The 88-year-old comedy icon, a key figure in ‘Mrs. Maisel,’ says the pressure was too great to maintain the quality of his first NBC variety show.
With the Golden Globes celebrating their 75th anniversary today, few might remember which comedy legend was the awards’ very first “best TV star” back in 1961.
That honor went to Bob Newhart, who won for The Bob Newhart Show. Not the classic CBS sitcom from the ’70s in which Newhart played a psychiatrist (also called The Bob Newhart Show), but rather an NBC variety show that ran for one season in 1961, and which came out of the blockbuster success of Newhart’s 1960 comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart.
Newhart, 88, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about those overwhelming days of breakout stardom (which he says led to pulling a “Dave Chappelle” and walking away), his key role in the new Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and his memories of best friend Don Rickles, whom he lost last April.
What are your memories of winning a Golden Globe in 1962?
What was the category again? I still have it upstairs on my sparsely populated award shelf.
You won “best TV star — male.”
Ah. OK, OK. The year before I had won a Grammy for best new artist along with album of the year and spoken word. They didn’t have a comedy category back then. I was getting these awards and I was just totally unprepared for them. I came from a man-on-the-street program in Chicago and all of a sudden I’m getting best new star or whatever that award was. I wasn’t prepared for it, you know?
Tell me more about those early years. You were a standup comic who did these hilarious scenario monologues that turned into huge-selling comedy albums.
The first album did. I made it in 1960 and then 1961 it got album of the year at the Grammy Awards, which was the first time a comedy album won album of the year. First they lumped it in with other spoken word albums like Sir Laurence Olivier reading Winston Churchill’s love letters to his wife. They didn’t know where to put it. Then it went up against Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole and one of Frank Sinatra’s albums for album of the year — and won.
The whole year was kind of vague. Then I went to the Golden Globes and won that best TV actor award and I wound up doing what I guess you’d call now “a Dave Chappelle.” Because in ‘61-’62 I had a television series on NBC and we got a Peabody, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a pink slip from NBC all in the same year.
What was that show?
It was a variety show [called The Bob Newhart Show]. We came after Perry Cuomo’s hour. We were on at 9 p.m. I came out and did a monologue, then we did a sketch, then we had a singer — folk singers were very popular at that time — and it lasted a year. I call it “a Dave Chappelle” because they wanted another year and I walked away from it. Of course it was not nearly as much money as Dave Chappelle walked away from.
Why walk away?
I wasn’t ready. I was fine in the monologues — I knew what I was doing. But I wasn’t very good in the sketches. I just wanted to go out and do college concerts. That’s what I had been doing as a standup and that’s the world I wanted to be in. I wasn’t comfortable [on TV]. I was afraid that I wasn’t maintaining the quality of the monologues in the album. I knew a second year would be creatively very tough. To come up with good monologues every week was very demanding.
Have you seen the new Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel?
(Laughs.) I have heard about it. I keep meaning to watch it. They approached me to OK one of my old clips. I signed the release but I really had no idea that it would get the attention it received and would involve someone stealing a routine of mine.
It kind of sets the whole plot in motion: Her husband performs your routine, and that revelation leads to the Maisels’ separation. They get a divorce because of you, basically.
I’ve got to watch it. I hear it’s very good and the girl is wonderful and I love Tony Shaloub’s work. I had that happen to me when I was trying to break into standup. I said, “OK, I can’t make any money this way so I’ll become a comedy writer and write material for other people.” So I wrote some material for a fairly well-known TV comedian and he stole it. He never paid me for it. So I said, “If they’re going to steal it, I may as well do it myself.” I’m kind of indebted to him for stealing it. I won’t mention his name but he’s very well-known and we’ve been good friends. We play golf together and we’d laugh about it. So I was in that world [of Mrs. Maisel] and I knew what that felt like, having your routine stolen.
I am fascinated by that era of comedy.
It was an Ed Sullivan Show performance I think. Was it the Abe Lincoln routine?
That’s right: It’s Abe Lincoln developing his personal brand with his publicist.
It’s always been one of my favorites. And probably even more relevant now than it was then in 1960 with all the focus groups and dirty presidential campaigns. It’s almost more relevant today than when I originally wrote and performed it.
What are you working on now?
I still do standup. Probably ten dates a year. It’s a narcotic. As long as you’re able to physically do it I can’t imagine ever not doing it. It’s been a way of life for almost 60 years for me. It’s a pain in the ass getting there, with the planes and the canceled flights and the hotel rooms, but then you walk out on that stage and it’s a great audience and you’re having a great time. Why would anyone say, “You know, I’m really tired of making people laugh.”
Last year we did a feature in THR about entertainers still working in their 90s and I was assigned to Don Rickles, who passed away in April. He spoke so fondly of you and your friendship.
We were great friends. Great friends. We traveled together. The wives got along. I’m still dealing with it. I’m still waiting for a phone call and it’s Don saying let’s go out to dinner, but so far I haven’t gotten that phone call, so. (Laughs.) If someone had a gun to my head, I could say to a to a total stranger in the audience, “Is that the wife? Geez.” It isn’t done in the Midwest.
You guys couldn’t have been more opposite.
But we had a great time. We had laughs. I haven’t gone on vacation since because it’s just not the same.
You were my late father’s absolute favorite. Newhart was his favorite show and we’d watch it together every week. But he never learned the name of it. He always called it “Vermont” for some reason.
But you watched. That’s the main thing. The thing about television is that you become part of people’s lives. People will come up to you on an airplane and tell you, “Thank you for all the laughs.” They look back on it fondly as one of the great times of their lives. Boy, when you’re part of peoples’ lives like that, it’s very special. It’s a very special thing.