matter what. Bob’s view on comedy was that “laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” What an amazing career and what an amazing man. With all its negatives and sometimes destructive tendencies, television can be a harmful place, but a comedian like Bob Newhart demonstrates what a positive and uplifting experience television can be when done right. Thanks for doing it right for sixty years.

This Panelist Gets My “Blank” Endorsement: Brett Somers

I had so much fun learning about Fannie Flagg, that I decided to tackle getting to know some of the other regular Match Game panelists. Today we meet Brett Somers.  For someone who has fewer than ten acting credits for any given decade, Brett Somers became a well-known star. She became a household name after appearing on Match Game. Let’s learn a bit more about her life.

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Brett was born in July of 1924, and her real name was Audrey Dawn Johnston. While she was born in Canada, she was raised in Maine and spent much of her life in New England. She left home at 18 to pursue an acting career. She chose her stage name for the character “Brett” in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and her mother’s maiden name of “Somers.” She settled in Greenwich Village, married Robert Klein, and had a daughter. She was not married long before they divorced.

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Brett joined the Actors Studio in 1952. She married Jack Klugman in 1953; they would have two sons. In the 1950s, Brett’s television appearances  were all on drama series such as Robert Montgomery Presents and The Kraft Theatre. In the 1960s she appeared primarily on westerns and legal dramas, including The New Breed, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Defenders. In the 1970s, she showed up on a lot of sitcoms. She was in Love American Style, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Odd Couple with her husband Klugman to name a few. On The Odd Couple, she played the role of Blanche, Oscar’s ex-wife.

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In addition to The Odd Couple, Brett had recurring roles on The New Perry Mason Show and Battlestar Gallactica.

Brett had her Broadway debut in Maybe Tuesday in 1957, which closed after five performances. She would appear onstage in Happy Ending, The Seven Year Itch, and The County Girl. She also appeared in three movies: Bus Riley’s Back in Town and A Rage to Live, both from 1965 and in Bone from 1972.

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Despite her many television series appearancs, she is best known for her role as a panelist on the various versions of Match Game, amassing 1591 episodes overall. Some viewers compared the show to a cocktail party with money given away. What’s surprising, given her popularity on the show, is that she was not originally part of the cast. Klugman appeared on the first week of the show in 1973, and he suggested they try Somers. They did, and she never left. Her dry sense of humor and great wit provided her a job for nine years.

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Match Game can be seen on The Game Show Network. The concept of the show was easy and fun. Two contestants were each given two questions with a blank in them, such as “The surgeon said, ‘The man I’m operating on must be a magician. When I reached in to pull out his appendix, I got a ___________ instead!’” Six celebrity panelists wrote down their answer to the question and then the contestant got a point for each person who matched their answer.

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Brett and pal Charles Nelson Reilly, who often referred to her as “Susan,” kept each other in stitches and provided entertainment for the other panelists. In a September 12,  2012, Whitney McIntosh (in the blog ”This was Television”) referred to them as “rambunctious school children left to their own devices” which captures their relationship on the show perfectly. Their banter and quick quips kept viewers tuning in. For example, on one show, someone had mentioned that one of the younger panelists had a nice body. Charles turned to Brett remarking that her body was just as beautiful as the other woman’s.  The audience clapped, and Brett had just finished saying thank-you, when Charles added, “But you should take yours back because you’re putting a lot of wrinkles in it.” No one laughed harder than Brett.

In a Playbill interview in July of 2003, Andrews Gans asked Brett why she thought Match Game was still so popular. Somers paused and then answered, “Because of the fact that there was no structure to it. It was just six people having a good time and teasing one another. There was never any meanness. And people really sensed when Charles [Nelson Reilly] would jerk his head and go, ‘She seems a little odd today’ — they knew there was no meanness in it. And, Gene was the greatest straight man who ever lived. He would ask you the questions and would set it up for you. He was wonderful. And I think the relaxation of the atmosphere.”

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After Brett died, Marcia Wallace, on of her best friends, discussed Brett’s career on Match Game. “She was my best friend. I made a lot of friends there. She and Charles were the heart and soul of the show. Their relationship just was magic. And then, of course, I think there was no better host in the world ever than Gene Rayburn. He was funny, he was sassy, he was naughty, he kept the game going, he made the contestants feel good, he set up the celebrities. He was perfect.”

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Not long after Somers started with Match Game, she and Klugman separated. Three years later, in 1977, they divorced but remained friends. Although I read in many reports they never divorced, and many sites listed them as separated but never divorced. I believe California documents exist to show they did divorce a few years after their separation.

In 2003, Somers wrote, co-produced, and acted in a critically acclaimed one-woman cabaret show, An Evening with Brett Somers. Somers wrote the show with Mark Cherry, and he accompanied her on the piano and served as the director and arranger.

Brett shared her thoughts on doing a cabaret show–“It never occurred to me in a million years that I’d be doing a cabaret show. I was standing backstage, and I thought, ‘You’re an older person. You should be lying down somewhere in a nice cool bed watching TV!’ And I went out there, and I just had a great time.”

In 2004, Somers was diagnosed with stomach and colon cancer, but she continued to perform in the show. Brett had a period of remission but passed away in 2007 at her home in Connecticut.

In 2005, Somers reunited with Jack Klugman onstage in Danger, People at Large, three short comedies presented at Fairfield University. It was the first time in three decades that the former couple had performed together.

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In my blog on Fannie Flagg a few weeks ago, I found her reflection on her friendship with Brett and Charles:

 Besides being hilarious, Brett and Charles were two of the smartest people I have ever known. On Match Game, they got such a big kick out of each other! They razzed one another and everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they really liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.

One of the happiest times in my life was in 1980 when I was doing “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, and Charles, Brett, and I were staying at the Wyndham Hotel at the same time. Every day at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon they would come to my room for cocktails. Many is the time I would come home from after the show and they would still be sitting there having a good time. The only thing that changed was the position of Charles’ toupee.
In the Gans interview, he asked Brett how she would like to be remembered. Her answer was “I would like them to think that I gave them pleasure and joy.”

I think we can all agree that is how we remember her!