All about Bob: Newhart brings his button-down mind to the Paramount

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Originally published in the Rutland Herald on Oct. 4, 2012. 

It’s been 22 years since Bob Newhart last performed in Vermont, but that changes Friday when the legendary comedian takes the stage at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre at 8 p.m.

During his more than five decades in show business, Newhart has enjoyed success not only on stage but also on the big and small screens, including two critically acclaimed network sitcoms — “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Newhart.”

For Vermonters, “Newhart” holds a special place as being one of the state’s most notable forays into pop-culture relevance. On the show, which aired on CBS from 1982 to 1990, Newhart played Dick Loudon, owner of the fictional Stratford Inn located in a small Vermont town full of quirky locals and backwoods oddballs.

While the series was shot entirely in California, East Middlebury’s Waybury Inn served at the exterior for the Stratford, adding another point of Green Mountain pride to the show.

While Friday’s Paramount performance will not feature Larry, Darryl and Darryl, it promises to offer a glimpse into Newhart’s button-down mind.

Newhart’s act has always been something of an anomaly in comedy. The pairing of the two comedic archetypes of the goofball and the straight man is a timeless routine. (See Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” routine for a text book example.) Newhart, however, dispenses with the goofball and fills the role of the put-upon straight man contending with a variety of imagined goofballs.

His classic “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Avenue,” for example, imagines a phone conversation where a press agent struggles to manage the image of the awkward president. “You were a rail splitter then an attorney,” Newhart says as the vexed agent at one point in the bit.

Newhart describes his shtick as relying on audience participation. “(They’re) applauding themselves,” he said recently in a phone interview. “They supply the unheard of part of the conversation. Nothing I said was funny.”

Indeed, a live audience has always fueled Newhart creatively. All of his sitcoms were taped in front of a live studio audience. Consequently, he is not a fan of laugh tracks, which he calls “sterile” and “phony,” and says negatively affect the performances and writing by forcing a too predictable “set-up, set-up, joke” rhythm.

While he has more patience for single-camera shows like “30 Rock” and “Parks and Recreation,” which have done away with laughs, both live and canned — “at least their honest,” he said — he feels at home in the three-camera, live-audience format.

At 83, Newhart is still working, popping up on TV, in films and on the couch of the occasional late-night talk show. Most recently, he appeared in the 2011 comedy “Horrible Bosses,” as well as an episode of “NCIS” on CBS.

And he’s not about to give up touring either. In a recent post on Twitter, he compared performing standup to a narcotic that he needs, “even if I do it a few times a year.” These days, “a few” amounts to about 15-20 performances annually.

While he concedes that traveling is a hassle, he can’t imagine stopping. “Once I get to the venue and get a good audience … there’s no better feeling,” he said.

But even after all these years, Newhart still gets butterflies. “At six o’clock before a show, I’m pacing,” he said.

“Apprehension is part of performing,” he said, noting that the rush of adrenaline makes for a better show.

And, of course, there’s always the fear of bombing in the back of a comic’s head. While it is hardly a concern this far into his career, he said he has definitely been there when he was starting out.

“Any comedian who says he hasn’t bombed is lying,” he said, calling the experience terrible but inevitable. He compares it to Christopher Walken’s Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter.” It’s an intense analogy, but one that resonates with anyone who has ever been under a spotlight.

On performing standup, Newhart paraphrases author Nathanael West, saying, “the universe against us; the only intelligent thing to do is laugh.”

Onstage, Newhart invites audiences to do just that. He remains the straight man trying to survive in a world full of goofballs who reside always just out of sight or on the other end of a phone. It’s a timeless no-joke joke as deep as one’s imagination that has delighted audiences and influenced comedians for more than 50 years.

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