BY MARIE ANDRUSEWICZ -- Younger fans of the geek chic TV show "The Big Bang Theory" are getting their first chance to enjoy the wry humor of Bob Newhart – he’s guesting as one-time children’s entertainer Professor Proton.
But the legendary comic has been a hit with the college crowd since the ‘50s. Back when Borscht Belt comics ruled with their “take my wife, please” riffs on middle age, Newhart was doing one-person dialogues in which he played the ultimate straight man, or as he characterizes it, “the last sane man left on earth trying to explain was going wrong and no one was paying any attention to him.”
College students loved it.
“They’d go back to the dorm and they’d get a couple of cases of beer,” says Newhart of the students who bought up his albums. “That was their nightclub ... that’s where the audience was.”
And Newhart is nothing if not appreciative of his audience. He says his signature shtick, the one-sided telephone call, relied heavily on audience involvement.
“The audience supplies half of the effort, so when they applauded, they were really applauding themselves,” says Newhart. “It’s up to them to figure out what I’m talking about.”
The comic’s success with the one-sided phone call delivery influenced the creation of his first television character, the vaguely subversive everyman, Dr. Bob Hartley.
“The writer I had worked with, Lorenzo Music, who had been on the Smothers Brothers Show. He was familiar with my work, so when we were talking about a pilot he said ‘Bob’s a great listener’ and he suggested a psychiatrist.” But Newhart felt the psychiatrist’s clientele might be a little intense for TV audiences of the time, so he dialed it down to psychologist.
“The Bob Newhart Show” was filmed live, which is a convention he says originated in the “I Love Lucy” days. These days, Newhart can’t even sit for a sitcom with a laugh track.
“The audience drives you and makes you more alive. It makes you better.”