Happy Birthday, Bob Newhart

In three television films between 2004 and 2008, Bob Newhart played Judson, the director of an unusual urban library.  The fictional Metropolitan Public Library contains secret chambers holding priceless artifacts, such as the Ark of the Covenant and King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur.  To carry on the work of the library, Judson hires a young scholar, a highly-strung and socially awkward bachelor, but at one point the young man rebels, in large part because the secret nature of his often life-threatening assignments keeps him from having a girlfriend for more than a few months.

To console the young man and help him put things into perspective, a smiling Judson tells him, “Think of yourself as a celibate monk.”

Needless to say, the thirty-two year-old librarian rejects that advice.  For all their comedy, the films tap into the public’s perennial fascination with the supernatural and the biblical.  The films center around Judson sending the young librarian off to seek out for the library’s collection three fabled wonders of the world:  the Spear of Destiny, King Solomon’s Mines, and the Judas Chalice.  All three quests have the bad guys hot on his heels, and Judson appears magically at just the right times.

By the time of the three TV movies where he played Judson the wizard librarian, Newhart, born on 5 September, 1929, had long established his name in stand-up comedy as a master of deadpan delivery.  In 1960, he recorded six of his brief comedic monologues, and The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart became the first comedy album to go to number one on the Billboard charts.  In 1961 it won the Grammy Awards’ Album of the Year.  Other albums and other honors followed, as well as film roles and two long-running television series bearing his name.

Newhart’s dry, often cerebral, humor derives from events of everyday life, notably as experienced by Americans in middle-class, usually suburban, jobs.  Among the more famous of his routines are “Abe Lincoln v. Madison Avenue,” “Bus Drivers School,” and “King Kong.”  That last named portrays a new night watchman having to call his boss for advice on how to deal with a giant gorilla climbing up the side of the building.  After all, the training manual never covered that problem.

The world of the unexpected perils of people in offices was one Newhart knew well.  He grew up in an Irish Catholic family of six in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply business.  One of Newhart’s three sisters became a nun and taught in a Catholic high school.

After graduating from Saint Ignatius College Prep, Bob Newhart studied business management and accounting at Loyola University, and after serving in the U. S. Army, he worked as an accountant for several major corporations with offices in Chicago, such as Glidden.  He has always maintained that those companies failed to appreciate his special approach to accounting, which he summed up in three words:  “That’s close enough.”

In public, Newhart’s old friend, the late Don Rickles, called Newhart, “the stammering idiot from Chicago.”  In contrast with Newhart’s quiet style that avoids cruelty and vulgarity, Rickles’ brash brand of humor depended upon raunchy insult and crass exaggeration, and to have the desired effect of surprise, humor in general must carefully balance distortion with remaining recognizably accurate to what is agreed upon as objective reality.  Newhart does stammer and hails from outside Chicago; however, like all comedians, he is exceptionally perceptive and quick-witted, even brilliant.

As have other prominent men who dealt with stammering, such as Winston Churchill and James Stewart, Newhart found ways to incorporate his stammer into his public speaking.  Someone with a stammer learns early on that the stammer is going to occur at least here and there, so it is best to develop ways to harness it.  Several of Newhart’s comedy routines involve him carrying on imaginary conversations on the telephone, a device that someone who stammers can face with fear and loathing.  Newhart’s humorous use of it shows a stammerer that the telephone can be mastered.

Since he is a performer, some critics have thought Newhart’s stammer was simply part of the act.  One producer, ever nervous about time constraints, asked Newhart to cut out the stammer; it was taking too much time.  “No,” Newhart countered, finding humor easier than a detailed explanation of the phenomenon, “that stammer bought me a house in Beverly Hills.”

In his memoir, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! (2006), Newhart combined the texts of some of his more famous monologues with humorous anecdotes from his own life.  When reading it, though, it helps to be able to hear in one’s mind Newhart’s unique, often halting delivery.  It is possible that someone who has never heard Newhart’s routines or seen his television shows would find the book less than amusing.

Fortunately, his comedy albums continue to be available commercially and on-line, so new audiences will find a fresh, if reserved, source for a much-needed laugh, and a new generation of people with stammers will find a new hero, seeing once more that they are not alone struggling with words.  For Newhart’s nearly sixty years of laughs and inspiration, five days into every September we should honor this national treasure, maybe even by using the telephone.

Daniel J. Heisey
Daniel J. Heisey, O. S. B, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church History at Saint Vincent Seminary.

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