If you've ever felt like there's nothing funny on TV anymore -- except on TV Land and Nick at Nite -- you're not alone. One of the greatest funnymen in sitcom history agrees with you.
"All of my favorite shows have gone off the air this year," Bob Newhart said in a phone interview last month from his Los Angeles home. "'Frasier,' 'Friends,' 'Sex and the City.'"
Granted, we have "Arrested Development," fronted by Jason Bateman, who played Newhart's son on the short-lived "George & Leo"; perennial classic "The Simpsons"; and the solid "Friends" spin-off, "Joey." There's also "Everybody Loves Raymond," in its final season, which Newhart counts as his favorite current show.
Other than that, it's a bleak picture. Newhart found one bright spot, though.
"I'm feeling good that reality shows are not as hot this year as last year," he said. "That's a good sign."
In the 1970s and '80s, of course, everybody loved Bob. His first hit, "The Bob Newhart Show" ran from 1972-78, part of CBS' famed Saturday-night block with "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "The Carol Burnett Show" and "All in the Family." His second hit, "Newhart," ran from 1982-90 on CBS and was capped by what many critics regard as the greatest TV finale ever, a surreal flashback to "The Bob Newhart Show."
The phone interview was ostensibly to discuss the comedian's Oct. 29-30 shows at Grand Casino Mille Lacs. However, if you've heard the 1960 Grammy-winning album "The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart," you know his comedy. It hasn't changed much over the years.
Besides, with a new season of bad sitcoms upon us and Bob Newhart on the other end of the line, a TV fan can't help but think back on the gentle humor of his classic TV comedies and ask him, "Where did we go wrong?"
No artificial laughs
"I would say the thing I regret most in today's television is the dependency on the laugh track," said Newhart, 75. "The minute I hear a laugh track I switch to another channel. The great shows -- 'I Love Lucy,' 'The Honeymooners,' 'Mary Tyler Moore' -- were filmed in front of a live audience. (For today's shows, we have) some technician in a room in the bowels of a building putting a laugh track on. It just isn't good television."
The Chicago native started out as an accountant before becoming a stand-up comedian (his imagined phone conversations, dreamed up during his number-crunching days, were an early hit). From there, he made a smooth transition to sitcoms. For all four of his CBS shows -- the two classics and the less successful "Bob" (1992-93) and "George & Leo" (1997-98) -- he insisted on filming in front of a studio audience.
"It leads to a better performance and better writing because the material is being judged," Newhart said. "It wasn't a case of, 'We can get by with that.' When we know it's going to be judged, we don't leave at 5. We stay until 11 or 12 to come up with something better."
Part of the reason Newhart's characters seemed so laid-back is that the actor quickly boiled the art of making sitcoms down to a science.
"There was not so much rewriting on the spot as there was rewriting during the week," he said. "Occasionally someone would have an idea (on the set, and they'd say), 'Try this line instead of that line.' But most of the rewrites were done during the week. We'd come in Monday and read. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday we'd read, and Friday we'd shoot in front of a live audience."
Comedian and TV legend
Favorite comedian: Richard Pryor
Favorite TV show: "Your Show of Shows"
Favorite movie: "Dr. Strangelove"
Favorite book: "The Da Vinci Code"
Favorite musical artist: Count Basie
Hobbies: Spending time with his grandchildren (the oldest is 8 and the youngest is 2).
Bad news for DVD buffs: If any of Newhart's shows are ever released on DVD, there won't be many deleted scenes to salivate over. On his shows, as with many long-running sitcoms, the script supervisor had the show timed to the minute so very little editing would be needed in post-production.
"It was like doing a play every week," Newhart said. "Generally we'd do two takes. If we hadn't got it by then, we'd save (that shot) until the audience had left so we don't wear them out. If we do it over and over, we can't expect them to laugh."
Another key to sitcom success is, of course, good writing. Although Newhart's stand-up act had a heavy influence on "The Bob Newhart Show" and "Newhart," the comedian didn't do much writing beyond the pilot episodes.
"I would make suggestions," Newhart said. "I didn't get in the room with the writers. I recognized that they're professionals and I respected what they thought was funny."
'That's all in the past'
Of course, the dearth of good sitcoms today isn't entirely the fault of the "creative folk" (the term is used loosely) in Hollywood. The networks, notably Fox, bear a chunk of the blame for canceling funny shows like "Undeclared" (2001-02) and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" (2002-03).
Newhart was able to end his two hit shows on his own terms.
"The first show lasted six years; I wasn't sure there was a seventh year in it," Newhart said. "(The network) wanted it to go on, but I wanted the show to go off and not limp off. I'd seen some that stayed on a year too long. I probably quit a year too early on both shows, but it's a feeling. There's a little man on your shoulder that says, 'I think now's the time to pack it in.' That little man's been right more than he's been wrong."
"Bob" and "George & Leo" ended on the network's terms. Newhart is notably dismissive of the two relative failures, but it's not because he doesn't like them, it's more out of surprise that a journalist wants to discuss them at all.
"I liked them, but they didn't work. 'Bob' lasted a year-and-a-half, 'George & Leo' lasted a year. You put so much of yourself in it that emotionally it takes a lot out of you."
As Bateman would probably tell you, "George & Leo" wasn't exactly "Arrested Development." Nonetheless, the show was victimized by a trend that has resulted in the loss of many of our best shows: contract disagreements between the production company and the network. (Fans of the vampire drama "Angel" are all too familiar with this. Although networks rarely give hard and fast reasons for why they cancel a show, the popular theory is that The WB canceled "Angel" because it didn't want to pay the middleman, 20th Century Fox, for the right to continue airing the show.)
"The networks had been burned so often by shows holding them up for more money," Newhart said. "('George & Leo') got caught in the trap of a time when networks said, 'We'll only renew shows we own a piece of.' They didn't own a piece of 'George & Leo.'"
And so a sitcom career that started with a bang went out with a whimper. When asked if he had any ideas brewing for a fifth sitcom, Newhart chuckled.
"That's all in the past," he said.
A dramatic turn
Unlike Dick Van Dyke and Andy Griffith, Newhart doesn't plan to make a late-career TV comeback. (And anyway, a new Newhart show wouldn't exactly fit with CBS' mission statement of recent years. The network of a billion "CSIs" isn't exactly courting the "Diagnosis Murder" set anymore.)
But he's not done working, either. His dramatic turn on "ER" last year was nominated for an Emmy.
"They took a chance," Newhart said. "('ER' producer) John Wells called me and said, 'We think you can do this.' He sent me the script and I said, 'Yeah, I think I can, too. It'll be fun.'" Indeed, Newhart's role as a man going blind from macular degeneration went smoothly. "It was just different. As a comedian, you're always observing people, so you call on that sense memory."
Newhart can be seen next on the small screen in the November TNT movie, "The Librarian," which he describes as "a send-up of 'end of the world' movies. 'The Da Vinci Code' meets 'Indiana Jones.'" He also can be spotted on new-release walls in Will Ferrell's "Elf" and Reese Witherspoon's "Legally Blonde 2."
And, discounting the foray into accountancy, he's back where his career began: On stage. He'll perform 35 shows this year, and he's happy to have the career security and freedom to make people laugh without worrying about whether his show will be canceled.
"It'd be nice to be young again," Newhart said, "but I take a certain pride in the longevity and the fact I'm still alive and kicking and still doing it."
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.
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