Bob Newhart started out as a standup, and scored massive, award-winning hits with his groundbreaking comedy records. That was before he became a comedy and TV legend, having starred in 1970s hit sitcom “The Bob Newhart Show” and 1980s comedic staple “Newhart” as a Chicago therapist and a New England innkeeper, respectively. While he scored his first Emmy nomination as a writer for the 1962 “The Bob Newhart Show,” incredibly, Newhart didn’t win an Emmy until the 2013 season of “Big Bang Theory” as a guest actor. Although known best for his TV work, he was a memorable Papa Elf in 2003 holiday classic “Elf.” Newhart’s first mention in a Variety was in a review on March 18, 1959, of “Chicago Nightline.” The critic didn’t like the show, but liked him, saying he “has given ample evidence that he can become the No. 1 funnyman on local channels.”
How did you get on “Chicago Nightline”?
Dan Sorkin, a friend of mine, was a very popular disc jockey in Chicago who was on the show. I’d done a syndicated radio program, he heard it. I wrote a piece about if today’s hidden persuaders, subliminal ads, and focus groups were alive during Abraham Lincoln’s time, how he might have used it. Most of the good routines just wrote themselves.
The next mention in Variety was about hosting the local Emmys.
There was a strike and they couldn’t broadcast so they did the show in the foyer of the Chicago Tribune for all the nominees, the ad people, and local TV people. My Lincoln routine seemed appropriate. It was well-received, far beyond my expectations. Red Quinlan, head of ABC in Chicago, hired me to be on staff at WBKB [now WLS]. He gave me a sketch staff job and I put on a man-in-the-street-program. We were opposite the “Today” show and “Captain Kangaroo” from 8-8:30 a.m. It ran 16 weeks, and I got one postcard as an indication of how many people were actually watching the show.
When did you leave Chicago?
I got a recording contract with Warner for an album. The album took off in April of 1960. It won three Grammys, for spoken word category, best new artist, and album of the year; beat out Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, and the “Sound of Music” cast album.
And then you hit Hollywood?
I’d been in service in California, 1952-54, stationed in San Francisco, and I said to myself, “How long has this been going on? You don’t have to freeze to death in winter.” I had a [TV] variety show in 1961-62 and it got an Emmy, Peabody, and a pink slip from NBC all at the same time. All that time I was doing standup and still do.
Do you watch other standups?
My favorite thing is to watch [Jimmy] Fallon, [Jimmy] Kimmel, Conan [O’Brien], [Stephen] Colbert when I hear there’s going to be a comedian on. When I watch a young comedian I like, I send a note, “You’re good, hang in there.”