Monday, March 28, 2016

A Comedian Revisited



Quite like my earlier trip to the US (summer 2014), this time around too it’s been family, museums and …… books. A visit to the local William K Sanford Town Library, browsing the well-stocked shelves; and a couple of hours later, armed with a load of sweet-smelling tomes, stagger out with the pleasing prospect of bliss through the ensuing weeks

One of the books I picked up was a charmer, last read in Chennai, a couple of years earlier. The book in question – ‘I shouldn’t even be doing this!’-- is a memoir from Bob Newhart, the gentle American comic of the Newhart tv series (and sundry films) fame. And unsurprisingly, the lines sound and feel just like Bob – quietly hilarious.   

   As the jacket blurb declares, ‘That stammer. Those basset-hound eyes. That bone-dry wit. There has never been another comedian like Bob Newhart.’ In this his first book (published back in 2006), Newhart takes his readers and fans on a warm witty ride that starts with his childhood in Chicago, continues through his early attempts at having a normal career as an accountant (when he tried to reconcile petty cash by using his own pocket change), his early forays into radio and audio-comedy -- and then dwells drolly, on his tv and film career. But rest assured that it is no compendium, no bibliographic account of his days in the spotlight. Rather it’s a look-back, a revelation of funny inside stories, a fuzzy-wuzzy tale of a catholic upbringing that turned a normal American youngster into a graceful funnyman.

  There are the asides, the throwaway lines, lessons from a life well-lived; to wit:
'For some reason, comedians are still children. The social skills somehow never reach us, so we say exactly what we think without weighing the results.'
‘Most comedians are committable. People say I’m the most normal of all comedians – and I’m still certifiable.’
‘I always thought we were from an upper-middle class family until I met an upper middle-class family and realized that we weren’t.’ When Bob Newhart’s maternal grandfather moved in with them and took over Bob’s bedroom, the realization hit home­­: ‘we weren’t middle class.’
‘…like most kids I didn’t pay much attention in church, and I only took communion because I was always hungry.’
‘All religions are basically saying the same thing, and that is: “Be nice to each other.” ‘
‘Being a comedian means you are anti-authority and subversive at heart.’
After making it through a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, and a Catholic College (where he got an undergraduate degree in management and accounting), Newhart joined a law college affiliated to the Catholic Church. He dropped out of law school mid-way, but study of law gave Newhart an appreciation of the precise word. And here is Newhart on lawyers and comedians:
‘…trial lawyers are actors. They stand in front of judges and juries and entertain them with borderline preposterous stories -- not unlike those told by stand-up comics, come to think of it.’

In 1952, Newhart was drafted at a time when the Korean War was on; but he talked his way into training within the confines of the US. His experience did however form the basis of one of his first comedy routines (The Cruise of the USS Codfish/The Submarine Commander), something that proved a springboard to later success. As the comedian remembers: ‘It was all about how someone totally unqualified can rise three levels above their competency because the organization is so big that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.’
 The book is replete with entire chunks from Newhart’s most popular comedy monologues—all quietly deadly funny. One can actually imagine Newhart play the bumbling submarine commander addressing his men on the USS Codfish, prior to completing two years at sea: ‘OH, all right. I’ve just been notified that we will be surfacing in a moment, and you’ll be happy to know that you will be gazing on the familiar skyline of either New York City or Buenos Aires. Dismissed, men. That is all.’

   Draft duty done, Newhart passed time as an accountant in Chicago, all the while contemplating a possible future in comedy. ‘Swapping absurd stories on the telephone with a friend in advertising’, led to the duo’s first radio routines – and the minimal payment the budding comedy pair had gingerly requested. But as Newhart recounts, ‘After thirteen weeks, we had lost $325 on the venture and our comedy enterprise collapsed in financial ruin.’

Newhart wished to discover whether he was funny only to friends, or…was there a living, somewhere in it? Unmarried still, with no family to provide for, Newhart took on part time jobs, still keeping his secret dream alive. And as he worked he made mental notes on all the foibles of his fellow men.

 It was finally the un-remunerative radio shows that provide Bob Newhart with small openings into the world of stand-up comedy, televised or not. But a viable living in comedy was still some time away.

The inevitable happened soon enough. Bob Newhart’s success story started with a comedy album in April 1960; The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a Billboard #1 topper for weeks; it was soon followed by seven more of the same, besides rewards in the form of three Grammys. And along with success came a delayed marriage but a happy big family, besides more on the professional front: touring the clubs in places as different as Las Vegas and Peoria; a film career of sorts where Bob did small roles in big films (apparently he was there in MASH) – and of course a fantastic tv career through the nineteen-seventies and eighties.

 My own introduction to the Newhart brand of quiet hilarity came in 1990, when Indian television opened up to the wonders of satellite tv. The Bob Newhart Show was our first experience of an American sitcom – and our family liked it very much indeed.

In the new millennium, an older but still twinkly-eyed Newhart continues to charm us occasionally; he was my pleasant surprise in the film Legally Blonde 2. Sometimes he makes a guest appearance on a sitcom or soap – and talking about this sort of new television, Bob lets it rip: ‘Then there is Desperate Housewives, which is either a serious drama or spoof depending on which side of the humor scale you fall.’

There’s plenty more of this sort. It is not exactly a new book; a decade old to be precise. But it still makes for a fun read.  It could even impel one to search out Bob Newhart on YouTube. In any case, intelligent entertainment  is guaranteed.