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« "Deon Cole's Black Box": Chicago Native Takes on Pop Culture In His New TBS Series TBS Just for Laughs: 5th Annual Funny Festival Returns to Chicago »

Interview Wed Jun 05 2013

A Sitdown with Bob Newhart


Coming to the city next week, June 11th-16th, is the TBS Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. The 5th anniversary brings some of the funniest legends and new up-and-comers to Chicago, across nine venues for five days.

I had the honor to talk with legendary comedian Bob Newhart. Performing at the Chicago Theatre June 15th, Newhart has been performing comedy for some 50 years. As a Chicago native, TV sitcom star, and one of the first comics to actually define 'stand-up comedian' as an actual occupation; we discuss the plague of the Cubs, the continuity of comedy, and how he still keeps laughter alive.

There needs to be a font for satire when transcribing an interview with this man, the king of subtle satire himself, Bob Newhart.

You'll be back in Chicago next week. I know you're a native of the area. Where did you grow up?

I'm from the far West Side. I was born in Oak Park, but from the Austin area. Austin and Addison that was where we kind of hung out. I lived there till I guess 29 years-old and that's about the time I was in the service [U.S. Army] from '52-'54. I transferred out to California and thought to myself, "How long has this been going on--why didn't anyone tell me about this? You don't have to freeze to death in the wintertime or die of heatstroke in the summertime?" [Laughs] So I made a pact with myself as soon as I got $300 bucks together I was moving out to California. So yeah, 29 winters and summers in Chicago.

You didn't travel far when you got started. But what did you notice about the city or the magnetism that brought comedians here?

Well, I knew people. When you travel throughout the country and you get to Chicago the people are just nice. They go out of their way for total strangers. And I thought as a comedian, you don't put on airs, 'cause in Chicago they'll see through it. Maybe you can fool 'San Franciscoans' but you can't fool Chicagoans. You're either funny or you're not funny. And that's it.

Why do think Chicago becomes the midwife for comedians? They come through here but they have to go east or west. It's like a rite of passage for some.

In my view, it counts more in the Midwest, Johnny [Jonathan] Winters is from Ohio, George Vogel was from Chicago. It's that Midwestern sensitivity. You just don't put on airs, if you're not funny, they'll let you know right away.

You have a show coming up--what kind of new stuff do you have for us? What kind of things still stick in your mind?

I just woke up this morning thinking about the Cubs. I've been a Cubs fan all my life. I was born in '29 and in 1945 I went down to LaSalle Street and watched the victorious Cubs marching, Phil Cavarretta, Billy Herman, Stan Hack, Bill Nicholson, Claude Passeau. I watched them all. They were the Giant killers, they had won the National League pennant, played in the World Series, then they played Detroit and it was 4-and-out. Keep in mind, in 1945 the war was just ending and the Cubs won the pennant. But most of the able-body people were off to war. And that's the last time the Cubs won. So maybe it will take another war before the Cubs win the pennant.

I grew up watching guys like Bill Hicks, Louie C.K., and David Cross, who are these very insightful, good storytellers. But in the past, in the 50s, comedy seemed to be this novelty, theatrical performance usually accompanied by music. It seems you were just on the cusp of this new idea of 'spoken comedy'--what began to change the art form and delivery of comedy at the time?

It was a different kind of comedy. After it all happened and you look back on it, you kind of discern what happened then. A lot of comedians that were working in 40s or 50s were doing mother-in-law jokes and 'take my wife, please', lines. Myself and others like Shelley Berman, Johnny Winters and Lenny Bruce, we were talking about entirely different things.

So the young people, the college students, the common-day people--they didn't go to nightclubs, it didn't relate to them yet. They weren't married yet, they didn't have mothers-in-law. So they would listen to comedy records and get a 6-pack or a 12-pack and some pizzas and they'd all sit around the college dorm listening to comedy records and [they] drank the beer and ate the pizza and that was their nightclub. And besides, we were talking about things that mattered to them.

Not much has changed. You mentioned in hindsight, it's easier to discern that it was different. But in the moment, did you guys feel that you were redefining the game?

