About six months ago, I struck up a conversation with a charming older man on a subway platform. When I mentioned that I wrote about TV for a living, the only question this gentleman had for me was, "Whatever happened to Bob Newhart? That was a funny guy." I had to admit that I also hadn't caught sight of the stammering master of deadpan comedy in a while—at least not since his delightful turn as Will Ferrell's tiny adoptive father in Elf (2003). But if that subway encounter had happened only a few months later, I would have had a lot more to offer. Tonight's American Masters tribute to Bob Newhart, Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned (PBS, 8 p.m. ET) is only the latest installment in a Newhart renaissance that's been taking place this year. The now 75-year-old Newhart appeared in a two-episode arc in Desperate Housewives last season, as Morty, the estranged boyfriend of Susan's (Teri Hatcher) mother; he'll be returning next season for an undisclosed number of episodes. The first season of Newhart's classic 1970s sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, was recently released in a two-disc DVD set. And Newhart is currently working on a memoir for Hyperion to be published in the fall of 2006.
It's in no way a slight against Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, or other young comic icons to note that today's comedy culture is long overdue for an infusion of Newhart's peculiar magic. The male comic lead currently in fashion in Hollywood might best be characterized as an out-of-place, overgrown boy (a trope literalized in the giant infant Ferrell played in Elf). In films like Old School, School of Rock, and Dodgeball, these men's refusal to accept the limits of adult life places them at odds with the rest of the world, and especially the woman they love. The story line then becomes a series of increasingly abject humiliations that debase the hero until he finally realizes how much he has to gain from renouncing the easy gratifications of boyhood and becoming a man.
Bob Newhart, on the other hand, seems to have always been grown-up. (In the childhood photos on view in tonight's PBS special, he looks like one of those comical babies who was born middle-aged, complete with wry gaze and receding hairline.) If anything, his comedy is often about the dangers of being too grown up, too removed from the spontaneity and excess of youth. On The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart's psychologist character struggles to identify with the crazy behavior and insatiable appetites of his neurotic patients and needy friends. In an interview in Unbuttoned, he characterizes this persona as "the last sane man in America. There's this man—me—who keeps looking at the world and saying 'this is crazy.' "
Another big difference between Newhartian comedy and that of Ferrell, Stiller, Vince Vaughan, et al.: To quote Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons, Bob Newhart doesn't do blue. In the documentary, he describes having tried risqué jokes in his Vegas acts in the 1960s only to squirm out of them like "a shirt that didn't fit." Though The Bob Newhart Show was at times surprisingly sexy—the scenes showing Bob and his gorgeous, contralto-voiced minx of a wife, Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), talking in bed together were unusually frank for their time—the laughs never came from double entendres or raunchy puns. Instead, the jokes on The Bob Newhart Show mined Newhart's endlessly varied reserve of minimalist tics, the blinks and stammers and pauses that signaled something funny was about to happen. David Davis, one of the writers of The Bob Newhart Show interviewed in Unbuttoned, nails this quality when he says that he and his partner Lorenzo Music initially chose to make Newhart's character a psychologist because "Bob listens funny."
The best part of Bob Newhart: Unbuttoned is the first 20 or so minutes, which place Newhart's early career in the context of the new wave of stand-up comedy in the early 1960s, when figures like Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Nichols and May created a darker, more experimental and minimalist alternative to the vaudeville-influenced comics of the prewar generation. In the late 1950s, Newhart was nearing 30 and still living with his parents in Chicago, working as an accountant and recording Bob and Ray-style comedy sketches with his then-partner, Ed Gallagher. But Newhart's nascent comedy career didn't take off until 1960, when, after hearing a recording of his solo work, Warner Bros. signed him for a spoken-word album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, that quickly became the No. 1 best-selling album in the country and went on to win two Grammys. One Warner Bros. executive cites this nearly unbelievable statistic: Newhart's first record outperformed every album made by the Beatles during the 1960s, and every Elvis Presley album except for Blue Hawaii.
Explaining what makes funny people funny is a notoriously deadly business, and tonight's American Masters tribute begins to drag a bit after an hour and a half of glowing testimonials from Newhart's show-business friends, including Bill Daily (who played the intrusive neighbor Howard in The Bob Newhart Show), Jack Riley (Bob's gloomy patient Mr. Carlin), and Tom Poston (George the handyman on Newhart), along with other actors and comics ranging from David Steinberg to Garry Shandling to Frasier's David Hyde Pierce. But the clips studded throughout should be enough to convince you to rent or buy the DVD of The Bob Newhart Show's first season and witness for yourself how extraordinarily well it holds up after more than 30 years. That's the nice thing about gentle, slow-burn comedy like Newhart's. As one interviewee observes, "Bob is kind of this funny fungus who'll allow himself to grow on you after a while, you know?"