Bob Newhart unbuttons his mind to offer up a wonderful memoir about his life and his amazing career in comedy. He had a seemingly average family life growing up on the west side of Chicago, graduated college, served in the military, became an accountant, yet there was a funny person trying to get out.
Newhart and his friend Ed Gallagher created comedy bits together, which they eventually sold to radio stations. Apparently, Newhart forgot what he learned in school as the venture lost them money. Gallagher had a wife and family, so the partnership ended, but Newhart persevered. He obtained minor spots on television, but nothing was happening.
He considered becoming a comedy writer and attempted to sell “The Submarine Commander” to Don Adams, who didn’t think it was his type of material, but encouraged Newhart to continue to send him other samples. Two weeks later, Adams was on The Steve Allen Show and performed part of the routine. Although he was furious at the time, Newhart was thankful for the transgression because it spurred him to perform his own material as the only way to keep other comedians from stealing it.
Newhart’s radio bits made their way to Warner Brothers Records. They thought the material would make a funny record and wanted to capture Newhart in front of a live audience, which sounded good to Newhart, but he had never performed at a nightclub before. The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart became such a colossal hit that not only did it top the record charts, but it went on to receive the 1961 Grammy Award for Album of the Year, beating out Ray Charles and Frank Sinatra.
Newhart rose to fame at a time when comedy was transitioning from the old guard of guys in suits doing mother-in-law jokes to the new breed of stand-up comics made up of the likes of Mort Sahl, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, and May & Nichols. His success on the nightclub circuit and follow-up records opened the door for him to do television and movies.
However it wasn’t until 1972 when The Bob Newhart Show, the second to have such a name, hit the airwaves that he made his mark on the medium. He played psychologist Bob Hartley, a perfect occupation to allow Newhart’s comedic persona to shine. He accomplished the rare feat of having a second hit TV show when he returned in 1982 with Newhart, playing a do-it-yourself author who moved to Vermont to become and innkeeper. Newhart’s wife Ginny came up with the ending for the series as all being a dream of Bob's from the previous series. I am hard pressed to think of a better last episode of a television series. Newhart also discusses his other shows that weren’t as successful.
Even though Newhart has had a career in show business for nearly fifty years, it’s still amazing to read the names he drops of the people whose lives have crossed his path. He’s performed for Jack Benny and George Burns, with Johnny Carson and Dean Martin, been golfing with George C. Scott and Jack Nicklaus, and has a close friendship with the warm and fuzzy Don Rickles.
Along the way, we are provided with a number of Newhart’s classic routines, usually one-person conversations where the humor comes from the character’s reactions, such as the new security guard from “King Kong,” the PR guy from “Abe Lincoln vs. Madison Ave,” and “The Driving Instructor.” While they are funny to read, there is an element missing without being able to hear Newhart’s signature delivery of perfectly placed stammers.
The one point where the book dragged a little is a very short chapter entitled “You Can Have My Frequent-Flier Miles.” The chapter contained “The Grace L. Ferguson Airline (and Storm Door Co.)” routine broken up by anecdotes and musing about flying from his life and the pilot episode of The Bob Newhart Show in which Bob dealt with some of his patients and his wife Emily's fear of flying. The bit isn’t as funny as his others, and while I was interested by what Newhart had to say in other parts of the book about life or comedy, his thoughts about airplane travel are no different than anyone else who has ridden a plane.
While I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This! is a punchline to a joke, it is an incorrect title for this book. Newhart has a breezy, easy-going style that creates an enjoyable read. He allows fans a peek inside his life while allowing those unfamiliar with him an opportunity to get to know him. As a bonus, the book is funny. He should have done this sooner.