No, it was just our way of finding humor. It was a new form, sure. We weren't telling jokes, we would dream a little bit, yes. But in my case the [comedy bits] like the driving instructor, King Kong, it wasn't just a series of jokes--it was a concept--an idea--and they went anywhere from five to ten minutes. It was a really a seat change in comedy, much as there is a change in comedy taking place now. I think it started with Richard Pryor and "Saturday Night Live." Comedy is constantly evolving.

With satire being mainstream now, how do you think comedy keeps progressing?

It's always been true of comedy that there were sacred cows. There were just certain areas we just couldn't go into when I was coming up in the 60s. Everybody knew what the rules were. In the 70s some of the sacred cows were knocked over, and some in the 80s,and then some more and some more, and I would say there are a lot less sacred cows now. You can just talk about anything. And I think Pryor had a lot to do with that change. He certainly talked about anything that came into his head. Anything that happened to him.

Do you think the more personal the material becomes, the realer it can be for the audience to relate to?

I think that's true, sure. When I was doing the Abe Lincoln bit, it was a routine saying that maybe the President wasn't the brightest bulb in the room. And then I did a routine on a retirement party, which kind of attacked the impersonal and large corporations. And then the marketing industry with the baseball bit and the Wright Brothers and how things are being shoved down our throats. And I think those were things that people were concerned with at that time. And then Kennedy came in 1960, ran for president and I campaigned for him. We were both Catholics--it was never said in church--they never said, "Vote for Kennedy!" But you knew you were going to vote for him. And that again is an example, of the changing of the guard. Politicians up to that time have been older, and then here you have this young president representing young America and its hopes and its dreams. And they weren't happy with the status quo and they were going to change it. Like us comedians.

Who is a favorite present-day comedian of yours? Who reflects this ongoing mindset?

Jim Gaffigan, Steven Wright, Jake Johannsen--I'm looking forward to running into some of the guys at the festival. It's a tradition. Over the years, I've played at these restored theaters; they were former vaudeville houses and the restoration is gorgeous. But they'll say to you, "Yeah, in '28, Jack Benny was here--Al Jolson played here'. And you get that feeling of a continuum. I played the Chicago Theatre about two years ago and as a kid I've gone to the Chicago Theatre. I'd go to watch the big bands. I saw Jack Benny and Buddy Rich. Then I walk out on that stage, look out at the audience (and thank God it was full) and I thought to myself this is how they felt. The way I feel. This is what they saw and this is what I'm seeing. I never dreamed of this when I was kid that I would be standing on the stage of the Chicago Theatre. It brings you home.

Why is the process of comedy necessary to you in your life, for all these years?

I can't imagine not doing it. I knew one day in Carmel, California last year, and my wife accompanied me. I did a show there and it went very well. It was just the right audience and the right performer. And we were in the car driving back to the hotel and I said to her, "Why would anyone want to stop doing this? What can you say--'I'm really tired of making people laugh, I don't want to do this anymore'?" As long as I'm physically able, I'll do it. And now it's convenient, with the flight traveling, and losing baggage, and canceling flights, and ducking thunderstorms and all that fun. But once you're there and you're on the stage and you say "Good evening" to the audience, there's nothing like it. Why stop doing it?

Do you know who David Cross is?

My son Tim is a teacher in Chicago, he has 3 kids, and they were very impressed to hear I was appearing with David Cross. [Laughs]

I talked to him before you. He does some great stand-up and it does seem like a continuation of the material you guys were perfecting 50 years ago...

We all stand on the soldiers of giants. I find the guys that last in this business are the guys who respect the guys that went before them. The Jack Bennys, George Burnses, Danny Thomases--there were great people that you learn from.

I thought Mr. Cross was a veteran of a comedy--he's been doing it for three decades. So what does that make you?

[Laughs] An old man of comedy. I don't mind being called a veteran. I love going back to Chicago. Because it reminds you. I could walk down Michigan Avenue and say to myself, "Oh my God--60 years ago I was walking down this street to Loyola University, going downtown." It's not that much different. Its just a great feeling. It's a great city. There's no two ways about it.


See Bob Newhart at the Chicago Theatre, Saturday, June 15, at 7pm; click here for tickets and information on other performances at the TBS Just For Laughs Comedy Festival.

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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