Grand Prairie — A half-hour prelude of light, big band jazz with the Rodney Booth Band set the perfect retro mood to see comedian Bob Newhart, now 86, for the jokes never went past 1988. But no one at the Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie on Friday night cared, for we were all there for the nostalgia, to see Newhart live, possibly for the final time.
Newhart’s been loping across the U.S. for the past several years, returning to his stand-up roots for one last hurrah. A true sitcom superstar for The Bob Newhart Show (the psychologist one) in the ‘70s and Newhart (the innkeeper one) in the ‘80s, old farts like this reviewer resonate most with him as a ‘60s stand-up who recorded his first album, the hugely successful The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, at the Tidelands in Houston on January 1960. It was the copywriter/radioman’s first appearance ever in a nightclub. The ‘60s boasted its triad of Alan King, who never changed, George Carlin, who changed radically, and Bob Newhart, who evolved while always remaining himself.
Noting that the last time he appeared in North Texas there was an epic ice storm and on this day it was 96 degrees (“Don't you people believe in spring?”), Newhart shared his favorite bits and old-fashioned story jokes that many of us already knew. You could sense the ghost of Alan King hanging around smoking a cigar. The audience would sometimes get to the punchline before the stammering Newhart did and start laughing, which pleased and provoked giggles from him. It was a love fest.
The night was an hour of comfortable, traditional humor that the white, middle-aged audience can’t get in comedy clubs anymore. The dated material focused on jokes about nationalities and ethnicities (Irish are drinkers, Germans are meticulous, Chinese are bad drivers), and the sexes (men are boors, women are also bad drivers). Sure, it was clichéd, but gentle and never mean. There were jokes about sports teams (“The [Chicago] Cubs prepare you for life — never get your hopes up”) and how as jazz fan he was perplexed by C&W music.
Newhart did a routine on televangelists including Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, whose early ‘60s to late-‘80s ascent paralleled his own. It all spun off his joke about religious healers with obvious toupees: “If you can make a lame man walk, why not grow your own hair?” In today’s comedians’ hands, that bit would have become angry, visceral and cutting, a mere launching board to an extended riff on religious hypocrisy and shams. But in the vein of his best pal Don Rickles, with Newhart it was bada-bing-punchline and on to the next joke.
The Newhart delivery and timing was still there, all the wry inflection and deadpan reaction, even if the wiry, whole-bodied, pent-up energy was not. He’s a very mellow guy with nine grandchildren these days, winding down and selling off his big California mansion. He’s no longer the omnipresent television guest star (though his turn on NCIS was quietly heart-rending), now limiting himself to brief guest-star appearances like Professor Proton on The Big Band Theory, which snared him the Emmy so long denied.
At last Newhart sat down to read his notorious driving instructor routine (which you can hear in the video above), possibly the finest of all his famous one-sided comedic conversations. A screen descended and Newhart spun an alleged history of the Newharts in America using vintage footage, which was just an excuse for a serious of sight gags. He played a bit from the 1962 Hell Is for Heroes, but strangely none of his feigned radio conversations with General Patton that the small squad used to deceive German attackers. If only there had been a bit of him from the 1970 Catch-22 as the inept and always on the run Maj. Major Major.
Newhart screened a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show, sharing thoughts about the host’s wacky, spontaneous intros. A bit from The Dean Martin Show had Dino cracking up and Newhart chastising him for being a terrible straightman. But for all his stand-up chops, Newhart truly shone in the sitcoms, surrounded by an array of foils, as he represented us, the boring and repressed, his frustration our frustration, his self-made box ours as well.
Newhart talked and showed pics from the sitcoms, with the ‘70s psychologist one clearly being his favorite. The screening concluded with the famous ending of Newhart as he woke up in Chicago with Suzanne Pleshette, instead of in Vermont with Mary Frann. The band played him off stage, sending Newhart gently into that good night.