He soon worked out a novel comedy routine where he would act out one end of a supposedly two way phone conversation, playing what amounted to the straight man role to the unseen and unheard party on the phone. This bit propelled him to comedy stardom. He would later achieve even more success on TV, most notably in two long running series playing first a Chicago psychologist and then a rural New England innkeeper, and his occasional movie appearances are highlighted by his small but hysterical role as Major Major in the black comedy Catch-22. And he was one of the most frequent and funniest guests on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show.
But to me his comedy routines are his greatest work. He is brilliant with his dry humor and deadpan, hesitating, and sometimes slightly unsure delivery. He skyrocketed to success in 1960 with the first of his many albums, “The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart,” which hit number one on the pop chart and received the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. In his sketches, he would typically set up a premise and lead into the sketch with “I think it would go something like this.”
In “An Infinite Number of Monkeys,” he imagines that although an infinite number of monkeys given enough time would type out “all the Great Books,” someone must check their work to see if they are “turning out good stuff;” in the sketch, after reading through much gibberish, one of the monitors exclaims: "Hey Harry, I think this one has got something – To be or not to be, that is the gazorninplat.”
Or “Introducing Tobacco to Civilization,” in which Walter Raleigh’s sponsor in England has him on the phone and is puzzled by Raleigh’s purchase of a large quantity of leaves now being shipped across the ocean: “Let me get this straight Walt – you bought 80 tons of leaves?.... you do what, you shred it up, roll it up in a piece of paper … and you set fire to it!”
My favorite is “Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue,” in which Newhart imagines what a modern public relations man would have done for a somewhat dim and slightly befuddled Abe Lincoln just before the Gettysburg address:
Abe, what’s the problem?.. you’re thinking of shaving it off? .. Abe, don’t you see, it's part of the image, with the shawl, the stovepipe hat, and the string tie .. you don’t have the shawl .. Abe, where’s the shawl? … you left it in Washington! … Well what are you wearing?... a sort of cardigan?! … Abe, don’t you see it doesn’t fit with the string tie and the beard? … Abe, you haven’t changed the speech have you? … Abe, what are you changing the speech for? … You what, you typed it?! .. Abe, how many times have we told you – on the backs of envelopes… I understand it’s harder to read that way but this way it looks like you wrote it on the train coming down there… Abe, could you do this, could you memorize it and then put it on the backs of envelopes -- we’re getting a lot of play in the press on that … how are the envelopes holding out? … You could stand another box… Anything else? … No, no, no, no, you were a rail splitter, then an attorney … well it doesn’t make sense that way… Abe, don’t you see, you wouldn’t give up your law practice to become a rail splitter….Accounting’s loss is everyone’s gain.
(The above three sketches and many more are available on iTunes)