A half-century ago at the prompting of a disc jockey, Bob Newhart decided to take a stab at stand-up comedy. It took. So much so that his 1960 debut comedy record, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, won a Grammy Award as Album of the Year and went straight to number one on the charts, topping the likes of Elvis Presley in the process. He has had two hit television shows, and a few that didn’t stick, as well as countless movie roles and stand-up appearances. At 80, he still plays a handful of shows each year, and Toronto is lucky enough to be on the schedule this year. Mark your calendars, Dec. 4.
You speak very highly of the audiences up here. Why do you think you appeal so much to us? I think they are like, well, there is an undercurrent of understatement, I think. The Canadians are just, a gentle people. Tell you a story: I was at the Emmy Awards and Martin Short told me this about his first time in New York. It was an absolute snowstorm, blizzard, and he was trying to get a cab. Nothin’ was moving. He said he was trying to cross the street “but the sign keeps flashing ‘don’t walk, don’t walk, don’t walk,’” he says. “There are no cars in sight, but I didn’t walk.” That sums up the Canadians for me.
Do you still get nervous before a performance? You know, I always get not nervous, maybe apprehensive. The adrenaline rush is good, that’s what you want.
But you had a record deal before you even played live. That first performance must have been intense. Well, sure, it was quite an interesting time, but the thing was that was the only offer I had going at that point. There was nothing on the horizon, so I thought, “You’d better learn how to do this; it’s your only thing.”
Who was your biggest influence starting out? Jack Benny. I don’t think you can teach timing to somebody, only you can hear in your head. But he was influential just by the time he would take; the silence that he would use and his bravery. As a comedian, he was very brave to take the time it took to tell the story.… He would never rush, and it was that much better.
Are you still working on new material, or do you think you have enough now after 50 years? I don’t know.…You’re just trained to keep observing and that’s what you do. I can’t turn it off. If I go on vacation, I’m not going to not look at anything that is funny, not notice anyone for two weeks. You can’t help yourself, that’s just what I do.
You grew up in Chicago. Are you living in L.A. now? I had to get away from the Toronto, Chicago–type winters.
You know you’re playing in December right? Ya [laughs]. I’ll probably have to buy some clothes, when I get there. I might not break even on the date.